Stealing the show? Winnipeg improv duo accused of plagiarism ahead of Fringe

One of the most unique sounding shows at Winnipeg Fringe is also turning out to be one of the most controversial.

Bucko Comedy says Stephen and Caity stole their idea for a live VR show

Pixels is a Winnipeg Fringe show show blending improvisation with emerging VR technology to create live animation. It's also spurring controversy due to allegations of idea theft. (Submitted)

One of the most unique sounding shows of this year's Winnipeg Fringe is also turning out to be one of the most controversial.

Pixels is an improvisational show with a twist.

As the actors weave their way through scenes, a live cartoon is created using virtual reality.

Local improv duo, Stephen and Caity — run by Stephen Sim and Caity Curtis — have teamed up with virtual reality company Flipside XR to produce the show. They've billed it as "a show unlike anything [the audience] has ever seen before" because the technology is still being created.

And therein lies the controversy.

Another Winnipeg improv duo, Bucko Comedy, is accusing Sim and Curtis of stealing their idea for a live show using VR.

The accusation has stirred up a local debate on the propriety of concepts and the originality of live animation in comedy.

Aaron Merke is a member of Bucko. He said the issue isn't simple.

"The producers of Pixels are also the producers of the Winnipeg Improv Festival," said Merke in an email statement to CBC.

"If Pixels is building a live improvised VR show where the audience contributes to the plot of the story with suggestions of props, locations and different characters that would manifest in VR in real-time, then the show concept is alarmingly similar to what we, Bucko, shared with the 2017 Winnipeg Improv festival organizers, Stephen Sim and Caity Curtis."

Merke said that he proposed the live VR show to Sim and Curtis when they were organizing the Improv Festival in 2017.

He said they didn't go forward at that time because Flipside wasn't ready to mount the live show yet.

When Merke heard about Pixels, he said Bucko's plans with Flipside started to fall to the sidelines and were eventually dissolved altogether.

'It's a totally different show,' performer says

Curtis said she feels awful about the accusation but she doesn't agree.

"It's different content," she said. "We're working with the same medium but it's a totally different show."

Lesley Klassen is the CEO and co-founder of Flipside. He's also a former student of Merke's.

He said he "absolutely, 100 per cent disagrees" with the accusations. He's worked with both improv groups and plans to work with many more in the future. The technology, he said, was created to be used by as many artists as possible.

Stephen Sim and Caity Curtis star in Pixels, which turns their movements into live animation. (Submitted)
"We are a commercial company who works with anyone that wants to create live content," said Klassen.

He says he approached both groups about possible collaborations more than two years ago. The Flipside team was involved in the creative processes and helped the two groups come up with their individual projects.

Merke said collaboration is part of the problem. He said Bucko didn't just create a show with the technology, but they helped Flipside develop the concept by offering their services as test subjects.

Klassen said although this type of show is novel, it's not brand new and it's by no means a concept created by either group. The technology created by Flipside is merely an innovation on similar software combining live animation with virtual reality.

"Lots of people are doing live animation," said Klassen. "Even The Simpsons did it in 2016."

There are discernable differences between the two shows. Bucko produced a series of online videos using the technology, while Stephen and Caity created a live stage show.

But Merke said the real issue is that Bucko had a live show in the works and he made that clear to Flipside and to Sim and Curtis.

Both Klassen and Curtis said they were unaware that these plans were anything other than collaborative discussions.

Klassen added he made it clear to Bucko that Flipside had no intention of offering up any sort of exclusivity with the technology. That was the point in which Bucko and Flipside ended their working relationship.

Threats of protest, show disruption

The show debuts Thursday night at Winnipeg Fringe and Curtis said she's a bit nervous to see what happens.

"It's very upsetting and we're taking some heat online," she said. "There's been some harassment. Some people have said, 'This is theft and theft isn't art.' There's been threats of protesting or disrupting the show. But we're working with Fringe to make sure everyone is safe."

Curtis said she expects to see some people protesting outside and some continued online harassment but that won't deter her from going forward.

"We're just trying to put a storytelling show together."

Merke said he's heard people joke about protests but he doesn't think anyone has any real plans and he definitely doesn't endorse the idea.

"If people choose not to attend, that's really up to them. Even though we are frustrated by this whole situation, we see no benefit to bringing more chaos to it," said Merke.

He said he really just wants to see Sim and Curtis acknowledge their wrongdoing.

While the groups haven't spoken about the issue at length, each have said they would be open to talking.

About the Author

Aviva Jacob

Aviva Jacob holds a degree in journalism from the University of King's College. Avi, along with a small team, was the winner of the 2018 Emerge Media Award in audio storytelling.