Thought Residency: Marcus Youssef

Thought Residency: Marcus Youssef


Big THANKS to the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance for supporting Marcus Youssef’s Thought Residency.

Marcus Youssef here, thought number 15, I think. In the rehearsal room with Back to Back Theatre working on their project, the Democratic Set. Thinking about the way narrative is constructed in this image-based video/theatre project and how the creator/facilitators just kind of respond to offers that all these individual non-professionals and professionals make in these little, short pieces; and then weave them together through the kind of introduction of different prop elements and set elements and movement elements and construct meaning out of what is a random series of kind of offers.


Marcus Youssef, thought number 14. I’m thinking about the nature of this form, the thought residency. I think the intention is to capture a thought in the moment of having it. That’s been my experience. I have a thought and I think, “OK, this will be great. This is a thought worth exploring or sharing.” But it’s funny. Something happens because I don’t alway — I don’t usually go and record that thought. I kind of file it in my brain for later and then I do what I’m doing now, which is attempt to recapture that thought hours or a day later. At which time it’s not the same.  Because it’s not happening in that context in my mind. And it makes me think of the Internet and how it’s trying to capture the moment and how — I said — I have to stop because it’s too long.


Hi, it’s Marcus Youssef and it’s thought number 13.

I’m sitting in a rehearsal room with Back to Back theater from Australia, beginning work on their project, The Democratic set. And thinking about Back to back, which is a company, that has inspired me and my work, or aspects of my work, for close to 15 years. It’s an ensemble that is mixed-ability. It’s neurodiverse folks and neurotypical folks, and they make extraordinary shows that — in which disability, intellectual disability, is not the focus at all. It is just a fact that occurs in the performances. And I’m super excited to have the opportunity to work with them for the next week and also really shy and feeling sort of useless. (At this moment, ed.)


Hi, it’s Marcus Youssef. Thought number eleven.

I’m thinking about the recent events in Iran and the assassination of the Iranian political and military leader. And then also in particular, the images of his funeral and the sort of breathless coverage of the people who are trampled and the millions of Iranians who are out, at least according to the news reports I saw, mourning his death. And the way this image of millions of Iranians out in the streets has driven the narrative of the West’s relationship to Iran and the Middle East more broadly for such a long time. And how these stories just keep repeating with the same kind of exact visual representation over and over again. Especially in the era of 24-hour news where it’s like every single thing seems important. Yet this is exactly what we were thinking and feeling and seeing and being told in the wake of the Shah’s death in 1980 or not. Not the Shah sorry, the Ayatollah’s death.

Hi, it’s Marcus Youssef and this is number 11. I’m thinking about – whatever – the usual thoughts of how toxic social media is. But in particular about – the fewer and fewer times I’m on social media recently – how those feelings of resentment and upset I have about my friends posts, which are always about their success. And thinking about Shoshana Zuboff’s book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and all the data analysis stuff that’s come out in the last year. And how I just literally want to talk to all of my friends and say, let’s stop. Like me too, because I post successes on social media too. Because it feels like the only way to advertise it. But like, to just like, let’s just stop. Let’s just stop. Can we all just stop? Which I get is only part of the picture, but it’s what I want to do.


Hi, it’s Marcus Youssef. Thought number 10. Thinking about the number of times that I’ve been in rehearsal rooms, mostly as a writer recently, and had my language or perspective or presumptions challenged – often about gender fluidity or, I guess, gender identities. And how that’s been mostly great. Like, I’m always kind of like, “Huh? What? Huh?” And that makes me think about the condition of getting older, and as a political person who always thought they would be on the cutting edge and leading the thinking on how we think about ourselves and each other relationally … how that changes. And what an interesting, provocative and kind of cool place it is. If difficult to occupy — being the one who doesn’t know.


Marcus Youssef here. Thought number nine. Thinking about a conversation I had with Sarah Benson last week. She’s the artistic director of Soho Rep. And was a big part of developing the play Fairview, which is an extraordinary play about race in the United States, and representation of race in the U.S. In which, like so much of the work I’m most excited by right now, the form, formal inventions perfectly reflect the analysis and the exploration and investigation of the content. Anyway, talking to Sarah about how that occurred, like how they discovered these formal inventions. Because it’s pretty it’s pretty formerly inventive. It starts like you think you’re in a three-act play and you’re not at all. And yet you are. And it was heartening to hear from her how long and involved that process was and how much time it required. And how many investigations of what they were doing and throwing out what they were doing or digging deeper into what they were doing. Just a good reminder of how formal invention, yeah — is as deep – like a struggle — as any other kind of creation.


