Vancouver’s Zee Zee Theatre Establishes a Groundbreaking National Queer and Trans Playwriting Unit

Dyke City by Sunny Mills, part of Buddies’ 40th Anniversary Series (2019). Photo of Emmerjade Simms, Monica Garrido, and Natalie Liconti by Henry Chan

Vancouver’s Zee Zee Theatre was looking for a show to mount in 2020. They wanted a play that would further their mission to tell the stories of the 2SLGBTQ+ communities to Vancouver audiences. They spent four years in their search—and came up with nothing. However, an epiphany led to a truly exciting landmark initiative.

“We’ve been in the industry for a while, and we’re a queer theatre company in Vancouver. And I thought, ‘If I’m having a hard time finding these queer shows, I wonder if other people are as well,” says Cameron Mackenzie, Artistic and Executive Director of Zee Zee Theatre.

Photo: Cameron Mackenzie of Zee Zee Theatre

Mackenzie chatted with Fay Nass, Artistic and Executive Director of the frank theatre co., the longest running 2SLGBTQ+ company based in Vancouver. He discovered that Zee Zee Theatre wasn’t alone in facing a lack of queer theatre material to produce, even in a city like Vancouver with its vibrant queer community. Mackenzie realized that Zee Zee had the potential to catalyze change, one that would start in Vancouver and then reverberate across the country.

Photo: Fay Nass of the frank theatre co.

Mackenzie explains the significant systemic industry barriers that make it difficult for queer and trans playwrights to create plays and get them on mainstream stages. Firstly, theatre commissions in Canada provide very little in the way of income. Mackenzie says they average about $4,000 to $5,000, topping out at around $12,000 for top tier playwrights working for big theatre companies. And that’s for possibly several years of tireless work. “That is no amount of money at all to create something that is, ultimately, going to create jobs for so many more people,” Mackenzie says.

As a result, playwrights, in general, are in a really precarious financial position, with trans and queer dramatists having to deal with additional discrimination. “People are just dealing with life, and dealing with not being on an equal footing in the industry. When are they going to have time to write a play?” Mackenzie says.

When the pandemic hit, Zee Zee saw an opportunity during the downtime when live theatre wasn’t running in Vancouver. Zee Zee wanted to assemble a national consortium of Canadian theatre companies who, together, would establish a National Queer and Trans Playwriting Unit: the first of its kind. The fact that virtual meetings were becoming a norm also made the dream of a cross country program logistically doable.

Photo provided by Zee Zee Theatre

They then set about seeking theatre companies to make 10 in total. Mackenzie wanted to find companies with missions that were aligned with Zee Zee’s but not necessarily queer ones since he wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible. “We need queer, trans stories on big main stages across this country,” Mackenzie says. The assembled theatre companies include Zee Zee and the frank theatre co. in Vancouver, Gwaandak Theatre in Whitehorse, Theatre Projects Manitoba in Winnipeg, Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto, and Neptune Theatre in Halifax, making this a coast-to-coast initiative.

Mackenzie says that plays often get drafted and then never make it past the development stage. Perhaps they will be workshopped but they won’t make it to the stage. The playwriting unit aims to change that situation. “It was about getting plays written—and paying our writers to write them—and also getting them produced, getting them on stages across the country,” he says.

The playwriting unit put out a call for submissions in the spring, with a July closing date. They were seeking 5 emerging and mid-career artists who would participate in a 10-month paid program ($2000 per month). Interested artists had to submit applications materials that included a pitch of their project, evidence of a recently completed work, a theatre resume, and a letter responding to prompts such as “What are your most compelling questions right now as a playwright?”

Currently, the 10 companies, which form the selection committee, are in the process of deciding who the 5 participating artists will be. They received an impressive 241 applications, all showcasing the incredible talent in Vancouver and across this country. Applicants come from different stages of their careers, have diverse intersectional identities, and represent various regions. Some applicants are established artists in other fields and are wanting to write a play for the first time. Each member of the selection committee will read 72 of the applications to ensure that each one receives thorough consideration from three people. The committee has been meeting over Zoom to discuss their thoughts on the applications and to narrow the field down to a short list and, eventually, the final 5. They’re aiming to release the final selections by late fall.

Mackenzie says the selection process has not been easy because of how competitive and compelling the applicants and their pitches are. There are common themes of exploring gender and sexual identity but each narrative is unique. “There’s something quite marvellous about what people are interested in,” he says. He continues: “How people are attacking some of the subject matter is what’s very exciting.” For example, Mackenzie talks about storylines that represent or convey “queer joy,” especially among young people, as an example of the transformative power of theatre.

Zee Zee Trans Scripts: Josie Boyce, Carolynn Dimmer, Amy Fox, Quanah Style, Morgane Oger, Sabrina Symington & Julie Vu; Credit: Tina Krueger Kulic

The 10-month program will see each of the 5 selected artists paired with an industry professional who will provide them with specific dramaturgical support for their work. They’ll meet with this individual and then the whole unit on alternating weeks via Zoom. “It’s about collaboration with your colleagues. It’s about learning from each other,” Mackenzie says.

At the end of the 10 months, artists will have a month’s pause, and then Vancouver and 4 other host cities will be the site of a one-week workshop for each artist with a director and a cast of actors. A public reading will take place in each of the host cities, with streaming provided to viewers beyond.

White Girls in Moccasins by Yolanda Bonnell at the 2-Spirit Cabaret (2018). Photo of Kat MacLean, Samantha Brown, and Yolanda Bonnell by Dahlia Katz

And most excitingly, each of the 5 plays will be produced by a theatre company in the consortium, including Vancouver’s Zee Zee, in one of their future seasons. “If we’re really trying to move the needle forward on queer and trans rights in this country it’s got to get in front of people that might not necessarily be seeing these stories all the time,” Mackenzie says.

Even if an applicant doesn’t make it to the final 5, it’s very possible that they might get approached by one of the theatre companies for work outside of the playwriting unit. “There are opportunities for so much collaboration and for so much cross pollination,” says Mackenzie.

Zee Zee’s willingness to effect change on a national-scale evidences how much Vancouver’s theatre scene is leading the way when it comes to equity, diversity, and inclusion. “I really do think we’re going to see ripple effects of this unit for years to come. Collaborations that occur. Partnerships that happen. Meet-ups that happen. Productions that happen,” he says. Mackenzie sees the unit as investing in the artists’ long-term careers as well as the scaffolding that will set up aspiring queer and trans playwrights for success in the industry.

The future is therefore bright for live theatre in Vancouver. “When you talk about more diverse and more intersectional humans, they’re going to write characters that are more diverse and more intersectional. And of course, you’re going to be needing roles for actors who are more diverse and more intersectional. And that’s just going to explode the industry,” Mackenzie says.

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