Remembering Phillip Zarrilli: A generous and humble actor, director and teacher
Phillip Zarrilli was a man with a rare panoply of gifts – a theatre maker and performer, a thinker, a teacher and a bridge between Western performance and Asian martial arts – yet he was un-showy about them all, choosing rather to be serious and scrupulous as he examined the world and found ways to explain its complications. Which is not to say he wasn’t a sheer joy to be with, as both his life and art were charged with curiosity, a relentless searchingness to coin a word. One memory can stand as shorthand for many. In his final days I wrote him some stories to read: he sent them back as little, perfect performances, read in a quiet but unfaltering voice and sent from his bed by a man who needed to communicate all the things he had learned and all the things he knew. For here was a wise man, with a rare human warmth that burned as a candle deep within.
Phillip was internationally known as a director, actor, and actor trainer. His work took him to many countries to explore and engage with many people and a great many ideas, from Noh theatre to string theory. There were productions of Samuel Beckett’s plays which toured to countries such as Costa Rica, Ireland and Malta. Recent years saw him directing the world premiere of Kaite O’Reilly’s ‘Cosy’ at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff and ‘playing the maids’ being a creative response to Jean Genet’s ‘The Maids.’ He was a natural, gregarious and generous collaborator, as evidenced by works such as 2012’s ‘The Echo Chamber,’ created as a group work. Phillip was also much in demand worldwide as a director, including a major new production of Ota Shogo’s ‘The Water Station’ in Norway and, as part of the Taipei Arts Festival he directed the world premiere of Kaite O’Reilly’s ‘The 9 fridas,’ with Mobius Strip Theatre in association with the Hong Kong Rep.
Phillip Zarrilli regularly taught and directed at the Norwegian Theatre Academy and the Intercultural Theatre Institute, in Singapore. The latter’s director, Sasitharan Thirunalan paid tribute to ‘an exceptional human being and theatre person. There will never be someone like him again. He had a deep and abiding understanding of Indian Theatre systems which he brought to bear on his contemporary theatre work – acting, directing, teaching and scholarship – sans the blinkers of Orientalist biases and the arrogance of colonialist delusions. He was always humble and gentle as a teacher, and never compromised the great secrets of theatre he knew so well.’
Quiet and quietude might well be watchwords for some of Phillip Zarrilli’s theatre pieces and they were qualities he clearly valued and indeed celebrated in works such as ‘Told by the Wind’, an East Asian inspired work co-created by Kaite O’Reilly and Jo Shapland, which is full of silence, stillness and stateliness. He made wonderful theatre which could make you listen to the audience as much as the performers on stage, a magical, telling inversion.
One of Phillip’s friends, the writer and artist Judie Christie, formerly a producer with the Aberystwyth-based Centre for Performance Research, attests that “Philllip’s death is a great loss to the worldwide theatre community, as can be attested by the outpourings of tributes from every corner of the globe. A brilliant mind, a widely-respected scholar and a much-revered and loved director and teacher, Phillip gave of himself and his extensive knowledge always with great generosity and modesty. Working within a very distinguished lineage from the Russian director Stanislavski through the teachings and writings of the Polish visionary Jerzy Grotowski, Phillip carved out his own distinctive and influential trajectory of psychophysical actor training that investigates the very nature of presence (in life and art), where ‘the body becomes all eyes’, and that too will stand the test of time. Luckily for us, his many insights into training for contemporary theatre (and life) live on through his books and his teachings. Sadly though, we have lost a great mind and a very special man, who had still so much to teach us. He is much missed already.”
There is indeed a real legacy of books. His volume about his process of training, ‘Psychophysical Acting: an intercultural approach after Stanislavski’ received the 2010 ATHE Outstanding Book of the Year Award at the ATHE convention in Los Angeles, August 2010, while other books include ‘Kathakali Dance-Drama: Where Gods and Demons Come to Play’ and ‘Acting (Re)Considered’, as well as the recent tome ‘[Toward] a Phenomenology of Acting.’
A passionate lover of Kerala and its artforms, Phillip visited south India as a 29-year old in 1976, on a Fulbright fellowship from the US. At the time he was a young theatre director who wanted to figure out a different method of actor training. One of the fruits of his studies was the book ‘When Body Becomes All Eyes,’ believed to be the first in-depth study of Kalaripayattu, a martial art designed for the ancient battlefield. Over the years, Phillip gained immense expertise and experience in intercultural performance and contemporary acting practice, developing a unique, intensive process for training actors drawing on the practices of yoga and Asian martial arts.