Hi, it’s Marcus Yousef, thought number eight. I’m thinking about being a freelancer and how I’m no longer artistic director at Neworld. I stepped down from that position and the difference between controlling the conditions under which we make work. And when we don’t, when you’re working in relationship with others who control those. And the kind of tradeoff which is that — like I stepped down from Neworld because I kind of had stopped sleeping through the night because there’s all the details in my head, the stress that I had worked myself into it was way too much. I’ve been relieved of that, which is so great. And on the other side, it’s a different position to be not in control of the conditions that will manifest the creation of the new things that I’m working on.


Hi, it’s uh Marcus Youssef here with thought number seven, which I think might extend into thoughts number eight and nine. Um, thinking about Saturday night when, uh, my partner and I were invited to a party for someone in our community, who was actually a theatre person. Um, and we didn’t realize it — we knew she was uh sick — um but we didn’t realize it was actually the party the night before she, uh, decided to, uh, end her life. So it was kind of like her assisted suicide party. Um, and I’m still absorbing that event. She, uh, killed herself yesterday at 2:00 p.m. Um, and by all accounts, it was extraordinarily beautiful. The party was, um, overwhelming and beautiful. And I’m out of time. But, um, one of the things that occurred to us is that this is the beginning of this ritual becoming a part of our lives. Um, now that this is a choice we in Canada can make legally. And it is going to change us. Um, yeah, and I’ll talk more later.


Marcus Youssef here with thought number six.

At a production of a mainstream, big theatre musical and thinking about how it’s illegal for me to take this picture. And how I really want to take a picture because this set’s really beautiful — I’m not going to say what the production is. The set’s really, really beautiful. And yeah, it’s just the risk — this is a boring thought — but the rigamarole around the photographic recording of performance. And what that does and doesn’t mean, and how much time we’ve spent over the years just trying to get permission to share our work so that it can live.


Marcus Youssef here, this is thought number five.

Thinking about the ideology of busy-ness and its connection to technology. And how, you know, as we all know, like busyness can be sort of weaponized. Or I feel like I weaponize it in relationship to other people. “I’m so busy. I’m so busy.” But how also that’s a real thing. And the desire to feel useful. The excitement of working a lot. The way it can feel like a status symbol and how it’s related to anxiety and panic. How all those things are weaved together.


Hi, it’s Marcus Yousef, and this is my thought number four.

I’m staring at Jamie Long, my friend and often collaborator, as we write a screenplay adaptation of our play Winners and Losers in the same room that we wrote the play in ten years ago, or something like that. And just thinking about the long trajectory of projects. Or how when you start a project, you know, once in a while, one of those projects becomes actually a good chunk of what you’re doing with your life. Or can. And how that both changes and stays the same over the course of many years. Or can.


Marcus Youssef here again, and this is thought number three. Thinking about two plays, An Octoroon and Fairview. Two remarkable plays that I love. I have yet to see productions, I’ve only read them. How those two plays — which seem to be fundamentally changing the theatrical discourse about race and whiteness and the African-American experience or its relationship to culture in the U.S. — were both commissioned and developed and had their first productions directed by Sara Benson. She runs Soho Rep in New York, in her mid to late 30s, maybe early 40s, and a white British woman. And how I kind of like that … Yeah.


My name is Marcus Youssef. I’m a bit throaty and this is my second thought. I’m thinking about my friends, theatre makers James Long and Maiko Yamamoto, who just won this Siminovtich Prize for directing. And thinking, particularly about something Maiko said to me when I was doing some work helping another company, pals of our’s, strategic plan. She said a question she was really interested in asking about her and Jamie was like, what if this is it? What if this company we have built, if this is what we’re going to do for the rest of our lives? What if it’s not like, “What’s next? What’s going to be different? What’s going to change everything?” What if this is it? And I thought that was such a useful question.


Hey, my name’s Marcus Youssef. This is my first thought.

Today, I’m thinking about transitions, as theater artists and for me, as a writer who’s just come out of like two intense rehearsal periods and coming back to writing and spending the vast majority of the day by myself and how it feels utterly unfamiliar and terrifying. Although like seven weeks ago, it was – it felt utterly right and exactly what I should be doing.