When Egyptian Americans Leila and Rashid hit a snag in their relationship, they try to spice things up with a menage a trois. But in local playwright Yussef El Guindi’s Threesome, what starts as a comedic farce soon transitions into an exploration of modern cultural tensions, sexual politics, and female oppression. El Guindi has become one of the leading voices both in the Seattle theater scene and the Arab American theatrical landscape by consistently turning out plays like Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, which won the prestigious Steinberg/American Theater Critics Association’s New Play Award in 2012.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with El Guindi about what draws playwrights to Seattle, telling immigrant stories, listening to his characters' voices.
What are your favorite aspects of Threesome?
Whenever I set out to write a play, I don’t outline, so it’s always a circumstantial situation. There are particular voices that I hear percolating that pique my interest. I tend to just follow them and go, “Well, what are you chatting about?” The situation they’re in kind of grabs me, and I go in and explore.
With this play, I heard these characters; they were in bed. And at a certain point, I realized that they were waiting for somebody; another individual to come in. And, of course, that got very interesting for me. This couple has invited a third person to join them in bed for a threesome. I thought, “Oh, okay.”
As I began to get a feel for who these characters were, the situation got even more interesting for me, because the person who initiated it—the woman—was really trying to make a point about sexuality and her right to have her own fantasies. Later in the play we come to understand that she suffered a sexual assault and worse, and that part of what she is doing that particular night is a way to reclaim her own body, reclaim her right to her own sexuality, and not to be cowed, shamed, or feel that she has to hide herself as a consequence.
Anytime you have characters fumbling about sexually…literally and emotionally, when people are naked and engaged in this sort of thing, there’s a vulnerability about everybody and a pathos. A lot of humor actually arises from that vulnerability and willingness to risk and put yourself out there. So I felt a great affinity to these characters in the situation they are in because of the risk they were taking. So I think I was sort of sinking my teeth into that; into these three vulnerable characters who are each risking something by doing what they are doing.
Is there a certain head space you need to get into in order to hear the character voices? What’s your process as far as that goes?
I was talking about this with somebody, and I was saying that it was a little bit strange because I will sometimes think of a play and it’s very dramatic. I think of all of the plot points, and nothing transpires from that. Then again, I will hear some snippet of dialogue, some innocuous sentence, but something about that intrigues and grips me and makes me want to find out, “Who is this person? Where are they?” So I can never tell.
I mean, who knows the process? Books are written about what triggers the creative process. Why do I write one play and not another? I know some people like to start out with an outline, other people don’t. There is no one way to do anything. It’s kind of a mysterious process, and I kind of like it that way. I get most worried in the process of writing when I begin to think, “Oh, this is what I am writing about; this is the theme,” because then I don’t want to suddenly switch gears. I don’t want my writing to become an illustration of a theme, because then it flattens out. I want to hew very closely to the voices of these characters because they are much more interesting than any particular agenda I might have. Theme as a result. At the end of the play I go, “Oh, this is what this play is about,” or at least my take on it.
You don’t want to force the characters into voices that seem unnatural to them.
Yeah. Sometimes I am accused of being didactic in plays and I always think, “Well, I’m not being didactic.” [Laughs] These characters are usually tuned in, politically speaking. For a lot of these characters in my plays, the personal is political. In this play in particular, the character is very much saying, “The personal is political, and I’m making a political statement of sorts by what I am doing.”
In a lot of parts of the world domestic drama is political drama. They can’t ignore the politics going on around them. What they may be talking about around the dinner table, in the family setting, is politics. I think it is a great privilege to be able to ignore politics if you don’t much care for it. But, for a lot of people around the world, you can’t ignore politics. You ignore it at your peril. You have to know what is going on around you.
If you weren’t a writer, is there another line of work you would’ve pursued?
I wanted to be an actor. In fact, playwriting was plan B. I very much, passionately wanted to be an actor. And then somewhere in the mid-'90s, I sort of lost that drive. But since the age of 15 up until like 36, I was convinced I was going to make my life as an actor.
How has Seattle influenced your work?
I need a very supportive environment in which to write. Seattle up until recently—up until it became Seattle on steroids with Amazon moving in, and rents going up, and everything changing quite radically—it was this midlevel, midsized city that was just right for me to do my work. It was just a very nurturing environment. There was enough going on to keep you interested creatively, in terms of theater and museums. The city fed me creatively, and enabled me to write. There were enough outlets here for me to bring my work. And the theater ACT has been a great support to me.
Are there any up-and-comers in the Seattle theater scene that you think people should check out?
There are a lot of really good playwrights here in Seattle. I’m not sure if you would call them up-and-coming: Brendan Healy, Elizabeth Heffron, José Amador, Stephanie Timm, Wayne Rowley. Gosh, I know that I am missing out a bunch of people. We are very rich in writers and playwrights here.
Do you think there is any specific reason for that?
People migrate. August Wilson migrated here. Robert Schenkkan did the same. It’s a great place to live. It’s culturally rich. It’s not some backwater. I love the sky. I love the water. That all feeds me. I just think that it’s a really lovely environment to live in, and that can’t but help affect the writing. As opposed to living in some little rat hole in New York in some outer borough paying [an obscene amount] to have little critters as roommates. It’s miserable. If I was a millionaire, I might still live in Seattle, but then New York would be feasible. It’s just not feasible now.
Do you feel any added pressure when you’re writing since your plays often touch on the relatively underrepresented Arab American experience?
These are stories I want to tell, so I don’t necessarily feel pressure. I sometimes say, when asked, that I really like the immigration experience. Not all the time— Threesome is not about the immigrant experience—but a lot of my plays are, and I use Arabs and Arab Americans because it’s just so much easier. When I want to make a cultural reference, I know what I am talking about. Very often they’re stand-ins for a lot of immigrants. A lot of immigrants will come up to me and say, “Oh, that’s my story!” and I appreciate that.
There are certain specific aspects the Arab American experience or the Muslim American experience that I write about. There is a dearth stories about those two groups, and when there are stories it’s usually because of a misrepresentation of sorts. But it’s not something that I think about while I’m writing.
Thru June 28, ACT Theatre, $20