A Fiendish Conversation with Washington Ensemble Theatre's Ali el-Gasseir
The director of Ed, Downloaded discusses the show's sci-fi heart and the Ensemble's upcoming relocation.
For 10 seasons, Washington Ensemble Theatre has showcased works from up-and-coming writers that have pushed the Seattle theater scene in new and exciting directions. Next season the group moves to a new home at 12th Avenue Arts on Capitol Hill, but there are still a few shows left at its old home. Washington Ensemble Theatre's latest work, Ed, Downloaded, tells the story of a not too distant future where people can digitally live forever in their past memories. The play, directed by the ensemble's lead producer and co-artistic director Ali el-Gasseir, opens this Friday, January 31 and runs through February 24.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to el-Gasseir about Ed, Downloaded's technological vision, Washington Ensemble Theatre's upcoming move, and African cuisine.
So what exactly is Ed, Downloaded about and how does it mix it’s theatrical and video elements?
The premise of the play is that it’s an alternate now or not-too-distant future where, if you’re rich enough, you can buy a program basically where you can download your brain into a computer and live in a virtual heaven of your own creation that’s made of your favorite memories. And you’re not aware that you’re basically drifting in a heaven euphoria after you die. So essentially, it’s a kind of immortality in a way. The video elements are the memories that we see of one of our characters. Eventually you are looking at his memories and you’re looking at people who are altered by them and go inside of them and look at them and examine them and see what they mean. The play, while being about this technology, is also very much about the nature of love and memory. It’s got a lot of heart to it; not just like sci-fi, big philosophical issues in the future kind of thing. It’s how we think about the value of love and how we think about the value of how we remember that love.
As the director, what excites you most about the show?
I love the writer Michael Mitnick. I would easily say that Michael is one of America’s most exciting new theatrical writers. He not only has this show and a lot of others under his belt, but he’s also writing a book of lyrics for a Broadway musical version of Animal House. He was just telling me that he’s working on a new project with Robert Downey Jr. And he just finished filming in South Africa for a script he adapted of The Giver with Jeff Bridges. So he is a fantastic writer, just truly someone who understands human emotion and has a great sense of humor. I feel a lot of young writers aren’t willing to write this kind of fun.
What do you see as the mission of Washington Ensemble Theatre?
We bring new works to Seattle both by local and national writers, but a lot of them are the kind of works that you haven’t had the chance to see yet in Seattle and that we think will have a great life after they’re done here. That’s what we sort of do. We do a lot of world and regional premieres that we know are going to live on. And I think that we’ve had a pretty strong track record. We worked with Elizabeth Meriwether who is the head writer on New Girl and Meg Miroshnik who wrote The Fairytales Lives of Russian Girls, which I directed last year, won the Whiting Writers’ Award.
If you weren’t involved in theater, is there another line of work that you might have wanted to pursue?
The secret thing is that I’ve kind of always wanted to be is a chef. I love cooking and I have been cooking for a long time. Cooking for other people just brings me a lot of joy. It’s really fun. My family’s from North Africa. And so I grew up cooking Libyan food in North Africa. So, I can make some pretty damn good couscous. And I can do most anything Middle Eastern pretty damn well.
How do you think Seattle has influenced Washington Ensemble Theatre?
Well, we are a Capitol Hill entity. I know from talking to the founders that it was very much part of the Capitol Hill arts community from the start. And our move to 12th Avenue Arts couldn’t highlight that even more. Essentially it’s this really new art hub: across the street from Velocity, one block to the Northwest Film Forum, amongst all the fantastic restaurants and near the Century Ballroom. It will be just such a great place for art to happen in that little center of Capitol Hill.
And I think Seattle itself is so different from where I’m from which is San Francisco/Oakland, in that the Bay Area is a collection of all these cities: San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Marin, you know, all these different places. So artists do not collaborate in the same way that they do in Seattle. You could be an artist who just works basically in San Jose, and every once in a while goes to San Francisco for something. But here, when something’s happening, it’s happening in Seattle. And I love that.
Jan 31–Feb 24, Washington Ensemble Theatre, $20