For a night out at the theatre – or the library, the SkyTrain station, or wherever the performance happens to be – I'll take out-of-the-box disaster over tried-and-true any day. I would far rather sit (or stand) through something that tries to innovate and fails than check my watch through something safe and formulaic that succeeds in a ho-hum kind of way. I realize this is a personal preference, but this is why, for me, January is the most exciting time of year for theatre in Vancouver.
The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival is under way, and among this year's many edgy offerings is Winners and Losers. Created and performed by two senior members of the Vancouver indie theatre scene, James Long and Marcus Youssef, it is most definitely out of the box, certainly not safe, and unquestionably not ho-hum.
How does it work? Mr. Long and Mr. Youssef sit at a table and play a game they made up called Winners and Losers. One will name a topic or subject – say Tom Cruise or Catholicism or Goldman Sachs – and the two will debate whether the person, place or thing is a winner or loser. Some of the subjects are set, but many are improvised, making the show unique each night.
But soon the debate takes a turn. Instead of deciding whether Pamela Anderson is a winner or loser ("I always maintain that Pam's a winner," Mr. Long says), the two men – decade-long friends and colleagues – turn the game on themselves.
"Once we kind of exhaust the idea of debating Pam Anderson and microwave ovens, we have to get into each other in order to finish the game to bring it to its natural conclusion," Mr. Long says. "And that's when it gets personal."
As the gloves come off, the intensity increases. The guiding theory behind the game is that you can't have two winners sitting next to each other; for there to be a winner, the men reason, there has to be a loser.
"We're very similar in a lot of ways, Marcus and I," Mr. Long says. "And in order to prove that I'm a loser, in order for him to win, he has to get very mean and cutting and he has to get very deep and honest with me and I have to do the exact same thing with him."
Mr. Long, 39, is artistic director at Theatre Replacement. Mr. Youssef, 43, is artistic director of Neworld Theatre. Their companies have been involved in some of the most exciting theatre I have seen in my five years in Vancouver – in particular the Hive shows, Neworld's 2012 adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, and Theatre Replacement's Clark and I Somewhere in Connecticut.
Winners and Losers had its world premiere at Gateway Theatre in Richmond in late 2012. Despite the nightly battles – plus rehearsals – the guys seem to have maintained their friendship, although they've had their moments, in particular one show after which followed an awkward silence in their tiny dressing room. As things heated up on stage, there was a look in Mr. Youssef's eyes that had Mr. Long wondering if maybe he'd gone too far.
"It actually wasn't the personal stuff that I found the hardest," Mr. Youssef says. "What I found the hardest was the feeling of the times when we'd be in the middle of something and Jamie would go after me and I'd feel like I was losing; I'd feel exposed as a kind of a fundamental loser. … I think we both got really, really sensitive about the potential for appearing like the loser in the piece."
The work started out as a more straightforward play: a fictionalized account of two Russian novelists in the Soviet era competing to write the best novel. For a warm-up exercise as they developed the piece at the Russian Hall, Mr. Long and Mr. Youssef made up the winners and losers game – and played it with Russian accents. But when they read through transcripts of the exercise – sans Russian accents – it became apparent that the game itself was a compelling piece of conceptual performance.
If it weren't for PuSh, an out-there work like this might languish without ever finding its way to the stage. Both men credit the festival with not only opening opportunities (Winners and Losers will tour this year to Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal as well as Britain and Ireland) but with creating an environment where this kind of work can be developed, and find an audience.
"I don't think it's possible to overestimate the influence the festival has had on the contemporary scene here in Vancouver," Mr. Youssef says. "It's influenced the kind of work we see and I know it's had an impact on the kind of work I make. And it's created an audience for work that's more experimental and asks more fundamental questions about the nature of performance.
"The festival, more than any other single cultural entity in the city – at least for the kind of performance we do – has made going to see something that might kind of weird you out a little or might challenge your notions of what performance is, made that feel cool."
The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival runs until Feb. 3. Winners and Losers runs Jan. 30 to Feb. 2.