IWD: Jillian Keiley, National Arts Centre: Fearless And Proud Of Canadian Art

IWD: Jillian Keiley, National Arts Centre: Fearless And Proud Of Canadian Art

Leadership | Posted by YouInc.com - March 19, 2018 at 12:30 am
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This is part two of a four-part interview series with entrepreneurs reinventing the economy in Newfoundland through the arts.

Jillian Keiley attributes her success to other people. As the Artistic Director of English Theatre at Canada's National Arts Centre and the founder of Artistic Fraud in St John's, Newfoundland, she's in constant pursuit of productions that help people think differently about their lives--that process starts and ends with a team of talented individuals. In this conversation, she shares how she stays courageous in an industry where she's pushing the boundaries on what stories we tell ourselves:

YouInc: You've said many times that you're only as good as the people around you. Tell me more. 

Jillian Keiley: The theatre calls for a style of collaboration that's so thorough and intense, that any weak link in the project can make the whole thing fall to pieces in a heartbeat. But when every aspect is bright and connected and working well together, it can be magic.  So I really believe you're only as good as those with whom you work.  It doesn't matter how strong of a director you are; if you don't have the right actors, you can't direct around that. The same is true with your design team--they all have to be good. I've been lucky because for the most part I've been surrounded by people who are exceptional.  That's my talent if I've got one--getting the best people to agree to work with me.  

I need the space to think and to not think.  The less I think these days, the better I am creatively.

YI: How much time do you spend alone, and how do you like to use that time?

JK: I don't get to spend that much time alone, because when I'm not working, I need to be with my daughter, who is only six. I work and travel so much that I can't afford to waste a moment with her. When I was home this summer, I hiked up Signal Hill almost daily and before anyone else was up in the morning.  That made me happy.  

Spending time alone is becoming more important to me as I get older.  I need the space to think and to not think.  The less I think these days, the better I am creatively.  I believe it's because we used to seek out stimulation, and now I'm so overstimulated all the time that I'm exhausted. Stop showing me pictures of beautiful, complex, heartbreaking, and terrifying things, so I can invent some beautiful, complex, heartbreaking, and terrifying things. 

YI: You have this sense of fearlessness that anything is possible in the arts. How do you stay courageous, even when it gets hard?

JK: I don't do things to bolster my courage, but I try to protect myself from getting kicked in the guts and losing what courage I have. I read reviews, but only after I've built some distance between myself and the show.  If you read reviews the day after opening, you can be deeply hurt by the cruel things people might say about you or your work. To you this work of art is still vulnerable and still beautiful.  You're still reeling from the sweat and the panic and the loss of sleep; it's very much the same as having a baby--if someone comes in and takes one look at your baby, that you've spent gestating and completely focused on for nine months, and then tells you that the baby is ugly and stupid, it's too much to bear.  A bit of distance can help turn that criticism into a learning opportunity, instead of an affront. 

 It's a mystery to me, the idea that one audience is more worth winning than another.

YI: Do you sense an air of ignorance from Canadians to Newfoundland's arts achievements? 

JK: People may be ignorant to what goes on in Newfoundland, but we've been batting well above average for years now in the arts and entertainment industries. Anyone who hasn't heard of Rick Mercer or Mary Walsh or Brian Johnston or Alan Doyle or Great Big Sea...well I suppose maybe some haven't, but it feels to me like it's something we are known for.  They might know a little less about what happens on stages as opposed to film and television, because stage work is by definition local, but even our stage productions do a fair bit of touring. 

YI: How do we get more people to believe that you don't have to be in cities like Toronto or Ottawa to be doing good work?

JK: A lot of my job at the NAC is convincing our audiences that excellent work is happening across the country, not just in the larger centres and certainly not just in London and New York. There's this strange thing that we do as Canadians: we believe that work from New York or London is somehow better than ours. Aside from the big Broadway houses, there are hundreds of other little theatres, holes in the walls, and public not-for-profits, and many of them are great; many of them aren't nearly as nice or as big as theatres in Canada.  

A bit of distance can help turn that criticism into a learning opportunity, instead of an affront. 

Why does playing for 70 people in Manhattan mean more than playing for one thousand people in St. John's?  Why is the opinion of 70 people more meaningful than your thousand countrymen in Canada?  Why is improving the lives of people you don't know in London, more meaningful than bringing art and beauty to citizens you know and love in Canada?  It's a mystery to me, the idea that one audience is more worth winning than another.  It's my privilege to play for you, and I'm proud to show my work in communities across Canada. 

YI: What has been your most proud moment in the past year? Why?

JK: I was very proud of my production of Bakkhai that happened in Stratford.  It was a big risk for me, and I was anxious about it.  But the performers were brave and they trusted me to take them on the journey to investigate a question about women's sexuality.  I didn't know the whole time if it was the right place and the right idea but I trusted my gut. I was proud of how everyone came together. 

I love for a show to be indescribable in a way: audiences should have to say, "you just had to be there."  It makes the experience of going to the theatre a singular thing and a special thing.

One of the most wonderful things I've ever done is bring Oil and Water, the piece about Lanier Phillips, who was rescued from the USS Truxtun disaster off the coast of St. Lawrence, down to the people of St. Lawrence on the bottom of the southeast coast of Newfoundland.  We played it in the gym, with our full professional cast, to an audience who wouldn't have had access to a great number of plays.  I've never been more proud and more honoured to bring this story to them. 

YI: What keeps you hopeful about the future of arts in Newfoundland? What about Canada?

JK: The days of theatre being a re-creation of the same stuffy productions from 50 years ago is over. An audience can get good realism easily on screens, so the theatre  is evolving every day to offer audiences something else, something more interpretive, something exciting, something like you've never seen or heard before.  

I love for a show to be indescribable in a way: audiences should have to say, "you just had to be there."  It makes the experience of going to the theatre a singular thing and a special thing. It feeds into the pattern of your life and diverts you somehow, and takes you off your everyday path. Art needs to do that. I believe the number of great creative thinkers coming out of Montreal are inspired by the amount of public art and theatre and music everywhere; they're diverted from their regular path and they think differently.  The arts alter your brainwaves and make you think out of the box. 

Tags: entrepreneurs, female entrepreneurs, international womens day, leadership, zita cobb

Kristen Marano

Kristen Marano is a writer based in Toronto, Canada, and Perth, Australia. She’s passionate about connecting women in business to share honest stories and perspectives about the emotional challenges of their work. Follow Kristen on Twitter at Twitter.com/KristenMarano

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