Winners and Losers — now a Governor General’s Literary Award nominee

Today, the nominees for the 2015 Governor General’s Literary Awards for Drama were announced. Among the nominees is Marcus Youssef and James Long’s Winners and Losers — a reality-based play which I saw in its premiere run in December 2012 and which I talk about a little in this blog post from June 2013. I had the privilege of writing the foreword for the script which was published by TalonBooks of Vancouver this past May. In honour of their nomination (many congrats M & J!), here is the text of that foreword.

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Embracing Uncertainty: A User’s Guide by Jenn Stephenson

9780889229327Here’s what Ottawa theatre blogger Kevin Reid has to say about Winners and Losers: “And this is where it gets absolutely fascinating and deliciously uncomfortable. This piece blurs the line between the theatrical and the real like nothing I’ve ever seen, and while I’m sure the actors are, in fact, just acting (mostly . . . I think . . .) it nevertheless feels bloody real, to the point where when it’s all over you feel almost garish for applauding. An experiment in realism that isn’t afraid to punch traditional stage boundaries right in the dick . . . this play won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if it doesn’t get you thinking and talking you might be the Scarecrow in Wizard of Oz. Huge props to the actors, and I’d love to compare notes with people who saw it on different nights. This is theatre at its most real . . . and, therefore, at its scariest.”[1] In his vivid response to the work, Reid captures the potent audience experience on offer, a kind of thrilled but hesitant fear that characterizes the central affective paradox of Winners and Losers.

After the two performers introduce themselves – “Hi! My name is Jamie and this is Marcus.” “Hi! I’m Marcus” – we are initiated into the basic premise of the event; here we are just casually hanging out with these two friends as they play a witty game they have invented called Winners and Losers. As various topics are proposed for debate – microwave ovens, the Occupy movement, Stonehenge – the two perfunctorily dispense judgment. Grounded in a tough attitude of Enlightenment libertarianism, their assessment of what constitutes a winner turns primarily on whether or not the person or issue presented is autonomous, self-directed, and capable of having significant impact on his, her, or its social or environmental context. In combination with our philosophical discomfort with this thinking, our amusement is grounded in the disrespectful brevity and aggressive confidence of their conclusions, treating high and low subjects to the same brisk capitalist reduction. We laugh along at the absurdity of the game. Eventually, however, Jamie and Marcus raise the stakes and the play turns nasty when the two decide to insert themselves as the subjects of judgment. Between the two long-time friends, the knives of honesty come out and this game is suddenly a lot less fun both for us and for them.

Presented as essentially an improvised, spontaneous event, hosted by Jamie and Marcus as themselves, Winners and Losers situates itself solidly in the early twenty-first century zeitgeist in Canada for reality-based theatre. (Although we can trace the roots of this phenomenon to the early 1990s in Europe and the United Kingdom, it is only in the past decade or so that it has flourished in Canada). Reality-based theatre, or Theatre of the Real as it is also known, is an umbrella term encompassing a variety of performance strategies and styles where the principal aim is to establish connections to the lived real. It is a mode of performance “characterized by: an interest in extending public understanding of contemporary individuals and society; a focus on representing and or putting living people on the stage; and an aesthetics of ‘authenticity effects,’ artistic strategies designed to generate (and then in some cases, destabilize) an impression of close contact with social reality and ‘real’ people.”[2] Autobiographical performance, community documentary, verbatim theatre, theatre of fact, theatre of witness, tribunal theatre, restored village performances, and historical battle re-enactments all fall into this category.[3] Winners and Losers connects to this tradition initially as a work of autobiography – its subject-protagonists are “Jamie” and “Marcus” as performed by their actual-world counterparts Long and Youssef – but it also manifests an attachment to this ethos through its concerted and strategic efforts to erase the theatrical frame and present something “real.” Beyond confessions of real-world personal details, Jamie and Marcus do real stuff. They roll on the floor and try to beat the crap out of each other. They drink beer. They play Ping-Pong. As we witness the crazy impossibility of scripting the movement of a Ping-Pong ball, its realness bubbles up. We experience an electric frisson at being in the presence of a really real thing. This is one way that Winners and Losers taps into the potent audience effect of reality-based performance.

