Jillian Keiley considers herself both a Newfoundlander and a first-generation Canadian. It’s rare to be reminded of the fact that Newfoundland was its own country not too long ago. A chat with the artistic director of the English theatre at the National Arts Centre set me straight on that. This is Jillian’s fourth year traveling the country and curating established and emerging dramatic arts in the nation’s capital. The 10 plays of the 2015-2016 program were announced in March and will begin their production in October until May.
She manages to present poignant and relevant pieces with the help of her associate artistic director Sarah Garton Stanley, a powerful ensemble of actors they’ve put together, and a crack team behind the curtain. This year’s program will speak to that, after three years of interesting and fun productions from around Canada. The following conversation could have gone on longer, but Jill Keiley is in high demand.
Your staging of The Diary of Anne Frank which just opened at the Stratford Festival this May asks more of the actors than most performances. Can you explain your choice to open the play the way it did?
Well, I wanted to do The Diary of Anne Frank for years. I really wanted to show how some stories have gotten away from us, how history tends to just become something that happened to other people. I wanted to contextualize Anne Frank for the viewer. We had to read the book in school. I know it’s no longer on the required curriculum but I think it should be.
We’ve been to war but not in the way our parents went through World War II. We haven’t been woken up to that. I was thinking about my brother’s baseketball team called The Crusaders. How far removed from our history did we get to think it was cool to call a sports team the Crusaders? That was a pretty bad time to be Catholic. It wasn’t Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table it was raping and pillaging.
What I did in the beginning of the play was have the actors tell stories about how they either learned about the Holocaust or something from when they were 13-years-old. They would say, “I’m an actor, my name is… and I’ll be playing this role of…” There’s a break in the wall because you see through the eyes of the actor. It became a testimony instead of an interpretation, less of a story and more of a documentary.
Some people didn’t get it, ha-ha! Some people really don’t want you to mess with sacred texts. What was great was that kids really got it. It’s part of the Schulich Children’s Plays at the Stratford Festival, so that was great.
Do you think it’s necessary to shake things up in the theatre? Or is this a special circumstance?
I think shaking up something for the sake of it is kind of a waste of time. But shaking something up to reframe it, maybe for a new audience to hear an old story, is necessary. There are new plays and old plays. Do we really need another Romeo & Juliet? Maybe not. But I’ve seen a ton of Romeo & Juliets that made me laugh at how silly this young couple was. We don’t often look at them as being in love at 14. But I mean I was in love at 14 and I got over it!
You can contextualize it. A really great text is malleable that way, you can push a point of view on it. It becomes timeless.
The Taming of the Shrew is hugely sexist and abusive to women, and several productions in the ‘80s & ‘90s made all the male characters female & the female characters male to allow the abuse to not seem as bad. But Shakespeare wasn’t a feminist in that way. Beatings were just normal then. He was a feminist in the way that he wrote strong female characters, but he knew the social norms and wasn’t challenging them.
The 2015-2016 production lineup includes Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night but with puppets. Can you tell us more?
It’s put on by Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop—they’re kind of geniuses. They’ve put on Famous Puppet Death Scenes and they’ve put on Pinocchio at the NAC before, but here they tell an old story in a very new, inventive way. The best way to describe it is they’ll be using puppets but not the puppets’ faces. For instance, when someone’s in a boat, they’ll have the boat attached to the actor’s neck, so just the head sticks out the top with the body of a puppet around it. The puppet’s arms will row the boat but the actor will be playing the character.
Trout’s plays are always so full of joy and strangely honest…
Are you able to put on all the plays you want? Are there stories you haven’t yet been able to tell?
Yeah, there is still a lot out there. By programming seasons we also select artists for the ensemble who figure in three of the 10 plays. The featured artists of the season are 10 artists from across the country. Then we select the other plays from the seasons to come and plan to bring them in for those. I’ve already selected actors that will be a good match for the program two years from now.
You’re putting on the third production of Alice Through the Looking-Glass in Charlottetown, PEI, at the end of this month. Are you totally comfortable with this play now?
