How to be a gentleman

1297722589900_ORIGINALYesterday I finally caught up with Rebecca Northan’s Blind Date. First created in 2007, the show has toured extensively in Canada, the US and the UK. The premise of the show is simple. Northan (or sometimes other actresses — here Christy Bruce) in the role of Mimi the clown selects a man from the audience to be her date. The 90 minute show then unfolds as an improvisation between Mimi and her ‘guest.’ They have drinks in a restaurant, go dancing, drive back to her place, (get stopped by the police), and flirt on the couch. For the actress playing Mimi the role is a tour de force of improvisational comedy skills.

In terms of how the ‘real’ plays out in the show, two particular aspects pique my attention. The first is how the experience of the ‘guest’ is communicated on two channels running parallel in the actual and fictional worlds. In the final scene, Mimi and her date are cuddled up in bed (Mimi having just given birth to their child — Don’t ask.) and she tells him “all the things I love about you.” She praises him for having a sense of play, a generous and open spirit, for being brave. This speech speaks both to the guest-as-date/husband in the fictional cosmos but also to the actual audience member who has very gamely gone through this experience. The qualities she lists are positive ones to find in a life-partner but also the qualities of someone who has been a very good sport through this forced performance improv kidnapping. And because the veneer of fiction is so thin in this performance, the audience (and the guest-date) clearly understand that this is thanks for a performance job well done. Improvisational skills will set you in good stead in life. Without this closing moment, the play (for me) would be much reduced, limited to a set of (still very hilarious but fleeting) comedic gags. So in this way, the raison d’etre of the piece lies in its realness. Initially this realness generates the humour of watching our fellow audience member deal with the performative situation. Ultimately, his real experience of the last 90 minutes — how to be brave, how to be generous, how to be open to surprises — is the theme of the show.

The other aspect of the show that I want to highlight is the absolutely foundational heteronormative culture of the show. Mimi in her red dress (and her red nose) sits at a cafe table alone having been stood up by her expected date for the evening. Pulling a replacement man from the audience, the episodes of the plot follow Hollywood romantic comedy/heterosexual courting conventions. One effect of these conventions is that they secure the humour of the show in social conventions/situations that ‘we all’ understand — What to say/not say on a first date? Who should pick up the bill? Is it appropriate to go back to her apartment? What about a first kiss? So for example, if the date in a gentleman-like fashion pulls out Mimi’s chair to allow her to sit, we recognize the humour of the cliched situation. But also if he doesn’t pull out her chair, the missed social moment is also marked for us in our expectations. Throughout the play, the guest is set up as a ‘gentleman-hero,’ given frequent opportunities to be gallant and charming. The second (more interesting in my opinion) effect of this heterosexual romance frame is that in the ‘real’ world it gives the audience-guest an implicit script that he can follow. The social script of how to behave on a first date is transferred to how to behave on the stage in this role.

I had the chance to talk to the cast and creative team after the show and asked about alternative gender pairings for the show. They had in the past experimented with a male Mimi (not sure what his clown name was) played by Jamie Northan. The result, they report, was that rather than being charming in her flirtations with the hesitant male-guest, this male-Mimi came across as creepy and stalkerish. (Even worse, there is a moment in the play where Mimi and the guest kiss. In the performance I saw, he initiated the kiss but then she climbed on top of him pushing the comedy of full-body making out. Imagine this with reversed roles. It would be like watching a sexual assault. And in fact the audience member is being assaulted). I think this disturbing effect lies in the intersection of the real world social power dynamic and the actor-in-performance power dynamic. In the workings of the improv, the Mimi character is a dominant ‘driver’ pushing the plot forward and creating situations. When the actor/character is dominant in both ‘worlds’ then the play becomes unbalanced somehow and the necessary improv leadership of the actor makes the character too aggressive and so socially unacceptable. For this reverse pairing to work, the whole piece would need to be radically overhauled  with an eye to compensating for the built in power-imbalance of actor/non-actor — and even then I am not sure that it could be resolved into a workable piece of lighthearted comedy.

Blind Date plays at the Tarragon Theatre with Rebecca Northan (and Christy Bruce as a Mimi alternate in some performances) from September 8 to October 4, 2015. http://tarragontheatre.com/show/blind-date/

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