The other way that the real is made manifest is through deliberate exposure of the usual theatrical artifice. Winners and Losers continually reminds us that we are in a theatre and this is indeed a play. To begin the show, Jamie presses Stop on an iPod, stopping the pre-show music. Jamie and Marcus talk to the audience. They talk to the stage manager. They explicitly acknowledge that they are in the process of creating a show: “Isn’t that a rule? One of us does it, then the other?” “I don’t know. I thought we were just making it up.” “Yeah, we are.” “So make it up.” As promised, portions of the play are indeed improvised within certain parameters. Yet, frequently, the seemingly most unpremeditated moments are those that are the most carefully placed, permanently mapped in the otherwise changing terrain of the script. As evidenced by the publication of the text in this book, this is very much a crafted work of theatrical art in the style of the Theatre of the Real genre. The script you hold is not transparently the recording of a past, improvised event. Rather, the provocatively self-imploding consequence of publication is the exposure of the mechanism of “the real,” a peeling back of the curtain to “out” the various authenticity effects as just that, effects born out of consciously applied techniques.

This interplay between the real and the constructed generates the conditions for the thrilled but fearful audiencing experience of Theatre of the Real in general and Winners and Losers in particular. In our discomfort, we apprehend the stakes differently because we have been encouraged through the accumulation of authenticity effects to connect their stinging mutual accusations to real Marcus and real Jamie. It really is quite upsetting and yet, in reflection, this is hardly the worst thing I have ever seen on stage in terms of the emotional evisceration of another (albeit fictional) human being. But more than straightforward concern for the real-world psychological well-being of our protagonists damaged by truths revealed, the audience is profoundly disoriented by doubt concerning what still remains hidden. Taking up this problem of what we cannot see, David Shields in his 2010 manifesto Reality Hunger identifies an innate paradoxical indeterminacy of nonfiction.[4] Fictional worlds are very stable in terms of their epistemological security, that is, in a fictional world we know everything there is to know. There are no alternative scenarios to contemplate. Anything that is omitted from the world is simply void. We cannot know what Hamlet eats for breakfast because Shakespeare doesn’t tell us. This information does not exist and so we don’t worry about it. In nonfiction, by contrast, the world of the historical real is fully determinate, and yet its representation in nonfictional genres like memoir or autobiographical performance is always essentially incomplete. Marcus might tell us that he lives at Napier and Templeton in Vancouver. Given the reality aura created by the performance, we are inclined to take that as a true fact. But every fact we are given points to other facts we are not given. What is the exact street name and number? What does the house look like on the outside? What about the inside? And so on, spawning more and more awareness of what we don’t know. “Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.”[5] Thus, nonfiction is profoundly unstable, disrupting audience confidence in what we had so confidently taken to be “truth.” Supplementing these proliferating holes in our knowledge of Jamie’s and Marcus’s world is the lack of verifiability of our knowledge. Information is delivered in an environment saturated with authenticity effects, encouraging us to accept these statements as truth and yet we have no way of checking. In fiction, it doesn’t matter. If we are told it is so, then it is so. For nonfictional worlds, the existence of an external historical real lurking just outside the frame provides a solid reassurance and simultaneously is the source of serious and troubling doubt. Ulrike Garde and Meg Mumford call this destabilization of audience perception “productive uncertainty,” highlighting the potential efficacy of this strategy to “invite fresh ways of engaging with people and related phenomena that are unfamiliar.”[6]

What is productive uncertainty doing here in Winners and Losers? Fostered by the audience’s epistemological disorientation, the lesson is perhaps to embrace doubt as a moral position, taking our cognitive experience of the play as its theme. Considering the play from this perspective, reframed by the experience of productive uncertainty and coloured by our shamefaced fear (we should know better but we can’t help it), the question is not: Are you a winner or a loser? But rather the play begs the question. The hyperconfident black-and-white assessments of “Jamie” and “Marcus” cannot stand. Perhaps we cannot (and should not) assess the world on those terms when thinking about having an impact on the world either through parenting (Jamie) or through public service (Marcus) or through the creation of theatre (both). These are projects combining high emotional investment with unpredictable slow outcomes. In the short term, in the space of a snap judgment, there is no way to really know if all your work made any difference at all. Winner or loser becomes impossible to declare. We might have no choice but to be scared and to live with the uncertainty.

NOTES

[1] Kevin Reid, “MagNorth2013 – Winners and Losers,” The Visitorium (blog), June 12, 2013.

[2] Meg Mumford, “Rimini Protokoll’s Reality Theatre and Intercultural Encounter: Towards an Ethical Art of Partial Proximity,” Contemporary Theatre Review 23.2 (2013): 153.

[3] Carol Martin, Theatre of the Real (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 5.

[4] David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (New York: Knopf, 2010), §389.

[5] Shields, ibid.

[6] Ulrike Garde and Meg Mumford, “Postdramatic Reality Theatre and Productive Insecurity: Destabilising Encounters with the Unfamiliar in Theatre from Sydney and Berlin,” Postdramatic Theatre and the Political: International Perspectives on Contemporary Performance, ed. Karen Jürs-Munby, Jerome Carroll, and Steve Giles (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 148.

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