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Oration honouring Jillian Maureen Keiley

Thursday, May 28, 10 a.m.

It was not in our nature as Newfoundlanders to believe the best of ourselves. We had a wry sense of our status that, honed by years of mockery and derision, not a little sharpened by poverty and deprivation, meant we never got above our station in life. We recognized our place as the last ones into Confederation and the greatest drain on the economies of Ontario and Quebec and, latterly, of Alberta. Of course it was somewhat difficult to know one’s station when they took away the train (1987) or to have any economy when we lost the fish (1992). Nation, station and means of sustentation all gone in four decades. We were never going to get anywhere unless we learned that entry had to be by the back door, the servant’s entrance. Now some of you may remember those signs on the gates of the big houses – “Tradesmen to the rear” – signs we saw, if not as an injunction to proletarian sodomy, at least a recognition of our lesser status. Our key to the back door? Our tongues. Our first player? Well, it is not one you would commonly think of as a wit but he did have a tongue and with his bow ties and goggle glasses certainly could play the clown: Joe Smallwood. At the end of the sixties Joe was supplanted by Ray Guy, that far sharper tongue from what he self-mockingly called a “Far Greater Bay”, to be followed in the seventies by CODCO, in the eighties by Buddy Wasisname, in the nineties by This Hour has 22 Minutes and in the current decade by a galaxy of comedians. For 20 years Canada has been fearful of or delighted to hear the laughter bubbling beneath the door knowing that they were going to “have the face took off them” or be rocked with laughter by the Newfoundlanders. This is a remarkable achievement and were it not for pederastic priests and peculating politicians we could say we were really proud. On the other hand without them what would we have had to make jokes about?
Vice-Chancellor, you may ask what this has to do with Jillian Keiley who is neither an actor nor a comedian? Let me set the connection and the distinction.

Each of her predecessors worked in the tradition of their craft and raised it to new heights. All had a deep-bound tie to Newfoundland and felt an obligation to foster its development. Jillian Keiley moves us forward in a new way because she has this distinction – that she has taken a tradition of direction and stagecraft and revolutionized it. No more back door – she has torn off the front door and taken over the house.

Coming into Memorial she found herself in one of Gordon Jones’ wonderful Shakespeare productions and then, with a kind of witless belief in her own capacities, asked to be allowed to direct. Leaving Memorial, she went to York, got her degree, came back to town, worked at the Hall, started her own theatre company, was given the Arts Council’s Emerging Artist Award in 1996 and then the Canada Council Hirsch Award for Emerging Directors in 1998. Emerging? In temporal biological terms this woman was barely out of the larval stage and just on the verge of pupation but had, since her last year at York, been directing extraordinarily adventuresome pieces. Along the way she developed a staging process which she calls “kaleidography” – a mode of directing involving a scoring of the actors – their very gesture vocal, physical, expressional – with the music and the set of the play. Even if this grows out of the theatrical probings of Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook, it has taken off in its own entirely revolutionary manner, one which breaks with the standard realism of mainstream theatre production. Her productions are, to borrow a phrase from Yeats, himself no mean theatrical experimenter, ones where one cannot “know the dancer from the dance,” where light, set, sound, movement, text and person are but one. In 2004 her work received Canada’s highest recognition in theatre, the Siminovitch Prize, and she was described by the jury as a “visionary, innovative artist whose experiments with form and content have magical results for audiences and performers alike.” No pupa there – a fully emergent butterfly.

Her theatre work has not been limited to innovative direction but also to the generation of local activity with Artistic Fraud (the company she founded) and the Newfoundland Talent Network which keeps artists alert to local work opportunities. She is also the person who inaugurated the 24 Hour Musical which, in the run of one day, admitted all forms of life to produce and perform in a production. But it is when she speaks that one hears another voice, an equally revolutionary voice for this our place. When she speaks of Newfoundland she speaks with a pride in what we have achieved of recent years – that we are the centre of theatrical development in Canada, that we get more Canada Council awards, because of our focus on producing local work. In the cacophony of complaint it is heartening to hear a voice that speaks with such pride of place and with that pride, Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa, Jillian Maureen Keiley.

Shane O’Dea
Public orator