Arts

"Happenings" across Canada document, celebrate, and complicate the strange times in which they've been commissioned. Image: David Lane and Mike Tan Photography/NAC.
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NAC English Theatre’s artistic director shares the triumphs and uncertainties of a socially distant season of new work

One need look only as far as Ottawa’s own National Arts Centre (NAC) to see that art isn’t dying during these disquieting times; in its own, exciting ways, it’s even thriving, shape-shifting to fit the needs of a socially distant world.

NAC English Theatre’s artistic director, Jillian Keiley, has been co-facilitating (and co-curating) that metamorphosis with Vancouver theatre maker Sherry Yoon in an ambitious endeavour titled Grand Acts of Theatre

The two megavoices of Canadian theatre approached 12 of Canada’s most innovative theatre companies to create large-scale, outdoor new works in response to the current times – works designed for both in-person and digital audiences, across terrains, climates, and levels of COVID-lockdowns.

For Keiley, the project has been truly thrilling: “it’s the essence of performance,” she said in an interview. “Part of theatre is its liveness, and we’re always in the midst now of redefining that.” 

And that’s certainly true – “liveness” is experiencing a global identity crisis across disciplines due to the pandemic. Grand Acts of Theatre is a complement to, and in some ways, a pivot away from #CanadaPerforms, the NAC’s parallel platform for entirely digital live-streamed music, theatre, and dance.

In breathing life into Grand Acts of Theatre, Keiley knew she needed to deeply interrogate that notion of liveness. 

“The event nature of theatre has been missing — theatre is an event. It’s a happening.” 

Grand Acts of Theatre has been a way for Keiley, Yoon, and the 12 chosen theatre companies to bring back that sense of happening to socially distant theatre: “it’s the essence of performance.”

In terms of content, the creations bear shockingly little overlap despite responding to a common prompt of “speaking to the times.” Per Keiley, it’s work that responds to these times without being especially similar — without even covering the same topics.

“Only two companies so far have even covered the pandemic,” said Keiley.

Amassing Grand Acts of Theatre has been a notable shift from Keiley’s normal curatorial process: with a laugh, she said “I’m usually curating for two different rooms [theatre spaces at the NAC] based on what’s already happening in the country.”

“NAC English Theatre is usually a showcase theatre —  a national celebration of the best of [existing] Canadian work.” Grand Acts of Theatre reverses that process; rather than constructing a single season of work that’s already been produced elsewhere in Canada, the project enables 12 brand-new creations.

“It’s a scarier process,” said Keiley. “If I already know it’s great, I’m happy to put my name behind it.” 

“But I’m curating companies, now, instead of individual projects – companies that I know are incredible.” 

Grand Acts of Theatre is Keiley’s first significant co-curation, paving the way beautifully for the upcoming, high-profile partnership between NAC English Theatre in Ottawa and Black Theatre Workshop in Montreal.

She’s looking forward to the collaboration — a measure which lets the NAC prove itself “to actually be the company we think and believe we are” in terms of inclusivity and core organizational values — over the course of the 2021-2022 season.

And that’s a season that presumes in-person audiences, or at least some semblance of them. When asked what she’s looking forward to in that enigmatic return to “normalcy,” Keiley said simply: “gathering.”

“Gathering is going to be an asset … togetherness is going to be a commodity.” 

Keiley wondered, as well, the future of movie theatres — spaces so quickly made obsolete by the pandemic and overwhelming availability of streamed films — in the aftermath of a socially distant season.

“It’s a space of gathering. And on our end, I think it’ll be audiences engaging at a deeper level” — audiences relishing in the relief of togetherness after a long, long season apart.

More information about Grand Acts of Theatre can be found here.