Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sunday Feature: Interview - James Long and Marcus Youssef on Winners and Losers (FTA)

Long (l) and Youssef (all photos by Simon Hayter)

80% set, 20% Brand New, and Going too Far
What is it to win?  Was is it to lose?  What is it about approaching middle age and going, “do I have my shit together”?
by Chad Dembski
James Long and Marcus Youssef bring their two-person piece “Winners and Losers” to Festival Trans Amèriques (FTA). The piece premièred last year in Richmond, B.C. and then showed at the 2013 PuSh festival in Vancouver.  I have been to a few of Theatre Replacement’s pieces before (“The greatest Cities in the World”, Magnetic North Festival 2010, “Weetube” at the 2011 SuperNova Festival in Halifax) and always been intrigued by the variety in their work.  Marcus Youssef runs New World Theatre, a company I am less familiar with (as I do not get to Vancouver as much as I would like) but has a strong history of independent, political and risky work.  James Long and Marcus Youssef  are friends and collaborators. In this interview they share their unique and exciting new project and its beginnings.
CHARPO: When did you first meet?
LONG: My first memory was in 2005 at a shared office where Marcus was an associate artist at New World Theatre.  Marcus had just come back from Concordia with a distinct sense on his return of who would fit where at New World Theatre.  
YOUSSEF: We ended up getting to know each other as office mates.  I went to Concordia in 2004/05 as a replacement, as “Ted’s little friend”, I called myself.  Had a great time, considered staying in Montreal but decided to return to Vancouver. One of the reasons was being asked to take over the company for a while. Also the scene in Vancouver gave me the sense that for the first time in my life, I saw a chance to be part of something bigger, rather than just the individual thing each of us happen to be doing.

CHARPO: How did the show idea start?  Where did the seed come from?  How long has it been in the making?
LONG: I would say the idea started with Caravan [Caravan Theatre is a summer outdoor large scale theatre company who have been doing original pieces for over 20 years in rural B.C.]
YOUSSEF: The instincts that I started to develop and the collaborations that were happening because of Hive [an annual Vancouver indie company mini festival].  An extension of that is Caravan Theatre which one year commissioned six independent theatre companies in Vancouver to create a show called “Everyman”.  I had never worked there before, it was a modern re-telling of the “Everyman” story, each company had its own episode.  We ended up writing a lot of that material together and I got the sense, “this is a guy I can work with”.
LONG: I have a distinct memory of a friend of ours who had got himself wrapped up in a pyramid self-help, money making scheme. He had sent a massive e-mail to everyone he knew that was half his writing and half bullshit from a form letter.  He wanted me to join in this thing; you’re going to feel better, you’re going to feel like a winner, just buy in for $200.00 and of course the pyramid thing was obvious.  Marcus and I got into this conversation about, what is it to win?  Was is it to lose?  What is it about approaching middle age and going, “do I have my shit together”?  Am I winning? Am I better then the next guy?  We starting jamming on that, while smoking tasty cigarettes by the river.  We came in with nothing, other than what does it mean to be a winner?
YOUSSEF:  Winners and Losers, we had a good title.  That’s clear that it’s something.
CHARPO:  How has the show developed?  Over how long?
YOUSSEF:  We had some pyramid schemes, and stuff like that.
LONG: I wanted to create a text.  I wanted to write a play play, which Marcus still does but I had never written a proper play.  Let’s write a narrative, or a really strong text, I wanted to learn how to write something.
YOUSSEF: I wanted to do something that was conceptually strong.  A really strong central concept that was conceptually driven instead of being narrative driven.  I think coming in with those opposite goals reflected what we like about each other's work and also our hunger in our own work, our own better, with more layers.
LONG: We started experimenting with fiction.  We were working in the Russian Hall in Vancouver, and we kept writing about these Russian novelists in the 1970’s competing to write the best novel.
YOUSSEF:  Then we had a Kafka thing going for a while.  Two office guys competing in an office.  Every morning we would do a warm up, the Winners and Losers game.  Which was naming a person, place or thing and debating whether that thing was a winner or a loser.  And putting ourselves into direct competition with each other, who’s the better, cook, father, lover, and so on. 
LONG:  We did all the improvs with Russian accents, which liberated us to say, it was like a clown nose, to say whatever we wanted to each other, and we did.   We recorded them all and sent them off to be transcribed and then we read them out without accents.  We immediately had something, these episodes, we starting juggling them, and finding an order.  
YOUSSEF: Some super fun and pop culturally, some quite political and others quite personal. (cont'd)

CHARPO: How much does the performance change from night to night?
LONG:  I think 80% is set, 20% is brand new, but that 20% seriously affects the 80% which can sometimes drop to 70% or it can at times go to 83%.  But the 80% is really malleable depending on what we do with the 20%.  
YOUSSEF: I would say on average 70%, there is an arc; it goes to the same place to some extent.  But it does call into question what we mean by “set”.  One of the things we’ve discovered along the way is that for it to work, that kind of danger, or presence, or ability to watch a new kind of central idea or phrase emerge then has resonance throughout the whole piece.  Which is what is both exciting for me about the piece and also makes it scary and dangerous. The structure follows a kind of pattern. 
CHARPO: You mentioned it was personal, has it ever gone too far in a rehearsal or in a performance?
LONG: It has gone too far a few times. I’m trying to develop a specific practice; we’re going to try some new stuff on this next one. We’ve developed safe words, a safe inside the show that if something’s going in a direction that it shouldn’t, or not cool, that we can know. A practice that after the show we can touch base and say we’re cool with what occurred, attack it dramaturgically but also attack it emotionally. To make sure we can show up the next night and do it again, and build on what we’ve already done and make sure there’s no lasting scars.  
YOUSSEF: I’ve never had a show where so many people that I respect and admire come up to me after and say; “Are you sure this is a good idea?”  And every time I’m like, yeah, we work it out.  I appreciate the reminder that we need to invest that energy into the bigger picture.  We are calling something into the room, that is the power of our form.  So much of what I see doesn’t want to wrestle with that power because it’s terrifying.  But it comes with a potential cost.
Winners and Losers runs May 27-29 at Espace Libre

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