DATE OF BIRTH: August 11, 1969

PLACE OF BIRTH: Montreal,QC

EMPLOYMENT OTHER THAN WRITING: Associate Artistic Producer, NeWorld Theatre

AWARDS:

Chalmer's Award, A Line in the Sand, 1997

The Associate Artistic Producer of Vancouver's NeWorld Theatre, Marcus Youssef is a co-recipient of the Chalmer's Award for a Line A Line in the Sand (with Guillermo Verdecchia). Other works include The Adventures of Ali & Ali and the Axes of Evil (with GV and Camyar Chai), as well as Come Back to the 7-11, Judy Blume and 1-900-Tell Me That You Love Me (with Carmen Aguirre). He has freelanced regularly for CBC Radio, writing and broadcasting sketches, drama, commentary and documentary for both current affairs and arts and entertainment programs on all three network stations, as well as CBC Newsworld. He co-founded CRANK Magazine (with Matt Hern & Richard Lawley) and he writes regularly for both mass and niche market print publications, including Vancouver Magazine, the Georgia Straight, Rice Paper, This Magazine and the GIG. His short stories have appeared in several journals and anthologies. Youssef lives in Vancouver.

On the community-education side, Marcus Youssef works with organizations across Canada, developing original plays around subject matter defined by the non-professional participants themselves. With Mercedes Baines, he is the co-founder of the immigrant-centred, oral history program, the Reclaiming Project. He has also played a key role in the development of a new wave of peer-based, media production and education programs on the West Coast as a media literacy consultant and script-writing instructor at The Gulf Islands Television School, the Access to Media Education Society and the Education Program of the Pacific Cinematheque. He trained at UBC's Creative Writing department and he has performed as an actor with Green Thumb Theatre.

As Co-Artistic Producer of neworldtheatre, Youssef published his revised version of Adrift (Talonbooks 2008) inspired by the novel Adrift on the Nile by Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Set amongst hip partygoers on a Cairo houseboat during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the play begins as a comedy, as a petty bureaucrat named Anis falls in love with a hijab-clad journalist named Samara, but tragedy arises from the friction between Western imperialism and its counterpart in the Arab world: religious fundamentalism. An earlier draft of the play was co-commissioned by the Magnetic North Theatre Festival and produced by neworldtheatre in 2006 in St. John's, Newfoundland, co-written with Camyar Chai, its director. The revised version, also directed by Chai, premiered at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in February of 2007. It received the 2007 Alcan Performing Arts Award.

Co-written and co-performed with James Long, Marcus Youssef's Winners and Losers (Talonbooks $16.95) has been described by the New York Times as "a frisky theatrical symposium"; and "articulate, funny and breezily charming."; Two friends, Marcus and James, are seated at opposite ends of a long table and compete in a verbal game in which they argue as to whether or not certain people, places and things - Tom Cruise, Mexico and microwaves. to name just a few - are winners or losers. The men's disparate backgrounds affect their personal criteria and determination of "winner"; versus "loser,"; and the resulting debate and conflict tests the limits of their friendship as they increasingly attack one another's values and lifestyles to determine who is superior.

REVIEW: King Arthur's Night and Peter Panties: A Collaboration across Perceptions of Cognitive Difference by Niall McNeil and Marcus Youssef (Talonbooks $16.95) 2018

Review by Paul Durras

t's not quite stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Or Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party. But there is an audaciousness to Neworld Theatre's production of King Arthur's Night that made it perfect fare for the recent PuSh Festival, an annual showcase for theatre and dance that pushes the proverbial envelope.

Now the musical play is being published as King Arthur's Night and Peter Panties: A Collaboration across Perceptions of Cognitive Difference by Talonbooks, the pathfinding imprint for Canadian plays dating all the way back to Michel Tremblay's early work and George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.

People are curious to see this show because four of the ten actors have Down Syndrome, including the title character portrayed by Niall McNeil, who is also the main playwright. Delightfully played with an endearing shyness by Tiffany King, his queen Guinevere doesn't remember her lines well, if at all, but she's one of the show's strengths.

Niall McNeil is similarly challenged. But more problematic can be his temperamental resistance to prompts from his on-stage coach, Merlin, who is depicted by co-writer/producer Marcus Youssef. McNeil's galvanizing and portly stature as an all-powerful king can dissipate with pique if those two male egos clash. Youssef is frequently forced to feign obsequiousness to bow to the king's demands, but who's really in control?

