A fairly hasty post, but if I don’t write it now, I won’t have time to write it at all, and I’d like to write it.

This morning, Michael Wheeler published an interesting piece on “Storytelling in the the Present” on spiderwebshow.ca, in which he reflects on a number of recent shows in which the performers are playing themselves, narrate aspects of their own biographies, and thus complicate the temporal logic of the stage: these characters can’t be separated from the body we see in front of us; even if the stories they tell refer to events in the past, the person doing the telling represents their effect in the present).

This evening, I then went to see one of the shows Michael discussed, Winners and Losers — a massive critical hit and an internationally successful production. In this piece, two actors, Marcus Youssef and James Long, spend 90 minutes arguing — about topics from the banal (is Pamela Anderson a winner or a loser?) to the bathetic (is Youssef or Long a better masturbator?) to the profound (are their parents winners or losers? Are they themselves winners or losers as parents?). The argument gets intensely personal at times, finding physical expression twice — first as a ping-pong game, then (more viscerally) as a wrestling match. But for the most part, it’s two guys facing each other across a long table, talking.

No point mincing my words: by and large, I avoid the kinds of performance Michael is talking about. A couple of reasons for that. Aesthetically, I just don’t get that much out of small-cast shows. I’ll watch them here, because if I didn’t, I’d hardly get to see any theatre in Toronto at all, and that wouldn’t be right. Formally, I find the reduction of theatre to storytelling increasingly depressing. Conceptually, I don’t see the appeal in watching performers playing themselves (more about that in a moment): that’s what we all do all the time, and I’ve got enough reality around me and (sort of) on TV already. Politically, and to a slightly lesser extent aesthetically as well, I’m wary of the focus on the personal and the autobiographical. Face to face, in an encounter with another person as a person I would hope to sympathize with whatever sad story his or her life holds. In art, I really couldn’t care less. And I’m too wedded to history to get over this easily. If Shakespeare had written a play about his mourning for his dead children, gone long before their time, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have survived for long. Fiction may be informed by the personal, but it’s not about the author’s person. That’s what makes it great — that’s what makes it resonate. Most of the autobiographically grounded work I encounter doesn’t resonate at all. It may be sad, or funny, or dull, but only in a highly specific manner; it doesn’t transcend its moment or its own frame of reference. That doesn’t make the work bad, or invalid, or pointless: but it makes it the kind of work I prefer to ingest in very small doses and infrequently.

Winners and Losers should have made for a deeply dispiriting experience for me, based on all that, but it didn’t. I wasn’t blown away by it either, but I was intrigued. Energetically, it’s obviously a tour de force. Thematically, I must say that the insight that competition dominates many of our most intimate relationships didn’t come as a huge surprise. The themes the show touches on, especially those of race and class, were deftly enough handled, but again, not in a way that struck me as extraordinarily illuminating: I’ll happily praise Youssef and Long for avoiding many a cliché and trap, but I’m not sure I learned much about immigrant wealth, white working class hardship, the place of first nations people in the inner city, or gentrification. To my mind, the play is interesting not for the issues it touches on, but as a piece about two people, “Marcus” and “James” — their arguments throw less light on the problems they debate than on who these characters are. And to Youssef and Long’s credit, neither of their alter egos comes off too shinily. Daddy complexes of different kinds abound and different modes of entitlement are paraded. The moment they almost lost me came near the end, when it’s revealed that Long, despite his assaults on Youssef’s privileged background and wealth, lives in a household with an income of over $100K himself. I don’t begrudge anyone a stable income and comfortable financial circumstances (it would make me a rank hypocrite), but that revelation threw the entire “Winner and Losers” format into rather shallow relief. In a system in which the vast majority of actors wait tables to pay for their share of the rent in a multi-roommate-household, these two are very obviously winners.

