NAC English Theatre 2018-19: New season built on compelling real stories

Graham Cuthbertson and Tara Rosling in the Grand Theatre's Silence about Alexander Graham Bell and Mabel Hubbard. Photo: Claus Andersen

When Jillian Keiley plans the NAC’s English Theatre (ET) season, it’s always about the thrill of the chase and the luck of the draw.

She looks for companies and projects that should appear on the NAC’s stages and be seen by larger audiences, often with a little help and investment from her department. That takes her from one end of Canada to the other and sometimes into the smallest of places.

“I decided I didn’t want to do premieres while I am the artistic director here because I think the NAC needs to serve a different purpose than that. There are a lot of companies doing premieres in Canada. Those new productions just get played once but there isn’t anywhere new for them to go.

“So I felt that the NAC needs to be the place that picks out highlights from those new productions and brings to a larger stage the shows that deserves to be seen on a grander scale,” she said. That takes the form of co-production and collaborations.

In a way then it’s her own joy of discovery that she wants to pass onto theatre audiences in Ottawa each year.

Jillian Keiley

“In an era of false news, it would seem to emerge that most Canadian producers wanted to get involved in the truth of things” this year, Keiley said in an interview.

This year the shows coming home to ET’s lineup feature stories about real people such as Alexander Graham Bell and Mabel Hubbard. The story of their love affair is called Silence (Oct. 17 to 28). The Grand Theatre production is also the story of Hubbard’s deafness, caused by scarlet fever, and his invention of the telephone created by Trina Davies and directed by Peter Hinton, Keiley’s predecessor at the NAC.

“Silence is the story about Alexander Graham Bell and his wife who is deaf and his mother who is also deaf. A deaf actor plays the role of Mother Bell. Peter Hinton knocks this one out of the park.”

The cast of The Hockey Sweater. Photo: Leslie Schachter

It’s a match made for Christmas at the NAC. The co-production of The Hockey Sweater: A Musical (Dec. 5 – 16) by Emil Sher and Jonathan Monro, is being directed and choreographed by Donna Feore. Of course, it’s based on Roch Carrier’s classic story of hockey and a boy’s desire to be true to Maurice Richard.

“We are putting a fair bit of investment into The Hockey Sweater which … will be a big show for us next year,” Keiley said. “This is a beautiful musical. If you get down to the Stratford Festival and see the big musicals there, you will be familiar with Donna Feore’s work.

“The choreography is extraordinary. She has all these kids going around on these little custom-designed skates. It’s really impressive. We have seen with our holiday programming over the past few years, people like to bring their kids.”

Her own daughter has seen the play and can’t stop talking about hockey.

The Wedding Party by Kristen Thomson is headed to Ottawa in the new year. The production by A Crow’s Theatre and Talk Is Free Theatre runs from Jan. 30 – Feb. 9, 2019. It’s described as a “wild romp” of a party after the wedding.

Tristan D. Lalla, Jenny Brizard in Angelique. Photo: Jaclyn Turner

Lorena Gale’s Angélique (March 20 – 31, 2019), tells the true story of a black slave woman who was hanged for setting a fire that destroyed much of old Montreal in 1734. It is a co-production of Montreal’s A Black Theatre Workshop and Tableau D’Hôte Theatre.

It’s a play that was actually around in the 1990s, Keiley said. The playwright died a few years ago.

“It’s an extraordinary production. I was keen to see what they would make of it. It was playing in a very small space and I said ‘This needs to be on the national stage. This needs to be seen on a grander scale. It was not unlike when I saw Children of God (the musical about the residential school experience by Corey Payette of Vancouver).”

The series closes another NAC co-production this time with the Blyth Festival. The Pigeon King (April 24 – May 5, 2019) is about a farmer who committed a famous fraud committed by Arlan Galbraith who built a bird-breeding empire called Pigeon King International, using investments from hundreds of his neighbours and fellow farmers.

The three play Studio Series is back this season and features first Chasing Champions: The Sam Langford Story (Nov. 13 – 24), a Ship’s Company production in association with Eastern Front Theatre. It’s about a Nova Scotia boxer who was denied a shot at a world championship. 

Christine Horne in a scene from Prince Hamlet. Photo: Dahlia Katz

Toronto’s Ravi Jain and his Why Not company are known for taking something familiar and making something unique out of it. Last year during Canada Scene he reimagined David French’s Salt-Water Moon. This year it’s Prince Hamlet (Feb. 26 – March 9, 2019).

“He does do the most interesting take on anything you can imagine,” Keiley says.

Keiley, a self-confessed under control control freak, says she doesn’t miss directing.

“Artistic direction is just as creative and interesting as directing. I love directing don’t get me wrong. I have often taken my vacation time from the NAC and directed a show at Stratford. I really feel like I am very privileged and I really feel lucky since the day I walked into the NAC.

“If there is a show that I really wanted to do and there is … I can’t tell you because it will be in the season after. It’s in my pocket. I don’t need to direct everything. There are such good directors in Canada. … They need work too.”

There is one production that she will get her directing glasses next season, joining forces with her longtime friend and collaborator Robert Chafe of St. John’s, Nfld., to take charge of the final play of the series which is from Newfoundland’s Artistic Fraud theatre company, with a musical score by Newfoundland folk trio The Once, called Between Breaths (May 7–18, 2019).

“Between Breaths is another one in which we are making a investment this year. What’s really special is that The Once did the music for it. The sound they make is incredible. It runs behind the whole show and is played live on stage” along with some whale sounds. “It’s one of the most moving pieces I have ever done.”

It’s about scientist Jon Lien, who over his improbable career freed more than 500 whales trapped in fishing nets off the Atlantic coast. Sadly Lien developed a disease that is similar to ALS and ended up trapped in his own body.

You’d think Keiley would take a break in the summer, but no. On a holiday, she’ll head home to create a river-based art installation through a forest, that will feature five Canadian choirs from across Canada, by the Podium festival.

For more information on the NAC’s English Theatre season, please see  

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.