Vince: When did you start writing plays in Seattle?
Yussef: I began focusing on playwriting when I stopped all thoughts of becoming an actor—and later, a filmmaker (I made a short film in Seattle under a pseudonym). I had been writing continuously for awhile, but really applied myself when all these other avenues of expression (I had also written poetry) began to dim in terms of what I was most passionate about. The only other craft I now practice instead of playwriting is the short story.
Vince: Do you have a favorite routine/ritual/way of working?
Yussef: Every day, every morning, whether I feel like it or not, I go to my comfy chair, plop a cushion on my lap, and my computer on top of that, and then begin to gnash my teeth. I usually curse and grumble on my way to that chair and computer with the attendant feeling: “I’ve got nothing, I’ve got nothing.” Then I will reread what I’ve written, really begin to gnash my teeth, and then I will start work.
Vince: You and I have both lived here for quite a few years. I’d love to get your impressions on how Seattle theater has changed over the years. For playwrights certainly, but also in general terms.
Yussef: Gosh, a whole chapter could be written answering that question. It has risen and fallen and risen. Much like the ebb and flow of most theater scenes around the country. Only I’m not sure to what extent the vibrancy that you find in Seattle is replicated in other cities, perhaps only in the major cities. And the obvious reason is that Seattle is one of those hubs that theater practitioners will gravitate to if they aren’t ready for—or never want to go to—New York. So we get a lot of talented people passing through. Some of this talent stays long enough to create theaters and a theater scene, long enough to hone their craft and establish themselves, and move up the theater chain.
Speaking specifically of playwrights: like the farmers’ markets and the general food movement to buy local, I think there’s a greater willingness to entertain the idea that some talented playwrights might actually live in these parts! That perhaps you don’t have to have the imprimatur of a New York production (with the requisite glowing New York Times review) to stage a play in one of the three big rep houses. More, I think there’s an activist strain to this—a feeling that this is something theaters should be doing. That part of the mission of any theater should be the nurturing and staging of local playwrights. This is new. It’s been a long time coming and still has a way to go, but I do feel it’s begun. Much more prevalent than when I first got here. And the theaters who do this should be applauded.
Not that I don’t want to see the plays that are being celebrated in other cities, or a classic that hasn’t been staged in a while, but in that mix, I do want to see plays by local playwrights.
The unstated sentiment used to be that if you’re living in Seattle (or anywhere outside of New York) then you can’t be that good. While that feeling lingers a little, I do feel that attitude is beginning to change.
For the longest time, I used to tell people that Seattle was where I lived but that it wasn’t really my theater town (since most of my plays were being staged elsewhere). Now I’m happy to say that Seattle feels much more hospitable to me as a playwright.
Vince: Do you think there’s a Seattle style? Anything about us that makes us unique as a theater town?
Yussef: What’s surprising to me is that you’d think the Seattle theater scene would be more open to riskier choices, in terms of choosing plays that are a little edgier, even more political. Seattle being, for the most part, a liberal city, you’d think that would be reflected in the plays selected. But perhaps more than being liberal or progressive, Seattle is also known for being very civil. We are a polite town. That politeness gene, I sense, seems to influence the selection of plays, as much as anything else. But then I’ve always felt theaters in general are inherently conservative, especially the big LORT houses, but that’s a whole other discussion.
Vince: Have you seen anything here lately that you loved?
Yussef: I recently saw Stuck by Jessico Hatlo at Washington Ensemble Theatre and loved it—and she’s a local playwright! Also Lark Eden at Theater Schmeater was enjoyable for very different reasons. The playwright, Natalie Symons, is also local.
Vince: What’s kept you here? Have you been tempted to go? Or have you left, and then returned?
Yussef: Cheaper rent than New York City. (Though things are getting a bit pricy here as well). I’m also a big fan of open sky, lakes, mountains. And nestled within all that scenery is a city with just enough cultural events to keep me busy.
Sure, I sometimes question my reasons for staying, in spite of the lovely environment. I tell myself I should move to New York and ply my trade there. I guess it comes down to money and quality of life issues. I like New York. I actually think it’s a friendly city. A very diverse one, which makes it all the more appealing. But logistically speaking, a move there would be very tough, unnecessarily tough, when I’m not sure that as a writer I need to physically be there, and as I said, Seattle can be plenty stimulating.
Vince: Are there people/organizations/other kinds of support here that make this a good place to write?
Yussef: There are starting to be. It could be stronger. One of the things that would lure me to New York would be an organization like the Lark Play Development Center. That really is an amazing incubator for works in progress. I wish something similar existed here—in terms of the talent it assembles, the pull it has to draw in more talent, and its influence in seeding the works it helps develop out into the larger theater community.
Seattle is beginning to generate this type of support. Both in terms of non-theater organizations that foster new play development, and theaters that are serious about generating new works by local writers.
Yussef: ICTF was a wonderful experience, and I’m not just talking about the trip to the winery and tubing down the river, or laying by the pool, or the communal chats at night under stars you never get to see in a city. It was also a safe, no-pressure environment to work on one’s play. (Yes, we also worked). And the fact that they only focus on two playwrights (so far) meant extra attention and focus. So a big thanks to Allen Fitzpatrick and Karen Skrinde for creating that environment.
ACT has shifted a little in its mission in really wanting to reach out to local talent—actors, directors, designers, writers, etc. There’s so much local talent to showcase and ACT is doing just that.
I was lucky in getting a dream cast and Anita Montgomery as a director. Again, all Seattle-based talent. I feel there’s a particular energy created when everything is homegrown. A greater investment is made. Everyone seems to care more, even the audience, I feel.
