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“I think what the pandemic has taught us is that in Canada, mobility is the problem, not distance,” says Cameron Mackenzie, artistic and executive director of Zee Zee Theatre.Thanks to a new COVID-boosted embrace of connecting technology (mostly Zoom), it’s easier than ever to bring artists together—and that’s exactly what Zee Zee is doing. The local company’s new national queer and trans playwriting unit will bring together five emerging and mid-career artists to write and develop their work over ten months. “We’re creating community on a grand scale, and that’s what makes us different,” Mackenzie says.
Applications for the playwriting unit opened in late April, and will be accepted until July 5, 2022. Any playwright in Canada who identifies as queer and/or trans can apply. Zee Zee has collaborated with nine other companies to make it happen: Vancouver’s frank Theatre, Whitehorse’s Gwaandak Theatre, Lethbridge’s Theatre Outré, Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre, Winnipeg’s Theatre Projects Manitoba, Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts, Montreal’s Imago Theatre and Halifax’s Neptune Theatre. The ten companies involved in the coalition are not all exclusively queer, and Mackenzie hopes that will extend their reach even further.
It was in part a past partnership with frank Theatre that inspired this initiative: it took Mackenzie and frank’s artistic and executive director Fay Nass four years to find their mainstage play for 2020 (that was Trans Scripts, true stories compiled from 70 interviews and performed by seven trans actors). “Right now, we are at a time when we are demanding representation and inclusivity on stage—but even the queer theatre companies can’t find queer scripts!” says Mackenzie. “It points to a systematic problem with the industry as a whole.”
By supporting queer playwrights from the beginning, the companies hope to create works that are stage-ready—and that, in turn, makes more work for more artists. “The play is the thing that generates revenue, and generates jobs for so many people,” explains Mackenzie. “There are more roles for actors, for technicians and designers—plays ultimately have a multiplier effect for work, and if you have diverse playwright who is leading that, you are going to see more work for more diverse humans at the end of the day.”
It’s a bit of an industry standard for playwriting to be a burnout fest: “Playwrights write the play, they’re in the play, they direct and design it themselves—that’s the best way to make money for yourself,” says Mackenzie. That doesn’t make for thriving artists, and especially isn’t working for marginalized playwrights.
According to Mackenzie, paying the playwrights a living wage sets them apart from other programs like theirs. “A lot of playwriting units today still give you a thousand dollars for years of work,” he says. “And when you’re working other jobs and stressed to capacity, creativity doesn’t flow.” Zee Zee’s new program will pay artists $2,000 a month, which was modeled after the national CERB wage. “I wish we could pay more—it’s only two thousand bucks a month for 10 months, but it’s never been done before.”
The five playwrights selected will receive one on one mentorship with queer dramaturgs, and the end projects will be performed live and streamed online in September 2023.
“This is about creating a safe space to explore your experience as a writer—your experience as a human—and all the ways that your queerness intersects with the parts of your identity,” says Mackenzie. To apply to the program, check out zeezeetheatre.ca.