Q&A with playwright Marcus Youssef
What inspired you to write
this play? Were the characters, or any aspects of the story, drawn from
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
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
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.?
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.