Marcus Youssef, Keynote Address // Carol Shields Festival of New Work // Prairie Theatre Exchange // Winnipeg, Manitoba // May 14, 2015
MARCUS: Thank you so much and before we start, how about a round of applause for –
A fire alarm goes off
MARCUS: We were doing Winners and Losers in Edmonton like two weeks ago and this happened to us there! It’s me, I set off fire alarms somehow.
FEMALE VOICE: Because you’re so hot!
MARCUS: Yes, that’s it. What do we do?
FEMALE VOICE: Nothing!
STAGE MANAGER: Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first stage of a fire alarm system. It’ll go on for a few minutes, it could stop, it could go into the second stage at which point we’ll need to evacuate the theatre and we all go outside.
It goes on for a few minutes and goes into the second stage.
Everyone leaves the theatre. 25 minutes later:
MARCUS: Thank you so much, everybody. It’s a tremendous honor to be flown in from Vancouver to do this, and not the sort of thing we playwrights often expect. It is also a terrific honor to be speaking at a festival named after Carol Shields, and it’s been a real pleasure for me in the last week or two to tell people in Vancouver that Carole Shields was not only a Winnipegger, and a globally lauded and loved novelist, but also a great lover of live performance and theatre.
As Ann said in my introduction, I am the artistic director of a company called Neworld Theatre in Vancouver.
One person yells whoo-hoo! from the crowd
MARCUS: Thank you. One person has heard of it. Which makes my next line appropriate: Neworld make 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.
He presses a button on his slide remote.
MARCUS: Let’s see if this works –
MARCUS: Loser. Definitely. It’s the best game, eh?
MALE VOICE: Turn on your cellphone.
MARCUS: Turn on my cellphone? Hey guys, any idea? I’m pressing the button. You can speak from the booth, it would be okay.
MARCUS: There we go, excellent. 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 of 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?
I don’t know a lot but it sounds um … weird. Winnipeg Jets –
MARCUS: 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.
There’s a couple of shots of the show there, like I said it starts kind of fun and then gets —
— less fun. It’s mostly scripted, although it’s very improvisational in its feel and about 20% of the show is improvised.
And, truthfully, as Ann kind of intimated, it has been a huge winner, for Jamie and I, and for me. A five week off-Broadway run this past January, raves in the New Yorker and Village Voice, another European and US tour next year. Things that I’m actually a little embarrassed to admit I’ve dreamt about my whole life.
This guy came to the show in New York. Stuck around, seemed to love the show. Excuse my language, but I starfucked the hell out him. Ran upstairs, was like “ will you take a picture with me?” He was as sweet with the 21 year old students hanging around after the show as he was to us.
Wallace Shawn. The Princess Bride, of course, and the dinosaur in Toy Story if you’re a parent of a certain age but his plays … My Dinner with Andre, The Designated Mourner, The Fever – My Dinner with Andre was one of the inspirations for Winners and Losers.
A hilarious schlep, a clown, and close to my favorite artist in the world. One of the most beautiful and unapologetic chroniclers of what it means to be human, and our collective responsibility to each other as members of a species seemingly hard-wired to experience suffering and inflict sometimes unimaginable horror.
And so when Bob suggested Winners and Losers as a theme, I was flattered. I also thought about my time in New York, and what a winner that made my choice to be a theatre artist feel like, and also how it often doesn’t feel that way. That it often, in fact, feels quite the opposite.
So: theatre. Winner or Loser. What do you think?
MARCUS: Winner? Why? Just shout it out.
MALE VOICE: Artists are losers.
MARCUS: Yeah, there we go.
MALE VOICE: Why would you be telling stories if we had a healthy world… (unintelligible, something about a princess in a castle)
MARCUS: Absolutely. And in a way, I’ll say winner – even though I often don’t believe it – because of this moment. Because we can do this. And I don’t know what’s going to happen. I didn’t know you were going to say that thing about the castle. You are really there. I am really here. And although I’m running the show, neither of us is completely in control.
I’ll also call it a winner because I can stand up here and say, seriously, that the thing we are all here to talk about, and that many of us do for a living, out of a great sense of dedication and love, might be a loser. In a world where controlling the message has become the dominant form of public communication, I think public contemplation of the ways in which one might be a loser is a kind of radical act. And for me being radical is a winner.
Or at least talking about being radical is. My wife says if I go first, she’ll make the epitaph on my gravestone say, “Words speak louder than actions.” Yeah. Loser.