Ha-ha! Yes, I’m pretty comfortable with it now. You know I have a wonderful assistant director. She’s in rehearsals while I have to be here at my day job. She does the build with the actors for a month, and then I show up at the end for the technical rehearsal and take all the credit! It’s a good gig.
Actors are the heart and soul of the theatre. When we come into a new community—like with this production we’ll be putting it on in Edmonton & Winnipeg—everything about the show changes. Different things are funny and some things are fast and some are slow. Some troupes are better at dancing and singing, so the show morphs completely. That’s really interesting to see.
You also recently directed The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, a fictionalized retelling of the story of Joseph R. Smallwood, Newfoundland’s first Premier. Was this story close to you?
Yeah, that was a big part of my growing up. It’s still a topic there. Keep in mind that we’re still first generation Canadians—my parents were born in another country.
I think Canada is a marvellous country and I’m happy to be here, but it’ll be another generation yet before Newfoundland is fully integrated. I mean no offence to Canada but imagine if Canada was added to the United States… There’s nothing wrong with the US but it’s not Canada. That’s a really interesting part of the Newfoundland identity. We aren’t entirely Canadian, maybe the younger crowd consider themselves fully Canadian, but most of us wonder if we’re Canadian or Newfoundlander. I consider myself both.
It’s up for debate whether Joey Smallwood was a hero, but my husband’s parents still won’t say his name. They like Canada, it’s nothing against Canada. We think you’re great! But we did actually give up being a nation… Although I think it was to our benefit.
The play is based on a New York Times best-selling novel of the same name by Wayne Johnston. He’s from The Goulds, the neighbourhood in St. John’s where I’m from. It’s a strange place, must be the water.
How does considering yourself both Newfoundlander and Canadian affect the way you live?
I always thought about Trudeau saying our country is not the melting pot of the States, it’s the mosaic of Canada. We have to think about that. I have to respect the French as a parallel culture to ours, and that we don’t have to make them speak English. We just have to accept that they’ll speak French. And they’ll have to accept that we speak English. And both French & English have to accept that First Nations should have their own schools with their own culture, history & languages.
When did you first know you wanted to work in the theatre?
I don’t know. We didn’t have a theatre in my town, but we did have a teacher in Grade 10 who came to teach us drama. We were pretty new to the whole idea of theatre. But it was a great community there. I remember my brother did a production of Oliver in Grade 6. It was mind-blowing for me to see my brother do something so cool.
Did you ever aspire to work for the NAC?
No, I never considered myself to be up for the job. When it did come up I thought I wouldn’t do that—I wouldn’t touch that job with a ten-foot pole!
It’s a tough job, no matter who is in government. You have to respect all the various cultures of the country. How can you do something artistic and something that speaks to what’s happening in Canada right now? Just choosing what should be featured is daunting. There are so many communities that I don’t know enough about.
What stories are left to tell I’m only just discovering. We did a study about First Nations, an event where we brought 20 artists and other several of the northern people to Manitoulin Island to work and study indigenous theatre in Canada. We compiled all the plays we could and hosted a three-day discussion on all of it as its own body of work. These plays were not pieces that just popped up every now and then again. This is strong theatre happening. And there’s more than one!
There’s a lot of queer theatre going on as well. Not just one, but four of five queer theatres! And there are black theatres, not just a few but five or six black theatres. And these are just the ones that I know about. These groups are absolutely focused on telling their stories from the queer and black perspectives. In B.C. there is a theatre that does almost all its programming in either Cantonese or Mandarin.
How do I show what’s excellent—and I have to put excellence first, before representation—and what covers the depth and breafth of what’s happening in Canada? What’s the best queer theatre? The best in Cantonese? What about South Asian theatre? What’s the best in Atlantic theatre or in the prairies? It’s such an amazing thing, and it ties back to the idea of the mosaic.
The 2015-2016 NAC English Theatre lineup is available here.