The work of actor Abi Akinlade and playwright/stage manager Helen Ho has been recognized in two important theatre awards this past spring. Hart House is pleased to celebrate their accomplishments and underscore the importance of the student-run Hart House U of T Drama Festival.

Hart House Theatre has nurtured budding thespians for decades. Its reputation for exceptional co-curricular mentoring, encompassing stage management, production and much more, has only grown over the years.

Two awards, celebrated at the annual Hart House University of Toronto Drama Festival, shine a bright spotlight on the newest emerging talents: The Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance, bestowed upon the student who achieved the highest quality of delivery, character development and interaction; and the Janet Bessey Award for Excellence in Stage Management. These awards were established after generous donations by Mr. Sutherland and Ms. Bessey, allowing them continued engagement with the student-driven endeavours at the Theatre. 

The 2022 winners of these awards are, respectively, actor Abi Akinlade and playwright/stage manager Helen Ho – both being acknowledged for their work on Black Stack, produced by St. Michael’s College Troubadours.


Abi Akinlade (left) and Helen Ho (right)

“These wins accentuate the value of the Festival as a whole, which brings together students from all three campuses to exercise their skills, receive constructive feedback from an industry professional and learn from each other, making vital connections,” says Hart House Theatre’s Director of Theatre and Performance Art Doug Floyd.

Doug Floyd

Indeed, this Festival provides an encouraging platform for the development of student talents, promotion of creativity and the recognition of excellence in theatrical performance and production. It offers an opportunity for U of T students to compete for fun and adjudicated awards.

“What’s perhaps the most compelling aspect of the Festival is that it’s by and for students,” Doug emphasizes. “Every winter, original student-written one-act plays compete for these coveted awards during this adjudicated Festival.” 

Cast and crew of "Black Stack".

In fact, the Festival is a conduit for finding new and exceptional voices.

Two of these new voices, Abi and Helen, were acknowledged with the awards in the 2022 Festival, as noted. Abi is a fourth-year student in the Faculty of Arts & Science, Woodsworth College, double majoring in English Literature and Drama. Helen is a recent graduate majoring in Political Science and Cognitive Science.

Awards Affirm their Work as Artists and Creators

Both women were greatly encouraged by receiving this accolade. “Winning the Janet Bessey Award for Excellence in Stage Management is like a validation that what I wanted to do was the right thing for me,” Helen says. “I didn't think I would ever engage in arts again after high school. I went to an arts high school but when I started university, I was under the impression that most young artists, at some point, have to ‘get serious’ and leave the arts behind.

“Doing stage work for Black Stack brought me a sense of accomplishment,” she adds. “The kind of recognition that the award stands for – meaning, someone liked my work! – meant a lot to me.”

Abi feels the same kind of validation: “Winning the Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance was very affirming for me as an artist. Especially when you're in the creative arts, it's difficult to gauge how much progress you're making. Being an actor is something that, at least for me, has come with a lot of uncertainty and self doubt. I was really surprised, elated, when I won.”

Delighted to be a Part of the Remarkable History of Hart House Theatre

The two were particularly thrilled to work in Hart House Theatre. “This Theatre is so significant, so monumental. There's so much history, so many other artists who’ve graced the stage,” Abi says, adding,

Staging and rehearsal, "Black Stack", in Hart House Theatre

"Finding out Donald Sutherland had performed at the same Festival when he was attending U of T felt really historic.”

Helen concurs: “Hart House Theatre is such a beautiful space. There's a lot of history in that venue. I’ve seen so many wonderful shows at this Theatre. Getting to work in that space and on that stage was very special, very meaningful. It was an amazing opportunity.”

Abi, currently working an Information Services Attendant at Hart House, mentions a backstage secret of which many will not be aware: “If you go backstage to the dressing rooms, there’s a wall of signatures of all the other actors who had been active here since the Theatre opened. It’s full of the names of shows, actors, initials and things like that. We added ours! It’s a cool little time capsule of everyone who’s been there before.”

Look for These Home-Grown Talents as their Careers Take Flight

Both women are panning to build a career in the theatre – acting and stage management. After earning the award, Helen was contacted by the director of The Boy Who Cried, which won several awards in the Hart House U of T Drama Festival in 2020. “He asked if I wanted to work on the Toronto Fringe Festival with him. So I did that over the summer.”

Helen is currently an Apprentice Stage Manager at Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Abi has also made concrete plans for her future in theatre. She was Artistic Director of the UC Follies Theatre Company (2021-2022). She already has an agent.

She has some stellar advice for any undergrads thinking of following a similar path: “Trust your own power. Believe that you have what it takes because it's daunting to admit that you want to be an actor; it's daunting to go and dive headfirst into becoming an artist and a creative person. It takes a lot of self affirmation and determination to be successful. I wish someone had told me this in first year.”

Learn more about Hart House Theatre and related awards

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