Aug 2, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 228: Yussef El Guindi
Yussef El Guindi
Hometowns: Cairo and London
Current Town: Seattle
Q: Tell me about the play you're working on at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival:
A: It’s called THREE WOLVES AND A LAMB. A comedy about the Palestinian and Israeli imbroglio/ conflict. The subject matter just screamed comedy to me. So I just followed those initial screams and ended up with this play. We’ll see if I’ve managed to morph it all into laughter or not. It’s a prickly subject that lends itself to the extremes of both painful comedy and high drama.
Q: What else are you up to?
A: I’m workshopping another play in August at the Icicle Creek Theatre Festival in association with ACT in Seattle. The play is called PILGRIMS MUSA AND SHERI IN THE NEW WORLD. It explores the emotional havoc that attends those who leave one country to try and make a home in another country....The baggage that one unavoidably lugs around in one’s travels, as well as the stuff you’re forced to leave behind. And how the absence of those things left behind often accrues an emotional weight of its own. A weird number is done on your psyche when you the find the familiar touchstones of your home country absent from your daily life. That is of course both thrilling and exciting, as well as overwhelming, and even terrifying at times. Sometimes, an emotional free-fall takes place, where nothing familiar remains for you to hold onto in times of crises. Truly, one becomes a stranger in a strange land; and one simply can’t create memories and comfort zones fast enough to break this fall.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Continuing from the previous response: writing (as well as acting) was what I did to create those comfort zones, that sense of home, after emigrating with my family at a young age. I think the constant in my life has been this continuos uprooting, and traveling. Not just from different cities, and countries, but also from one language to another, from one cultural mindset to a completely different one, etc. What has shaped me as a writer and individual has been this need to adapt, to put aside what one knew in order to survive and thrive in whatever new country I was in.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I was in a theater lobby not too long ago and heard a mother tell her son, who was acting up a tad, that he should behave himself as he was in the theater now. I groaned when I heard this, feeling that we’d surely lost a future audience member. I wish theater wasn’t perceived as being so stiff, stuffy, and inaccessible; or done for a small group of cultural elitists....Of course it would also help if the theater pieces themselves weren’t sometimes stiff, stuffy and inaccessible. It would also help if discussions about theater were woven into the cultural conversation more often. I find it a little depressing when I can’t find American Theater magazine in stores that seem to display every other kind of magazine imaginable. Surely they can find a corner on their endless racks for a magazine that covers the interests and activities of a whole lot of people!
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I admire those who manage to stay in the game despite long periods of seemingly wandering in the wilderness. Basically anyone who keeps at it, in spite of the obstacles, the disappointments, etc. People who take all that crap in stride and still manage to produce good work. (And who are able to get over themselves and move on when the work misfires or isn’t what they hoped it would be. Theater artists who are able to see those dips and disappointments as part of the ride.)
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Theater that doesn’t bore me. I don’t mean to sound flippant. I like theater that grabs my attention and doesn’t let go. Theater that, while being developed, knows an audience will be in attendance at some point. Yes, this can lead to pandering crap. But I am little put off by plays that simply don’t care about their audience. This may very naturally lead to people not showing up. And nothing is more depressing in theater than seeing so many empty seats.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: In spite of what is said - that writing can’t be taught - theater is a craft you can learn. The medium has its own demands and requirements. (Note the many successful novelists who couldn’t make the transition to writing for theater.) And so whether you learn that craft on your own by watching/ reading a lot of plays, or you attend playwriting courses, I would advise paying close attention to what makes this particular mode of expression tick. Nobody can teach you, or give you your voice, yes, but the medium in which you choose to express it can be learnt.