Intimacy Under Duress: A Review of Onstage Dating
In preparation for each performance of her show Onstage Dating, Melbourne-based performer Bron Batten asks someone she's met on dating app Tinder to come and spend some time with her on the Basement Studio stage. On opening night Casey from Tinder didn't show, so to Plan B: audience surveys filled out in the bar beforehand. As Jess Bates found out, this resulted in an Ode to Awkward.
Onstage Dating is Bron Batten’s sassy, conversational and nerve-racking little cracker of a performance, the latest in a series of interactive dating shows to hit the Basement Theatre in the last few years. In 2014, Silo Theatre produced The Blind Date Project, a 30-day onstage experiment originally conceived by Bojana Novakovic and Mark Winter with Thomas Henning. A year later, Simon Ward’s 36 Questions played in the Basement Studio. While The Blind Date Project gave a season’s worth of consenting actors the opportunity to date Natalie Medlock (and any of her alter-egos) in unscripted real time, 36 Questions paired up likely matches from a pool of volunteers based on age and orientation, using the frame of Arthur Aron’s 36 questions - a psychological study on how to make two strangers fall in love. (The questions were published in The New York Times, and are now available as a podcast and an app). Both dating shows made for sometimes deliciously uncomfortable viewing.
Interestingly, Bron Batten's show utilises the same 36 questions, but in the discomfort stakes, the opening night of Onstage Dating was in a class of its own. Taking her previous work into account, this should come as no surprise. Last year at BATS, Batten performed her award-winning show Sweet Child of Mine, a work made in live collaboration with her Dad onstage. Bewildered reviewer John Smythe told audiences that they would 'cringe' and found her Dad's performance 'anti-theatrical'. I take that to mean Batten fires herself headlong into intentionally clunky situations, and this rub makes me all the more excited.
The show opens with a neon promise: we meet a booty-popping futurist bird-girl, with a soundscape that makes me think someone has installed a synth and a drum machine in the Waitakere Ranges.
The show opens with a neon promise: we meet a booty-popping futurist bird-girl, with a soundscape that makes me think someone has installed a synth and a drum machine in the Waitakere Ranges. It’s delightful and invasive, like a roving performer still going at 3am at Splore Festival. We are then treated to some brilliantly crappy vox-pop footage of Melbourne passers-by giving their first impressions of Bron from looking at a photograph of her. There is something fitting about this deflationary, vague drum roll to introducing our host for the night. According to the responders she could be 25, or 45, or work in HR, or should be less unkempt, or could be the kind of girl who recycles.
When she finally arrives to hustle her premise and gently monologue her way into her subject matter, I am surprised by her soft and tentative vocal quality. It is stand-up without punchlines, and she explicates heavily, but it is structurally sound. This beginning belongs to that margin of time the actor affords the audience to fall in love with them. I learn nothing new about the apparent abyss of eligible bachelors, but it serves its function; I trust Bron, and want her to win, if not in love, then at least for the next 50 minutes. She picks her date from the front row, a lucky chap with a purple polo, wearing what she describes as ‘crocs crossed with sandals’. He doesn’t look comfortable, but he’s smiling. There is wine, and she has those same handy New York Times questions to manufacture closeness under duress. With them, she is going to see if she can fast-track intimacy in a room full of strangers. The date has begun.
Bron is a comedian first - she negotiates the 36 questions deftly. (This is, after all, not the first season of the show, having played recently at Perth Fringe Festival and the Festival of Live Art in Melbourne, so she’s answered these questions a few times now). The questions seek to gently peel layers off the quivering audience volunteer, who in our case is armoured up with no small amount of anxiety and a tendency to glug his wine at astonishing speed. In the face of this Bron, too, feels she must balance entertainment with intimacy, and so every moment he teeters on an earnest answer, she is forced to deflate the question with a comedic answer she may have already had up her sleeve. (The question 'what would you like to share most in the world', for example, she answers with 'a bucket of KFC'). The show tells me a lot I already know about dating, and even less about Bron. Interestingly, the night I attended saw the delicate night-by-night ecosystem of this live, risky show swing in favour of placing Tim, our hapless contestant, under the microscope. The show began with a bird flexing light sticks in her native habitat, but it is the curious behaviour of this male that captivates the attention of an opening night crowd.
