Jackie Maxwell can keep a secret.
About a month ago, the powers that be reached out to advise the former artistic director of the Shaw Festival that she had been nominated for the Order of Canada.
Considered the country’s highest civilian honour, it is bestowed by the Governor General and secrecy rules the entire process.
“Really surprised” and moved by the honour, Maxwell gave them the pertinent biographical information that was sought, but was then sworn to silence. Not a word.
Well, she did tell her two adult children, Deragh and Lou, who spent much of their early lives growing up in Niagara-on-the-Lake when mom was head of the Shaw from 2002 through 2016. But mum was the word.
The Irish-born Maxwell has earned many honours over her career, including the Order of Ontario and a Dora Award for directing, but admits the Order of Canada is special.
“I think what is so certainly moving about this award is it’s dealing with your whole career,” Maxwell said in an interview.
“It’s kind of putting a narrative to it, which I had never (done). You don’t normally sit down yourself and kind of go, ‘Oh, I think I’ll work out a sort of narrative to my career and see what it all means.’ You just don’t do that.”
“So the fact that somebody else did, that a group of people deemed it worthy of honouring, means a lot.”
The Order aims to honour outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.
Maxwell fits the bill. She is renowned from her years at the Shaw and elsewhere in Canadian theatre for championing the work of women playwrights and directors.
“One of the things that I’ve always believed is that you have to kind of pay it forward,” she said.
“I always believed and I know that this continues at the Shaw, for me it was very important to get more young women into place, in terms of directing, and in terms of plays by women.”
Together with her associate director, Eda Holmes, “We kind of built stuff together” at the Shaw.
And now when she looks around she sees a lot of those women whom she supported are running organizations or are a major part of the arts scene in cities right across the country.
“You never do any of this stuff expecting anybody to really notice it. You just want to do it. You do things that you believe in and that seem to make sense,” she said.
“So it’s very gratifying, to say, ‘Yeah, people noticed that.’ And it’s perhaps, hopefully, made a difference.”
She also found it “very moving” that the award isn’t for one thing, but rather “for what I had believed in and worked on for a lot of years in the theatre and continue to do so.”
News of the latest appointments to the Order came out on Sunday, Dec. 29, with a formal announcement from the office of the Gov. Gen. Mary Simon.
Maxwell didn’t see the news of it at first, but quickly became aware that it was out.
“I just started getting emails and texts from people going, ‘Oh my God, what wonderful news, how deserved.’ “
“I was getting reactions from people right on very early in the morning of the day and it basically kind of carried through the weekend,” she said.
“It’s a lovely way to start off the new year. It really is.”
Toronto is now home and while Maxwell is no longer formally associated with the Shaw, she does return to Niagara-on-the-Lake regularly and saw most of the productions last year.
Plus her successor, Tim Carroll, is bringing her back to town this season for “The Playboy of the Western World,” J.M. Synge’s classic comedy of rural life in Ireland.
It is onstage May 25 to Oct. 7, with Maxwell at the helm. And, fittingly, it will be presented at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre.