Interview with Playwright Yussef El Guindi

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Ann-Margaret Johnson/Sassafras Photos.

Yussef‘s play “Threesome” was recently produced at Portland Center Stage, ACT, and Off-Broadway with 59E59. His new play, “The Talented Ones,” was recently commissioned by Artists Repertory Theatre’s Table|Room|Stage Project and will premiere during Artists Rep’s 2016/2017 Season. Yussef‘s other productions include “The Ramayana” (co-adaptor with Stephanie Timm) at ACT; “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World” (winner of the Steinberg/American Theater Critics Association’s New Play Award in 2012; Gregory Award 2011; Seattle Times’ “Footlight Award” for Best World Premiere Play, 2011) also at ACT, and at Center Repertory Company (Walnut Creek, CA) 2013; and Language Rooms (Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award, as well as ACT’s New Play Award), co-produced by Golden Thread Productions and the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco. His plays, “Back of the Throat” (winner of L.A. Weekly’s Excellence in Playwriting Award for 2006), as well as “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World”, “Jihad Jones and The Kalashnikov Babes”, “Such a Beautiful Voice is Sayeda’s” and “Karima’s City,” have been published by Dramatists Play Service. The latter one-acts have also been included in The Best American Short Plays: 2004-2005, published by Applause Books. “Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith” (winner of Chicago’s “After Dark/John W. Schmid Award” for Best New Play in 2006) is included in “Salaam/ Peace: An Anthology of Middle-Eastern American Playwrights,” published by TCG, 2009. “Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat” is included in the anthology “Four Arab American Plays” published by McFarland Books. “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World” was included in the September, 2012 issue of American Theatre Magazine. And “Language Rooms” was published in Rain City Projects’ anthology Manifesto Series Volume 3. Yussef is the recipient of the 2010 Middle East America Distinguished Playwright Award. He holds an MFA from Carnegie-Mellon University and was playwright-in-residence at Duke University.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and why you started writing plays? 

Quick edits of my life so far: born in Egypt, raised in London, college/university in Paris and Cairo, graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University, stints at a couple of theaters in San Francisco (the Magic and Eureka), playwright-in-residence at Duke University, currently a playwright residing in Seattle.

Originally, I wanted to be an actor. I got hooked at 15 when someone dropped out of a school play and I was asked (being well known as a ham in class) if I wanted to step in. I did. Loved it. Wanted to be an actor from then on, much to the consternation of my parents (even though my mother’s family had worked in the theater). In fact, I didn’t really stop thinking of myself as an actor first and a writer second until late in my 30’s. But eventually — for whatever reason — I suddenly became too self-conscious to lose myself in a role. I became too much the observer of my own character’s actions, and of what was happening on stage around me. The joy of entering a world via the nerve-ends of one particular character evaporated, and the pleasures found in creating a world and characters from scratch took its place.

I should add that in conjunction with acting, my other passion was literature. My undergraduate degree was in “English and Comparative Literature.” I wrote poetry. I tried my hand at a couple of plays. I ended up studying playwriting when I couldn’t get into the acting schools I’d applied for. I taught playwriting at Duke University. So while I still thought of myself as an actor, the writing thing was always there. And when the acting bug finally left me, I started to think of myself, finally (at the ripe old age of 40), as a playwright.

That’s when my writing adventures really started to take off.

Your play Threesome received an Off-Broadway Production with 59E59 Theaters and a production at Seattle’s ACT Theatre after premiering at Portland Center Stage. Can you tell us more about your journey with this play?

The play, begun as a response to the Arab Spring, received a workshop at JAW at Portland Center Stage. I had a wonderful bunch of actors and a very skilled director who helped me thrash the piece into something resembling a play… A first workshop of a brand new play is always a mild shock. You’ve been holed up alone with these characters for months. Just you and their drama. Suddenly you have a whole team of actors and a director cramming into this imagined world of yours. It is a very odd sensation. Almost like you’re a bride and groom meeting for the very first time on your wedding day. And here you are finally alone together in the bedroom. It’s something you want to have happen but now you feel totally vulnerable and exposed. It’s rare where I don’t feel slightly humiliated after a first read through. Not always, but often. For me that is usually because I have overwritten the play (which I give myself permission to do in a first draft). And because it is overwritten the play feels interminable. A play really lives in the rhythm and pacing of its dramatic arc (set-up, delivery, punch-lines, beats: all that stuff), and it’s rare that I’ve nailed the correct pacing in a first draft. I first have to hear the play before I know for sure where I need to cut.

JAW helped me get a better idea of that pacing issue and — with this play especially — with the play’s unique tonal shifts. Meetings with the director, Chris Coleman, and subsequent rehearsals for the production, further clarified and helped me get to the play’s internal rhythms/ pacing.

Your play The Talented Ones was commissioned by Artists Repertory Theatre as part of its Table|Room|Stage Project, and will receive its World Premiere this season at Artists Repertory Theatre. Can you tell us about the process of developing this play?

The play began, as often my plays will, with a character’s simple declaration about something. As it so happened, that declaration turned out to be the play’s primary engine and overall thematic thrust. I’ve always found it strange how an innocuous comment or exchange between characters (whom I don’t yet fully know) will light up my imagination and drive a play to completion, whereas well-thought-out plots with theatrical potential may simply not register with whatever part of me (the unconscious, I guess) from which my plays emerge. It’s rather frustrating that the engineer in me that can structure a play can’t move forward unless the unconscious swamp is also engaged. Which is to say, I have to feel the nerve-ends of my characters before I know what they’re doing there, what they want, and how they’ll act.

The other thing about The Talented Ones: I had previously gone through a 2-year phase where I had been writing what I hoped were crowd-pleasing comedies. None of which went anywhere. A dangerous thing to do: pander to what you think an audience might like. Then, starting with Threesome, and especially with The Talented Ones, I decided to go all out and write at the “top of my lungs” so to speak, and not care how the play might come across. Which is ideally how one should always write: honestly, and without worrying how a play might be received. At least in the first draft. Once you have the heart and soul of a play down on paper (hopefully), then you can start working on the craft elements.

The play was developed at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s “Launch Pad” program, run by Risa Brainin, where it received a workshop production. Under her wonderful direction I managed to hack away at a lot of the verbiage and settle on a decent structure. Then Luan Schooler and Damaso Rodriguez at Artist Repertory Theatre approached me and asked if I was working on a new play. I mentioned I was still trying to further develop and find a home for this new, weird play. They read it, liked it, brought me and the play on board and, with the additional help and guidance of Jane Unger, they helped me further develop and refine the play. Now, hopefully, I’m within shouting distance of presenting a stageable play.

Your body of work frequently touches upon ideas about the immigrant experience and the American Dream. What do these themes mean to you, and how do you incorporate them in your plays?

I left Egypt when I was three. So the immigrant experience is part of the gristle of who I am. Even when I returned to Egypt for my undergraduate degree, I returned an immigrant — if not quite foreign, somewhat removed now, and not quite plugged in. When I continued on to America, I continued that immigrant journey. So that odyssey of the traveler, of someone who comes in from the outside to try and make a new home in a foreign place is central to my identity. It’s not something I even think about when I write, it just sort of comes pouring out.

Then again, given the unanchored patterns of most people’s lives, where people rarely stay in one place but travel to multiple places for work, the immigrant experience is one shared by many. Including native born Americans who may travel from state to state in search of employment. (Doesn’t the surprise come when we find someone born, raised and continues to live in one place?)

