Friday, May 30, 2014

SOAP Fest 2014 includes a Yussef El Guindi One-Act. (He’s ‘Local’ Unless Rent Gets Too High)

SOAP Fest Playwrights Yussef El Guindi, Juliet Waller Pruzan, K. Brian Neel and Brian Healey (photo Ann-Margaret Johnson/Sassafras Photos)

Yussef El Guindi and cat (photo Amal Toleimat)

First there was Sandbox Artist Collective where a bunch of theater “professionals” (does that mean they make money that way?) got together to create work and support each other. Then they expanded into a radio show Sandbox Radio and after that, they decided to create a play festival, Sandbox One Act Play Festival which this year has performances  (tickets) June 4-8 at West of Lenin. Who knows? Is Sandbox Coffee (?) next?

SOAP Fest includes four new plays by four local playwrights: Yussef El Guindi, Brendan Healey, K. Brian Neel and Juliet Waller Pruzan. I spoke with Yussef El Guindi about his participation in the Collective and life in general as a playwright in Seattle.

Yussef says that he was approached and invited to become a member of the Collective. “Then I got an email about SOAP Fest. Did I want to submit something, it’s blind submission (no playwright names attached to the considerations), and my piece was selected. They like to pick people from the Collective (to create the work), and Anita Montgomery is part of the Collective. She liked The Tyrant and wanted to direct it. It will be fully staged. I asked if we could cast G. Valmont Thomas. It’s an extended monologue, about 30 minutes long.

“I have been attending rehearsal. It’s a new play, so I’m listening very carefully to how it’s unfolding. I’m making cuts. I’m moving thing along, making adjustments. The actor might point something out that is tricky to articulate, so I might adjust that. There’s a play on the page and then you hear it, and sometimes it’s a great feeling. G. Val is such a great actor that I feel bolstered for my instincts in the character.

The Tyrant is a Middle Eastern leader who has been deposed by his people and handed over to Americans (a la Noriega or if Hussein was brought here) and he has been given the opportunity to explain himself to an American audience. I had already finished a draft of it and it was around the time for me to send it to see where I could hear it. And this was just the thing.”

Yussef is continuing to gain recognition around the country for his fresh insight into the American immigrant experience, winning the Steinberg/ATCA New Play award in 2012 for his play Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World. That play was part of the Icicle Creek New Play Festival in 2010 and went on to become a main stage production at ACT Theatre in 2011.

Yussef came to Seattle in 1994 after a sojourn as Playwright in Residence at Duke University in North Carolina for seven years. He says – only a little tongue in cheek, “I’m here because it’s a good art and theater town and the rent’s good. If the rent keeps going up till I feel like I’m living in the Outer Boroughs or Brooklyn, then I might as well live in the Outer Boroughs or Brooklyn.”

His original reason for moving here was: “a good theater town that is not New York and has a good bus system (I don’t drive). That left Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle. Chicago and Minneapolis are cold. I did not want to live in a city where you might die if you don’t have the right clothing outside. Seattle is temperate.”

At first, rents were affordable. “I used to pay $645/month for a wonderful apartment on Queen Anne and in 11 years it went up to (a still affordable) $720/month. Then I found this place on Capitol Hill for $795 in 2005 and now it’s $1145. For Capitol Hill, $1145 is now average, so people might not think that is that expensive, but yes it is.” After all, even though his national recognition is skyrocketing, that doesn’t mean income all of a sudden skyrockets with it.

Yussef does rely mostly on his playwriting for his living, though he notes, “When Tony Kushner, a top playwright in the country, says you can’t make a living as a playwright, then that means something. You can have moments where you live off your earnings from your productions, but then there is (only) the odd check here and there.” He adds, “I’m frugal. I don’t have a car, I don’t have lots of insurances. I don’t have a family. I just pay for rent and for spaghetti. And beans on toast and eggs on toast and toast.” Someone should feed this man! Invite him to dinner!

Yussef says that he really found his métier (that’s such a good word and I just used it – BOOM) after he became a U.S. citizen in 1996. He realized that what he wanted to write about was the immigrant experience. “When I became a citizen, I felt like I was part of an immigrant tradition here. This country has a tradition of people like me who become Americans and part of the fabric of the country. It was very visceral light bulb moment. Suddenly I understood my subject matter. That rounded the circle for me.”

He was born and lived in Egypt (where much of his family still is) until age three and then lived in London through his teen years. He always wanted to be an actor and applied to several conservatories in the U.S. for a Masters and the “back up plan” was to Carnegie-Mellon for play writing. “I came to audition and all six acting schools rejected me and Carnegie-Mellon accepted me for play writing! I had no idea what I was going to do. I had no intention of being a playwright!”

He obviously managed to figure it out and began successfully submitting his work and gaining productions. The position (teaching) at Duke was a good way to get a Green Card and become a permanent resident.

Yussef writes every day and says he writes slowly, working on at least two pieces at a time. “For me, I have to squeeze toothpaste out of a tube when it’s exhausted, the last remnants. Just a little bit more and a little bit more. I’m methodical. I can end up, if I push too hard, misguided. I think (writers’) blocks are good. I don’t outline. I discover the play as I go along. Blocks are a way for me to stop and think about it. I’ve learned to appreciate moments when I’m blocked, and not panic.”

He has written short stories and a few short films. He says he used to write “massive plays about heavy subjects,” and was able to “reboot” to writing 10-minute pieces that he submitted to fringe organization in Seattle, and credits that with part of his success.

What motivates him to keep going? He says, simply, “When you have G. Val saying your words… as a playwright, it’s why I do this!”

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