Let me stop for a moment. I’m approaching this review chronologically, and I need a space to acknowledge what cannot be written. Every part of me burns to fill a paragraph with an assessment of Tim’s ‘performance’. I’ve got long, acute sentences which attend to every quality of his breath, mannerism and presence. There is a deep need to code the events of opening night as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’. Was Tim ‘good’ at participating? Did he play his part? What had brought him here? What do I want him to be? And why do I want him to be that? I’ll restrain myself.
I think it’s because the theatre I like is in love with that irrepressable human something that emerges from rare unconscious moments of being. I reveal myself here. I want desperately to see that realised. I used to teach singing to three year olds, and every year, in the auditorium of Kristin College, their terrible/brilliant performance afternoon was the most magnetising example of 'presence' in performance I had ever seen. The children were utterly wedded to their environment; they possessed the purest form of intention. I have been dating the theatre for some time now, and so I know my type. I am always falling in love with beautiful accidents, those moments where something slips and we see something really present - not represented, but actually taking place. This is when things seem the most true, least curated and most satisfying.
Even so, the supposedly wayward trajectory of the experiment offers a glimpse of something else: two mostly-naked humans sitting next to one another in bed on their first date like dysfunctional divorcees, and it's perhaps the most clever example of our empty rituals of dating I’ve ever seen.
Audience participation environments, however, don’t always provide the best conditions for this to emerge. Take Tim. (Here we go). Tim is very nervous. His body language is the definition of unwillingness, but he dutifully performs every task Bron sets him: belligerently playing Twister, stripping to his underwear, and downing a piece of pit fruit. (And by ‘pit’, I don’t mean the seed...You’ll have to see for yourself). Bron has also carefully built a safety valve into the show: at one point she invites him to talk candidly about his current experience to the audience while she cranks music through her headphones, unable to hear him. If any participant needs it, this is an invitation to end the date. Tim continues to opt in, yet he is the never-present gift to Bron’s show. Tim does everything he is told, but almost no real exchange happens on stage. Even so, the supposedly wayward trajectory of the experiment offers a glimpse of something else: two mostly-naked humans sitting next to one another in bed on their first date like dysfunctional divorcees, and it's perhaps the most clever example of our empty rituals of dating I’ve ever seen.
The show, of course, suffers from a glacial pace at times, but fearless Bron, in her lavender lingerie, has just enough up her sleeve to keep the room charmed. The great litmus moment for this charm is when Bron leaves us alone in our own company, effectively to run the show ourselves. Just as Eric Davis, master of audience participation and the maker of the vitriolic show Red Bastard once said of the audience - the show is in your hands. If you have a bad time, it’s your fucking fault. It is partly empathy for this difficult journey that Bron has had to navigate us through, unaided, and also our infinite fascination with the man we cannot-stop-dating that keeps the room afloat. It’s a tough night - one can hardly blame our heroine for temporarily walking away.
But when she returns we are treated to the most robust recipe for romance when the Dawsons Creek soundtrack, unbroken eye-contact and proximity combine to compel the 'authentic' first kiss we so hopelessly crave. Even as Bron pops this beautifully ballooning moment with her bloodstained punchline, I cannot help but see that tiny squashed connection just underneath her gag. This is a moment of barely visible tenderness that only an hour of generous coaxing and a crackling faux fireplace could have teased out between the two of them. In this, Onstage Dating pokes perfectly at what is both a baffling art and a complex trauma; goading humans to risk really looking at another human being.
Onstage Dating runs at
The Basement Theatre, Auckland
until Saturday 11 February
For tickets to Onstage Dating, go here