But seriously: it’s hard to imagine the CEO of Enbridge saying publicly that he believes or she believes their profession is a loser. Or a politician. Even if they sometimes think it. Except maybe Jim Prentice. And the entire Manitoba cabinet – what is going on with the Manitoba NDP anyway?
In my entire career, I’ve been in one Hollywood film. My agent dumped me. I was a loser. Whatever.
Bad Company, it was called. Equally Bad Movie. I shot it 20 years ago. Maybe a decade later I was in a bar in my neighbourhood in Vancouver. A guy came up to me and said, “I know you, you’re an actor”. I said, “Yeah, yeah it’s true, I am.” “I knew it. I just saw you, in a movie, on TV. I totally remember, you were like a concierge. You were great, man.”
I’ve created more than a dozen shows, won pretty much every major theatre award in this country, I’ve published seven books, I’ve taught kids, I’ve worked with refugees telling their immigration stories, I’ve been a professor, I’ve led collaborations with artists with Down syndrome, not to mention the fact that I write a mean Canada Council grant.
But what do I get recognized for? In my own neighbourhood, about four blocks from my house?
14 seconds in a B-movie starring Ellen Barkin and Larry Fishburne that was released in 1995. I had one line.
Uh, ma’am. You know that if you send this airborne express it’ll have to go all the way to Memphis and back?
It is a pretty good line.
Like all students at the National Theatre School, where Ann and I graduated from more than two decades ago, I dreamed of being a star. We went to school with Sandra Oh. In our years, she was the one.
When I teach students, I often say, “One or two of you might end up kind of B-list Hollywood famous, like Sandra.”
I think that’s right, she’s sort of B-list?
“But even that’s unlikely. And for the rest of you, if you decide to stick with it, a life in theatre in Canada, in art making in Canada, may end up feeling a lot more like you joined the priesthood than moved to Hollywood.”
I got asked to interview Sandra publicly a few years ago, at a big festival event in Vancouver. When we were preparing, Sandra and I, I told her I wanted to ask her about what’s challenging about being famous. Because it can’t all be great, right? Her reaction really surprised me. She winced, and then she sighed. And she said “No, Marcus. I can’t talk about that. I’ve done it before and it doesn’t work. My fans don’t like it. They can’t imagine my life isn’t perfect. To them it just sounds like I’m whining.”
Sandra also told me that she envies me. Because I get to do and make things that I truly believe in, that come from my heart. And I was like, really? Come on. Please. You’re a famous millionaire. Nobody’s ever heard of me – well, one person here has heard of me – and honestly, all I ever do is write stupid grants.
Which I guess is exactly the kind of reaction that led to her not to want to talk publicly about what’s hard about being famous in the first place.
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 show with my friends Camyar and Guillermo.
Ali and Ali and the aXes of evil. Ann sort of talked about it – it’s about these two Middle Eastern refugees from a country called Agraba. Any Disney PhD’s 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.
There’s a map of Agraba, there’s the flag. They added the stars after the US invaded. Anyway, it’ll take too long to tell you all about it but at one point in the show they introduce their corporate sponsor, Osama bin Laden. We toured this between 2004 and 2008, so he was still alive. And because they anticipated the audience wouldn’t like that too much, the Ali’s took him through a rebranding session. They suggested Al Qaeda was a name with some negative connotations, though it had great brand recognition. But maybe if he kind of changed it, or made it kind of new, like ‘New Al Qaeda’, or ‘AQ2’ or … ‘ISIS’? Anyway…
As a Canadian of Middle Eastern Heritage I will always feel to some extent 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 rareified arty slash 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.
They don’t necessarily see the weird beauty of Cairo rooftops.
Or this graffiti, in a place called the wall of martyrs. That was a child who was killed in one of the military crackdowns.
Or what it meant for me to meet my family – that’s my cousin Marcus, also named for my grandfather – when I went to Egypt for the first time, in 2012, in the middle of a revolution, when I was 42 years old.
I think when people here think about places like Egypt or Iraq, they see a picture that is no more a truthful reflection of that place than the mythology that Canada is nothing but a peace-loving, progressive democracy, ruled not by multinational energy corporations, but by the will of an engaged citizenry, where – like science itself – political dissent isn’t just tolerated, it’s celebrated as the cornerstone of our national identity.
That’s a new project I’m working on.
In 2012 my company Neworld co-produced a reading of this play, Homegrown, about a terror suspect held in Toronto. We produced it not because it’s a great play – I don’t think it really is – but because after premiering it in Toronto to a media firestorm the Summerworks Festival had its Canadian Heritage funding inexplicably cancelled.