I say they almost lost me: they didn’t, precisely because that moment took the evening decisively beyond autobiography, beyond two guys arguing on stage, and confirmed that it had a form — a form that had nothing to do with the fact that these two characters had the same names as the actors, and spoke lines that both actors had previously improvised, but with the fact that Winners and Losers is, in fact, a play and not a live debate. The climactic fight over money comes where it comes in the evening because Youssef and Long put it there wearing their hats as playwrights; it arrives in the shape and with the energy it has because they rehearsed it and because their director, Chris Abraham, helped create it. The structure of the play, the particular focus and energy of that scene, all of those frame the fight, they give it form and affect its meaning.

I don’t think it’s my realization that these two figures are actually winners, at least in social and cultural terms, whether they know it or not; I also don’t think that it’s just my opinion that their failure to recognize their privileged position is a bit of a problem. I think the play makes those points, but it makes them structurally, formally, not through anything the characters say explicitly. This structural meta-commentary doesn’t just happen coincidentally; it’s obviously built into the show. It’s the thing that turns Winners and Losers into a piece of theatre rather than just a live performance of an improvised debate on highly personal grounds. And it takes the play beyond autobiography, because in moments like these, it doesn’t matter that “Marcus” and “James” are real people and that those things they talk about really happened; moments like these free the audience from the ethical obligations that come with the autobiographical mode and allow us to judge the characters, to think of them as framed by their play to make a point. I’m not utterly convinced that the point is all that remarkable. Gen-Xers are a bit whiny and entitled, no matter what they say about Millennials? Shocker. But the way the show pulls the conceptual rug out from under its own feet, dismantling the illusion that we’re just watching two real people have a real fight — that’s pretty intriguing and smart stuff.

Which takes me back to Michael Wheeler’s piece, by way of the post-show talkback. Both Youssef and Long spoke of the desire to be absolutely true in their performances — true to themselves, I understood them to mean. Their playwrights’ note highlights the autobiographical nature of the material, which “brings to the surface currents that were present in our friendship, but were never explicitly admitted to or spoken about” (to which my immediate reaction was: good for you, but why should I care?). Both actors stressed that parts of the show are improvised and that they really do get angry with each other; that their competition is real, and can get a bit out of hand; that they have rules in place and lines that they can’t cross; and that they have post-show rituals that help them get back on stage the next night and go at it again. Long contrasted the experience of appearing in a Chekhov play, where he only plays at being angry or moved, with the experience of this play, where Youssef can actually get under his skin. The suggestion, clearly, was that Winners and Losers isn’t a play of the same kind as a script written by someone else, populated by figures fully divorced from the actor’s own identity. It’s more present, more real.

I pressed them on this point a bit, and they elaborated, and I remained skeptical — but I didn’t get a chance to chat to either of them afterwards. Here’s what I found questionable: not that they both actually get angry at each other. That part I completely buy. What I question is that their genuinely experienced feelings mean that we watch the real Marcus Youssef and James Long on stage; and that those moments of genuine anger, of one actor getting under another actor’s skin, are specific to this kind of performance. Most interestingly, Long noted that in this evening’s performance, Youssef had got close to crossing one of their agreed-upon lines (no discussion of their children), and that breaking of the rules, that not quite playing the game right, was what had made him a bit angry. What’s interesting to me about this account is that it’s entirely about performance, not about identity: it wasn’t what Youssef had said about Long’s kids, but that he had toyed with the don’t-mention-the-kids rule that upset Long. The trespass wasn’t personal, it was professional. It’s easy to imagine an analogous thing happening in a conventional production of a conventional play: one actor not doing what s/he is supposed to do, deviating from a protocol established in rehearsal, and another actor responding, consciously or otherwise, in a way that then influences the portrayal, the energy, the mood of the character this other actor is playing. In fact, harnessing such impulses and immediate responses surely is what an alert performance is all about.

