Five Friday Questions with Ali el-Gasseir

Ali el-Gasseir is an actor, director and co-artistic director of Washington Ensemble Theatre. He’s performed for companies like Berkeley Repertory Theatre, ACT, Seattle Shakes, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, and Theatre Rhinoceros. He’s directed throughout California and Seattle. This weekend he’ll be remounting The Return of the Urban Tanuki Samurai, an all-ages “live action cartoon” he created with Jonah Von Spreecken. The show runs through May 15 at 12th Avenue Arts. El-Gasseir joined me for this week’s installment of Five Friday Questions.

What’s the best performance you’ve seen lately?

Oh gosh! This is very hard. What’s lately? The thing is individual performances rarely stick with me. I am more excited by stories than performances. Honestly the most exciting performances I have seen in the last year have all been by Cherdonna Shinatra. I believe she is a brilliant clown who is doing something incredibly unique.

If you asked me to name performances that I am obsessed with and that I constantly keep re-examining then John C. Reilly in Check it Out! with Dr. Steve Brule, Amy Sedaris in Strangers with Candy and Seth Morris in Affirmation Nation with Bob Ducca. I like laughter.

What’s the best meal in Seattle?

Right now I am all about Chan in Pike Place Market! Unbelievably delicious bulgogi sliders and fantastic short ribs. A wise old woman once told me that if short ribs are on the menu, then you order the short ribs. Actually, to be honest, there never was any wise old woman… I just really love short ribs.

Oh! And in general I am always down for a cheeseburger so Li’l Woody’s is always high on my list. But, hey, according to my bank statements the place I eat most often is Momiji. Consistently my favorite sushi in Seattle.

What music gets you pumped up? What do you listen to when you’re sad?

Oh I am all about high energy jams!
Zebra Katz, “Tear the House Up”
George Michael, “Too Funky”
Deeee-Lite, “Bittersweet Loving”

And I like supporting my fave local bands like Bigfoot Wallace and his Wicked Sons. I love their dirty swamp rock stylings!

I am not really a “oh I am sad I should put on sad music” type of person, so I don’t listen to music expressly when I’m feeling down in the dumps. I do love some real melancholic, spacey mood groves:

And in terms of a song that makes me always feel the heartbreak blues, Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love is Fair.” Dang, that song is just brutally lovely.

What’s the most crucial element of any production?

When you say “production” I assume you mean not only narrative theatre but the whole performance. So my answer, then, is vision.

I can’t say that story is the most important thing. Nor is acting, singing, or dancing talent for that matter. All those things help but I have loved performances that have little to no story. I have seen amazing student performances that have blown my mind and moved me deeply. So I think the unifying element that makes a production great is that everyone working on the production works under the same clear vision for what it is that they are trying to communicate to the audience. If a production does not have a clear, cohesive vision I don’t think it can ever be successful except by accident.

What’s the most useful thing anyone’s ever taught you about working in theatre?

“Value the whole.” To this end, a couple different professors and old collaborators have taught me to ask what I believe are the right questions when producing:

A. What is the takeaway that you want the audience to experience?

B. Is that thing you are arguing about actually worth fighting for?

C. How does that fit within the context of the whole?

If you can answer these with compassion and a sense of purpose then I believe you can have fruitful and positive experience working in theatre.

And then the biggest piece of advice that I always try to remember is from an old band mate and I think it is entirely applicable to theatre makers: “Listen harder.”