Phillip Zarrilli

Phillip Zarrilli – Kalarippayattu weapons training, CVN Kalari, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala

On 9th March 2020 when Phillip received the news from his oncologist that the cancer he had been living with for fourteen years had begun to ‘seriously party’ (his words) he said to me ‘this is our last adventure together.’

I have been so fortunate, having this great mind, this gentle and generous man as my companion in so many ways – loving, working, living, travelling, thinking, writing and making performance alongside him for twenty one years, with and without The Llanarth Group. The journey may continue, but now it is in parallel, perhaps, not our accustomed hip-to-hip together.

Phillip died on 28th April 2020 at 13.52 UK time. He rode out on a breath – like so many times in his teaching he spoke of riding the breath to that moment of completion at the end of exhalation – the space in-between at the end of one cycle before the impulse of the next inhalation begins. This time came no inhalation.

It was the ‘good death’ he wanted, I think – calm, pain-free, unsentimental – me holding his hand.

I keep thinking of the Tagore line: ‘Let it not be a death, but completeness.’

There is a fullness to Phillip’s last months and year: the trip to Kerala in January 2020 and all that happened there:

Phillip Zarrilli and Jo Shapland performing ‘Told by the Wind’, The Llanarth Group. Photo: Kaite O’Reilly

Performing Told by the Wind at the Kerala international festival, giving talks, workshops and teaching at Calicot University, seeing Kathakali with Rustom Bharucha and meeting again with his Indian family –visiting the significant people and places, too many to name in full here, but including Sathyan (G Sathyanarayanan) and family at CVN Kalari in Thiruvananthapuram, Phillip’s ‘brother’ Kunju Vasudevan and family, and an extraordinary Koodiyattam performance at the temple in Killimangalam, visiting his friend and former Kathakali teacher MPS (M.P.Sankaran Namboodiri) and family, to name just a few. He said that he felt all that happened that month was a full circle turning, a completion, and he was full of gratitude. We sensed this would be his last trip to Kerala, and were so grateful to be able to go, to have him so visible, connecting, being honoured by those who were so important in his work and life.

Phillip Zarrilli being honoured by Sathyanarayanan G at CVN Kalari in Thiruvananthapuram, January 2020


Five days after our return to the UK in February we began our final collaboration, co-directing the 5 star reviewed The Beauty Parade at Wales Millennium Centre – delighting in a sense of having possibly fulfilled what we could achieve together, a synthesis.

Phillip Zarrilli and Kaite O’Reilly in rehearsals ‘The Beauty Parade’, Wales Millennium Centre, February 2020. Photo courtesy of WMC

2019 had been a significant and prolific year, full of achievement and creativity. October 2019 brought the publication of his last, great book (Toward) A Phenomenology of Acting (Routledge), which launched at ITI (Intercultural Theatre Institute) in Singapore.

Phillip Zarrilli at launch of his last book ‘(Toward) A Phenomenology of Acting’, ITI, Singapore, October 2019

His scholarship continued, and there are various essays forthcoming, including a chapter on his lifelong engagement with traditional Asian disciplines of body-mind training in Generating Knowledge Through Interweaving (working title) for the International Research Centre: Interweaving Performance Cultures, Berlin, where we were both fellows for many happy and stimulating years, with wonderful colleagues. Our collaborative essay An Irreverent richard iii redux: Re-Cripping the Crip is published later this month in Playfulness in Shakespearean Adaptations (Routledge). Phillip was writing increasingly for performance and we relished the subversive crip’ playfulness of our co-written script richard iii redux [or] Sara Beer is not Richard III which Phillip directed, produced and also performed in, shortlisted for the International James Tait Black Prize for innovation in drama, August 2019, and published in my collected The ‘d’ Monologues.

2019 was a rich year for directing. His production of Lie With Me with the graduating cohort of Intercultural Theatre Institute [formerly TTRP] in Singapore completed that long relationship with Sasi (T. Sasitharan) and Beto (Alberto Ruis Lopez) and ITI.

‘Lie With Me’ company, ITI 2019 cohort, Theatres in the Bay, Singapore

He had just begun work on Carri Munn’s No.74, and earlier in the year directed Cosy, my play about end of life, with long-term collaborators Gaitkrash for Cork Midsummer Festival. Phillip was always keen to encourage audiences to talk about death and to have agency in how they would like their lives to end – but not to stop living until the very end.

Kaite O’Reilly, Phillip Zarrilli and Seamus O’Mahoney discussing end of life scenarios, Cork Midsummer Festival June 2019

Phillip lived with cancer – creatively, fully and without complaint – for fourteen years. He always spoke of how grateful he was to have been able to teach, create, perform, direct and, most importantly, complete his books, constantly giving thanks to the brilliant skills and ideology of universal free healthcare offered by the UK’s NHS (National Health System). We are both hugely grateful to Hospiscare in Exeter, UK, who gave Phillip such tender and expert palliative care, and in the most challenging of conditions, in the middle of a pandemic. Against all the odds, they allowed me to be with Phillip, showing such compassion.