Phillip Zarrilli was also a distinguished academic. He was Professor of Theatre, Folklore, and South Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for many years but also taught at various other universities including UCLA, Northwestern University in Illinois, New York University, and the University of Surrey. He was appointed Professor of Drama at Exeter University in 2000 where, in 2013 he then became Emeritus Professor of Performance Practice. In 2010 he was invited to join The International Research Institute, ‘Interweaving Performance Cultures’ at Freie Universitat, Berlin, as a Fellow, leading to annual residencies in the city.
When he moved to the UK in 2000, he established The Llanarth Group as an association of theatre practitioners and performance artists dedicated to producing international theatre of the highest quality, with Kaite O’Reilly as resident dramaturg for new work and collaborations. At the same time he also converted an old milking parlour into the Tyn y Parc Kalari/Studio in West Wales. There he conducted summer intensive courses which attracted students from all four corners, and where the sight of him clashing ancient swords with some of them was a sight to behold.
One of these students is Dr. Jeungsook Yoo from Seoul, South Korea, who went on to work with him and said, “I am deeply saddened by the loss of my great mentor and director, an extraordinary human being. I feel truly privileged that I have learnt from Phillip, worked together as his assistant and actor, and shared precious friendship since 2001. His tenacious practice and scholarship of a psychophysical approach to acting has been a pure inspiration for me. It has been a special treat, training with him at his annual summer intensive course at the Tyn Y Parc studio, Llanarth. The intensity of practicing Asian body-mind disciplines accompanied with the honey ice-cream at Aberaeron and walks along the breath-taking coastline of West Wales. He was a director who offered fertile ground for an actor to work on. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience working with him as an actor and co-creator in theatre productions including ‘playing the maids’, ‘The Water Station,’ and ‘4.48 Psychosis.’ I have been fortunate to closely witness his Beckett projects several times – the creative joy in the process of portraying the human abyss, precision coupled with intuition, depth and beauty. Shining moments and memories of him will stay with me with much love and most respect. His profound legacy will continue to resonate.”
Another student, Alissa Clarke, now Associate Professor at DeMontford University attended the summer intensive every year for 20 years and recalls Phillip’s teaching: “He would say ‘It’s never about me, it’s always about you and whether you’re learning, whether you’re able to make sense of what we’re working on, so that it becomes something that is your own’. He exchanged our thank yous for his own, and highlighted the importance of ‘people learning how to be generous with their energy, with what they can give, how they can be present to each other’ in the performer training and theatrical space, but also in the wider world.”
Recent work by the Llanarth Group included 2018’s ‘richard III redux OR Sara Beer [IS/NOT] Richard III’ which pretty much exploded both the historical figure and Shakespearean king in a production shortlisted for the International James Tait Black Prize for innovation in drama. The actor Sara Beer, who played Richard III, bending gender in the process, considers it “a huge privilege to have had the opportunity to work with Phillip on so many occasions over the past few years, thanks to the wonderful collaborations with Kaite O’Reilly. It was a total joy to be part of the Llanarth team and they provided me with the best career opportunities of my life. Phillip was incredibly humble and the most generous, patient and thoughtful director and excellent teacher. He gave you time, space and his wisdom to create your best work. I adored him and will miss his delightful, warm sense of humour and quiet brilliance.”
Phillips’s final production was ‘The Beauty Parade,’ written by Kaite O’Reilly and which he co-directed with her. This was staged at the Wales Millennium Centre in the spring of 2020, telling the story of women in the UK during the Second World War who were assigned to help the French resistance.
One of the Welsh performers who both worked with Phillip and was regularly mentored by him was the actor and stand-up comic Carri Munn, and they had just started work on a new show called ‘Number 74.’ She remembers many moments shot through with joy: “I knew Phillip Zarrilli was clever, kind and a theatre legend, long before I came to know him as ‘PZ’, as he was affectionately known. What I didn’t know, until a friend’s wedding day, was how he could make me laugh, and feel included. Surely two of life’s many joys. PZ was the one who quietly looked out for me. Peering over his specs, with those eyes, and that grin – always beckoning me to embrace the moment, the idea, the joy. I know he did this for many others. Whether I was discussing my latest heartbreak, a future collaboration he and I were planning, or my role as a lecturer – PZ was always present, curious and sometimes, almost fatherly. In any of my ventures, both personal and artistic, he’d say ‘You know, Munn – you’ve just got to go for it.’ Thank you, PZ.”
Phillip Zarrilli. Born 8 April 1947, Covington, Kentucky. Died, Exeter, UK on 28 April 2020.