St. John's-based playwright wins national award for challenging conventions

Santiago Guzmán is the first winner of the Playwrights Guild of Canada's John Palmer Award, a new honour celebrating change-makers in theatre. Guzmán says his work is all about bucking stereotypes about what it means to be a Newfoundland and Labradorian.

Santiago Guzmán is the first winner of a new award celebrating change-makers in theatre

Santiago Guzmán is the recipient of the John Palmer award from the Playwrights Guild of Canada, valued at $5,000. (Submitted by Vaida Nairn)

A St. John's-based playwright has won a new national award that honours storytellers who use the theatre to challenge conventional thinking.

Late last month, Santiago Guzmán was named the winner of the Playwrights Guild of Canada's inaugural John Palmer Award, valued at $5,000.

"I still can't believe it," said Guzmán. "I am very honoured and very humbled to have been recognized by my peers across this country that we call Canada."

Guzmán said it is especially meaningful to have art from the province recognized nationally.

"Being able to talk about Newfoundland and Labrador theatre at a national level challenges the perceptions and stereotypes of what other people think about us and the work that we do here."

Guzmán moved to the province in 2015 from Mexico City to study theatre arts at Memorial University. While he originally planned to move home after completing his degree, Guzmán said he fell in love with the community and decided to stay. 

"I am the artist and the human being that I am because of Newfoundland and Labrador."

However, Guzmán encountered some obstacles when he set about beginning an acting career in the province.

"I quickly realized that I was not going to get much work in acting because of the plays that were being produced at the time. I felt like the plays did not represent me and my identity or my point of view."

Guzmán and Sarah Connors perform in the Theatre at Grenfell production Turkeys, Turkeys and More Turkeys. (Submitted by Aidan Devereaux)

Guzmán said the stories were limiting. 

"They were all about white, cisgender, heterosexual people. And I thought to myself, 'Well, I am neither of those things.' And I said to myself, 'Well, what can I do?'"

Guzmán's solution was to start writing plays he could recognize himself in.

"I never got to see myself represented on stage," he said. "I became a writer as an act of rebellion because I wanted to write characters that looked like me, that sounded like me, that were in Newfoundland and Labrador. And I think that labour and that act was embraced by the community."

Guzmán said the welcoming arts community is among the reasons he decided to stay in the province. Another reason is the communal willingness to change. 

"I have seen change happen," he said. Guzmán drafted an open letter to tourism organization Destination St. John's in 2021, criticizing their ads for casting only white actors. His letter eventually led to the campaign being changed. 

"That was really exciting, to be in a community where I could say, 'Hey, folks, I think we can do better than this,' and that the community actually responds and does better. That's the thing that keeps me here and it is really exciting for me to be able to champion that change and to be a part of the transformation and support that."

Guzmán's theatrical work has been a success, with his most recent play, Altar, having also been performed outside the province in Halifax and Toronto. In addition to his own creative works, Guzmán has started Todos Productions, a theatre company that aims to expand the narrative of what it means to be a Newfoundlander and Labradorian.

"This theatre company focuses on promoting, developing, supporting and producing the work of 'marginalized communities' in Newfoundland and Labrador," said Guzmán. "So basically all of these communities that historically have been erased or silenced or set aside in mainstream narratives: Black, Indigenous, people of colour, people with disabilities, the two-spirit LGBTQIA+ communities, and immigrants, and so on."

Guzmán says equity is at the heart of his work. (Lucas Morneau/Submitted by Santiago Guzmán)

Guzmán also hosts a series of creative workshops for BIPOC — Black, Indigenous and people of colour — writers in the province.

"This is my way to give back to Newfoundland and Labrador all of the things it has given me," he said. "The community embraced me and supported me and celebrated me. So the advocacy work that I do is my way to pay back."

Guzmán says it is perfect timing for the award which recognizes how he created space for different communities, as that reflects the themes of his newest production.

"We are working on the workshop presentations of NewfoundLanded, a documentary theatre piece about the experiences of immigrants and refugees to Newfoundland and Labrador."

The production, co-written by Vanessa Cardoso-Whelan and Nabila Qureshi, is based on a series of interviews the writers conducted with people who immigrated to the province. Guzmán said NewfoundLanded is an extension of his overall goal for his playwriting career.

"I really try to uplift those narratives, those characters, those artists that don't really fit into that stereotypical understanding of what Newfoundland and Labrador is."

Much of Guzmán's work falls under one of the qualifying factors for the John Palmer Award: an artist who uses their practice to disrupt the status quo.

"The status quo is only benefiting some, representing some, talking for some," Guzmán said. "So of course I am agitating that because that's not who we are as a community."

Guzmán said the heart of all his work is simple.

"What I'm doing is advocating for equity."

Santiago Guzman of St. John's is the recipient of the John Palmer Award from the Playwright's Guild of Canada, which honours a new-generation, change-maker theatre artist.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


William Ping


William Ping is a newsreader and journalist with CBC at its bureau in St. John's.

With files from Newfoundland Morning and Weekend AM