So my question wasn’t — and isn’t — if either actor actually feels anything while fighting with the other. It’s whether it should be at all extraordinary that they do. And by a fairly generous extension, the question is if “Marcus” and “James” are actually in any meaningful sense Marcus Youssef and James Long. My own response to the evening was pretty unambiguous: the only reason I think this enterprise is worthwhile is that I’m watching two fictional characters engaged in a fictional fight governed by rules to which I’m at most partially privy, and proceeding in a form that is at least in part predetermined. If it’s less than that, then there’s no need to go to the theatre. A good dinner party will do. So I never thought I was watching two men who had travelled here from Vancouver to fight in public. I was watching two men perform roles — that these roles apparently coincide to some extent with their own lives, identities, preoccupations, and hang-ups really didn’t, and doesn’t, matter to me. I always assume there’s a fair share of an actor’s private life in any gripping performance, but that doesn’t mean I care about that private life.

Long pretty much conceded this point when he noted, in the Q&A, that “he himself” would never tell a particular anecdote about him making a bad first nations joke the way “James” does in the play — he’d frame it by noting how much of an idiot he’d been in that situation, rather than presenting it as “James” does, with blustering pride in his own street-smarts. He was “directed” to do that in the play, because it worked for the scene. It does indeed. But it works, apparently, because “James” can be made to do things that have a dramatic or a dramaturgical function. Because he’s not a real person. Because he is a character in a play, a figure whose purpose exceeds that of a person — a structural element as well as an identity.

There’s a longer debate to be had here, I think, about the question whether any performer can ever be herself in the theatre — whether the transformation into a character can (or should) be avoided in any format that gives presentational or representational structure to a version of reality framed in the way any stage frames things. There’s a further discussion one might have about the difference between actors and non-actors under these circumstances, a discussion that would have to reflect on what distinguishes a piece such as this from last year’s Harbourfront highlight, She She Pop’s Testament (the latter performed by a collective of self-described non-actors and their fathers).

But without getting into those arguments, I’ll just say that as far as I can see, what’s powerful and interesting about Winners and Losers has very little to do with its autobiographical origins, and much more with the skill and energy of its actors, its dramaturgical structure, and its existence on a stage — in other words, not its reality but its theatrical nature.

2 Responses to Winners and Losers; Storytelling; Theatre

  1. Hi Michael (& you Holger),

    I guess for me the big question here is: if having an actor “play his/herself” is the major factor in shifting a play’s or performance’s temporal reality to the “now,” when do you think performances occur when actors play other characters? In the past?

    To my mind, this only makes sense if you think of live performances as being somehow analogous with performances defined by the aesthetic-temporal parameters of film or television – in which, because of the very fact of their having put on celluloid (or pixels or whatever), the creation of a tangible “text” is inevitable. Unless it’s recorded via live feed, what we’re watching on the screen is in the past a priori. This does not seem to me to the be the case with a live performance – the only reason we’re inclined to think of them like that is because to large extent (probably larger than many of us are prepared to admit) our aesthetic prejudices have been shaped by the phenomenon of television. The vast proliferation of Stanislavskian & pseudo-Stanislavskian, psychology-based acting philosophies I think speak to this; there seems to be an expectation in the culture that a performance in a play is this neat little self-contained fourth-wall reality, in which (if the acting’s “good”) we get to be little voyeurs watching characters in habit the world.

    I realize I might have just drawn up a pretty big straw-man; if so, forgive me. But to continue in this vein: I think we lost a great deal in the theatre when we put the audiences in darkness (thanks, Wagner); we allowed audiences to abide in the voyeuristic, rather than the participatory – hence, the feeling that what’s on stage happened “in the past” or is somehow separate from the temporal/spatial reality the audience in habits. Television/film only compounded this nasty habit (q.v. David Foster Wallace’s essay on TV & voyeurism, “E. Unibus Pluram”).

