Jillian Keiley, artistic director of the National Arts Centre's English Theatre, made her name as a theatre director helping to midwife brand-new plays into the world with her Newfoundland-based company, Artistic Fraud.
It was a surprise then that, as Keiley revealed her first season of programming at the NAC on Tuesday, nary a world premiere was on the bill. A welcome surprise, however. No new plays is good news for Canadian playwrights, who have long struggled to get second productions in a funding environment that encourages the development of new plays, but then abandons them at birth.
"There's such an emphasis on new Canadian work [at other theatres]," says Keiley, who has herself seen an excellent script or two born astride a grave. "I want this place to be a place where the productions come to."
Keiley's inaugural 2013-14 season will see several recent success stories unpack on the NAC's main stage.
Kim's Convenience, Ins Choi's comedy about a Korean-Canadian convenience store, will show up in its hit Soulpepper Theatre Company production. Annabel Soutar's Seeds, a sharp piece of documentary theatre about a Saskatchewan battle over genetically modified food, will also arrive in Ottawa in its original Toronto/Montreal co-production starring Eric Peterson, while Keiley's old company, Artistic Fraud, will wash ashore with Robert Chafe's poignant play, Oil and Water.
Likewise, the NAC's Studio Series will feature two one-man tours de force that have been seen elsewhere: Cliff Cardinal's Huff, a SummerWorks festival alum billed as "a journey into a First Nation heart of darkness in a land called Ontario," and Hamlet (solo), in which actor Raoul Bhaneja takes on all 17 roles in Shakespeare's famous revenge tragedy.
But even as Keiley transforms the NAC into a showcase for the country's top theatrical work, she has not abandoned the institution's commitment to new play development. Now, however, the federally funded centre will largely invest in premieres at other theatres across the country – offering up dramaturgical support, workshops or, in some cases, cash.
Next season, the NAC will have its fingers in about a dozen shows, including an adaptation of Yann Martel's novel Beatrice and Virgil at Toronto's Factory Theatre.
The best may then turn up in Ottawa in a future season. "It's like investment banking – you invest in things that you think will grow," Keiley explains.
Keiley's first season will also include several original productions – all of which will star the theatre company's new "ensemble," a reconfigured version of the company of actors set up and championed by the last artistic director, Peter Hinton. The ensemble will star in Andy Jones's adaptation of Molière's Tartuffe, set in 1937 Newfoundland; Lucy Prebble's Faustian exposé of corporate greed, ENRON; and, in a twist on the holiday musicals that have proved to be a cash cow for the NAC in recent seasons, a sing-a-long production of The Sound of Music.
Keiley – a down-to-earth contrast to her high-falutin' predecessor – likened that final innovation to kitchen parties, where the guitars come out and all the guests sing. "We're at a point historically where we can acknowledge that we know this," she says of The Sound of Music. "The words to 'Do a deer' [Do-Re-Mi], that's something we have in common [as Canadians]. Let's talk about what we have in common."