Address to convocation
Dr. Jillian Keiley
You Shall All Be Judged.
I’m just joshing ya. I mean, yes, you will, but that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about today. I don’t mean you shall be judged religiously, though you might; I mean who am I to say? I don’t want to say you won’t. I mean I certainly don’t want to exclude anybody. Yes, you MAY be judged in that final time when potentially all things are, you know, judged.
I mean judged like judged for whether you give up your seat on the bus, or judged for if you gave the needle without too big of a pinch or whether you handled this person the right way or showed that person the right exercise, or played a good game of tennis, or shot a good set of pool or wore the right thing or the ate wrong thing. It happens, right? We can’t even help it from happening. Even our friends judge us; our families too. My father never ever spoke without great reason, and when he did speak he did it with great gentleness. But if you ever did anything wrong, the efficiency of his eyes could cast you among the living or the dead in a quarter inch of a turned gaze. We are aware of the subtleties of judgement, and the power of it. As a professional theatre person my work is publicly judged, in print and with wide distribution, several times a year. Critics come and spend an hour and a half in the theatre and then decide if the last three months of my life were worth four stars or two and a half stars or one lonely star. It’s just like the gold stickers you get in Kindergarten, except the teacher can not only withhold your stars but, also, in their fierce remonstration, tear off any residue you might have left over from previous stars, “supers,” “wows” and happy faces.
I can’t come down too hard on critics all the same. I was a fierce reviewer myself in high school, selflessly handing out my opinion on high art like the dramaturgical mishaps in The Karate Kid and the doomed aesthetic of Wham. I also extended my critique to the more pedestrian arts: Katie Walsh’s belt, Rhonda Dawes’ hair styled over one eye and my brother’s choice of prom date. This capacity to analyze, assess and opine, I thought, would serve me. You’d think a sharp eye for criticism would help a burgeoning young theatre director. In fact, it didn’t. Every criticism I gave incapacitated me. Suddenly I spent a lot of time thinking about my own belt. How could I prevent such criticism coming my way about my haircut? My prom date? My dramaturgical mishaps? My doomed aesthetic?
My first encounter with Memorial University was a French class. It was in the days of do-two-languages-and-a-history and you were allowed to skip first year math. First year math, you see, would have done me in, because in high school I judged myself unfit for math, sealed it by saying “I’m not good at math,” then became just that: Remedial. The same thing happened for me in first year with French class. I was pretty good at French in high school. But when I took my first university French class I heard some people who had gone to immersion or something and decided that this meant that I couldn’t be good at it. In fact, I was just going to spend some of my student loan in the pursuit of the absolute mockery of it. Je peux parler uh la lar lar lar, and with this skill I brilliantly cut myself off at the knees in that subject too.
My second encounter with Memorial University was in the Thomson Student Centre, now paved over where archaeologists will find the proof under the INCO building. It was in the days when you could smoke indoors and the centre itself was Dijon yellow - the whole place looked and smelled like the butt of a Rothmans. I was skipping the French class I used to be good at and playing cards at one of the big round tables. I was just about to lay the ace of hearts on my partners five when I was spared by spotting, through the haze, the most beautiful man I had ever seen: a full six-foot-six feet tall, long curly black hair, a stack of records under his arm, descended like a God from CHMR. Suddenly I rose, backing up quickly across the room. He must see me, I thought, he must notice me. My card partners yelled “Jill, come back! Don’t go!” as though I had scripted it for them. Yes my pretties. Yell for me. They cried out - I strode ferociously backwards. He must see me he must notice me. “I have to go to French class,” I implored. Surely he would see me, surely he would be impressed as only the sharpest and most confident of persons went to French class. I spun around, glamorous, long and cool and slammed headlong into a Pepsi machine. Now back in the 80s Pepsi Machines didn’t have the soft curved edges that Pepsi machines have now. They were rectangular and hard. I hurt my nose here and my tooth here and knocked the wind out of myself. I figured it was God who threw the Pepsi machine at me, judging me too faulty, too awkward, too poorly put together to get that guy.
