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Jillian Keiley

Laureate, 2004

Image: Name, Title, Description



2004 Laureate

The Jury described Newfoundland director Jillian Keiley’s work as “startlingly original and radically imaginative”. According to the jury citation, she is a “visionary, innovative artist whose experiments with form and content have magical results for audiences and performers alike. Simultaneously cerebral and visceral, her productions explore the parameters of theatre art, often with powerful effect”.

Ms. Keiley is the founding Artistic Director of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland, where she has directed 14 new productions, almost all of which were original scripts and scores created for the company by playwright Robert Chafe and composer Petrina Bromley. For the past 10 years, Ms. Keiley has been working with Artistic Fraud to develop a unique, mathematic and music-based choreography and directing system called Kaleidography. Ms. Keiley has been teaching this new system at universities and professional training institutes across the country for the past six years. Jillian recently joined the Siminovitch Board of Directors.

Acceptance Speech

Dr. Siminovitch, Mr. and Mrs. Comper, Founders of the Siminovitch Prize, members of the Jury, Jacoba Knappen, Andrea Lundy, John Van Burek, , Blair, Andrew, Joanne, everyone at BMO and all the people who are making this evening happen, thank you so much. This honour means so much to me and to my community. Most of all it means a great deal to my mother.

When I was a girl, I wanted to be an actor for five or six minutes. Mom had taken this parent effectiveness training and knew exactly the right thing to say that would encourage me to follow my dreams while balancing them with an application to teacher’s college. My father didn’t take parent effectiveness training, and responded with “hm.” I followed his advice and abandoned the idea becoming a schoolteacher. Mom gave me a look up and down, shook her head and said, “alright, go do it.”

Later that year I went to Gordon Jones who used to run this summer Shakespeare out of the university. I said, half in jest, “How’s about letting me direct the show” and he said “No.” And then he picked up his big set of theatre keys and he brought me downstairs to the dressing room. And he unlocked the room and he said “this can be your pit, work with the actors down here.” I remember staring at him like he’d just given me a million dollars. “What?” he said “Go do it”. I was Gordon’s assistant director on the Summer Shakespeares then for six years.

So anyway, through all of that I did follow Dad’s advice and go to theatre school, which I did here in Toronto, up on Steeles there. While we were there, Chris Tolley and I wrote a show together called “In Your Dreams, Freud”, a musical farce about the very doctrines we were learning – an slap in the face of modern psychology, Aristotle, young love, Broadway hits and theatre school itself.
We were very proud of ourselves.
We went to the department heads and said we’d like to produce it.
They said “you’ll have to do it outside of class time”
We said ” Ok”
They said “You don’t have any time outside of class time”
We said ” we can make it work”
They said ” officially that’s not a good idea. Here are the keys to the theatre. Go do it.”

So I graduated and I said, I’d like to work at the professional theatre. So I went in and I hassled Lois Brown, who is here tonight, also shortlisted for this award. Lois was running the Resource Centre for the Arts, known as the Hall and was extremely busy and I called and I called and I dropped by and dropped by again and I said “how’s about hiring me for the summer.”
And she said “what do you want to do?”
and I said ‘I want to do a big cabaret project that includes all members of the St. John’s arts community, senior artists and emerging artists on the same bill and every night would be a theme night and we will serve theme food and we will send cheques at the end of the summer to everyone who performed even if it is only for 17$ which is what it turned out to be. And Lois said, “Alright, go do it.” Lois, I was so proud to be on the shortlist with you, and I’ve got the opportunity to thank you here in front of all these people as you were one of my mentors so thank you and I love you and I’m really lucky to have forced you to hire me.

So I stayed with the hall then for nigh on seven years. And Lois said we’ve got to keep all these cabaret people still coming and performing at the hall, especially the emerging artists. So I blew the dust off “In Your Dreams Freud”. We produced it and then as a spin off the production team remounted it a second, third and fourth time, as well as a short tour. That production team was the new company that became Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland, and that’s the company I still am AD of today.

In my tenure at the Hall, I met many people who now work with Artistic Fraud, and one of those people is Ann Brophy. Every successful theatre company has an Ann. Sometimes she’s called a Mallory or a David or a Gaylene or a Sherrie, or a GM or a Producer. You’d think the best attribute of someone like Ann is that she can balance a budget down to the cent, but the best thing about Ann is that a few times a year our Ann says “this project is difficult. How can we make it happen?” Our Ann is a visionary who thinks equal parts expansion and viability. I am thankful for Ann.

