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CityMaker Stefan Keyes. Photo credit: Richard Dubois.

CityMakers: news anchor, singer, actor, and volunteer Stefan Keyes

By Nickie Shobeiry on March 29, 2018

Nickie Shobeiry is Apt613’s correspondent at Synapcity, Ottawa non-profit for civic engagement, connecting people across diverse communities to share perspectives and create positive change.


Stefan Keyes is the anchor for CTV News on weekends—but that’s not all he is. As well as acting, singing, and writing, Stefan is an avid volunteer, ambassador for Ottawa Community Housing, and all-round CityMaker. Below, Nickie Shobeiry talks to him about his life and career.

Was performing arts something you were always interested in?

I was always intrigued by the performing arts, theatre and drama in particular. I remember my first school play, I was in Grade 1 and I played the big bad wolf. By the time I got to junior high it was a little more intensive, I started singing more and taking that more seriously. I had a fantastic drama teacher that suggested that Canterbury could be an option, which is the performing art school here in Ottawa.

I grew up in low-income housing with a single mom, so private lessons weren’t on the table for me at the time. She [my teacher] submitted me for an awesome award opportunity through a non-profit organisation called MASC. I ended up winning, and got a scholarship for private lessons. It opened up a huge door.

How old were you?

I was 12. I started my private lessons in musical theatre and Shakespeare at the age of 13, and by the following year I was at Canterbury under some intensive theatre studies with high school. I started acting professionally at the age of 15. I got an agent, and it took off from there.

It’s impressive how committed you were so young! What was your first role like at 15?

My first professional gig was for a corporate video, I don’t remember the company but I had to play “Star Trek Boy.” It was paid work, I thought “Oh I’m a professional, there’s a cheque coming from this!”. It’s very different from theatre – you have to be a lot smaller. You don’t have to emote for the person at the back row of a 500-seat auditorium to feel you. The camera is this close, so everything is very minute. It took a bit of getting used to.

How did you go from there to Carleton for Journalism?

Throughout my time at Canterbury I wanted to be a professional actor, and I had my eye set on a school in New York – the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. It’s a conservatory program, off-broadway. I drove to Toronto and auditioned, got in, but I didn’t realise what tuition was going to be because they don’t tell you until your audition day. It hit me hard – I thought it might be $10,000 US but it’s actually $20,000 a year, for a two-year program. They offered me a scholarship of $5,000 for one of the years, and when I turned them down, they offered me another for $5,000 per year – but I still had to come up with $10,000 US dollars, and they don’t allow you to work. It would have been too complicated, because you’re under their thumb – they plan your days from morning to night, between tap dancing and vocal lessons and theatre and drama coaching. You’re on a student visa so you can’t really work, and you can’t do any acting until you graduate from their program – it’s a huge no-no for them.

I realised I couldn’t really put my family through that burden so I thought: “what else do you have for me, world?!” I spoke to another teacher in Canterbury who was a former journalist, and my English teacher at the time. He told me my writing was strong, and that I should consider journalism. I’ve always told myself that I don’t want to be in a box, so even though I was going to go this route, I maintained my agent, kept acting, and I still act even now.

Yes, I saw – you were on Designated Survivor!

I didn’t even know – the messages were coming through on Twitter! They don’t tell you when your episode will air. I’d filmed that one in November and I just filmed another with them two weeks ago. It’s a cameo appearance, I’m in the briefing room with a bunch of extras and I’m the one with the lines throwing out the question to the character Seth Wright, played by Kal Penn.

You truly aren’t in any one box. Can you tell us more about your musical career?

I consider myself more of an actor at heart because I have the training. As I got more busy building my journalism career, it was easier to satisfy the demands for vocal performance because it’s more of a solo act. Live theatre is a three, four month commitment, but with music, I can rehearse a song on my own time. I do galas, weddings. I’ve done backup for Tramaine Hawkins. She’s a figure in the gospel world, and won a Grammy. She made ‘Oh Happy Day’ famous. I got hired to back her up when she was at Bluesfest and it was an incredible experience – even the rehearsals with her just blew my mind. My vocals have never been stretched that far in my life!

What’s the connection between acting and journalism to you?

As an actor, you really play the role of an individual character. It’s purely subjective. As a journalist, you’re still storytelling, but in a more objective capacity. You have the responsibility of giving an omniscient point of view – the people you talk to are characters, or ‘sources’. We don’t do single-source stories because it limits the point of view; it’s still from that person’s lens.