Owing to Covid19 there will be no funeral, but we hope that when we are able to travel and gather again, we all will find opportunities to celebrate Phillip and our relationship with him, to tell our stories and sing the old songs, all across the world. He is much beloved, and he also loved – his son Barth and daughter Samara, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren – and he cared deeply for his many  decades-long friends and collaborators, valuing the wealth of students, actors, and scholars he shared his time, skills, and thoughts with, and who enriched his existence.

I believe Phillip inhabited every second of his life until he departed, soaring, on a breath.

20 responses to “Phillip Zarrilli

  1. Jeremy M. Thomas-Poulsen

    Hi Kaite,

    I’m so sorry for you loss. What a fantastic legacy that Phillip create and left for the next generation. And so amazing that he was able to do so much work while also dealing with his personal health issues. A brilliant and amazing man with a strength of character. You will be in my thoughts.

    Thinking of you, Jeremy


  2. Phillip was one of my teachers at Exeter. Working with him was a hugely important part of my experience there. His teaching has been influential in my life and creative practice in so many ways — I was grateful for a final memorable conversation with him at a talk he gave at Exeter a year or so ago, where I was reminded of the ways I still carry with me what I learned in his classes. I am surprised by how affected I feel by his death, and how it has again brought home the enduring importance of his work and teaching. I knew Phillip as a peaceful, kind and generous man. His legacy will live on through those he taught and worked with, and I send my love to his family and those closest to him in bearing this loss — which is also a great honour and a legacy of a well spent life. Much love to you.x

  3. Bernard Mitchell

    Thank you for sending me your sad news but also the wonderful memories you have, they will stay with you. Perhaps when this virus passes we will meet again, and I can take a picture for my archive of the artists and writers of Wales.this year had been so busy, this now has brought it to a temporary halt. It was my 73rd birthday on the 29th of April, so time is of the essence.
    Best wishes, Bernard.

  4. Thank you for sharing this Kaite, and my sincere condolences. I am so sorry this has happened at a time when your friends can’t hug you in real life, but consider this a virtual one. All best wishes Ju


  5. Oh my dear Kaite, I am so sorry to read of your devastating loss. My heart goes out to you at this time. What a beautiful tribute you have written for your beloved Phillip ….. and wow!! …. what an extraordinarily full & meaningful life, so very well lived right to the last moment. A guiding light & inspiration to us all on how to follow your dharma, contribute to humanity & knock the best “craic” out of your life right to the very end. Huge hugs & heartfelt condolences to you and all Phillip’s nearest & dearest.

  6. I would like to offer my condolences on Phillip’s passing on. When he told me that he was moving to a hospice, i thought he was joking. Betsuyaku Minoru also passed on recently too. It seems the “quiet theatre” advocates are thinning out, but their legacy will be well remembered.
    Take care and stay safe.

  7. Thank you, Kate. What a remarkable man, and what a profound life you shared. Reading this, I feel deeply touched, saddened, and warmed. I also cannot imagine the depth of your loss.

  8. My teacher has moved out on a single breath.

  9. Anto Astudillo

    Hi Katie,

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Phillip is a loss for the whole physical theater community as well as the martial arts community. I’m sorry we got disconnected. I am in NYC now and I so wish we could’ve seen each other again. I will always keep you and Phillip near because you were so open and warm with me and Phillip and you were always giving me so much inspiration on my own work. I’ve been making film performances lately. I wish I could’ve shared them with Phillip. Honestly had such an impact on my path from martial arts to theater and then to developing my films. I think I sent him some of them a while ago.

    Thanks for being present.

    Love, Anto

  10. Linda Iltis, Seattle

    Dear Katie, Thanks for this excellent tribute.
    Phillip was on my PhD committee at U of Wisconsin. I appreciated his insight and comments on my drafts and expert instruction. He brought Sankaran Namboodiri from Kerala Kalamandalam to teach Kathakali at Wisconsin, and he made it possible to study with many master scholars. His classes were always inspiring to me. In 1983, he briefly visited us in Sri Lanka while my husband Ter Ellingson was on a research project there, to see the Kandyan dancers and other South Coast dances with spirit possession. He even heroically helped Ter, when he was stung by a man-o-war jellyfish, to get into a taxi to visit a healer monk who saved Ter’s life.
    We last saw Phillip in Schipol Airport when we were en route to Ghana for comparative research on spirit possession. We enjoyed sharing research and theoretical ideas about South Asian performance and possession on panels together at the Wisconsin South Asia conferences (Ter’s work on Tibet and mine on Nepal). His research methodology and deep appreciation of his teachers always inspired me and Ter. We will miss him very much, and are grateful for his friendship, wit, and fine scholarship.
    Our sincere condolences to you and Philip’s children and relatives.

  11. Thank you Caitlin for everything you have given of your life to this great men. You are an incredible woman. The best companion for such a completeness. This letter is breathes and flows as Phillip did.

  12. A beautiful piece Kate. Thank you so much. All strength to you at this time. Warmest David xx

  13. Dear dear Kaite ….. ohhhhh. SO much love to you. …….

  14. I remember and treasure and deeply touched the brief meeting and seeing Philip working with students, and the performance at the Pheonix. so touched; tearful, grateful.

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