NAC English Theatre: New season to open with powerful co-production about missing, murdered Indigenous women

The Unnatural and Accidental Women is a co-production between NAC English Theatre and the new Indigenous Theatre. It opens in September.

When artistic director Jillian Keiley is lining up a new season for NAC English Theatre (ET), it’s kind of a numbers game.

Her long list is about 20 shows, which she narrows down to the final eight that comprise a season. But that long list is culled from – get ready for it – about 290 shows that she and a team of cross-country “advisors” have seen.

“I used to see about 130, 150 shows a year,” she said in an interview. “I recognized a couple of years ago I couldn’t see (everything) … so I started working with advisors across Canada, 33 people who see 180 to 190 shows that I don’t see. Now I see about 100.”

Those advisors – mostly directors who have an eye for quality and what audiences want – suggest shows Keiley should see. She does that and puts those in the pot with the ones she’s already seen, throws in innumerable practical factors from availability to budgets, and then boils everything down to her final selection.

Once again in 2019-20, that final selection will not include premieres and the risks that attend an untried script. “I’m trying to protect the NAC as a showcase theatre, a place where Canadian theatre is elevated,” she says.

Ben Caplan stars in Hannah Moscovitch’s Old Stock. Photo: Stoo Metz

The upcoming season in the main, Babs Asper Theatre opens with Marie Clements’ The Unnatural and Accidental Women. It’s a co-production with the new NAC Indigenous Theatre, which debuts its first season later this year. Running from Sept 11-21, Clements’ play delves into the continuing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada. It’s set in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside, where ten murdered women show up as ghosts supporting Rebecca, who is searching for answers about her own missing mother.

“This is our first foray with (NAC) Indigenous Theatre,” says Keiley. “It’s an opportunity to introduce my audience – and I have a fair subscription audience — to the Indigenous Theatre’s work.”

Audiences who have seen Clements’ shows like Copper Thunderbird at the NAC and The Edward Curtis Project, a co-production with the NAC at The Great Canadian Theatre Company, know there’s an element of magic realism in her work.  Keiley says this season’s show is “one of the strongest, if not the strongest, she’s ever done.”

Following hard on the heels of Clements’ play is Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story by Ottawa native Hannah Moscovitch. It opens Oct. 16. The show was a highlight of the 2017 Canada Scene festival in Ottawa and has since toured widely. Starring barrel-voiced folk musician Ben Caplan, it mixes klezmer music and theatre in the real life-inspired tale of two Jewish Romanian refugees who immigrated to Canada in 1908. 

When it played Canada Scene, it was on the NAC’s smaller Azrieli stage. In programming it on the main stage, Keiley says, “I just thought, ‘What would happen if we just burst that thing open?’”

Unlike past ET seasons, there’s no family show in December. In fact, there isn’t any show in December.

NAC English Theatre’s Artistic Director Jillian Keiley will direct The Neverending Story in January 2020. Photo: David Cooper

“Do you have an hour?” responds Keiley when asked about the hole in the schedule. “First we had one and then we didn’t.” She blames a blend of budgetary and scheduling difficulties, including the fact that ET has to share space with the other NAC entities.

There may be no family show in December, but there is one starting Jan. 29. That’s when Keiley directs The Neverending Story in association with the Stratford Festival. Based on German writer Michael Ende’s fantasy novel of the same name (it’s also been made into a film series), the coming-of-age story tracks 10-year-old Bastian who takes on the hero’s task of saving a magical land from a grim fate.

The imagination-provoking production will use puppets, technology and have “a beautiful extraterrestrial feel,” says Keiley. “I love it when an audience has to lean forward and put their imaginations into something … especially kids.”

A thriller arrives March 25 with Copenhagen. Considered by some as a modern classic, Michael Frayn’s play explores a meeting in 1941 between erstwhile friends and Nobel laureates Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. The two now find themselves on opposite sides in a terrible war that culminated in the dropping of atomic bombs, in which Bohr was involved.

The main stage season wraps up by reaching back, albeit through a contemporary, feminist lens, to the mid-17th century for a retelling of an epic John Milton poem. Playwright Erin Shields’ Paradise Lost (April 22-May 3) sounds like a humdinger, what with Satan and her dark army, already expelled from Heaven, now royally annoyed at God for having created humans.

“All the characters are brought right down to basics, to everybody you know in your neighbourhood,” says Keiley. Those folks include Adam and Eve. “It’s funny and kind of sad, too – the loss of innocence.”

The three-show series in the Azrieli Studio is back next season.

It opens Nov. 12 with trace, written and performed by Jeff Ho, whom we just saw at the NAC as a deeply vulnerable Ophelia in Ravi Jain’s gender-bending Prince Hamlet. In his solo show, Ho follows a line of hardship and hope from China to Toronto by playing three generations of women in a single family.

“One of his big gifts is that he’s a pianist and a fine one,” says Keiley. “In this show, all the male characters speak through playing classical music.”

Take d Milk, Nah? is written and performed by Indo-Caribbean-Hindu-Canadian Jivesh Parasram

Another solo show opens the second half of the season in the Azrieli Studio starting Jan. 14. Take d Milk, Nah?, written and performed by Indo-Caribbean-Hindu-Canadian Jivesh Parasram tackles, with humour, the construction of cultural identity and the search for one’s place in the world.

That’s followed in turn by a theatrical social experiment. The Assembly – Montreal (Feb. 25-March 7) is a verbatim piece in which four strangers with opposing political, social, cultural and religious views sit down over wine and cheese to try to hash out their differences. Suitable to our times, the play by Alex Ivanovici, Annabel Soutar and Brett Watson is a highly polarizing conversation, says Keiley.

Directed by Chris Abraham, who turned his hand to the hilarious The Wedding Party at the NAC a couple of months ago, the play caused Keiley to question some of her own assumptions. “I always think people who go to theatre are left of centre, that conservatives don’t go to theatre. But they do. I just thought Ottawa is such a hotbed of people who care about politics and policy, left-wing, right-wing – what a wonderful way to have that discussion.”

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

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.