In 2006, my company coproduced My Name is Rachel Corrie in Montreal and Vancouver. Do you guys know the show? As we produced it a member of parliament rose in the House of Commons and demanded to know why the Department of Canadian Heritage was funding our production of an anti-Semitic play. The play is not anti-Semitic. You can hate the play or hate what it says for sure, but it’s not anti-Semitic. And – for the record – we also received no funding from the department of Canadian Heritage. For what that’s worth.
As a Middle Eastern-Canadian artist, I found these headlines from about a month or two, very interesting. In Halifax, there was a plot to attack a gathering at the confederation place, do you remember that, did you guys catch that out here?
Justice Minister Peter Mackay said that the plot to murder scores of people in downtown Halifax – apparently a very serious plot – couldn’t be terrorism because it wasn’t “culturally specific”. This is a direct quote. So by implication those disturbed young people who planned it don’t have a culture. And terrorism is, by definition, a cultural – not a political – phenomenon. And when I say “cultural,” you know exactly what culture I’m talking about.
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 20% 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.
Though I have to say I hate when people say “anything can happen” about theatre when they’re talking about shows where everything is, in fact, designed to make sure nothing unexpected does happen. Something unexpected happens – the fire alarm goes off – and everybody freezes.
And honestly – and I’m sorry about this – but when I’m sitting in theatre and it’s a regular play, and the actors are pretending that I’m not there, part of me is thinking, “I know you know I’m here. Please, why won’t you just look at me?”
Winners and Losers is one example of that kind of show, but there are so many. Anyone see Rebecca Northan’s Blind Date? Yeah, awesome show. Or my friends at Theatre Replacement’s Wee Tube. They show Youtube videos picked by the audience and perform the comments people have written under those videos as if they’re dialogue between two people. They also get drunk.
A couple of years ago, I made this show with my 17 year old son.
It’s called How Has My Love Affected You. It was about my relationship with mom. She wasn’t mentally well, and very isolated, and we were in fact estranged. She got early onset Alzheimers, and I thought she was just crazy. I was so angry it took me 7 years to figure out what was actually going on.
And then I inherited all her journals. Like me, she wrote her whole life, through the disease, until she literally forgot how to put a pen to paper.
In the show, Zak played himself, and sang songs crafted from my mum’s writing.
One of the things I think that happened in that show was through it all, the audience was thinking, “Oh my god, if that’s what happened between him and his mum, what’s going to happen between him and his son? And they’re right there.”
Do you guys know Caravan Farm Theatre?
It’s not so different than Shakespeare in the Ruins, in some way. I’m the winner there, for those of you who care I stole Shakespeare in the Ruins’ General Manager about three months ago. He’s now working for me.
Someone in the audience boos.
MARCUS: Yeah, sorry. Winner!
Caravan Farm Theatre is in the interior in the Okanagan region of BC. 300 people a night go in the summer, do sleigh ride shows in the winter, and auctions and pumpkin carving, and actors who eat and live in cabins and outside. And throughout everything, the horses: who are a fundamental part of the act of communion that is in their shows.
Or this guy: that’s my friend Niall McNeil. His life includes Down syndrome. What I love about this picture is, that, honestly if you looked at it and you had to figure out which one of us has Down syndrome, and you didn’t already know … it kind of could go either way, right?
Where else but in the world of the theatre could I spend many years working with my friend Niall and being paid – not very well — but being paid, trying to figure out how we can make shows together, as relative equals.
Here’s some pics from our first show which Ann mentioned, Peter Panties. Niall had dreamt of adapting Peter Pan his entire life. It was at the PuSh Festival in Vancouver in 2011.
It’s a bit risqué, some of it.
He gets married at the end.
Our second show, King Arthur and His Knights, will premiere in 2018. It will feature a fully integrated cast of 10, both professional actors and half the cast will be actors whose life includes Down syndrome as well.
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.
The last connection my mom had to the world was music. Long after she forgot me, her own name, how to talk, she tapped her finger to Johnny Cash, and even sometimes hummed.
In a Slate interview last year, Wallace Shawn said he wished people knew him as an avant-garde playwright, not as the funny guy from Princess Bride.
I’m really 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. I guess it’s my mid-life crisis. I’m 45 years old. And live performance disappears. It’s not a book, or a film. It doesn’t really belong on the internet, no matter how hard you try. And so after you make things, even if they go to New York and tour for a few years – after that, they’re gone.
Which I guess is a little like real life.
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.