Audience members who’ve seen Marcus Youssef and James Long compete and perform in Winners and Losers most often want to know how much of their two-man show is improvised and whether their friendship remains intact.
That’s because the longtime friends and theatre artists sit across from one another at a long table and debate whether people, places and things are winners or losers, tackling topics that range from Pamela Anderson to Vancouver to their own fathers.
Youssef, from Neworld Theatre, and Long, from Theatre Replacement, premiered Winners and Losers at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre in November to critical acclaim. They’re bringing the piece that’s co-produced by Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre to Vancouver as part of the ninth annual PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, which runs Jan. 15 to Feb. 3.
An email from a friend in the arts community about a self-help pyramid scheme got Youssef and Long assessing their status as they hovered around age 40.
“It’s a question that everyone asks themselves at some point, are they winning in life right now?” said Long.
The pair started penning a fictional piece, posing personal questions in a warm-up game to generate material.
“Who’s the better father? Who’s better at a party? Who’s the better cook? Who’s the better lover?” said Long.
They soon realized real debate was more compelling than fiction.
In Winners and Losers, talk turns from Mexico and microwave ovens to a dissection of each other’s individual, familial and class histories, and because Youssef is the product of economic privilege and Long is not, they end up tackling disparities in status that few friends ever discuss.
“This competitive paradigm that is at the heart of capitalism, the heart of so much of our lives, how does that affect us? What effect does that have on a friendship?” Youssef said.
“It’s complicated, too, because I’m the guy with the Egyptian father and there’s a question around ethnicity or race that’s been alive for me in my life that’s different,” he added. “So who’s the winner, who’s the loser?”
His father saw the show in November.
“It was hard for my dad. I mean, I warned him about it, but it was intense for him. And it’s interesting, too, because he and I have never had a conversation about class or privilege,” Youssef said.
“And suddenly it’s on stage,” Long added.
Probing touchy questions has seen their friendship deepen, but the development of Winners and Losers wasn’t without emotional strife.
After feeling like Youssef had “won” in one reading, Long rewrote a response for a consecutive performance.
“I was feeling quite chuffed about it,” Long said. “I knew I was going to kill him on it.”
But Long choked up when he spoke “terribly honest” words to Youssef in front of 40 onlookers.
“While that was happening in front of the people, I was like I can’t even understand what he’s saying,” said Youssef, who had read Long’s part beforehand. “So I was like, I win. I’m winning!”
“But oddly enough I was winning because people were seeing the sadness on my face,” Long said.
“Which says interesting things about these ideas we have in our heads about whether we’re winning or losing,” Youssef added.
Winners and Losers
Jan. 30 to Feb. 2
Studio T, Goldcorp Centre for the Arts
149 West Hastings St.