Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Elio Zarrillo, a theatre artist, educator and consultant based on Treaty 1 territory. They work with many theatres & organizations across the country as a playwright, actor, director and cultural dramaturg. This season they premiered The Outside Inn (co-written with Sharon Bajer) at Festival Antigonish, Volare at Prairie Theatre Exchange and joined the National Queer & Trans Playwriting Unit. Other plays include The Green Building (from Prairie Theatre Exchange’s Winnipeg Stories) and The Show (from the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s Tiny Plays, Big Ideas).
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
In 2018, a few years after having left theatre school, I had reached my absolute limit regarding the devastating lack of trans and queer stories finding themselves on stages in my hometown of Winnipeg, MB. This was also around the same time that the leadership of a handful of different local theatre companies was undergoing a changeover. I set up meetings with essentially all of the theatre artistic directors in town to ask them, “What are we going to do about this?” I had a bank of plays to share with them, but the resounding feedback was that, in addition to tipping them off to existing plays featuring trans/queer content… that maybe I should write the plays myself. Before this point my experience of creating new work had been inside of a largely devised, collective, physical practice. I had never authored something in a solo-sense before. But I took the bait and joined the Prairie Theatre Exchange/Manitoba Association of Playwright’s Emerging Playwrights Unit, where my first full length play, Volare, was born.
What would you say is the most important thing (or things!) for you to impart or accomplish with your playwriting work?
I always find it a little obnoxious when folks will respond to an interview question by poking a hole in it but… I will say that I do not set out to “accomplish” anything with my writing. I never dive into a work with the goal to accomplish something social, political, in terms of representation, etc. Ultimately, I cannot control what will be received. My intent is just to tell the best story that I can inside of the context of my exploration. Without getting too “woo-woo”, I just want to make the best theatre and therefore, the best art my soul is capable of in that exact moment. My hope is that in getting to the meat of something that interests or intrigues me, something that I want to investigate… and exposing my discoveries to all who will bear witness to them, that a natural impact will occur. And it won’t be a specific something that I’ve set out to transmit beyond a great story, but it might bleed its way into how we fight for freedom. In fact, I’d be delighted to know that a moment inside of play has impacted its receiver in a way I never could have hoped or dreamed. And in this way, this audience member becomes a contributor to the play’s existence, a maker of the play itself.
You have recently premiered two plays: The Outside Inn (co-written with Sharon Bajer) at Theatre Antigonish and Volare at Prairie Theatre Exchange (which, at the time of publishing of this interview, is currently on stage). What was your experience like in bringing these plays from page to stage?
I have been experiencing and referring to the production process of these new works as “the play’s current phase of development”. These rehearsal and production processes have been an active and integral leg of each play’s development journey. I believe that there is something that can only happen once you’ve got actual bodies living and breathing and fighting for something inside of the characters in a story, to really illuminate what the whole thing is truly about. Sometimes that is an affirmation of the direction in which you have been heading. But sometimes, and totally amazingly, it exposes and unlocks new discoveries, perspectives and understandings that could not have emerged otherwise. So we investigate and mine that shit in order to share a collaborative experience that is truly great.
You were recently selected to participate in the National Queer & Trans Playwriting Unit, which ZeeZee Theatre describes as a “new model for play creation and dissemination, in order to ensure more equitable representation of 2SLGBTQ+ artists and stories on Canadian stages, as well as strengthen and deepen the bonds of professional artists and collaborators across the country, while ultimately furthering equality for all queer and trans people.” Can you tell us about your experience with this unit so far?
It’s been so good. It’s been a real example of a queer experience. Beyond our identities re: gender/sexuality, we have been defining the function of the unit for ourselves. Writing and revamping the rules as we go, as they suit our needs. Cultivating something that is specific and responsive to this particular collection of people. It’s been such a joy to connect with these other amazing and exciting artists, to hear pieces of their works-in-development and to support one another through the deeply vulnerable and often treacherous experience of writing a play. We all just really dig each other, which makes the dynamic work so well. Each time we gather, whether it be at one of our bi-weekly meetings, impromptu group writing sessions, monthly open houses or each other’s community offerings, it is always a celebration.
And on a personal note, I have had the most fortunate experience of collaborating with one of my dearest loved ones on my new play, PEACHES. The gifts of intentional, dedicated time and financial support to imagine and study and craft a new work is not lost on Erik and myself. We have gone in and are going hard and with their holding and encouragement, I am exploring the writing of something that terrifies me on multiple levels. Without this particular container within which to work, I don’t know if this level of personal risk would be possible.
Can you share your reflections on “playwright” as a career path, and the stage of your career that you are in?
One thing I’ll hone in on in regards to this question is the debunking of a certain fallacy related to playwriting. It’s easy to imagine that the process of writing a play is undergone in isolation. And while that may be the case for some, it is not the reason why I love to do this thing. There’s a reason why we make theatre, or at least why I do… it is to be in community. To be in collaboration. To be with people.
In my experience, a play can only live on the page for so long. Bringing work into living space and into relationship with other artists in order to share it with a wider audience community is what drives me to do this. At this phase of my life, I am so privileged to be sharing virtual and physical space with so many gifted dramaturgs, writers, directors, designers, consultants and producers.
I don’t have much to say in terms of categorically positioning myself inside of career, but I will say that the way I have been spending my days as of late — tellings stories with the people I love — is evidence enough that this is something I should and will be continuing to do for a long time.
What are you working on next?
Next up, I get to be an actor! For the whole month of June I will be playing Sebastian and Maria in Winnipeg’s Shakespeare in the Ruins production of Twelfth Night.
I am also into different stages of development for 2 new plays.
For the National Queer & Trans Playwriting Unit I am writing a new play called PEACHES with dramaturg Erik Berg. Set in a (currently) geographically ambiguous peach tree orchard, PEACHES is about a peach farmer and his apprentice who grow a play and decide to put it on in order to settle a personal score.
In addition to that one, I have also begun the development of a new play for young audiences called Nik & Blanche with dramaturg Alissa Watson. Nik & Blanche tells the story of Nik, a teenage, largely closeted, theatre-loving kid who is shut down by their drama teacher when, for a monologue project, they ask to do Nick Bottom’s monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Asserting that that character is too far from their “type”, Nik’s teacher puzzlingly assigns them one of Blanche’s monologues from A Streetcar Named Desire. Drawing on events from personal experience, this play explores gender as a journey and the surprising things that happen when we are forced to reckon with our own complexities.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays and/or which artists are currently inspiring you?
Top 3 “Canadian” plays that come to mind in this current moment (Wednesday, April 26 2023, 1:55pm)
Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad
My Sister’s Rage by Yolanda Bonnell
Dragonfly by Lara Rae
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.