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Jillian Keiley has slowly decentralized much of the English Theatre’s activity.John Arano/Handout

Can you grow as an artistic director by giving away more and more of your power and resources to others?

When Jillian Keiley unveiled her first season at the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre department eight years ago, she presented a vision that centred around a selection of plays and musicals performed by an ensemble of actors based in Ottawa.

But in the years since, Keiley has ditched that ensemble – and slowly decentralized much of the English Theatre’s activity; she’s shared power and resources both within the NAC (most notably with the Indigenous Theatre department) and without (through a national development program called The Collaborations).

Now, this month, she’s most radically relinquished her power over the English Theatre by announcing the annual appointment of a “co-curation company in residence” for the rest of her tenure.

Black Theatre Workshop (BTW), the Montreal theatre company run by artistic director Quincy Armorer, will be the first to occupy that position – and will have complete agency over half of what the English Theatre programs in the 2021-22 season.

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Actors Lucinda Davis, centre, and Quincy Armorer during a performance of 'The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God.'Andree Lanthier/The Canadian Press

Theatre groups being in residence at other companies is nothing new – but it’s very unusual, probably unprecedented, for an artistic director to hand over this level of control. “It is a kind of extreme thing to do,” Keiley admits.

We live, however, at a time where institutions are being challenged to “build back better.” A long pandemic intermission has given shuttered theatre companies the time to think about how to respond to recently renewed calls to tackle systemic racism.

The new co-curation initiative came out of Keiley’s discussions since the summer with inclusion innovator Ravi Jain and his team at Why Not Theatre, and later conversations with advisers Audrey Dwyer, associate artistic director at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, and Mike Payette, artistic director of Montreal’s Geordie Productions.

The experiment is no doubt a huge opportunity for BTW – which has had a hand in a couple of popular productions presented by the English Theatre during Keiley’s tenure. It is Canada’s oldest Black-mandated company and is celebrating a half-century in existence this year, but operates on an annual budget of just $525,000 – and has only recently been able to start presenting two mainstage productions, instead of just one a year.

“Over 50 years, we’ve done quite a bit for Black artists and Black art, but we can only do so much with the resources we have at our disposal,” says Armorer. “What’s exciting for me is the chance to take what we do in Montreal and blow it up, expand it from coast to coast to coast.”

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'What’s exciting for me is the chance to take what we do in Montreal and blow it up, expand it from coast to coast to coast,' says Armorer.Handout

Exactly what extra programming resources BTW will have access to in co-curating the English Theatre is still unclear, however. The NAC department run by Keiley is currently operating on a reduced pandemic budget of about $1.6-million, compared to about $4-million four years ago – and is likely to stay in that ballpark in 2021-22.

“I would wish for nothing more in the world than for us to [have been] doing this last year – or three years ago, actually,” Keiley says.

So, why didn’t the NAC English Theatre make this move previously? And why do it now?

Keiley, a Siminovitch Prize winner from her pre-NAC days, has always been committed to diversity as an artistic director – but exactly what that has meant for her has evolved over the past decade.

At first, it meant she supported colour-blind casting, and later “colour-rich” casting – artistic approaches that, while resulting in a greater range of diverse actors onstage, are still most often put in the service of “white stories,” Keiley says.

Next, Keiley began aiming for half of her season to be programmed with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) stories – a goal realized in recent years.

The next area in which to advance inclusion at the English Theatre, which Keiley sees as a logical progression in her approach, is to let BIPOC theatre artists have direct agency in the programming of stories at the English Theatre, too.

“The big thing we had to address in Canadian theatre – and North American theatre, really – was anti-Black racism,” says Keiley, who notes that the NAC, in its 50-year history, has never had a Black artistic director in any of its departments. “I’m very focused right now on having Black companies there in order to correct historical inequity.”

The co-curation idea makes a lot of sense in the overall artistic trajectory of Keiley’s transformative time as artistic director – which she hints will come to an end when her current contract wraps up in 2022. “This is as much as I can do in terms of diversity – to actually diversify the eyes through which the art is seen,” she says.

It will be up to future artistic directors of the NAC English Theatre to decide whether to continue on with the co-curation company in residence after that.

Should they? While the NAC’s Indigenous Theatre has a strong sense of purpose, and the French Theatre is confident in its own, what the English Theatre needs to find next is a leader who can clearly articulate the purpose of a “national” theatre that serves Canada’s “English” majority in this day and age. (That leader will probably have to be BIPOC to have the courage to do so.)

And, to my mind, that artistic director should tackle the biggest area of inequity at the NAC: the audience. If this theatre company funded directly by Parliament is supposed to hold significance for all English-speaking Canadians, how can its work reach more of them – and a greater diversity of those Canadians?

The biggest structural problem at the NAC is its actual physical structure. Successive federal governments have given the organization $225-million over the past six years to renovate a building that almost exclusively serves Ottawa-area audiences (and currently serves no audience at all), while keeping the annual parliamentary appropriation that funds the NAC’s actual artistic work in all disciplines (including dance and the orchestra) frozen at $35-million, where it has been for 16 years now.

The NAC’s three theatre departments should be touring constantly – and anything staged in Ottawa should be livestreamed. Ticket prices should come way, way down.

The question of what’s on stage in any of the NAC’s departments, or who curates that work, will only really be of concern to a select few until these issues are finally tackled.

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