Neworld celebrates 20 years of stirring up Vancouver's theatre scene

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      For 20 years, Neworld Theatre has reflected a Vancouver not readily visible on-stage. It tells stories real and imagined that depict people of colour, and differing religious and sexual identities—stories that tackle big issues, including racial profiling, sexism, and intolerance. And it tells them in sharply critical, heartfelt, and humorous ways. Since its earliest days, Neworld’s commitment to cultural and ethnic diversity has been more than just a guiding principle: it’s been part of the company’s mandate.

      “Diversity and inclusion gets treated often—not just in theatre, but anywhere—like a favour,” Marcus Youssef tells the Georgia Straight. Neworld’s artistic director since 2005, Youssef is seated inside a rehearsal room at the company’s shared Progress Lab theatre hub in East Vancouver. “This is often what our work has been about: the border between differences. In my view, hearing somebody’s story that’s fundamentally different, or fundamentally challenges, or is just so outside of mine allows me to gain a deeper and broader perspective not just on the world, but on myself. That’s where I go, ‘No, it’s not an act of charity. It’s a privilege.’ We have this extraordinary privilege, so why wouldn’t we take advantage of it?”

      Neworld began with founding artistic director Camyar Chai’s original and lavish reinventions of Persian folktales, and evolved into a home for some of independent theatre’s most innovative minds and their works: Steven Hill’s avant-garde Leaky Heaven Circus; James Fagan Tait’s reinvention of classics like Crime and Punishment and The Idiot; several of Adrienne Wong’s installation- and intimacy-based works; and Youssef’s own Winners and Losers, one of the company’s longest-running and most successful pieces.

      Winners and Losers, a copresentation with Theatre Replacement, returns to Vancouver as part of Neworld’s 20th season for the first time since its initial five performances as part of the PuSh festival in 2013. Since then, the show has travelled to 17 cities around the world, including an Off-Broadway run in January 2015. It’s an impressive accomplishment for a show that began pretty much as a hypercompetitive party game between Youssef and his friend and colleague James Long as they were trying to write a play together.

      “We devised this warm-up game where we would name places, people, and things, and debate whether they were winners or losers,” Youssef explains. “Then we had a second game that involved subjects and we made a list and we had things—parenting, cook, lover, friend, dancer—and debated who was better at it. We recorded all those debates for the game and had them transcribed. When we read them to ourselves, we just thought we were having a good time because we were using Russian accents while we did it, which was like this clown nose. In retrospect, maybe we were more willing to be risky because we had stupid accents, you know? But we were amazed when we read the transcripts. Oh, my God! The level of competition among us was really interesting, even though we thought we were just having fun.”

      The third show in the company’s 20th-anniversary season, Doost (Friend), marks Chai’s first return since his departure in 2005. Doost is inspired by a story fundamental to Chai’s Sufi faith (and it’s a pro/nonpro hybrid with members of the Sufi community), but it also explores the function of faith in a largely secular culture.

      “What is the role that faith can play, especially when Sufism is a branch of Islam? All sorts of things are interesting about it for us,” Youssef says. “It all goes back to the shows he made at Neworld, and I was in a few of them. Crazy dance and music, and there’s a story, but it’s a lot about the spectacle, a lot about the ideas.”

      As Neworld celebrates its two decades, Youssef sees Chai’s initial vision continuing to evolve and adapt. In recent years the company has explored topics that have pushed it in different directions—globalization, capitalism, ableism—deepening and expanding Neworld’s own definition of diversity and inclusion.

      “The 20 years is also about a connection to a whole bunch of different kinds of communities, telling stories and reflecting experiences that we don’t normally hear in the more mainstream forms and don’t see much on-stage, in an ever-expanding variety of ways,” Youssef says. “And that’s critically impor­tant to me in a culture driven...driven hugely by profit and the imperative of global capitalism. Hearing those stories in a really intentional, curated way that’s connected to real communities is very important—and making people laugh, which we do sometimes.”

      Winners and Losers runs from Tuesday (February 16) to February 27 and Doost runs from March 22 to 26, both at the Cultch.

      James Long and Marcus Youssef in Winners and Losers.
      Simon Hayter