Why doesn’t (does) (doesn’t) (does) Canada Have a National Theatre?

Why doesn’t (does) (doesn’t) (does) Canada Have a National Theatre?

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A collage of three images: Jill reading the paper and discovering something with surprise.

I was breastfeeding my three-month old-baby girl when a dear colleague of mine called me up and asked me if I would be interested in co-applying for the job of Artistic Director of the National Arts Centre.

I told my friend quite immediately and without thinking about it: “ absolutely not.” He told me to think about it, and I did. And it seemed then that a lifetime of thinking about it had already gone into that thinking-about-it time.

I had followed the National Arts Centre for years. I was keenly interested in it because I was always interested in what stories and theatre say about a people, about a nation. I had been breastfed myself on Newfoundland nationalism – an unshakeable belief in this place and her people because of the stories I had been told about it. Right out of university, I was hired at the Resource Centre for the Arts in St. John’s – in a position I held for 10 years. The mandate of RCA was and is to promote and cultivate the theatre and culture of Newfoundland and Labrador. It was a fierce and brutal battlefield of a theatre environment because everyone who went through there held that they were now the torchbearers of our secret nation. Almost every theatre company in Newfoundland is dedicated to telling Newfoundland stories. Our island is in a contagion of talking about itself. It fuels our population, makes people who go away want to come back, and people who come to visit stay.

Although I was always a strident Newfoundlander, I am also deeply pro-confederate. I believe in Canada as a nation: in Canada as a nation of nations. I love that we have the system in place to be a country version of the UN, you don’t have to surrender your passport, that you can be an ‘anything-Canadian.’ I love that people live in megacities, by the ocean, and forest, by permafrost and fields. I love that we can’t figure out what our identity is, and it drives me berserk that some of us believe we can be any one thing- the beauty of this place is that we can be anything.

When Peter Hinton launched his inaugural season in 2006, I sent him a letter. I didn’t really know him but I wanted to commend him for programming an all Canadian Season. I was thrilled by it, excited by the caliber of artists he invited, gobsmacked by the variety of theatrical experiences NAC Audiences could expect.

I was really surprised and sad to learn that Peter’s move had turned out to be a brave one indeed and that NAC subscription audiences had dropped like a stone. People had never heard of these artists – they had never been seen on Broadway or the West End.

Peter slowly built his subscription base up again by engaging in Canadian works weighed throughout with more popular international titles. But I saw what that struggle did to his heart as a nation builder and it was that that made me say ‘absolutely not.’

A few weeks later, my friend had to withdraw but the NAC asked if I might take it on myself anyway and I said yes. And I said it with a whole heart because through studying the purpose of the organization and its responsibilities, I came to believe that I could follow the path that Peter had laid and retrace it again with strategies I had learned from him and his predecessor Marti Maraden, from Newfoundland nationalism, from the crackerjack team I was assembling and inheriting, and from my obsessive study of Canadian theatre.

The NAC is a theatre that is dedicated to celebrate and strengthen Canadian voices and our unique way to tell stories. It’s positioning in Ottawa is critical – juxtaposed against French Theatre, and now, wonderfully- the new Indigenous Theatre department. It’s an impossible goal – to make a theatre that attempts to give voice to a Canadian ideal – but the trying is everything.

So, five years later after saying yes, I was pretty surprised (and heart-kicked I admit) to learn from Kate Taylor in her Globe and Mail article of July 24 – that Canada doesn’t actually have a National Theatre.

In her article, she compares the very fine production of the National Theatre of Scotland’s James Plays featured at Luminato this year, to everything that she believes Canada lacks. The reason we can’t have anything nice is because we don’t have the structural set up of the National Theatre of Scotland. Fair enough – we don’t.

The biggest difference is that the National Theatre of Scotland doesn’t have a building, and so can make shows wherever and under whatever circumstances they choose and can balance budget-wise. They can bring shows across the smaller geography of Scotland and tour in whatever kind of venue suits them.

Some of Kate Taylor’s issue also seems to be that the NAC is not based in Toronto. Which I can also sympathize with for sheer population exposure alone, but it ignores the critical vision of the NAC English Theatre being a part of a larger artistic platform that is both French and English, and now Indigenous, and part of a larger vision that folds in the other performing arts in Dance and Music.

But not being in Toronto, and not being completely mobile in our seasons doesn’t mean that we don’t exist.

I wish I had been able to remind Kate Taylor that the NAC English Theatre was one of the founders of and remains the presenting partner of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival, which takes productions from all across the country and has produced 14 theatre festivals, half of them outside of Ottawa, serving communities from Whitehorse to St. John’s.

She seemed to know a bit about the Collaborations which is a continuing initiative that invests in new projects by partnering with theatre companies from across the country and then later follows up with those shows with an eye to presenting them on the NAC stage – the idea to make the NAC a showcase theatre for some of this exemplary work.

I wish I could have outlined the rest of the shows in our season, which features an all-Canadian line-up, minus one – which was adapted by a Canadian. It showcases the work of a first generation Canadian of Japanese descent, a first generation Canadian of Caribbean descent. Two of the plays feature actors from the deaf and disabled communities. Two of the plays talk about the very creation of the country we call Canada. One is from a First Nations Playwright – an incredibly good work about residential schools.

Like Kate Taylor, we see the importance of moving our own work across Canada. Our model is not as agile as the National Theatre of Scotland. But we are launching a tour next season – sending back Andy Jones’ wonderful Tartuffe to the east from whence it came. Through our co-productions, the NAC will showcase work in Winnipeg, Vancouver and Calgary this year.

We’ve established a new touring model in partnership with the Stratford Festival that makes touring large-scale works more accessible by allowing communities to hire local actors within a set, costume, concept and choreography of a production. The pilot production, James Reaney’s take on Alice Through the Looking Glass, used completely different casts based in Stratford, Ottawa, Edmonton, Charlottetown, and Winnipeg. Next year we already have plans to ship out another production in this model, in partnership with a new theatre.

I don’t regret for one second saying yes to being the AD at the NAC. The only bad part is saying goodbye to my now almost-five-year-old, sometimes for weeks at a time as I head out to further develop relationships with theatre makers across our giant country and the one place we all have in common, our capital, Ottawa. I am every day excited and invigorated about what the NAC can mean to theatre in this country. I really believe that we are a part of a larger movement that is establishing a Canadian voice, and I believe that we are realizing along with everyone else, that the strength of the Canadian voice is the multiplicity of it.

We may never come close to embracing and showcasing all of the great artists in our country, or serving all of the varieties of audiences. But the trying is everything. It is a job that cannot be completed, like patching together a single Canadian identity. We can’t melt it all together, and curating seasons of all of its disparate wonderful forms, while having audiences recognize the value in that, is the National Arts Centre English Theatre’s fierce and loyal nation-building job.

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About the Author

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Jillian Keiley is an award-winning director from The Goulds, Newfoundland and founding Artistic Director of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland. She was the winner of the Siminovitch Prize for Directing in 2004 and the Canada Council John Hirsch Prize. She was awarded Honorary Doctorates of Letters from Memorial University and York University. Jillian directs regularly for the Stratford Festival and theatres across Canada. Ms. Keiley assumed her role as NAC English Theatre Artistic Director in 2012.