Blind Date an improv show worth seeing

Blind Date, on now at Arts Club with shows at Capilano University (Jan. 8) and Kay Meek Arts Centre (Jan. 2-5). Tickets:

The only thing more terrifying than going on a blind date? How about if other people were there to watch the masquerade unfold.

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In Blind Date, a long-running show written by Rebecca Northan that has been staged more than 700 times across North America and the U.K., audiences get to watch as an actor portraying the character Mimi calls up a member of the crowd for a partly structured, partly improvised blind date. Hilarity, genuine connection as well as social experimentation ensues.

But not to worry – you won’t be cherry-picked out of the audience against your will, Northan tells the North Shore News, adding that production members always mingle among the audience in the lobby prior to the show in order to suss out potential love interests.

“We’re mingling with the audience to get an idea of who might be interested in possibly coming on stage that night, we usually have five or six people that are willing to have their names on our maybe-list. But the person who ends up on stage doesn’t know that it’s them until they hear their name called from the stage when the show has started,” says Northan.

 A deceptively simple yet infinitely promising concept, Northan explains that Blind Date is part of what she has dubbed spontaneous theatre, which combines a relatively structured narrative (i.e., two people go on a blind date) that also celebrates a non-performer from the audience being put into a leading role.

Anything can and will happen, notes Northan, but: “It’s the cast’s job to create an environment where that person can relax and feel like they’re totally supported. We’ve got that person’s back.”

And while there’s a rough outline for how each showing of Blind Date is meant to proceed – think mainly, what would any typical blind date situation look like? – the cadre of actors who portray love interest Mimi on any given night have to be ready for anything to happen.

“If the audience member makes any strong offers then we’re willing to throw our structure out and go with their idea,” explains Northan.

It was more than 10 years ago when Northan found herself having to go with one of her own ideas on a whim, success or failure be damned.

“I was hired to perform in an adult vaudeville burlesque circus – and I had no act,” she says. “So I was like, I have to come up with a 10-minute thing and there’s all these women in pasties and there’s contortionists and standup comedians and there’s musicians – what am I going to do? What can I do?”

She knew she could improvise, so Northan decided to create a vaudevillian clowning character – a seductive clown who would try and see if she could get a guy from the audience to kiss her.

It was a silly, but effective premise, and a character that Northan would end up portraying more than 40 times during the course of a summer.

But then, like all theatrical artists who are deep down obsessed with the human condition, Northan wanted to look closer into the implications and potential characters behind such an eccentric situation. “What if I took the time to get to know this human being that’s across from me? And it was that question that launched what is Blind Date now.”

These days, there are only a handful of actors across the country trained to take on the character of Mimi because of the amount of skill and fly-by-your-pants training the role requires.

“One person plays Mimi but they play it in rotation because … I would say it’s safe to say it takes about three times the amount of energy that an average play takes because you are having to take care of yourself as a performer and also, with your energy, envelop this non-performer,” says Northan.

Northan is hesitant to spoil too much of what’s supposed to happen during the more structured parts of the show, though she does say the beginning of it is typical of most blind dates.

“The guy’s brought up on stage and we are at a café table, there’s a waiter, you can give your drink order and we’re going to get to know each other,” she says.

When it comes to the largely improvised interactions between audience member and Mimi, however, a lot has changed during the last 10 years – an era that has seen the #MeToo movement take shape and the relationship dynamics between men and women questioned vehemently.

“The show is growing and evolving with the culture that it lives inside of and that’s one of the huge advantages of spontaneous theatre, is that we can be responsive to right now in a way that scripted material can’t,” says Northan. “What’s going on in the world today?”

And while current iterations of Blind Date might see non-performer and performer talk about the dynamics of dating on stage – is it acceptable to hold out a chair for a date? What’s fair game in love and courting nowadays? – Northan says what’s most impactful is when participants learn something about themselves through the power of theatre.

“Really early on the thing that surprised me that I did not see coming when we started doing this show was how my attitude towards men has improved significantly because we see again and again these willing gentlemen come up on stage and they’re trying to hide that they’re nervous,” she says, recounting one episode where one man, following his turn on stage, talked about how when he was compelled to simulate a date on stage he realized how he’d been a waning partner to his own wife as time had gone on.

“I stopped telling my wife she’s beautiful. I’ve stopped telling her she’s talented and how much I love her and how much my life’s improved by her,” Northan recounts the man saying, adding that he promised to make the next 25 years a better, more solid marriage. All it took was a blind date.

Not all showings of Blind Date are so existentially dramatic. At its core, the show is really simply trying to portray the act of two strangers trying to connect – a universal theme that never gets tired, says Northan.

It’s also a really open-hearted comedy, at its centre, with lots of deep belly-laugh moments.

“It’s a really good night in the theatre,” she says.

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