Regarding the American Dream: the ideals it represents, in spite of its fraught history, is very seductive for someone in search of not just a physical home, but a soul home that one can embrace and identify with. We are nothing if not social creatures trying to find our tribes. I felt extraordinarily deracinated and adrift most of my life. Coming to a country that was built, and continues to be built on the backs of immigrants — that says it welcomes such outsiders (again, lots of qualifiers and fraught history one could interject here, but) — was a great salve to that part of me that wanted to feel like I belonged somewhere. The American Dream is also about reinventing yourself, however you choose to do that. There’s some risk to doing that, of course. You may end up losing those connections to your past that make you who you are and, in the process, you may end up feeling even more alienated and adrift then you felt before — especially if your attempt at reinvention fails. But it is also very liberating. It’s a rush to feel you can start again, turn the page, face new challenges and go for something better. No shackles yet. Just a bunch of possibilities.At least theoretically/ideally. There’s of course no real getting away from the history that led you to the moment where you can now start again. The actions that define you remain the actions that define you. Plus, things will happen (news events out of your control) that can superimpose an identity on you. While you’re busy trying to reinvent yourself, others may have already defined you (“Arab” “Muslim, “person-of-color”). For better, or worse (especially when those labels are turned into negatives).

Again, as with the immigrant experience, I do feel this experience is shared by many. A lot of us (most of us?) are engaged in the push-and-pull of self-realization in an environment that is sometimes hostile to that attempt.

These, and related concerns find their way into my plays, includingThe Talented Ones.

Many of your plays are very comedic, while at the same time touching on dark subjects. What role does comedy play in your writing?

I think comedy is often a defense to manage hostility/ instability, and find shelter when you feel exposed and vulnerable. It’s a means to defuse danger, to let the air out of a tense moment, or, in plays, to lighten a scene that might otherwise feel unbearable. It’s also a weapon that helps you cope with that instability and hostility. You may not have the muscle, but perhaps you have the wit to fight back.

Comedy is also a way to get people on your side if you feel outnumbered. It lets people know you’re not a threat while at the same time empowering you. It lowers people’s defenses and becomes a soft way to skewer the people who you may feel are pushing you up against a wall.

Comedy shows up in my plays because something is usually terribly wrong. It shows up precisely because the situation may not be a laughing matter at all.

What inspires you?

I wish I knew. I have no idea what triggers a play. It could be an overheard snippet of conversation I hear on a bus or in a restaurant; or some innocuous line that pops into my head from a yet-unknown character in a vaguely sensed situation. I do know that if the play comes to me with all its issues sorted out then what’s the point of writing it? A play for me has to be an investigation of sorts. An exploration of a territory I sort of know in my bones but have yet to identify. And that might even remain somewhat of a mystery by the end of it. Yes, the play sort of needs to address the issues it raises and — regardless of your view of what constitutes a well structured play —  you do have to be aware of the dramatic arc you’re creating and craft that in a satisfactory way. Even Becket dealt with dramatic arcs. But the unknown part of writing, that thing which prompts me to want to find out more, that might well remain a mystery by the end of the piece. But then that might also become the trigger for the next play.

What kind of theatre excites you?

All kinds. Plays that present a good argument/ moral dilemma (Bernard Shaw). Or a theatrical spectacle (Robert Wilson). Or both (Tom Stoppard). Sometimes I like quite, lyrical pieces (Horton Foote); other times something a little more brash (Joe Orton). Many different plays, playwrights and styles.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

It’s the standard advice: keep practicing your craft. Then gather friends and listen to what you’ve written. Or submit plays to workshops. You need to hear what’s working and what’s not. Then rewrite. I can’t say writing has gotten easier over the years. It hasn’t. But what I’ve learned is not to panic when I don’t know how to move forward. You may need to step away for a day or two; or weeks, even months, before you get the new perspective you need to carry on with the play. That’s why I always try to have at least a couple of projects going.

The other thing I’d say: instinct is learned with practice. It took me a long time to trust my instincts. People will give you advice with the best of intentions. Your collaborators do want to help you, but they may inadvertently misidentify a problem and lead you to undermine your play. The advice must organically make sense to you before you make the changes. If it doesn’t make sense to you, wait. The merits of that advice may make sense later, or it may not. But don’t let yourself be browbeaten into making changes you’re not yet sure of.

Also, beware of audience feedback sessions. For the reasons outlined above.

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