SPOTLIGHT: Chatting with incoming NAC English Theatre artistic director Jillian Keiley

The Play’s the Thing
Incoming NAC English Theatre artistic director Jillian Keiley on how she plans to make her mark — and the drama of directing a play set in a swimming pool  BY JEN LAHEY

Taking it to the street: Jillian Keiley hit the ground running when she arrived at the NAC in late August from her home province of Newfoundland. Photography by Dwayne Brown.

JILLIAN KEILEY HAS LOFTY goals and big ideas. As the new artistic director of English theatre at the National Arts Centre, Keiley also has big shoes to fill. Her predecessor, Peter Hinton, came to be known for his bold and, at times, controversial vision.  Now Keiley must put her stamp on a company whose works have to be national in scope. In making that mark, she says her top concern will be strengthening the Canadian theatre canon.

Planning a successful theatre season is always a balancing act, and Keiley is already working on how she’ll mix it up; already planning how best to showcase work produced here, established plays, and new productions. “I’m trying to do new work in partnership with companies from across the country,” she explains. “We need to invest in this innovative work as it’s happening.”

She adds that working with these new scripts can be complicated, because they often need extensive tweaking even after they’ve premiered. That’s where Keiley comes in. She plans to invest in select premieres around the country, then “bring it back to Ottawa, revise it, and work to make it better” with the originating company.

All of which means lots of travelling for the new artistic director as she vets works across the country to find gems for her 2013-2014 season. (The 2012-2013 season was programmed by Peter Hinton ahead of his departure.)

Keiley is also already hard at work making two other components of her vision a reality. She’s developing an ensemble consisting of “a central core” of performers from across Canada who would live and work in Ottawa and perform most of the theatre’s productions while also putting together a young company. Both projects, she says, are “a massive undertaking but really, really worthwhile. My focus is to make the NAC have a big impact nationally. And the more of an impact we can have nationally, the more of an impact we can have locally.”

She envisions the ensemble applying their talents not only to the stage but to outreach in schools and the community, as well as to participation in theatre festivals. She further imagines innovative offerings such as having the core members coach local students through their drama school auditions.

When the notion of applying for the prestigious directorship came up, Keiley at first didn’t think she should even apply. A plan was hatched to co-apply with a friend, but when the friend backed out, she threw caution to the wind and applied anyway. Even now, Keiley finds it difficult to articulate exactly why she applied. She does know that she would not have left Newfoundland — where she spent 18 years with Artistic Fraud, a theatre company she founded — for any other job.

When asked whether a big part of the NAC’s appeal was stability and a less hectic travelling schedule, she hesitates. A new mother, she says she could have managed being a mom and continuing her work at Artistic Fraud (but she makes the statement in a halting tone of voice that suggests it would have been hard going). “I don’t know [why I applied]. It feels like it was fate. I can’t give you a good answer for why I applied. It was kind of like a thousand small pushes to get to the top of the cliff.”

In addition to her work at Artistic Fraud, where she was most recently the artistic director, Keiley has also lectured; taught workshops and master classes at more than a dozen universities, colleges, and theatre organizations across the country; and created shows in cities around the world.

She says her role at Artistic Fraud, along with work she had done with small theatre companies, has given her a certain financial savvy. “I really, really know how to use Excel spreadsheets, and I understand budgeting. I understand how you can make something, like one single play, have an outreach and an impact that’s larger than just the play itself.” She characterizes herself as frugal about planning shows but “also pretty generous about what can come out of it.”

Keiley already has a theatrical treat up her sleeve for this season: she’ll be directing the Peter Hinton-programmed winter production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, a reimagining of 10 classical Greek myths. She is clearly very excited about what audiences will see, and given her reputation for inventively staged designs, it’s no surprise that she’s positively bubbling over at stage designer Bretta Gerecke’s plans for the production. For one thing, the show takes place entirely in three pools, which fit one inside the other. “It’s the Greek myths as reinterpreted through this design,” explains Keiley. “Mary Zimmerman writes it in that it should be done in this pool, but she doesn’t specify what kind of pool or how deep.”

Gerecke’s three-pool design involves one flat pool that takes up much of the floor, a second six-foot tank inside that one, and a horizontal pool that runs up the back wall. She likens the set’s shape to a giant water laptop. The actors are in these pools for the duration of the show. “It’s awesome. Really beautiful. Bretta Gerecke is probably in the top five, if not one of the best, theatre designers in the country. She’s an incredible designer, and this is my first opportunity working with her,” says Keiley, adding that the show, despite its ancient stories, will absolutely resonate with modern audiences.

“The retelling of the Greek myths tells me again and again that we’re not that far from our ancestors, that we still have the same dilemmas. They spoke about gods and their effect on our ability to change, our ability to grow. And we’re just the same, but our gods now are the Internet and television.”

This story appears in the October edition of Ottawa Magazine. Buy the magazine on newsstands or order your online edition.