Notes From the Lab: Senior Playwright in Residence Marcus Youssef

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Marcus Youssef (left) and Niall McNeil rehearse in Banff

Over the course of my three week residency as Senior Playwright in Residence at the 2016 Banff Centre Playwrights Lab, I wrote an early draft of Lion’s Den, a play about a low-income housing development in North Vancouver that has set aside an apartment for a recently arrived Syrian refugee. 

I also rewrote and secured a presentation of my theatrical memoir of my Egyptian family’s complicated history and equally complicated relationship to the failed attempt of young Egyptians to fundamentally challenge the ossified, corrupt nature of their country’s leadership both during and after the Arab Spring. It’s called Whose Revolution?

And those were my secondary projects. While at Banff, I also led a one-week workshop of what I believe is one of the riskiest, most forward-thinking and (forgive me, I hate using this word) innovative social or artistic experiments currently taking place, in any sector, in this country at this time. 

Brian Quirt’s tenure as director of the Lab has been marked by a couple of critical innovations. The first is a fierce commitment to an accurate representation of the country’s theatrical community in all aspects of the program. Neither he nor Associate Dramaturg Jenna Rodgers like to talk about it, but the Lab is now a leader among major national theatre institutions in its insistence that participants in the colony represent the ethnic, cultural, age, indigenous, and gender composition of Canada’s actual population. 

He and Jenna have done so not as some kind of weird or condescending act of charity. They’ve done so because they understand that the future of Canada’s artistic vitality depends – I will always argue – almost entirely on our institutions’ ability to represent the lives, experiences and aspirations of all Canadians. It’s not really all that radical a concept — that a country’s cultural production should reflect the lives of the people who inhabit that country. Seems kind of obvious, right? Wouldn’t a culture that fails to do so invite irrelevance, by definition? 

The second major innovation Brian has implemented is the commitment of substantial resources to a partnership-driven opportunity for a company to bring a number of collaborators to the Centre to workshop a project slated for future production. This year, the project was King Arthur's Night, produced by my company, Neworld Theatre, and commissioned by Toronto’s Luminato Festival, with partners the National Arts Centre English Theatre and Burnaby, B.C.’s Down Syndrome Research Foundation. 

This project allowed the Lab to support to a new Canadian play that will appear at major festivals and theatres across the country. It also marked the Colony’s first legitimate attempt to address the last major barrier facing all Canadians as we attempt to manifest a society that offers real opportunities to all the citizens of our country, no matter who they are or where they come from. 

King Arthur's Night is written by myself and my longtime friend and colleague, Niall McNeil. Niall is an actor and theatre-maker whose life includes Down Syndrome. Our first show together, Peter Panties, coproduced by Neworld and Leaky Heaven, was the first fully professional show written by an artist with Down Syndrome in Canada’s history, and was presented to sold out houses and rapturous critical reception in 2011 as part of Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. 

With unprecedented monetary support from large but shortsightedly temporary B.C.-based Olympics-era commissioning programs, we were able to make Peter Panties happen. Barely. The resources required for this work are massive. Our collaboration demands that we write a show when one of the writers’ intellectual ability precludes the physical act of writing. They are large-cast productions with numerous songs and full musical scores. Niall’s staccato idiom lends itself naturally to powerful, idiosyncratic lyric structures. By nature, he’s a helluva lyricist—one of musical director Veda Hille’s favourite song-writing partners. 

We also have to figure out structures that allow Niall’s sometimes utterly brilliant, sometimes also mystifying kinetic, associate riffs on an beloved, iconic story to be meaningful and accessible to audiences at festivals and theatres across Canada.  

Even more importantly we have to figure out how to balance our deep and real desire for artistic success against the sometimes very different personal needs of one of our creative partners. From the beginning we have always said our goal is to treat our long-time collaborator’s artistic desires with the same respect, disdain, laughter, and rigour that we would those of any valued colleague. And, in a week long workshop at Banff with director James Long, composer/musical director Veda Hille and collaborator/Niall’s companion Lucy Cairns, we learned that maybe that’s the easy part. 

We are slated to present King Arthur's Night in four Canadian cities, so far. The cast includes seven professional actors, three musicians, and three additional actors whose lives include Down Syndrome, who we have been working with for two years through Burnaby, B.C.’s Down Syndrome Research Foundation. We did essential creative work at Banff. But honestly we could have accomplished that somewhere else. What we wouldn’t have been able to figure out: how to live together, as full human beings, across and with our differences, in an actual community. 

That’s maybe more true on this project than others I work on. But, if you think about it, it’s also true about everything we do. And, if we’re honest, I think we have to admit that we – the neurotypicals, those who once would have been referred to as “normal” – often don’t do it all that well. Once again, doing this work, I feel privileged with the opportunity to experience and learn this more deeply than I would anywhere else.  

Marcus Youssef is the Artistic Director of Vancouver’s Neworld Theatre. His recent play co-created with James Long, Winners and Losers, has toured Canada and internationally. The ethic and practice of collaboration are central to Marcus’ creative work. His plays, many of which were written or created with friends and colleagues, include: Jabber, How Has My Love Affected You?, Ali and Ali and the aXes of Evil and Ali & Ali: The Deportation Hearings, Everyone, Adrift, 3299: Forms in Order, Peter Panties and A Line in the Sand