Was it challenging to adapt to that form of storytelling?

During my studies, yes. There’s a literary foundation in terms of writing articles, so you lose the theatrics of it through the print form. However, TV production, the challenge is to marry words with pictures and sound to bring your narrative to life.

And this all took you to Calgary for a time.

I launched my career with CTV Ottawa at 20, working part-time while a student. I worked 5am to 9am as an editorial assistant. My first newsroom job was the ticker tape – the little headline spreading across the bottom of the screen. Within a year I transferred to evening and weekend reporting. That was still part-time; to build those hours I took on a lot of editorial positions: producing the news, editing, managing the reporters and the cameras.This was all at a fairly young age, but then I got stuck doing that because that’s what the company needed.

And you wanted to be on air?

I felt that there was a lack of diversity on air. Growing up I didn’t see someone like myself reflected in the news – and certainly not delivering the news. There’s a difference between see yourself reflected – but not always in a positive light – and seeing who the storyteller is. That matters to a certain demographic, and we have a responsibility as a federally-regulated body to reflect the demographic of the city. I always push to be on air to have that representation and be that voice. There were no openings at that time for me. It took a few years!

Why?

Once you start in a market such as this, in the nation’s capital, it very much limits where you want to go after because you don’t want to step down. I wasn’t about to go to a smaller market even though sometimes it was recommended to get off the ground. It takes longer when you’re holding out for that right fit for you. It took me a little over seven years before I moved from CTV Ottawa to Calgary. I got hired by Global News to anchor, and it’s a similar market size – their population at the time was 1.4 million. That’s where i got my anchoring chops, fulltime in front of the camera.

What did that feel like?

It was a little intimidating. I got comfortable with the audience in Ottawa – it’s a city I’ve grown up in. Calgary I didn’t know well at all. If you haven’t been there before, you have certain notions in your mind about Western Canada or Alberta, how conservative they can be. You may only know about Calgary Stampede, and you’re thinking “I’m not a cowboy – I’m this inner city kid, I don’t know if I’ll fit in, I don’t know how their viewers will respond to me.” But it was awesome – the viewers were amazing, my colleagues were amazing. It was an eye-opening experience; I learnt about a part of the country I wasn’t familiar with, I became more outdoorsy all of a sudden, taking advantage of the mountains and going to Banff. I consider it home as well.

What brought you back to Ottawa?

I got poached back, I guess! I knew I wanted to be back on this side of the country to keep an eye on my family, as I’m really close to my mom, especially as she was nearing retirement. I thought it might be Toronto, but in this industry, opportunities are so rare; when you’re sought out versus seeking, it’s very difficult to turn it down. I thought I’d be out west for three to five years before I could transition, but it happened in 17 months. I was very flattered: CTV was my first career family and I maintained the connection with them even after my departure. There was no animosity and I always stayed in touch when I came home to visit.

What does your day-to-day look like now?

It’s busy, it’s hectic! I have a standard work schedule, anchoring the 6-11:30 on Saturdays and Sundays. I’m 4 to midnight right now. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I usually work 10:30 to 6:30. I also do a lot of volunteering and sit on a few board of directors, so right now I’m on the board for the Great Canadian Theatre Company. Sometimes I will get off the air, hop in my car to a meeting that’s usually already started, sit around a table and go through those motions, and then try to get to the gym after that because fitness is very important to me. On occasion I have auditions so sometimes I’ll travel through Montreal. On top of work and volunteering, I do a lot of MCing as well. I keep up with friends too – social life, right? But even with the latest episode for Designated Survivor, I got on the air and was at a crime scene reporting, got off the air, handed back the mic to my colleague the camera operator, and then hit the road for Toronto. I was there by 11pm, and then was on set the next morning for 8am. I spent the day in Toronto and then drove back, and was back on the air for CTV the following morning. It’s always a whirlwind like that!

Wow, that is incredibly busy! Why do you volunteer?

The ‘why’ is easier to answer: I’ve been on the receiving end of so many organisations growing up, being from a single-income, single-parent household, growing up in low-income housing. I’ve seen the fruits of other people’s labours and volunteership. Again, even the scholarship came from a non-profit organisation. I didn’t have money to throw back out there but I did have time, and time is valuable. I decided very early on that I didn’t want to be selfish with my time, that I’d try to pay back all of these good and positive things through volunteering.