Imperfections and sudden detours make for the most memorable moments. King Arthur frequently mentions Richard Gere. Guinevere might mention the movie Titanic. When there's sexual innuendo, someone might add an impromptu "Get a room!";

The subsidiary characters in Camelot are professional actors on stage to shadow the faltering performances, feeding them lines and improvising in order to keep the show on track.

On opening night, because McNeil's version of Camelot is modeled on a visit he made to Harrison Hot Springs (one of the songs contains the repeated line: "Go to the Harrison Hot Springs. Go to the Harrison Hot Springs.";), he spontaneously asked his mother in the audience if he was remembering their visit correctly. She called out, yes.

And so, this show swerves and veers and hiccups its way along; different every night.

There are just two plot points. King Arthur has slept with his sister Morgana and now she wants her son Mordred to get the Holy Grail and claim the crown from his father. Meanwhile Lancelot and Guinevere have a platonic love affair that rankles the king.

Prior to a puzzling battle and the production's belaboured completion, there's a completely charming comic turn by Andrew Gordon as a soldier slowly twirling his axe in synch with gifted drumming from professional musician Skye Brooks. Their unpredictable interplay is almost vaudevillian, giving rise to heartfelt audience applause.

Onstage throughout, with only her drummer for company, keyboardist and composer Veda Hille provides a sensitive soundscape that is essential to the wholesomeness of this undertaking. Arguably the addition of a choir for the PuSh production was unnecessary because the audience can't grasp McNeil's incomprehensible lyrics.

If you are a "neurotypical"; who is keen on coherence, this play is downright goofy and you'll want to leave half way through. But if you have a heart that enjoys compassion, the audaciousness of King Arthur's Night's confounding camaraderie can be thrilling.

So, is this art or is this social work? To each his own. If you are someone who wants to navigate new pathways for empathy, and you are seeking the deep pleasure of recognizing the dignity and strength that resides in people who are too often invisibilized, King Arthur's Night is a winner.

It's not implausible to imagine Canada Council could now proceed to invent a whole new category for Special Needs Theatre.

One patron who left the show furious drew a parallel to the Special Olympics. They're held ever four years and who really wants to watch?
But neurotypicals might watch the Special Olympics if Usain Bolt was included, passing the baton in a relay to sprinters with Down syndrome.
It is the collaborative aspect of Neworld's production that makes it uplifting and sometimes fascinating. Arguably, a documentary film about putting this production together would be as moving as the actual show.

Inspired by the production process for this play, Order of Canada recipient Al Etmanski, a long-time crusader on behalf of people with Down syndrome, including his daughter, has provided a foreword to the published play in which he imagines a better world-a Neworld-for those who are described as developmentally disabled, "In this new world, people don't look through you. Instead they see you. They see you for your abilities and contributions. What an elusive desire that has been for me as a parent: that my daughter might be seen, not seen through. What an elusive experience that has been for people with disabilities. Or anyone who has been marginalized, categorized, and labeled, for that matter.

"To be seen is to exist: to be recognized for your humanity and personhood, to have presence and potential, to be an equal in a relationship and not merely the client of a social worker; to be a subject, not an object.";
For those who are not seeking Shakespeare or Lord of the Rings, the words spoken in King Arthur's Night are a subtext for a deeper level of communication.

King Arthur's Night is not just therapeutic for four actors and a launch pad for the playwright; it's the antidote to Etmanski's frank and chilling contention that "to be an object of pity, servitude, or derision is a horrible existence.";

King Arthur's Night is an eye-opener.
Avoid pity. Make contact.

The other play written by Niall McNeil and Marcus Youssef, Peter Panties, is a radical re-imagining of the Peter Pan story in which Peter Pan and Captain Hook (or is he Macbeth?) drink lattes, the Lost Boys hang with detectives from CSI, and Peter desperately wants to have sex with Wendy and make a baby. Sexual exclusion and the denial of full adulthood are no laughing matters for people whose lives include Down syndrome, but McNeil's "riffing"; style of writing is not without humour. 9781772012033

Paul Durras reviews for VancouverPlays.

BOOKS:

A Line in the Sand (Talonbooks, 1997). Co-written with Guillermo Verdecchia.
Coming Attractions 99 (Oberon Press, 1999). 1 of 3 contributors, edited by Maggie Helwig.
Adventures of Ali and Ali and the aXes of Evil (Talonbooks, 2005). Co-written with Guillermo Verdecchia & Camyar Chai.
Adrift (Talonbooks, 2008) 978-0-88922-585-5 $16.95)
Winners and Losers (Talonbooks, 2015) $16.95 9780889229327. Co-written with James Long
Jabber (Talonbooks 2015) $16.95 978-0-88922-950-1

[BCBW 2015] "Theatre"