Q&A with playwright Marcus Youssef

Q&A with playwright Marcus Youssef

What inspired you to write this play? Were the characters, or any aspects of the story, drawn from personal experience?

Both my wife and I are from blended families that experienced divorce when we were kids. Definitely that was something in my own experience that made me want to write this story. It has always struck me that this is such an interesting time for so many folks, in ways that don’t always get recognized. The winter holidays are the primary time when most of us hang out with our families, which is amazing and is something we all look forward to. It can also be intense and sometimes stressful. I was curious about how, when a family goes through separation, everybody tries to work out what’s going on through the rituals and events that they are familiar with. They all have to be renegotiated.  

I was also inspired by the holiday rituals I know best, which are the movies so many of us watch, particularly A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. It struck me that a great way to explore the ways families negotiate change during the holidays would be a kind of contemporary mash-up retelling of some of those iconic, ritualized holiday stories. 

The specific character drawn most directly from my personal experience is Esther, the grandmother, who is sent by the Border Guard to the Afterlife back to her family after passing away from Alzheimer’s. My mum had early-onset Alzheimer’s, and, like Esther, she was a very funny, very rebellious person, long before it was considered socially acceptable for women to be rebellious. That said, Esther is also very much a fictional character with her own unique story. 

In particular, why did you decide to write a holiday-themed play? 

For the reasons I say above, and also because one day a few years ago in the fall, my wife came home from a rehearsal with her community choir, the Kingsgate Chorus. She’d told me they were singing a song for the holiday concert called “Christmas Unicorn,” by Sufjan Stevens. I had never heard of Sufjan, so she played me the song. I was so affected by its charm, its silliness and whimsy, and also its complexity and the way it acknowledged how the holidays are a complicated time for all – or most – of us. Then, I listened to more of Sufjan’s Christmas music – he’s written a ton, he loves the holidays – and I thought, “This is it. This is how I can tell this story about three generations of a family trying to figure out a new way of being together.” I knew immediately that the songs could be both in the show and an inspiration for my writing, making something that is hopefully irreverent and funny, and also heartfelt, moving, and complicated. 

What was the writing process like?

Interesting, in part because some of the characters first had life in a one-act play that I wrote for Geordie Theatre in Montreal. So, it’s been fun and also sometimes challenging to let go of what happened in that one-act to find this much different story. Otherwise, it’s been really great. Ashlie [Corcoran], Steven Drover, Emma Tibaldo, and – before she left the Arts Club – Rachel Ditor have been extremely supportive of my desire to tell the story, and also extremely rigorous in helping me sort out a whole bunch of different elements. These include Sufjan’s songs, the video game world that the characters enter when they go on their journey, and the sensitivity required to tell a story about multiple generations and what gets handed down from one to the next, especially when – like every single one of us – what’s happened hasn’t been completely perfect.

I think the single most exciting moment in the process was when Sufjan let us know that he was willing to give us the rights to use his songs. You never know when you have an idea like that, and I was very nervous when sending him an early draft of the script. It’s hard for me to imagine this play without the music that inspired it and which gives it emotional depth. So, when his people got back to us (and believe me, he has people!) and said they were into being a part of this project, well … it’s on the career highlight list. Collaborating with an academy-award nominee original hipster! ;-). Mishelle Cutler’s arrangements for the actors are also perfect – gorgeous, playful, and moving.

Did you know all along that you wanted to incorporate the songs by Sufjan Stevens? If so, did these (decidedly non-traditional) holiday songs guide your thinking as you developed the story?

Yes, I did. After Amanda played me “Christmas Unicorn,” I fell deep into Sufjan’s music – the two Christmas double albums but also his huge collection of other records, not to mention his beautiful Oscar-nominated song for the movie Call Me by Your Name. It’s kind of like American filmmaker [Paul Thomas] Anderson’s movie Magnolia. Anderson wrote it in part as an homage to the music of singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, and the movie is full of her songs. This is very much the same thing. Inspired by, an homage to, and a big part of. 

How do you imagine this working on stage, particularly its more unconventional elements—the text-messaging, apps, VR scenes, etc.? 

Incorporating communication technology into my stage plays is something I’ve been doing for a while now. Jabber, my play for teens that has been touring all over the world since 2012 (with three productions in Germany next year plus two more in Greece and Nova

Scotia), was the first attempt I made to write contemporary digital communication into a play. Its success made me realize audiences can really enjoy the drama of texting. It has so much that is unsaid. If handled right, it can be pretty compelling and funny. In the VR game the characters inhabit, the pleasure comes from seeing live humans behave as if they are in a computer game, with all the limitations of those character-based games. Which are pretty realistic, but also not realistic at all. It’s proving to be very funny and then, surprisingly, quite moving, as the game they are in suddenly becomes quite personal. So yeah, I like trying to see where the various intersections between our highly mediated world and the world of live performance can be. It’s like a game, in a way.

What project or projects are you working on now?

Oh, boy … a bunch. As I mentioned, my play Jabber has five productions around the world this season. A writing residency at the Stratford Festival in September. There, I will start writing two new commissions, one for Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, and another for the UK’s Farnham Maltings, where I’m the International Associate. Plus, maybe a couple of others that I can’t talk about yet but will be exciting if they happen. With James Long, I’m also writing a screenplay adaptation of our play Winners and Losers for filmmaker Mina Shum and the production company Thoughts from the Asylum. We’re very close to a first draft and it’s my first screenplay, so that’s exciting. I’m acting in Neworld Theatre’s production of Boy in the Moon, based on the memoir by Globe journalist Ian Brown, at the Cultch and Western Canada Theatre in March and April. Plus, a bit of other touring of existing work. And creating Democratic Set for Neworld and Australia’s Back to Back Theatre at the PuSh Festival in January. And a two-month residency at The McLoughlin Gardens on Vancouver Island next summer. If all that’s not enough, I have another holiday show premiering this Christmas: East Van Panto: Pinocchio. It’s my second Panto for Theatre Replacement, after last year’s Wizard of Oz. It is a joyful project, where I get to both celebrate and poke fun at the neighbourhood my family and I have lived for close to 30 years. It opens around the same time as Christmas-ish. So yeah, a lot. 

It’s a Wonderful Christmas-ish Holiday Miracle

By Marcus Youssef Featuring music from Songs for Christmas and Silver & Gold by Sufjan Stevens
November 21–December 22
Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre
The holidays are all about loved ones. But what happens when your parents get divorced, your kid brother is best friends with a stick bug named Ralphie, and your grandma’s ghost starts appearing with advice—and her iPhone? OMG! It’s a Wonderful Life meets Modern Family in this new Canadian comedy about a family during a complicated season.
Buy Tickets From $29
Posted on 22nd Nov 2019