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'Juliet' cofounds Australian Theatre Festival, New York

"some of my favorite

career moments have happened at Scranton Shakes."

Jillian Geurts shares her journey from playing iconic roles at Scranton Shakes (Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure, Forum, Robin Hood, A Tale for Winter) to starting a new, international festival in the heart of New York City.


#ScrantonShakes was pretty famous when I was at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA).  A lot of the folks ahead of me at school were involved and it seemed like a really exciting prospect.  I'd also never been involved in a Summer festival, so I was, just generally, intrigued.

Playing Juliet, directed by Michael Bradshaw Flynn, at Scranton Shakes was my first Shakespeare lead.  She is such a smart, complex and passionate character, that it's impossible not to fall in love with her. I also felt an enormous responsibility as well, to do her justice and to bring her youthfulness to life.  I'm quite a bit older than the character is supposed to be, and although the circumstances are heightened and very adult, what makes her special is that she is falling in love for the first time, and she will do anything to preserve that. 

Jillian Geurts in Romeo and Juliet, Tale For Winter and Measure for Measure

I also got to play an equally brilliant character in Measure for Measure, directed by Maura Malloy. Isabella is a strong, witty and principled woman who is basically being asked to sacrifice herself for her brother. And she won't do it.  She's a feminist in a patriarchal world - and we got to play with the added layer of having an all female-bodied cast.  How do power and morals manifest in that kind of world?  Basically, both characters were an incredible challenge and privilege to play. I've been super lucky to work on Shakespeare, new plays and musicals at Scranton.  It definitely became my creative home for the three years I was there.  

Sarah Keyes and Jillian Geurts in rehearsal for Measure for Measure

I'd be lying if I said it was just the work that kept me coming back to Scranton Shakes. I've met some of my closest friends and future collaborators there, and also got to witness the incredible work of other artists.  To provide free, high quality theatre for a community is an incredible gift.  Scranton Shakes taught me the important lesson that you can literally make great work anywhere. I forget that in the slightly merciless New York theatre scene.  But some of my favourite career moments have happened at Scranton Shakes.  

"To provide free, high quality theatre for a

community is an incredible gift."

This industry can be very ebb and flow, things don't generally happen when you think they should, so I found myself generating work almost immediately after finishing school.  I've produced three shows in New York (two of which were directed by Michael Bradshaw Flynn).  I've also facilitated a number of staged readings, most recently Tipping the Velvet, directed by Billie Aken Tyers, featuring many Scranton Shakes Alum and produced by Michael.  So, the truth is, many of my milestones have involved my Scranton family.  I've been committed to working on queer content over the last few years, so a real highlight for me was working on the EST and MTC workshops of Felicia Anchuli King's wonderful play Golden Shield.  I also get to work pretty regularly in independent film.  It's lovely to use my skills and to tell stories in that medium as well.  

Jillian Geurts, Daniel Holme, Leah Gabriel and Connor Delves pictured here in Holy Day

I met Connor Delves, a wonderful fellow Australian actor and producer, while I was at AADA.  It wasn't until a few years later that we got to work on a show I was producing - Holy Day by Andrew Bovell (co-produced with Daniel Holme and Ania Upstill).  That piece also featured amazing performances from Leah Gabriel (Viola/Twelfth Night '14) and Daniel Holme (Emcee/Cabaret '19).  We put that up at The New Ohio Theatre in the West Village in early 2019 and while it was super challenging, it really reinforced to me the need for international stories in the NYC theatre community (and also the universality of trauma).  Mark Barford, an accomplished Australian director and recent Columbia MFA graduate, was already connected with Connor and we had, as it happens, a lot of mutual friends.  At the end of 2019, I got an invitation to meet with Mark and Connor to discuss the potential for a festival celebrating Australian work in NYC. 

Connor Delves, Jillian Geurts and Mark Barford. Founders of Australian Theatre Festival.

Honestly, by the time I met with Mark and Connor in December 2019, they had done a lot of the initial fleshing out, and it was not a hard decision for me.  The festival would start small and grow from there, focussing on play readings as well as awarding a $5000.00 prize for a new play.  The values of the Festival are simple: to create, cultivate and connect.  It's not hard to put in the hours when you know that your project is worthwhile and that your colleagues are working just as hard.  People were and continue to be really excited about the Festival.  We have already connected with so many amazing artists and theatrical leaders in the planning stages, and it's been overwhelming who has supported us, and who has offered to help.  We have been lucky enough to secure sponsorship from the Australian Consulate, as well as Broadway producer Andrew Martin-Weber.  

"Artists are at the centre of the project, which is something I always felt when I was working with Scranton Shakes."

In some ways the Australian Theatre Festival is not so different to Scranton Shakes.  We have a clear focus / theme and we are aiming to celebrate both new and established plays.  Artists are at the centre of the project, which is something I always felt when I was working with Scranton Shakes.  Ultimately, if you focus on the work, the rest should fall into place (hopes every producer ever!!).   Because of the current pandemic, we have postponed the festival until we're sure that it can be done safely.  The original program included readings of Australian plays (including our New Play Award winner), live music and Australian art.  We feel very strongly about adapting but also want to honour our mission, especially since this was to be our first year.  We hope to have a clearer idea soon about the when and the what, but Mark, Connor and I are comforted by the fact that we are and will work with incredible artists and material when the Festival eventually goes ahead. 

Thank you Scranton Shakes!

I can't wait to see what digital magic you bring to us this Summer.

You can find out more at:   IG: austheatrefest Twitter: @AusTheatreFest Facebook: @AusTheatreFest


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