    But I think this would have been totally alien & bizarre to actors in ancient Greece or Shakespeare’s England. I’m not sure how much we can actually know with certainty about performances in Shakespeare’s time, but it seems pretty clear from the text that there is little – if any – pretence of there being any difference, either temporally or spatially, between the actors & performers. In my own experience as an actor, Shakespeare really comes the most alive when there is a relationship between actor/character & audience, when Hamlet’s “To be or not to be?” is not a ponderous, philosophical point but an actual question, directed to living humans: “Should I or should I not kill myself?”. & of course the beauty of this is that it underscores theatre’s ability to do what film can’t – that it is at once possible to be 100% “invested in the moment” & to be 100% aware of the audience & the artificiality of the theatre. These two modes can live in harmony – that, for me, is where theatre vibrates most movingly.

    So when we distinguish between “actor-playing-himself” – “actor-playing-Hamlet” I sort of just think we run into eventual incoherence; such a distinction is, frankly, dishonest & disingenuous. I saw “You Should Have Stayed Home Today” & really enjoyed it – I thought Tommy Taylor was an utterly sympathetic, charming, funny, moving storyteller. I’m also aware that the Tommy Taylor I experienced was a Tommy Taylor mediated through multiple levels of artifice & contrivance, that a) the text was pre-written, & therefore edited & modified in such a way as to be designed to be sympathetic, charming, funny, & moving; b) he’s told this story however many times before & therefore has probably honed his abilities to tell the story to optimum effect; & c), we, after all, are paying members of the theatre – the play’s got to entertain, & to do that, there are elements of seduction which are inevitable.

    I’ll note that these are not particularly innovative observations on my part – in the post-Derridan, Foucaultian, Barthesian, Mallarmean, author-as-persona world, I think it’s pretty hard to make the case that a textes can in some way be more or less “real” or “authentic” than any other; I also think that for theatre to be good & interesting & beautiful, this need not concern us. (It also gets into the whole neuroscientific conundrum of personality-as-post-facto-illusion, which is a very deep rabbit hole indeed).

    For my money, traditional paradigms of theatre as this thing which we passively watch, sitting in the dark, an impermeable membrane between us and the actors, are hugely limiting to theatre’s full scope of expression. I also think, however, that having a character “play his/herself” does nothing necessarily to resolve these limitations. There is no reason we can’t unify the temporal-spatial relationship between performer and audience in King Lear – or even, gasp, Saltwater Moon or Death of Salesman – as easily as in Winners and Losers. The magic of theatre is that it can be both entirely artificial & entirely real or True.

    I hope at least some of that makes sense? Also, I worry I’m responding to an argument you didn’t necessarily make, in which case – ignore me.

    Thanks for yet another engaging post, Holger, and riposte, Michael.


  2. Hi Holger,

    Nice post. I’m not sure our arguments are incompatible, although I think like this kind of theatre more than you in a generalized way. I especially liked the way you teased out how always, even when we are ourselves, we are playing characters on stage. I also agree that skill theatrically can be what gives these pieces power.

    When we built You Should Have Stayed Home, I think a huge part of its success was dramaturgy (adapting the Facebook Note to only include events that happened to Tommy without editorialization) and design (A replica G20 Cell by Scott Penner with lighting by Kim Purtell and sound by Thomas Ryder Payne). Before each show Tommy puts on his ‘costume’, which were the clothes he was arrested in at G20.

    All of these things are theatrical devices and they really help with the impact of the piece.

    However, I don’t think any of them change my original argument, which is that having the actual performer onstage and not a character playing Tommy Taylor, changes the “present” of the performance. Temporally, the given circumstances are not an agreed upon construct between audience and performer. Now is the here and now. And this also makes the piece have a certain power.

    This is not to say that one day someone other than Tommy will perform the script, and that production won’t be powerful anymore, but the temporal reality of the production will change. Anyhow, I bring this up because reading your piece on how Theatre Doesn’t Tell Stories was what got me thinking about this, and the idea “theatre can’t tell stories because they are necessarily retrospective”. A lot of work lately seems to undercut the notion that the work IS necessarily retrospective.

    Regardless, our next show is a Brecht adaptation with a big cast so hope you will make it. Thanks for the post partially in response to what is going on @ spiderwebshow.ca. Lots of new ideas there and happy to connect them to other discussions in the theatrosphere.


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