Vince: If you could change three things about Seattle theater, what would they be?
Yussef: Greater cultural diversity in our theater seasons. (I think ACT is stepping up to the plate in that regard, and there are smaller organizations that are also producing work from playwrights you don’t often hear from, which is great). I think that’s it, actually. The other things I might wish for you can’t really impose. It’s a matter of taste. I like plays that take the political bull by the horns, so to speak; that try to address whatever the playwright feels passionate about. I don’t realize I miss these plays until I see one that directly engages the world I live in. I walk away feeling very energized by such works.
There used to be more plays that addressed something substantial, the polis, the political forces that impact us, and how those forces impacted the personal, and vice-versa. As I said, you’d think Seattle theater would be more politically engaged than it is. That it’s not is surprising to me.
Vince: What do we still lack in this town? How do we improve?
Yussef: I would like to see a professional organization like the Lark operating in this city.
Vince: What are you working on next?
Yussef: I’m working on a Middle East America Commission (which is run by three theater organizations: the Lark in NYC, Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco, and Silk Road Rising in Chicago). The play is called The Mummy and the Revolution. It’s a comedy/farce that takes as its starting point the recent revolution in Egypt. I am also one of two writers (along with Stephanie Timm) helping to adapt The Ramayana for ACT.
Vince: If we could change anything, how would Seattle theater look in five years? How about the American theater overall?
Yussef: I wish theaters had a lot more cash flow so I wouldn’t feel compelled to write plays with such small casts. For a country this expansive physically, and this diverse culturally, it’s strange that we turn out these small plays, usually very domestic in nature, with increasingly smaller and smaller casts. Then we get all excited by a British import with a large cast that has political relevancy! I also wish artistic directors were as brave as their audiences. I think audiences are much more adventurous than some artistic directors imagine.
Vince: What impact does something like the Steinberg Award have? Does the immediate attention change how you perceive yourself as a playwright, does it interfere with focus? Are you suddenly recognized for the work you’ve been doing all along? Does it open doors that had seemed closed before?
Yussef: No, it doesn’t alter my sense of being a working writer with a craft I try and improve on with each play I write. As I was telling someone, at this stage in my “career” an award like this isn’t a pedestal, so to speak, that elevates me in any way, but more a life raft that prevents me from sinking! It keeps me afloat—both financially (what a boon indeed) and psychologically. It keeps those doubts that threaten to overwhelm any writer at bay—at least for a little while longer. The Steinberg Award is a big encouragement to keep going.
It refocuses my energies.
But I don’t know that it puts a stamp of approval on my other work. The stars aligned just right this time round. A great cast, direction and a stellar production at ACT helped a lot.
As far as opening doors, it’s too early to tell. A few years ago, I won the American Theater Critics Association M. Elizabeth Osborn Award for a play called Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat. It has yet to receive a second production (though it is scheduled to appear in an anthology). The Steinberg Award is a bigger deal, yes, and perhaps it will bring the play to the attention of other theaters. But, as I said, it’s too early to tell if some doors will start to open.
Vince: Also, there's been a lot of discussion about the seasons of the big regional theaters, particularly vigorous conversation about the Guthrie season of primarily white, male playwrights. Can the big theaters afford to tell stories like the ones you’re writing?
Yussef: How do I answer this question without sounding like one of the unwashed howling outside the palace gates? There are some plays I write that I would never expect one of the big houses to produce. For various reasons I know those plays would be perceived as being a little outside their comfort zone. As not being “on topic” in terms of the accepted range of discourse the big houses allow in their choice of plays. I also believe that these particular plays of mine are better served in smaller, intimate spaces—in theaters where there’s already an established expectation that the audience will get to see something a little different from the type of plays staged by most LORT spaces.
Certain plays are simply better served in smaller theaters.
On the other hand, I also write plays that I am pretty confident a mainstream, regional theater subscriber audience would take to. I’ve sat in enough of the big regional theaters to get a sense of what goes over and what doesn’t (in so far as anyone can predict, or tell, of course). I don’t have an answer as to why those “mainstream” plays of mine aren’t getting more play.
Part of the reason, of course, is because we have plenty of wonderful plays out there circulating already. I actually think we’re in a rich period in terms of American playwriting. And theaters have limited slots. It’s never easy to choose a season from all the good material that’s out there.
Having said that, I do sense—and it’s only a sense I have, I may be totally off—that theaters are fearful of staging certain (quality) plays because they worry their audiences will perceive them as too foreign. I think this is linked to the same concern that certain theaters have of staging plays that are deemed too “political.” And the work of “ethnic”/ “minority” writers are intrinsically felt to be political by the very fact that they come from minorities. Which is why I sense (again, a feeling, I may be way off the mark) that the same subject matter might be dealt with by a non-minority writer and—in this new context—the sting of the controversial matter is removed. It is no longer seen to be part of an agenda if it’s written by a non-minority writer. It isn’t even political any more. It is now a social issue. Something you can debate comfortably without feeling there’s “skin in the game,” so to speak. No one’s grinding an ax; and if they are, then one can even applaud them for wading into such difficult subject matter.
I do not mean this to be a criticism. More a question. As I said, I think we’re in a pretty rich period of playwriting. I’m excited by the full range of what’s being written and produced. And I think theaters are taking note that the demographics of the playwriting pool are expanding. And some effort is being made to address that. I just think it takes a second for everyone—playwrights, theaters, and their audiences—to catch up with each other, and be on the same page.
And for those playwrights, of whatever stripe, who are able to get their plays staged at these big houses—good for them. This is a tough business for everyone. Everyone has a fair share of obstacles to overcome. When a good play makes it, regardless of who writes it, it’s good for all of us.