Yussef El Guindi is one of the most exciting playwrights in the country, and he happens to live in Seattle. His 2015 play at ACT, Threesome, was so good, it's imprinted on my mind, so good, it left audiences dazed. That same year, the playwright won a Stranger Genius Award.
His newest piece, People of the Book, will have its world premiere at ACT on September 6. It's a play about art, jealousy, sex, and war. It is a work of constantly escalating tension, and it has only four characters, two of whom are European American, one of whom is Middle Eastern American, and one of whom is Middle Eastern.
And the center of the story is a memoir written by a soldier, a memoir that someone else in the play suspects is not true. When ACT recently won a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help produce this work, ACT's managing director commented that the play, like El Guindi's previous works, "will once again have audiences leaning in and questioning what they know."
This play is like a bullet—it goes below the surface quickly, and then it's all over. No intermission. Do you think that plays, overall, should be shorter?
Not necessarily. Though, like any audience member, I don't want to feel trapped in a play that seems interminable. Any play or performance needs to take as much time as it needs to unfold in a way that makes it work. We've all been to short one-acts that feel too long, and some two-hour-plus plays feel like they zip by.
I love plays without intermissions, but I am easily bored.
Yes, brevity is a lovely thing. As a playwright, the one crime I cannot commit is to bore an audience. I am quite ruthless when it comes to cutting, and have in the past been stopped from cutting more lest I start cutting the very things that are engaging the audience. I remember a while ago, my favorite type of play to write was a full-length play without intermission. I saw that as a challenge. Preferably lights up: start of play; lights down: end of play. All very Aristotelian.
But theaters didn't like that ("Can you please put in an intermission so we can sell drinks?"), and there would frequently be a slight put-down by the critics that the play was no more than a "one-act" (implying that serious plays had intermissions). So I learned to construct plays around two acts, with the first act ending on a big hook to bring the audience back. It's rather teeth-gnashing for me that now the new call is for plays without intermissions! A format I'm happy to return to, but... who knows what the trend will be 10 years from now.
In the first scene, a man is admiring a cardboard cutout of a woman. Is that how you think people see each other—as cardboard cutouts?
Interesting observation, given that the play deals in part with what we choose to project onto others. And certainly stereotypes still abound in various media, and they come up in the interactions most of us have with people. We all have a tendency to want to reach conclusions about people, sooner rather than later, so as to reduce the stress of uncertainty.
I tend to be somewhat forgiving of people who foist their stereotypes onto Arabs and Muslims, for example, unless this foisting is agenda-driven and threatening. People can't help having the misinformed opinions they often have, given the reductive stories floating out there in mainstream media. Unless they make a point of going deeper, then yes, certain people become no more than cardboard cutouts in others' eyes.
In addition to subverting stereotypes about nationalities and religions, your plays subvert stereotypes about men and women. Is it just me or are the women in your plays more powerful than the men?
I think you may be the first person to have made this observation, or at least shared it with me. I can't say I set out to do this, but yes, in the vast majority of my plays, the women are always a tad more ascendant than the men.
Not sure why that is. I don't know if that's some natural tendency to root for those characters most up against it (which usually tend to be women), or a visceral distaste for bullies (most often men) and championing those who push back against them. Or simply it's the dramatist in me who knows it's more dramatic to showcase someone asserting themselves in an environment that's hostile to them.
It could also just be that I grew up in a family of very strong women. And that strength often gets written into the characters in my plays.