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Posted: Thursday June 25, 2015
Theatre and Performance: Winner or Loser?

Vancouver theatre giant Marcus Youssef gave the keynote address at the Carol Shields Festival of New Work on May 14, 2015 at the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His address, “Theatre and Performance: Winner or Loser?”, was then published on the Neworld Theatre website (with audio clips from the talk). The below extracts are republished on Meta-Talon with permission.

Neworld [Theatre] makes a whole bunch of things happen that I’d guess virtually none of you have ever heard of, partly because we live in a country that is both enormous and tiny – and also perhaps – because I believe that is fundamentally a part of the nature of what live performance is.

Bob asked me to talk about Winners and Losers. It’s been thrilling to see all these shows devised around that theme. My friend Jamie and I made a show called Winners and Losers three years ago. …

Just to give you a bit of context about the show: we name people, places, things, and debate whether they are winners or losers. It starts off kind of fun. But over the course of the show it becomes very personal, as we begin to subject our family members, ourselves, and our own roles in the world to this reductionist, sometimes brutal assessment that is so much a part of the world we live in.

We can do it right now. Manitoba NDP: winner or loser?

Laughter from the crowd.

I don’t know a lot but it sounds um … weird. Winnipeg Jets –

The crowd shouts, “Winner!”

Isn’t that interesting, though? Because the Manitoba NDP actually won, but we think they’re a loser, and the Winnipeg Jets lost, but we think they’re a winner. Yeah, that’s kind of awesome.

Sometimes it is theatre’s inconsequence, its lousy pay, it’s marginality, its invisibility, it’s loserishness, that – kind of paradoxically – makes it a winner. Because when there’s not much money at stake, that’s when you you’re allowed to speak from your heart. To take risks.

Because the margins are where you can get away with saying and doing things that are forbidden in the centre.

Like, as a Middle-Eastern Canadian, in the wake of 9/11, when we were told we would never laugh again. Do you remember that? That’s what people said. Important, serious newscasters. Seriously. “We will never laugh again.”

When for about a year, walking down the aisle of an airplane was the starkest reminder I’d had of what it feels like to be visibly “different” than any I’d experienced since traveling in the deep American south.

That’s when I co-wrote this [other] show with my friends Camyar and Guillermo. Ali and Ali and the aXes of Evil. … It’s about these two Middle-Eastern refugees from a country called Agraba. (Any Disney PhDs out there? There’s three over there – the same people who’ve heard of me.) It’s the country of Disney’s Aladdin. When doing interviews for the show we’d tell journalists it was on the Uzbeki-Lebanese border. Which they would dutifully write in their articles.

As a Canadian of Middle-Eastern heritage, I will always feel to some extent [like] a loser. And you have to work with me a little on this one.

I don’t mean on a personal level. Ann told you about all the things I do, and in my rarefied arty/liberal Vancouver circles I feel no discrimination, none at all. The opposite, in fact. I have benefited from government attempts to foster cultural diversity in the arts. I do all those kinds of things that Ann talked about politically. I get endless respect, and opportunity to participate in the public life of my community.

I mean as a Middle-Eastern Canadian I feel like a loser in a broader, more social way. I mean when Canadians think about the region of the world my family is from, what I think they mostly see are images of violence, backwardness, and oppression. I think they tend not to see the deep-knit family ties, the resiliency, and complexity.

And don’t get me started on Omar Khadr. Since when do people – whatever happened – get charged with murder for killing someone in a war? If that’s true, given that the vast majority of the US army is African-American, then twenty percent of the male African-American population of the United States should be in jail. Oh, hang on – they are. Sorry, I had to say that one. I thought of that one backstage.

Those are the kinds of things I can say in the theatre.

And it’s not just politics, or ethnicity. I’m as Canadian as I’m Egyptian. In fact I’m way more Canadian than I am Egyptian.

For me one of the huge wins for theatre is, again, also the kind of thing that makes it a loser: it’s not social media, it’s not the computer. It’s live, and it’s happening for real, with all of us in a room together.

It’s something about religion, and how I was raised without it, and how in a largely secular, mostly digitized culture, we don’t really come together in a room with strangers and contemplate, together, the many things about our brief time on this earth that are, by definition, beyond our capacity to understand. The experience of being human that isn’t the economy, or success, or my beloved Vancouver Canucks, or a win.

I’m really glad I was invited here, that Bob thought of Winners and Losers as a theme, and that I was forced to write this. Because honestly, I’ve been struggling a little lately. With why I continue to do it. Theatre. And feeling a little like a loser. …

As I hit middle-middle age, I also wonder why I spend an inordinate amount of time writing grants that ask me to prove how the next show I make is going to fundamentally change the world. In an economy obsessed with profit, and social culture obsessed with transformation, that’s the question Canadian artists are increasingly being forced to answer. How will your art project make the world a better place?

My real answer: it won’t. I believe very little will change the world. I believe the world is much bigger than any of our individual desires and consciousnesses. I believe it’s taken Mr. Harper close to six years to begin implementing fundamental changes to the fabric of this nation, and he’s the prime minister, so asking a playwright or a sculptor how they’re going to change the world – it’s a stupid fucking question.

Writing this reminded me why I started doing theatre in the first place. Because it’s what we are doing, right now. Not our heads, alone, or as a Facebook comment. But together. In this moment.

And writing this has reminded me why once in a while it still does feel important. If we really are willing to risk failure, if we are willing to risk saying something that feels dangerous and speaking from our hearts. I do think that, sometimes, that makes what we do important. Even necessary. And definitely, kind of fundamentally human.

Thank you. Thank you very much. Onward.