My third life-changing encounter with Memorial University was in the Summer Shakespeare, hosted by the English department’s Dr. Gordon Jones. Dr Jones cast me as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Helena is whom Shakespeare penned as the “painted maypole”. In 1988 I was a full six feet tall and just a little under 90 pounds, still sporting a telltale bruise from the episode with the Pepsi machine. In me Dr. Jones found his painted maypole. It was a brilliant, eye opening, summer. I fell in love with Shakespeare and the stage but, I realized, not particularly being on the stage. I feared it - the exposure of it, the judgement of it. But I had learned something in my mockery of French and my dismissal of math. I kept my mouth shut, and I said “Dr. Gordon Jones, I’d like to direct like you do.” “I can do that,” I said. And without any proclaimed notion that I couldn’t, Dr. Jones decided that yes, he would trust his actors with me. I was Dr. Jones’ assistant director for five years after that. Now, I’ve been an assistant director to a lot of good directors over the years, but none who have been a true mentor to me as Dr. Jones was. He let me practice, figure it out and do it. And when you are forced to do it - not just critique how others are doing it - you are forced to wrangle with what others could see as failures in your methods, failures in your education and failures in yourself. However, when the job is that big, and you are entrusted with it, there is no time to judge yourself or to consider that others are judging you. I flew into it with a whole heart. I was going to commit my life to this and become a real honest-to-God theatre director. I finally had the courage to do it, and I credit Dr. Jones for giving me that courage. Anyway, it turns out that Dr. Jones’ other job is as a theatre critic for the local newspaper. Star giver. Star taker-away.
It takes a lot of courage to do stuff. To do anything. Not just public art things; but work things, statements, essays, proposals, shirk grants, initiatives, physical actions that comprise of things you had to learn or intuit before you were good at them. You can be vulnerable in front of an audience of 1100 or in front of a single client or teacher. It all takes courage. And each time we risk that judgement and submit. In the years that I’ve been producing in this city, and wherever my job has taken me, I’ve always read with great care Dr. Jones’ public critiques of my work. A few years in, he was good enough and respectful enough to give me a TERRIBLE review; eviscerating me on the day, yes, but contextualizing every other review he’d written, legitimizing the good ones, making me understand that I can’t always be the best and when I am he’ll be sure to let me know. The uneasy agreement between critics and artists has been ever thus: we produce, they critique and this tense relationship, through time, will preserve only the best pieces to stand the tides of history. In this way, together, we serve the art itself. All good, as long as it doesn’t stop the art from happening.
Many years later, this year in fact, I decided to test a theory. For my birthday in August, some friends and family all pitched in and bought me a button accordion, something I’ve always loved the sound of but never thought to play. It was a great surprise and I surprised myself right afterwards by declaring to the room “I am an EXCELLENT accordion player.” I was not an excellent accordion player. I had only once even HELD an accordion. But I decided even if I needed to tell people later, as though I were not in the room to hear myself, that in fact I’m actually a completely made-up fraud of an accordion player, I would continue to announce that I was a brilliant accordion player and continue to break it out at parties and continue to say how good I was at this thing and see if I could fool myself into playing it well. Well, it turns out I AM a brilliant accordion player. I’m really really good. It’s the first thing, I think, in my life that I actually took to with any amount of ease because I came at it begging for judgement. How could I declare I was an excellent accordion player? I know excellent accordion players. Won’t they be insulted? Won’t they think I’m a complete loon to keep saying I’m good when these guys are actually good, when they are actually professional accordion players? I held firm. I am a DEADLY accordion player. I am wicked, amazing, brilliant and every superlative I can attach to my brave new arms and fingers. And four months after I opened the gift, I brought it to a Christmas party. And, God help me, my quivering hands tried to betray me. But I said “I’m going to play now, with you guys, because I AM EXCELLENT.” And you know: I played pretty good that night. And I think it was because I decided the only way in the world I’d have enough courage to do it would be to submit for judgement but do it anyway. Mussels in the corner. I’se the b’y. Kelligrews Soiree. A botched then revived Aunt Martha’s Sheep. Well nobody judged me. Or at least no one said anything to my face. And, sure, it turns out after all that my face is the only part that cares.
Now I’m going to debut in a kind of concert setting, playing a dance at my own wedding scheduled for this summer, the day before my birthday, a year from the first day I laid my hands on my new accordion friend. That will take a lot of courage, too, but really not as much courage as this event took - but you don’t go turning down honorary doctorates. Not from an institution that gave me so much. I love this university and I’ve always been proud to be involved with it in the many different ways I have been. Through my associations here, my education has grown and blossomed in ways that you can’t get from just simply taking a course. I grew up a lot here, I stopped making fun of French, and gathered some courage to take some classes and now I spend a good chunk of every year in Montreal, trying my best to put it to use. Somewhere along the line I decided against my former judgement and declared God did put me well enough together after all, and the dude I’m marrying in August: six-foot-six Pepsi machine guy. And my gentle father has passed on, so I asked my friend Dr. Gordon Jones to walk me down the aisle. On the day when everyone is going to be looking right square at me, I need my best critic to be by my side.
Whether you work in the arts like me, or if you’ve dedicated your life to the education, health and welfare of others; we will all be judged. We can stay clear of negative judgement with two tactics, one impossible and one tragic: Guarantee perfection or it don’t do anything at all. So we can fear judgement or we can fly in the face of it. I recommend flying in the face of it. Move forward, gather courage and push through. One star is better than no star. Give yourself a break and judge accordingly.