A Practice Is Born

by Liam Zarrillo

The storytelling process has arrived at a fascinating and complex intersection. Historically speaking, stories and stages have seen a devastating lack of representation of folks who come from marginalized or barrier-facing communities. (This has been both in terms of characters in stories, as well as the artists crafting the stories themselves.) It appears that we are now reckoning with this reality and want to do something about it.

But what do we do? Who do we need to see in stories and on stages? Who has the right to include such characters? Surely the answer cannot be: one may only craft characters that resemble one’s exact lived experience. No, it is necessary for us to be writing stories that are reflective of life. Real life. And real life is diverse.

For myself, from this aim towards authenticity and accountability, a new professional and artistic role was borne. It falls under several titles, depending on the project/project’s phase: that of cultural consultant, experiential consultant or cultural dramaturg.   

For over a year, I have been working in this capacity on a play called O Death by Scout Rexe. This play has received support from several different companies across the country, and has been championed for years by Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal.

Picture of Liam Zarrillo, Scout Rex and Susil Sharma

While I had worn the hat of cultural consultant before coming on board O Death, it is through my experience working on this project that I have begun to truly shape and hone my practice.

Given that O Death is a queer wok, it makes perfect sense that our time together has followed a queer process. A “queer process” can be defined in endless ways, as what makes it “queer” is subjectively defined by the participants themselves. As someone who identifies explicitly as a “queer theatre artist”, my definition of a queer process is one that is inclusive of, but extends beyond solely contemplations on gender & sexuality. I consider a queer process to be one that exists without any rigid pre-existing boundaries or structures. One that is constantly interrogating norms and is flexible and open to redefinition and rearticulation. It is reflective of and responsive to the needs of those involved in an ever-evolving way.

Because my experience working on O Death through PWM has been held inside of this queer context, I have had the space to experiment with and perform this new role in a myriad of ways. O Death tells the story of a trans musician (James) and his queer femme sister (Caddy) hit with several significant obstacles as their music careers are about to take off. I was initially brought on to have some chats and dig in on the authenticity of James’ character. Since then, I have had countless thoughtful sessions and conversations with the playwright. I have read several drafts. I have fed back and been heard. I have been encouraged to bring my dramaturgical experience into my role, allowing for dialogue not only about the authenticity of the trans character, but how his experience fits into his narrative journey. This non-exhaustive list just scratches the surface of such a formative process. 

And now, when I sit down with playwrights or artistic directors to discuss a new cultural consultant contract, I am able to articulate how I work, what I can bring to the table, and offer them options about how we might proceed. The number one goal being inviting in, consensual teaching, healthy boundaries and whatever most serves the story and project at the given moment.

This intersection of authenticity meets accountability is complicated, it is nuanced. I do not believe there is one hard and fast, objective answer or solution to the challenge. There is so much to be mindful of when interacting with the lived experiences of others. We need to ensure we are not taking up space that should belong to others. It is not our right to tell the stories of others, when folks can and should be given the opportunity to tell them for themselves.

I do believe it is our responsibility, however, as arts makers to consider this challenge of diversifying stories and stages, and how we might rise to meet it. There might be no “overcome” in a world as entrenched in problematic and oppressive systems as ours… but I do believe that there is “try”. There is “listen”. There is “do better than the last time.”  There is actively working towards the kind of change we want to see. 

Liam Zarrillo is a theatre artist, educator and consultant based on Treaty 1 territory.

They love and live to agitate, investigate, experiment and uncover. They work with many theatres & companies in Winnipeg and beyond as a playwright, actor, director and cultural dramaturg.

Upcoming works for Liam include The Outside Inn (co-written with Sharon Bajer) premiering at Theatre Antigonish this fall and Volare premiering at Prairie Theatre Exchange this coming spring.

They will also be performing in Daniel Thau-Eleff’s Narrow Bridge, premiering at the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre in early 2023.  

Collaboration, Intentionality, and Cultural Dramaturgy

Graphic image of the header for Scout Rexe's blog post. The image has three blue circles with blue and black lines framing a white box with text which reads: “Collaboration, Intentionality and Cultural Dramaturgy" with a small black box underneath which reads: "By Scout Rexe”.

by Scout Rexe

I had the honour of spending last week with dramaturg Fatma Sarah Elkashef (she/her) and cultural dramaturg and performer Liam Zarrillo (they/them) at an invited residency at Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal (PWM) to work on my play with music, O Death.

