Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Nikki Shaffeeullah, a theatremaker, filmmaker, facilitator, researcher, and community worker. Her work has included serving as Artistic Director of The AMY Project; Editor-in-Chief of alt.theatre: cultural diversity and the stage; and Assistant Artistic Director of Jumblies Theatre. With the National Arts Centre — English Theatre, she conceived, curated and produced Stages of Transformation, a multi-year research and creative project exploring how theatre intersects with abolition movements and transformative justice. She is a founding member of Confluence Arts Collective, and is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Forum for Cultural Innovators. Recognition includes the Patrick Connor Award; the Canadian Association for Theatre Research Award for Intercultural Theatre, the Toronto Arts Foundation’s Arts for Youth Award (for The AMY Project), and nominations for the Pauline McGibbon Award, the OAF Arts Educator Award, the PGC Emerging Playwright Award, and the Nancy Dean Playwriting Award.
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
I have been a theatremaker in one way or another most of my life, though most of my theatre-making has been as a director, in group/devised projects, and facilitating community-engaged theatre projects. I had taken a playwriting class or two, and have written a few shows over the years, for community and student festivals, but it was not a craft I seriously pursued until I started working on A Poem for Rabia. I had an established practice of publishing articles and essays, but found playwriting very intimidating! But, once I had the drive to write that particular piece, it opened my curiosity in playwriting and my investment in the craft as a whole. With that experience behind me, I feel eager and excited to write more plays.
You have trained across Canada in Ontario, Alberta, and Quebec, as well as internationally in countries such as Thailand and Peru. How has this culturally and geographically diverse training/experience influenced your artistic practice?
I have appreciated opportunities to step back and be reminded that the role that theatre plays in a given place is socially constructed, and thus subject to questioning and revision. I’m often wondering, in this theatre ecology (i.e. where I live in Toronto): who does the industry assume theatre is for? How accessible is it (or not)? What are the real or perceived limits on what can be staged without being “too political”, or “inappropriate”, or “taboo”? What is the relationship between theatre and the state, between theatre and commerce, between theatre and the people? This informs my thinking as a theatre-maker and producer, encouraging me to ask: what could we be doing differently and what would it take to get there?
Your play A Poem for Rabia recently had its world premiere at Tarragon Theatre (co-produced by Nightwood Theatre and your own company, Undercurrent Creations), in which you were also a member of the cast! Can you share what it was like to bring that work from the page to the stage, and if there’s any advice you’d offer to playwrights also fulfilling other roles in a production of one of their plays?
Writing A Poem for Rabia was a project of asking myself questions and seeing where they took me. It was very much a process-driven endeavour, where I followed curiosities I had about different political histories, future possibilities, and my own ancestral history. I didn’t rush and I worked on it intermittently over several years. It included oral history interviews, visits to archives, movement workshops with myself and other performers, and lots of alone time with my computer and notebook. Having strong collaborative relationships, including dramaturge Donna-Michelle St. Bernard (who also co-directed the premiere), mentor Diane Roberts (who supported me tremendously during early workshops through her Arrivals Legacy Process method), and actors Michelle Mohammed and Adele Noronha (who played Betty and Rabia, respectively, throughout workshops and the premiere), were tremendously supportive and grounding.
It was both rewarding and challenging to perform in my own show. I was constantly juggling the three hats I was wearing as playwriting, actor, and co-producer. I would offer other playwrights who are thinking of taking on additional roles in a production to be prepared, be realistic, and trust your collaborators! I’m usually always working on multiple projects at one time, but for this, I planned my schedule so I was only focused on Rabia for a good period of time before, during, and after the rehearsal and show period. The production’s co-directors Clare Preuss and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard smartly planned to build ‘playwright’ time into specific moments of the rehearsal process so that part of me could show up, but in designated ways that were generative for the team and for me as an actor. I made sure to eat and sleep and take breaks. And I trusted the cast and creative team, and their interpretations of and contributions to the work. It’s such an honour to witness other creatives interpret and bring to life your script!
Your company, Undercurrent Creations, produces work in several different mediums, including theatre, photography, and film. How do you decide which medium(s) you will use to tell a story?
As a need or opportunity presents itself, we respond! For example, in 2020, when all of theatre was shut down, we created a film training project for out-of-work theatre artists, which resulted in us co-creating a short film. In 2023, I knew I wanted to host a community-engaged arts project with queer Caribbean folks to happen alongside the premiere of A Poem for Rabia, and I knew I wanted to work with specific amazing artists to lead that project (Roya DelSol, Michelle Rambharose, and Morgan Davis), and so we designed a project that made great use of their skills (photography, writing/theatre). It’s often about working emergently — letting the who and the why determine the what and the how.
You also work as a facilitator of community-engaged arts work, grounded in anti-oppressive practices. How did you get started doing that work, and how does it inform your playwriting?
I’ve been involved in different kinds of organizing and community work since I was a teenager, but first pursued training in facilitation when I finished my MFA in Community-Engaged Theatre but felt like there was a key gap in my training. So little of theatre training is actually about how to skillfully, safely, and generatively hold space for people to work together (to collaborate, to have healthy and meaningful conflict), and as a director and facilitator of collaboratively-made theatre, I wanted to do that as well as I could. I ended up down a road of years of training in direct education facilitation (primarily through an organization called Training for Change), which helped me more strongly tether my artistic and organizing practices. This definitely informs my playwriting, as it makes me eager to find ways to bring community together in various ways throughout development processes.
What are you working on next?
I’m directing a short film Purgatory, which I also wrote. I actually first wrote it in 2020 but we kept postponing the shoot due to COVID and other scheduling factors, so I’m looking forward to finally jumping in. I’m also writing a new play called The Tenants, a comedy-horror about the housing crisis.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays and/or which artists are currently inspiring you?
So many artists inspire me, it’s too long to list, but I’ll shout out five in particular: I had the massive pleasure of working with a cohort of theatre makers over the past few years during Stages of Transformation, a project I curated with Mpoe Mogale with the National Arts Centre — English Theatre. The five resident artists are each developing new performance works that explore abolition in process, form and content. They are really exciting artists who have all challenged the ways I think about work for the stage: Keira Ash, Raven John, Kris Vanessa Teo, Ravyn Wngz, and Sobia Sheikh. Follow them and their wonderful work!
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.