So Anyway, this form we’ve been working on is called Kaleidography, like a Kaleidoscope. For the first show, we took Bach’s fugue in G Minor you know the one, la la la. This fugue is made up of one line that splits into 2 lines that splits into 3 then 6 lines. We took those lines and instead of applying tonal values to them we applied action values and kept the same harmonic notions, and time values. We invented a plot, a group of schoolchildren cheating on a math exam. In our piece, we replaced harmonizing notes with harmonizing actions. So the goal was to trace the lines and patterns in the music with visible story lines. We needed a group that was large enough to create the patterns which were best seen in a grid formation and the grid formation needed to be at least 9×9 to accommodate the stories. 81 Actors. So I went to the people who run Sound Symposium in St. John’s and I said “I’m not sure that this will work, but what would you say if I said… “well, what I said to you guys here a minute ago. And the sound symposium said “alright – go do it”

So on we went then, trying to progress this form and apply it in all of these different ways, visual and story based productions using the physics type rules of music. We’d only done a small bunch of productions like it when I met Rumble Theatre’s Norman Armour at a PACT conference. I believe we had both snuck out of a heated Equity/Pact argument and headed to the bar. There he tried to explain to me how to play snooker. Mystified by snooker, I explained to him Kaleidography, and a new show that we’d developed called Under Wraps, and a version of Jesus Christ Superstar that used the score of the musical to build the pictures from which we blocked the show. I remember Norman found this very funny, but within three months he had arranged for me to come to Vancouver to share my findings. That was six years ago, and the first time I’d taught what we were figuring out. I am still mystified and bowled over by Norman’s act of faith in bringing me to Vancouver. I am still mystified and bowled over by snooker.

Acts of faith categorize all the rest of it, from Canada Council officers and juries to touring presenters. Five companies right across the country took us on for our first professional tour. At the time they had no reason to have faith in me or in Artistic Fraud. And let me tell you Artistic Fraud is not a handy name if you want to cash a large cheque or when you want someone to buy your 24 person experiment in using actors as symphony. But they said, “ok, if you can get it here, we’ll put it up for you” We had to pull every string attached to every human being; political, familial — people who’d never heard of us, people we’d never heard of. We had our picture taken with the minister of culture recreation and youth, now recreation, youth, mines, fisheries and culture. After the snap of us holding the cheque, we pleaded with him to make a personal call to the oil companies on our behalf. We had one month left to raise the money, 24 contractees, and a five-week tour booked and signed for. We were short $27,000 of a $140000 tour. Another week ticked by, we had to drop the Yukon off the itinerary. Short $16000 three weeks before we left for Calgary. Our tour manager reduces our room bookings by 1/3rd by rebooking our double hotel rooms to be three person suites with a pull out. Short 8,000$, one week til Christmas day, two weeks one day til the plane takes off with us on it. Or not on it. We’ll give up the rental vans, we’ll cut up the set and put it in the cast’s luggage, we’ll drop the directors, stage managers and playwrights fees. Already done that. We’ll…. We’ll…. We get a call from Petro Canada. Merry Christmas.

All of the artists I’ve depended on to put these shows together demonstrated the greatest amount of faith. “Um, yeah, what would you say if we replaced all the text in Chekhov’s Seagull with instruments from a string quartet, and had the actors speak their interpretations of the lines which would then be imitated tonally by a violin or a cello, and then eventually replace the actors voice, demonstrating the music in meaning behind language.”
“Uh. Ok”
“Yeah Um, what would you say if we did this piece in front of a bunch of panels so that it looked like the actors’ shadows were on the walls behind them, but in fact the shadows are other actors exactly imitating the actors in the front of the panels – but when the characters in front of the panels lie the shadows diverge.”
“What would happen if we put actors in a booth and cast audience members in the character parts who would be linked to the actors on headset, and the audience/actor lines would be run off a timing system so the audience would discover the story of the play as they spoke it themselves?”
“Alright, let’s go do it”

I am so grateful for the openness and trust from these actors, musicians, designers, managers and technicians. Because sometimes the ideas sound a little out to lunch – but these artists come with me all the way. I’ve also had the good fortune to work outside of the company with generous and open groups like Sheila’s Brush and Theatre Newfoundland Labrador. All of these artists I’ve met have set the parameters for future projects- questions they ask become answers in the next season.

There are two special people from that group of artists. The first is Robert Chafe. Robert and I grew up in the same small town in Newfoundland, but never met because he is Protestant and I am Catholic, and in small town Newfoundland in the 70’s those were the two solitudes. Eventually we got around to working together, and have not parted since. Roberts ideas spark flames on frivolous notions I come up with, and next thing you know it’s a full-on production. By rights, I should take the circular saw to this, and give half to Robert but he’s also my room mate so the trophy is safe. Robert is a genius, and Robert don’t go quoting that back to me when I’m asking you to make a cut in a script some time. I love you honey, this is yours too.

And the second person I will talk about is another director who makes things happen, and who is the recipient of the $25,000 part of this award. She is a graduate of the National Theatre School directing programme, and has already started two theatre companies in Newfoundland. She was the inaugural directing student accepted to the Stratford Festival’s Conservatory programme. She has a brilliant skill as a producer, and was in fact the mastermind behind that big tour I told you about. She teaches at the National Theatre School, and is a treasure to her students. She was my assistant director and my co-director on several productions. This woman has taught me a lot about acting and about text, but most importantly this. There have been hard times over the past 10 years I’ll admit it. Times when I’ve thought about giving it up. This woman is someone who never gave up, and I’ve often looked at her and thought, well if she’s tough enough, then I’m tough enough too. She has a brilliant light guiding her because she believes that theatre should happen. That theatre must happen. She is someone to whom I am so happy to say “alright girl, go do it.” Ladies and Gentlemen I’m pleased to introduce to you Danielle Irvine.

2004 Protégé


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