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Nirbhaya and Nightwood – Part Two: In Conversation with Kelly Thorton, Artistic Director of Nightwood Theatre

Interview by Bailey Green 

On a rainy morning in the Distillery District, I sat with down with Nightwood Theatres Artistic Director Kelly Thornton to discuss women in theatre, Nightwoods current season and Nirbhaya. 

In 2014, writer/director Yaël Farber and producer Margaret Moll reached out to Kelly Thornton with the intent of bringing Nirbhaya on a Canadian tour. “I’d known Yaël was working on a piece in India,” remembers Thornton. “And when we looked at the materials and subject matter [of Nirbhaya], for Nightwood, it’s a no brainer. This show had to come to Toronto and Nightwood is the perfect company to bring it here. We’re a politically-based company, that believes in changing the world through art and tackling the urgent issues around people’s lives.” 

Kelly Thornton met Yaël Farber in 2009 when Thornton was running the Four by Four Festival, a festival that focused on female directors, in Montreal. At the recommendation of South African director Lara Foot Newton, Thornton brought Yaël Farber in to teach a master class. They ended up running the directing program at The National Theatre School together. Thornton and Farber’s paths diverged as they went on to work on many different projects, but they remained on each other’s radar.


Nirbhaya – The Company. Photo by Sinbad Phgura.

Thornton describes Farber’s theatre as “sacred and ritualistic”. She describes that when Farber directed Miller’s The Crucible at the Old Vic in London, she asked her cast to consider giving something up and to explore the repression of their desires like the Puritans they were portraying.

Farber’s theatre seeks to ground itself in the immediate world we live in. Nirbhaya could not be a more poignant reflection of that principle. When asked about the subject matter of the show, Thornton replies:

“Violence against women has been an issue… well, basically since the beginning of time. It’s tough subject matter but we need to have this conversation. Theatre can give us catharsis and a call to move forward. And with Kathleen Wynne’s action plan to end violence coming into effect and the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25th, Nirbhaya is a cultural centre piece on this subject matter. Its impact as it travels around the world is amazing. It’s truly a transformational piece.”


(L to R) Poorna Jagannathan and Priyanka Bose in a scene from Nirbhaya.

When Thornton was asked about her focus in programming the current Nightwood season, and whether she found that any common elements appeared, she said “this season feels, for me, as if it is tackling the urgent issues of our time. It’s a highly political season.” Obeah Opera spoke about the Salem witch trials, but from the perspective of the African/Caribbean slave, and gave voice to those whose history had been silenced. Unholy tackled misogyny in religion in the form of a public debate about whether or not women should abandon religion altogether. Nirbhaya seeks to dismantle the oppressive silence surrounding the victims and survivors of sexual assault. The Public Servant deals with how public service was gutted under our former government, and how red tape can stifle the best of intentions. Refuge, written by one of Nightwood’s founders Mary Vingoe, is particularly relevant with the global refugee crisis.

When asked about what action theatre companies should take to be more inclusive of female and female-identified creators, Thornton discusses her extensive history of working with female practitioners, academics, as well as PACT, Playwrights Guild of Canada and more recently, Equity in Theatre. Thornton credits their hard work but acknowledges that we still have a long way to go:

“If you have a predominant Canadian theatre of male artistic directors, unconsciously their programming choices are affected by their gender; so I think two things have to happen. I think male AD’s have to understand that they have a responsibility—as Justin Trudeau just pointed out to the world—to stay awake to the other half of the population.               But also to get more female artistic directors into Canadian theatre. And that’s what the Canadian Women’s Directors Catalogue is about. The least women are in the regional houses, the most are in the independent scene, and so getting them in as directors in the regional houses is very important. Otherwise when the time comes to replace that regional AD, as a woman, if you’ve never directed on a regional stage you will never be consider eligible to be artistic director of that company.”

When asked what advice Thornton would give to young women beginning their careers in theatre, and she replied, “Be bold and unapologetic with your own power. Stand up and have your voice heard. Risk. Ask for what you want.”

Rapid Fire Questions with Kelly Thorton:

Currently Reading: The Element by Ken Robinson

Last Play You Saw: Unholy

TV Show You’re Addicted To: I don’t watch much TV anymore, but I guess the last show would have been Breaking Bad.

Favourite Coffee Shop: Furbo

Song Stuck in Your Head: “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from Guys and Dolls (we were auditioning for the Lawyer Show this week.)


Written and directed by Yael Farber,
Presented by Nightwood Theatre in association with Amnesty International present an Assembly, Riverside Studios and Poorna Jagannathan Production.

Nirbhaya was inspired by true events that occurred in December of 2012 in India, when a woman boarded a bus heading homeThe piece is a tapestry of personal testimonies, which tears away the shame that silences survivors of sexual violence.

When: November 18-29

Where: Harbourfront Centre Theatre

Tickets: $20-45. Purchase here.

For more info, visit Nightwood Theatre’s website.



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