Jillian Keiley: $100,000 worth of ‘startlingly original’ stage talent

Newfoundland director and York theatre alumna Jillian Keiley has received Canada’s richest annual theatre award for her work. She was honoured on Oct. 26 with the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize in Theatre – the most generous arts award in the country.

Right: Jillian Keiley

Keiley’s work with Artistic Fraud, the St. John’s-based theatre group she founded, was described by the jury as “startlingly original and radically imaginative.” In its citation, the five-member panel said she was a “visionary, innovative artist whose experiments with form and content have magical results for audiences and performers alike.

“Simultaneously cerebral and visceral, her productions explore the parameters of theatre art, often with powerful effect,” the citation said.

Keiley, 34, graduated from York in 1994 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre. She credits the education she received at York University and Memorial University for her success. (She was nominated for the Siminovitch Prize by Memorial University Professor Gordon Jones, who she calls “my hero”.)

“He cast me in 1990 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because I was the tallest,” says Keiley, who tops six feet. “The next year, I asked him to let me direct. He said, ‘No, but here are the keys to the room.’ I then spent the rest of my time working with the actors. I am very grateful to him because he gave me so many opportunities.

“I really learned a lot during my time at York. Things that still contribute to what I’m working on today. [The late] Professor Anatol Schlosser really opened my eyes to choral and group work in cultural traditions around the world. He was a pretty amazing fellow. We also had the opportunity through different student-run festivals to self-produce, which is an essential skill to have as a theatre maker,” says Keiley.

“I was fascinated by what I was learning, I loved the precision and its perfection. How do actors know when to catch another actor when that actor falls? I did a piece trying to duplicate the technique and it was terrible. I went to Anatol and asked ‘Why can’t get this right?’ and he told me that it is because the actors are families and they have this connection. ‘You can’t impose that on actors,’ he said, and I looked at him and said ‘Oh yes I can’!”

It was that attitude that Phillip Silver, dean of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, says made it clear from the get-go that Keiley was destined to be a trailblazer in her field. “The theatre program at York really encourages exploration and innovation in all that we teach. We were fortunate to be able to provide Jillian with opportunities to do new and exciting work, and in her acceptance speech, she mentioned her studies at York as a source of inspiration.”

Keiley pursued her understanding of ensemble theatre and worked to develop the sense of family in Artistic Fraud. She has spent the last decade developing Kaleidography – a unique, mathematic and music-based choreography and directing system.

Left: A scene from the 2004 Artistic Fraud production of Tempting Providence, written by Robert Chafe

She describes her work as an extension of a play’s script. “It is really almost impossible to describe the effect of it because it is so precise. A script like Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is linear in that the story is key, the text is beautiful and it is the craft of this line. We write the design into the script and the direction into the show. In the theatre, what you play with is time. Our company builds the shows into units, and we have smaller units inside of them.” The Kaleidography technique, she says, creates a three-dimensional experience by infusing the units with acting, moving and blocking techniques.

Right: Scene from the 2003 Artistic Fraud production of Icycle

Using music, lighting and precision in movement, the end result is unified, sensory and three-dimensional. The constant flow of these unified images creates the illusion that one is looking through a kaleidoscope.

Following her sojourn in Toronto, Keiley will return to St. John’s with her partner, Artistic Fraud productions’ playwright-in-residence, Robert Chafe (who has been nominated for a 2004 Governor General’s Award). She will continue to refine and perfect the performances.

Her violet blue eyes twinkle as she contemplates what she will do with her winnings and she admits she is still recovering from the shock of the good news. She will contribute one quarter of the prize to Danielle Irvine, a fellow Newfoundland artist, who is a playwright. The rest she will use for her own development and for Artistic Fraud productions.

Selected from a shortlist of five Canadian directors chosen from 59 of the country’s top directors, Keiley topped the largest number of nominees ever to be considered for this prize.

Keiley is also the recipient of the Canada Council’s 1997 John Hirsch Prize and was named the 1996 Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council’s Emerging Artist of the Year. Past productions by Artistic Fraud productions include In Your Dreams Freud, Under Wraps: A Spoke Opera, The Cheat, Burial Practices, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Chekhov Variations, Icycle, and Belly Up. Last Year, Keiley directed the Canadian tours of Jack Five Oh for Sheila’s Brush, and Tempting Providence for Theatre Newfoundland Labrador, both of which are playing in destinations around the world this year. Keiley also teaches at Memorial University and The National Theatre School of Canada.