I decided very early on that I didn’t want to be selfish with my time, that I’d try to pay back all of these good and positive things through volunteering.

What advice do you have for CityMakers?

I think people underrate and undervalue what they can contribute. No task is too small. No person is too little. Some people are more monetary philanthropists, but you don’t have to have a million dollars in the bank in order to make a difference. Maybe you don’t have all the time in the world but it’s about seeking out those opportunities where you can change someone’s day – and sometimes that means changing their lives. Having your worldview changed, taking the blinders off and being open to that. Just be open to those opportunities and generosity and not alway think of it financially. Sometimes all it takes is having a coffee with your friend and being a soundboard for them.

You’ve had a lot of family support; were they in the arts themselves?

Not formally; my mom used to sing when she was in Jamaica. We come from a fairly large family – she’s the youngest of ten girls, and I find my cousins hilarious. I was the youngest grandchild, so they were always older and full of theatrics! They’re comedians in my mind. My godmother was in a singing group called Carribean Voices and I witnessed all of that growing up. Another good family friend Bingie Barker was a recording artist, and prior to my arrival into the world, when Bob Marley came to Ottawa, he interviewed him for a radio show. He was a performer himself, and I grew up watching him playing Tulip Festival and Bluesfest. His wife sang with my godmother in Caribbean Voices. When Celine Dion came to perform in Ottawa, they were part of that mass choir.

That’s amazing!

In hindsight, I had a great deal of exposure to the arts and through elementary school, I discovered that I wrote quite well. What’s interesting for me about language is that Jamaicans speak Patois, and my family speaks Patois, but the dialect is a hybrid of old Queen’s English with West African. For example we use the word ‘pickney’ for kid, and in Ghana they apparently use that too. I’d use the old English vocabulary in school, and all of a sudden teachers would be impressed, because I’m using ancient words – things like ‘quarrel’ instead of ‘argue’, or ‘frock’ for ‘dress’, ‘trousers’ for ‘pants’, or ‘vex’ for ‘angry’. That would creep into my storytelling, this elevated diction that I’d quote from.

Taking a bird’s eye view – what’s been the biggest challenge of your career?

Patience. It’s almost like I was shown what my career was going to be, and I felt my purpose through my career prior to having access to fulfilling it. Patience was the biggest challenge. Even in my early 20s, I was managing a newsroom, managing people twice my age that the time, coordinating their day, giving assignments, helping decide the daily news agenda – that’s a huge role, but it wasn’t what I felt my purpose in journalism was meant to be. I had to wait the full seven years to fulfill my purpose full-time. When you know what it’s meant to be from the get-go, patience is the biggest challenge. Sometimes you want to give up; it was a struggle to find that virtue within myself.

What pushed you to find it?

Maybe a stubborn nature? I’ve also attached myself to the poem Inviticus the last two lines being: ‘I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul’. I wanted to steer my own ship, and I didn’t want the industry to tell me no. You’ve got to hold on to faith and steer your own ship regardless of how long it takes.

You touched on representation in TV. Has that changed since you started in the industry?

I’m a decade in the biz and Toronto has always been a very diverse market – but it’s not Canada’s only diverse city. However, if you look at the media landscape across the country, that’s the impression you’d get. Fortunately, since my start, the landscape has shifted and I’m really happy to see that. There’s much more diversity out west, and increasing diversity in Ottawa. It’s not just about giving representation opportunities to various demographics – there’s a paradigm shift for all of society that comes with that. I like to think that people generally aren’t racist but they have prejudiced notions they hold on to. If you only see certain people represented in a certain light, that becomes your idea about that demographic, especially if you don’t have any of those people in your immediate circle. But in this day and age, with social media and personality-driven news, people feel they know their broadcasters. As soon as they see me, and they trust me and they trust that voice of authority, then all of a sudden you create that paradigm shift that young black males aren’t just ‘this’, they can also be ‘this’. It helps even out what’s out there.

Is that part of what drives you to be on-air?

Yes; on-air satisfies the storytelling factor and my passion as a performer. The writing is the challenge of bringing it all together – the craft of storytelling – that’s the art side of it. But the social side of it is representation. I chose my career to be in a forum of the public eye.