Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Member Profile: Meet John P. Kelly

By Rachel Stableford, Development Coordinator

John P. Kelly
When one thinks these days of John P. Kelly, one might think, “master of comedy,” a soubriquet attached to him for some years now in Ottawa where he has specialized in this genre of theatre. But John is quick to point out that his experience over several decades of directing has covered a range of theatre genres—and beyond.  Born in Ireland, for several years he was Head of Radio Drama output with RTE, the Irish equivalent of Canada’s CBC.  Having trained as a theatre director with Ireland’s famous National Theatre, the Abbey, he joined the broadcaster “to make some real money.”

When asked why he feels Ireland is famous worldwide for its theatre creation he says “the Irish are storytellers, with a history of the Bard held at the highest levels of society. It is deep within us to be storytellers.” But not this Irishman, he laughingly says, “I couldn’t write, apparently I was not much of an actor, so I demoted myself to being a director.”

John moved to Canada in 2004 from Ireland expecting to be in demand as a director here, but he got quite a surprise. “I was quite big-headed when I came here,” he says. “I’d been directing all my life, but nobody had a job for me. Everyone was friendly and polite but I was pushed from Artistic Director to Artistic Director.” Eighteen months later, he took the lead from the story of the Little Red Hen: “I’ll do it myself, said the Little Red Hen!” He hired a night club in Ottawa that was empty until the crowds would arrive around 10:00pm, and he produced a play beginning each evening at 7.30pm. And thus SevenThirty Productions was born!

Over the last 11 years, he has directed about thirty-five shows in Ottawa, over twenty of those produced by SevenThirty Productions.  He has on three separate occasions been named top director by the Ottawa Critics and last year his production of David Mamet’s November garnered the top overall production award. Known for his willingness to take risks and challenges with few resources (as with his Noises Off and The 39 Steps), his next production, The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckbourn, may stretch even him. Here he will direct three plays in one, all three being performed in rep.  Again he laughs, “Some say I am quite mad! Some may be right!”

John P. Kelly adjudicating at Theatre
Ontario Festival 2013 in Kingston
In addition to directing, Kelly has also worked as an adjudicator and workshop leader, twice officiating at Theatre Ontario. He began adjudicating over thirty years ago and has worked in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and—of course—Canada.  (With a smile, he says “I must have offended someone in England!”)  When asked if he enjoys the adjudication process, he says, “After all this time, I am still not quite sure. Yes, of course I love to be of help to people serious about their art but I have never been convinced that trophies and plaques have any real place. Yes, we all like to win…I was a community artist one time myself and I adored winning! But I do not fool myself that winning made me any better at theatre. The crucial thing to remember is that there is actually NO best production. There is just one person’s honest and educated view on what was the best theatrical experience for him/her. And many experienced adjudicators will admit that they might have had a very different view if they had seen the same show on a different night. For would it have been the ‘same show’?  It is easy to lose a festival, and feel you had the best show but the adjudicator did not know what he/she was talking about. It is hard to win a festival and feel the same thing: there is a large difference between taking our art seriously and taking ourselves too seriously.”

Clearly, John P. Kelly is a natural teacher. He has led workshops all over Ontario, including at Theatre Ontario. “Those courses may be fun, but they are full of hard work for all concerned.” Even though everyone attends to hear Kelly share his knowledge, he has learned over the years that “the best workshop is the one which changes direction in the middle from where the tutor intended to take it … I have had sessions which have gone nowhere because I took too much risk and allowed too much freedom. It is a learning process all the time. And it is an exciting process. What a wonderful experience a good workshop can be!”

When asked if would see himself leaving Canada, he says, “I have been told several times that the great thing about Canada is that it is not finished yet. There is still space for people to keep on building. I wish I could contribute here for another hundred years – except each Winter!”

That’s good news for the theatre community particularly in Ontario. We’re not finished with John P. Kelly either.


  1. So that's where you got to! Remember the Alternative Dublin Marathon? Colm O Dulachain. colm.odulachain@rte.ie

  2. So that's where you got to! Remember the Alternative Dublin Marathon? Colm O Dulachain. colm.odulachain@rte.ie