O Death is a nuanced exploration of trans and queer identities, accountability culture, and the impact of our cultural icons. After being called out by a fan, trans musician James and his queer sister Caddy must reckon with pressure from their family, the media, and the public whilst launching their musical career in the shadow of their rock legend grandfather. Generations collide as James and Caddy discover their grandfather’s corrupted legacy. 

The play is dark and funny. Intimate family conversations are punctuated with a series of surreal mindscapes that offer playful, non-linear access to James’s inner life. I worked on the songs in the show with musicians Susil Sharma (he/him) and Hayden Siemens (they/them) who composed the music, bringing an authenticity that feels essential to the play’s characters.

This project has gone through a rich and deeply collaborative development process. I first met Sarah in 2018 after moving back to Montreal with two small grants from Buddies in Bad Times and Nightwood Theatre to write O Death. I instantly connected with Sarah. We have both been committed to a deep investigation of both the play and our process, and our shared commitment to this has meant we’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how best to create it. 

Early on in the project, I identified the need to work closely with an actor with lived experience to play the role of James–someone who could work with me as a cultural dramaturg, and be properly compensated for that labour, in addition to working as a performer in the development process. When we couldn’t find the right collaborator in Montreal, Sarah and PWM secured additional travel funds for someone who could be brought in from another city in Canada. We couldn’t find the right person, and ended up canceling our workshop at PWM in 2019. 

In 2020, I moved to Manitoba, and Sarah introduced me to Brian Drader (he/him) who is a playwright as well as the Executive Director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights. He read a draft of O Death and connected me with Liam, who is fiercely intelligent, and considerate, and a gifted actor and dramaturg. 

Liam and I started working together right away, with PWM hiring them on as a cultural dramaturg on the project. We worked intentionally to develop a safer space within each other and our work process, and in so doing, started to form a really meaningful friendship. 

Our dramaturgical conversations lead up to a 16 hour workshop with PWM in 2021 with a full cast. Because of the pandemic, we ran the workshop on Zoom, allowing Liam to join from Winnipeg, me to join from Brandon, Kate Hammer (she/they) from Scotland to play queer femme musician Caddy, and Chip Chuipka (he/him), Jane Wheeler (she/her), Julie Tamiko Manning (she/her), and Sarah Elkashef (she/her) from Montreal. That workshop was incredibly generative, and I continue to feel closely connected to this particular group of performers. 

I spent a few months re-writing the script based on the feedback from the workshop before joining Liam, Kate, and Sarah again as a Collective in Residence at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre for 40 hour residency in which we brought in musician Hayden Siemens and focused on the music in the show: the dramaturgy of the music, the creation of new songs, and the creative relationship between the queer sibling characters. As seems to be the case any time I join a group to work on this play, our time was enormously productive; we seemed to do months’ worth of work in just a few days. 

Since that residency, Liam and I have continued to work together dramaturgically with support from the Manitoba Arts Council. We decided to take the week at PWM to focus on James’s trajectory and the ways in which the play can be a healing journey for him: a story of resilience and of coming into oneself.

As a queer artist, I seek to make work that is as complex as the communities with whom it is in dialogue with. Throughout our process, we’ve worked continuously to create more trauma-informed spaces. We structured this residency with check-ins, scene-by-scene read throughs, robust dramaturgical conversations (which inevitably involved cue cards taped to the wall), and check outs. We took long lunches. We allowed ourselves shorter days, and time to stretch. All of this might sound trite, but as an artist with a full-time job in education, the days I have to make theatre feel precious and urgent. It’s my tendency to push. And so too it must be my practice to build out space for myself and my collaborators to be well–to be as safe and self-determining as possible throughout the entire creation process.

PWM offers a space for artists to create outside of the pressures of imminent production. This is vital, as is their practice to support artists holistically over time. My ongoing relationship with the artists I’ve met through creating O Death has been hugely impactful. I will continue to work with Sarah dramaturgically for as long as she’ll have me; in addition to O Death, I’m working with her on my new project Cult Play. Since meeting Kate, we have become writing partners, working long-distance from Canada to Scotland on our TV series called Make It. And I can’t imagine working on another play without Liam–someone whose collaboration and friendship has completely opened up the possibilities for me as a theatre artist and human being; I’ve often walked away from our dramaturgical meetings feeling that not only the work, but I, have been transformed in a meaningful way. 

I can’t wait to be in the room with these brilliant artists again. In the meantime, the next step for me is a writing residency in Riding Mountain National Park for two weeks in the summer. Since O Death is set in a house in the woods, I can’t think of a better place to hide out and finish the next draft.