The Self Isolated Artist
Jillian Keiley was the former Artistic Director of the English Theatre of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre who has led an illustrious career in the theatre.
She is an award-winning director from St. John’s, Newfoundland, and founder of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland. Jillian has directed and taught across Canada and internationally. She assumed her role as the Artistic Director of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, English Theatre, in 2012, and her productions there have included A Christmas Carol, Twelfth Night, Oil and Water and Alice through the Looking Glass.
Thank you, Jillian, for participating in this series as On Stage appreciates you taking the time in your busy schedule:
We’re over the four-month mark now with most places entering Stage 3. How have you been faring during this time? How has your immediate family been doing during this time?
Through a series of unlikely circumstances, I ended up in Newfoundland, where I’m from, at the very beginning of the pandemic and I haven’t left since. I live on a farm when I am here, and I get to spend time with old friends and my family, so I consider myself really lucky. The first few months were hard on my daughter, but now she is able to spend time with a few friends, so we are ok. Thanks for asking!
As a performer, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?
I’m not a performer but as a someone who works very closely with performers I am really worried about my colleagues. We are losing some extremely valuable colleagues right now and it’s such a loss. We are working on making opportunities for audiences to re-engage in live performing arts again in a really serious way – and I hope we have at least a few more COVID Friendly works on the way in the very near future.
I recognize how lucky I am to have a contract that keeps me deeply engaged and employed right now. I hope I am using this time to help make things a bit brighter for some other artists.
Were you in preparation, rehearsals, or any planning stages of productions before everything was shut down? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon?
We were loading in for a beautiful production of ‘Copenhagen’ when it all came down around us. I’m sorry about that, it was a challenging, strangely beautiful version of the show, that surprised me in its emotional content. Everything is ready to go if we are ever able to remount it. I hope we can.
What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?
At work we have been reinventing what we imagine theatre to be. Challenging our internal systems of white supremacy, reading, learning. All of that is deeply personal work, and work on behalf of the institution. Outside of that and the also large job of being a mother, I learned how to make good snowballs (the coconut and cocoa kind) and powerballs (the prune and mixed nut kind) and peanut butter balls (the oats and peanut butter kind) and I learned how to do a herring bone braids and fancy buns for my hair which is good because I can’t find a hairdresser who’ll take a new client.
Otherwise I spend a lot of every day trying to do things in the theatre and undo things in the theatre. It’s been a greater labour than I’ve experienced in a long time, probably ever. I’m never bored.
Any words of wisdom or advice you might /could give to fellow performers and colleagues? What message would you deliver to recent theatre school graduates who have now been set free into this unknown and uncertainty given the fact live theaters and studios might be closed for 1 ½ - 2 years?
I’d suggest to them that they go make something. Somehow. And keep making the things. And then when someone has money sometime, they will say, “Hey that young person –they make things! Go ask them!”
I find myself a lot of the time, seeking out people who are doing cool things that cost little in materials but were ingenious theatrical acts. Sometimes it is in theatres, sometimes it is posted to the internet. People who have contracts and grants to award eventually do find out who the people are who are doing things in towns and cities and communities. The people who are shining, especially shining despite these hard circumstances are so valuable.
When I was younger we had no money to advertise this one show, but I knew someone who had an in at the hospital laundry, and I knew that they had these bags and bags of torn sheets going to the garbage on the regular. So to advertise the show, I got about 20 friend who pulled their shirts down and their pants up and made a giant toga parade using this sewn together band of old hospital sheets with the name of the show painted on it. It certainly brought a lot of attention to the show! I don’t recommend doing anything with hospital sheets these days but… .I’m always personally on the lookout for people who are willing to go the extra mile.
Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?
I think the wakeup call of Black Lives Matter and addressing white supremacy in the arts is a tidal shift that will never let us return to where we were before. It’s a very positive shift. I hope we can see real change and I hope I am allowed to be some part of that change.
Some artists have turned to YouTube and online streaming to showcase their work. What are your comments and thoughts about streaming? Is this something that the actor/theatre may have to utilize going forward into the unknown?
I don’t love it. I believe theatre has ritual around it, and I believe that there is a deeper spiritual aspect to it that disappears online. But I have appreciated the educational opportunities of watching shows online. I have tuned in to shows from theatres I haven’t been to before, and that’s interesting.
But I am really, really looking forward to being with people experiencing some art and going through the spiritual, ritualistic aspect of theatre again.
Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you?
I love the creativity and resilience of performers. We have performers still doing their things on line, in cars, in drive ins, on roof tops, over the radio, in parking lots, in theatres with unprofitable configurations in the audience, for one person at a time, for pairs, for plants. Storytellers, mythmakers, meaning and metaphor purveyors- are simply amazing. You just can’t keep them down.
As a respectful acknowledgment to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests:
1. What is your favourite word?
Yes (and here’s how)
2. What is your least favourite word?
No (and here’s why)
3. What turns you on?
4. What turns you off?
Men who talk over women who are already talking.
5. What sound or noise do you love?
My kid laughing.
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
Harleys with holes in the muffler.
7. What is your favourite curse word?
What is your least favourite curse word?
8. Other than your own, what other career profession could you see yourself doing?
I would like to go into palliative care, or Funeral planning. I’m a fairly upbeat person, but I feel like the dying aspect of living is not done well in our society and I think I could help. I used to do something like it years ago, and I felt useful.
9. What career choice could you not see yourself doing?
10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
“You used up 98% of it, girl! That’s pretty good!”