The show must go on, even for an audience of six

Jillian Keiley in Newfoundland

Jillian Keiley, Artistic Director of NAC English Theatre, and the cast and crew of Copenhagen were in their final days and nights of tech week. It’s an intense period when a production shifts from the rehearsal hall to the theatre. Sixteen hour days are the norm. So is adrenaline, excitement, stress. The show was set to open on March 25. It was cancelled March 13.

“The NAC had been having Senior Management meetings every day, and I was thinking ‘This doesn’t look good,’" Jillian said. “And then one day our show was cancelled, the next day our season was in jeopardy, and on the third day the NAC closed.”

Written by the British playwright Michael Frayn, Copenhagen opened at the National Theatre in London in 1998, moved to Broadway in 2000, and has received wide critical acclaim. In 2003, NAC English Theatre and Neptune Theatre in Halifax co-produced the Canadian premiere, and the hit production went on to run in Toronto through Mirvish productions the following year. The play re-imagines the wartime meeting between the Nobel laureates Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr as they discuss the atomic bomb, and explores physics, metaphysics and human motivation.  

“It’s such a tricky show because of the physics aspect of it. I’ve seen many productions of it and not all of them work. But ours was working. The costumes, the design, I had cast it really well. And I had worked really hard to read and understand the metaphor of the physics. But I have to be philosophical about it. Every time you do a show you learn so much, and I’m so glad to have spent hours and hours and months and months to have learned about how that world works.”

When she broke the news to the cast and crew, she said they could go, or stay and run the show once. Everyone stayed. Six people were in the audience – some English Theatre colleagues, a physics consultant, and a friend of the apprentice stage manager.

“Theatre is a ritual, and you can’t open the ritual without closing it. Otherwise you feel sick. You can’t just leave it at loose ends. Even just for six people it was worth it. It was a very moving, emotional thing.”

Despite its premature end in March, Jillian says the production may be remounted. With its themes of trust, betrayal, and the ways we can hurt each other, she finds it “massively relevant” to life today. Still, the pandemic has made her think differently about programming.

“We can’t just pick up where we left off. We’re really deeply thinking about ‘what can we do to help the healing? What do we think people need right now?’ We’re having conversations now that we weren’t having a couple of months ago. So we have to rebuild from scratch.”

After the NAC closed, Jillian moved home to Newfoundland with her husband Don and their daughter Josephine. Days are busy with work and homeschooling. They have suppers with friends via Zoom. And on weekends, she hikes with her sisters, keeping six feet apart, on trails still spotted with snowbanks.

“The ocean always puts things in perspective – all the noise, the information you need but cannot process. Going to the ocean and just breathing it in, it washes your brain.”