HPR’s Winners and Losers make live performance feel immediate and urgent, in a Trumpian way

For Marcus Youssef and James Long, it started back around 2009 (or 10) as a theatre warmup.

The two old friends, longtime members of Vancouvers’ theatre community, found themselves at the Caravan Farm Theatre, outside Kamloops, trying — as actors everywhere do — to create some new work when they weren’t performing at the theatre.

They had a studio. They had an idea for a story. They had the comfort level of having worked together many times over the years, although both actors were coming at the work from two different strengths and backgrounds.

“Jamie (one of the co-founders of Theatre Replacement, the One Yellow Rabbit of Vancouver) is more of a conceptual artist,” Youssef says, “and I’m much more of a narrative, character-driven kind of person.

“We’re both pretty good at what we do, and were both interested in each other’s (theatrical) practice.

“I wanted to make something weirder, more experimental and he wanted to make a real play — and so we were experimenting with that stuff.”

Youssef continues. “One of the experiments was we made up games for warmups, and one was a debate whether someone was a winner or loser. Another was, pick a subject for debate — hunting or cooking or being a friend, anything — and debate who’s better at it.”

After each session, which were recorded so that the hidden gems would reveal themselves once it all got transcribed, they would read the transcripts of what they’d created. And soon they discovered the improvised warmups where they picked winners and losers were more dramatic than the actual show they were working on.

“We didn’t (quite) understand,” he says, “as we were having this good time improvising, how powerful that whatever the competition was — that phenomenon — was acting upon us.”

In other words, they had stumbled upon a structure that became the basis for Winners and Losers, which opened Wednesday for a brief run at the West Village Theatre as part of the 2017 High Performance Rodeo.

The show takes the form of a kind of extended conversation between the two, as they debate the merits of all sorts of things, slotting winners and losers as they go.

Along the way, they also start to dig deeper into their relationship with each other, with all the competitive nature two close friends share.

The show has proven to have legs, being staged at various theatres around the world.

That has produced a wide range of feelings about it, particularly in countries sensitive to the idea that there is anything good or productive about competition.

“We’ve done it in 18 cities, 13 countries — all over the place! ” Youssef says. “And lots of people hate it because of that (look into competitiveness).”

What’s odd about the show’s arrival at the 2017 High Performance Rodeo is that it comes to town just as a new American president takes office — a man who seems to have adopted the entire exercise of defining everything and everyone as a winner or a loser as his personal mantra.

It turns out Youssef and Long got a sneak peek of that worldview when they were booked to perform the show for five weeks in Washington, DC, in early 2016 — right in the middle of Donald Trump’s astonishing rise to the top during the Republican primaries.

“We give the audience the chance to call out,” Youssef says, “and like, we had to declare a moratorium on (them calling out) Donald Trump, because everyone was calling out Donald Trump! They wanted to laugh at what a stupid idiot he was and how he was never going to win!

“And even at that time, and this was art-going DC liberals, I would say this: ‘I think you’re wrong. I agree with you, but he was also the manifestation of this cultural moment, and I would not feel so superior to this guy right now.’ “

Part of Youssef’s recognition that Trump was onto something with the American public was because he could see similarities in Trump’s political oratory that were similar to what he and Long were getting so much theatrical mileage from with Winners and Losers.

“Part of the interest (we had) in Winners and Losers,” he says, “was the ongoing investigation of how to make live performance feel immediate and urgent — and not distant and artificial.

“And I think that aesthetic question is one Donald Trump understands extremely well. Politics is theatre. Political discourse is so theatrical, and often feels staid in the way theatre feels staid, do you know what I mean? Or (it) can feel staid — and he’s cut against that.

“In a way the strategies he’s using aren’t that different from the ones we came up with Winners and Losers. You know, it’s fascinating.”

The High Performance Rodeo, Theatre Replacement, Neworld Theatre in association with Crow’s Theatre present Winners and Losers at The West Village Theatre, January 25-28, 9 p.m.

Stephen Hunt is the 2017 High Performance Rodeo writer in residence. He wrote about theatre for the Calgary Herald for 10 years, and teaches playwriting at UBC. He is also the author of The White Guy: A Field Guide. Follow his HPR blog here.