Arts

Vancouver play comes home after 'winning' world tour

Marcus Youssef and James Long’s debate-format play has far surpassed expectations held for most Canadian theatre. Since its 2012 premiere, it’s toured 16 cities in 8 countries, had a five-week off-Broadway run, and was a finalist for the 2015 Governor General’s Awards. And it all began as an accident.

There's no debate: Marcus Youssef and James Long’s 'Winners and Losers' has been a massive success

James Long and Marcus Youssef in "Winners and Losers" (Simon Hayter)

By nearly every metric, Winners and Losers is a first place show. Marcus Youssef and James Long's debate-format play has far surpassed expectations held for most Canadian theatre. Since its 2012 premiere, it's toured 16 cities in 8 countries, had a five-week off-Broadway run, and was a finalist for the 2015 Governor General's Awards. And it all began as an accident.

After being assigned to collaborate on a show for Armstrong, B.C.'s Caravan Farm Theatre, Youssef and Long decided they liked working together and started mulling ideas for a new project about competition. The initial concept centred on a rivalry between fictional 1970s era Russian novelists (a theme they attribute to rehearsing in Vancouver's Russian Community Centre). Inspiration was there. But perspiration wasn't coming easily ("We didn't really want to work because working is hard," quips Youssef).

There's a point at which it's useful to ask to what extent our lizard brain instincts are serving us.- Marcus Youssef

Needing a creative jump-start, they introduced a daily warm-up. They'd propose topics (Pamela Anderson, Mick Jagger, Occupy Wall Street, etc) and debate whether each was a winner or a loser. The new format quickly became more interesting and the other project was shelved. The current version follows the same structure, with roughly three quarters scripted and the rest improvised based on nightly suggestions tossed out by the audience.

The show's wide-reaching resonance should be no surprise. Google the title and you'll be swimming in articles, proclaiming the victors and the defeated in political shifts, awards shows, and the plummeting price of crude. It's a binary through which we've been long-programmed to understand the world. Quarrels over pieces of fruit and desirable mates have morphed over time into rivalries over sizes of bank account and numbers of Twitter followers.

"We thought a lot about this during rehearsal and I'm certainly of the belief that humans are built to compete," Long says. "It's transitioned to be about power and money and every other nasty thing you can think of in society. But it comes from a very basic need to survive."

"There's a point at which it's useful to ask to what extent our lizard brain instincts are serving us," Youssef mused. "The Darwinian benefit of altruism is missed in many analyses of human evolution because of the social and ideological emphasis placed on competition."

In many aspects of life winners are easily discernable; the first across the finish line, the holder of the royal flush, the purveyor of the knockout punch. However, art is obviously more subjective. Popular and critical success are often diametrically opposed. A platinum-selling record or a Broadway smash can still draw sneers from aficionados (just ask Celine Dion or Andrew Lloyd Webber). So can the duo behind a runaway hit agree on what makes a theatrical perfect 10? Apparently not.

"A successful show is one that's fundamentally live," Youssef says. "Something that needs to be happening in a room with all of us there as opposed to a poor facsimile of something you can explore on screen. I'm also interested questions that don't have easy answers, that produce complication rather than simplification."

"This is a good indicator of our differences," Long adds. "I don't like noise. I get distracted too easily. To me, a good show is a question of economy, of nailing something down to its essence where the ideas are speaking to each other without extraneous activity. That's how I define success."

Winners and Losers. Created and Performed by Marcus Youssef and James Long. Directed by Chris Abraham. The Cultch, Vancouver. Until Feb 27.

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