Intersectionality. The word is the cause of much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but at its heart it’s simple: no one part of our identity can define us. Instead, we’re a riot of qualities and characteristics.

Stephen Nicolazzo, co-artistic director of Melbourne theatre company Little Ones, explains: “For me, intersectionality is about identity politics being not just regarding sexuality, ethnicity or socio-economic background – it’s all of those things combined.”

These connected identities are laid bare in Little Ones’ new production of Merciless Gods. Based on the 2015 book by Christos Tsiolkas, it’s a collection of stories set in migrant camps and gay saunas, pill-popping hipster dinner parties and porn sets, prison cells and the streets of the Cross. The characters who inhabit it are queer and straight, migrant and otherwise.

For Nicolazzo, reading Merciless Gods provided a rare experience of seeing his life represented on the page. “I wept and laughed a lot,” he says. “I’m a child of an immigrant family. I’m queer with a European background – not a colonial English person in this country. It’s really great to hear those voices – and because it’s a book of short stories, to hear them amplified and multiplied.”

Nicolazzo came across the book while listening to Tsiolkas being interviewed on the radio. “He was talking about [French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist] Jean Genet’s influence, and looking at queerness and sexuality through a migrant lens,” he recalls. “My partner turned to me and said, ‘You should work with Christos Tsiolkas’. [I thought] that would never happen – he’s a renowned, internationally bestselling novelist. [But] I read the book over the summer, called around, then had a meeting with Christos and we made the show.”

Developed over three years with Nicolazzo’s frequent collaborator, playwright Dan Giovannoni, Merciless Gods doesn’t just feature the stories of diverse Australians – those Australians are actually in the show. “There are people from all over the world in this work,” says Nicolazzo “They all grew up in Australia, they’re mostly bilingual, and they’re all queer in some way.”

While there’s plenty of talk about diversity today, for those who live a little outside the mainstream, it’s still a rarity to have their stories heard, let alone have the opportunity to tell them themselves.

“Diversity, for me, for this particular show, it’s the reason we’re doing it: so our voices could be heard,” says Nicolazzo. “Little Ones is made of myself, who is of Italian background and queer, a Malaysian queer designer, and a female Greek lighting designer. That is our experience of the world, and the show had to have that.”

The upcoming production of Merciless Gods at Arts Centre Melbourne is a rare return performance for an Australian show after last year’s sold-out tours in Melbourne and Sydney. It was nominated for five Green Room Awards and received two Alternative Helpmann Awards. Of course, it doesn’t hurt having a renowned writer like Tsiolkas involved.

“When you’re experiencing something viscerally [as] you’re reading – hearing that aloud, it’s transportive in a different way,” explains Nicolazzo. “I remember being in a tech rehearsal for a show – we weren’t even in show mode – and I burst into tears. I was shaking, and I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. But hearing that unlocks something emotionally that you can’t experience when you read it.”

So don’t be afraid of intersectionality, he says. “For me, [it’s] about exploring all of our experiences together, and celebrating.”

Merciless Gods is on at Arts Centre Melbourne, February 6 to 10, 2019.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Arts Centre Melbourne.