The implications of a kiss: When Raymond met Mimi in a hilarious, moving, cerebral Blind Date

Back by popular demand from its 2015-16 season, Tarragon Theatre wraps its 2016-17 season with Spontaneous Theatre’s production of Blind Date, created by Rebecca Northan. This run of the improv date night hit features Northan, Christy Bruce and Tess Degenstein as rotating Mimis, and Bruce Horak as various other characters.

For those of you not familiar with the show, Mimi (a lovely French clown) has been waiting for her blind date for two hours. Clearly, she’s been stood up, and instead of giving up on her evening, she chooses a man from the audience to be her date (prospective dates have spoken with the Blind Date team before the show and have consented to the possibility of being chosen).

Last night’s date was 44-year-old Raymond, a communications and sociology professor who’s working on his PhD. He grew up in the Annex (a neighbourhood in Toronto) with a single mom and a younger sister, surrounded by strong women in the family. His awareness and appreciation of women and their experience translated into his own identification as a feminist, as well as his earlier work in film, where he made a point of creating roles for women. He also works with autistic kids. I know! A well-educated, socially aware, sweet and gentle man who respects women—Raymond is a catch.

Last night’s Mimi was Rebecca Northan, who set some ground rules before they set out on their evening together: honesty at all times, her date has the option to call a time out for clarification or during moments of discomfort (his date actual date, who Christy Bruce kept company, is allowed one time out call from her seat in the audience), and her date needs to temporarily pretend that he’s single and available for this date with her.

There was a really nice give and take feel to the date, with both Raymond and Mimi engaged, asking questions and being open with their responses. Mimi was clearly impressed by Raymond’s work and accomplishments, especially his identity as a feminist. Some truly engaging and thought-provoking discussions emerged regarding the nature of what Raymond teaches: an awareness and understanding of the experiences of others, and the intersectionality of experiences. They also spoke of their upbringing—bonding over being the eldest sibling, raised by single moms—and there was a truly tender moment of sharing and inspiration when Mimi recounted the experience of being present at her mother’s death from cancer (Northan’s own story). Her mother ushered her into the world and she ushered her mother out of it.

Soft-spoken, but communicative, Raymond worked through his nerves to play along—setting his own boundaries when he expressed an unwillingness to dance, which became the subject for ongoing gentle teasing for the rest of the show. And just when you thought he couldn’t be more awesome, he revealed a great sense of humour during their chat about Millennials: handling students who won’t put down their cellphones during class and essays that include emojis. In the scene at Mimi’s uncle’s apartment, that was the funniest and most cerebral lead-up to a kiss I’ve ever seen. And in the flash forward to their life together five years later, Raymond handled a hilariously stressful situation like a champ.

One of the things that Mimi outlines before the date starts is that her job is to look after her date and make sure he’s okay for the duration. This was evident throughout the entire performance, but especially so during the scene where Mimi and Raymond get pulled over by a female motorcycle cop (Degenstein) investigating Mimi’s erratic, possibly drunk, driving. Raymond is Black and the all-white company demonstrated awareness and sensitivity for the lived experiences of Black men regarding interactions with police. The cop took a firm hand with Mimi, who was the driver; and was respectful with Raymond, requesting that he take the wheel for the rest of their trip. And there was an added friendly twist when the cop realized he’d been her communications professor and thanked him for being such a great teacher.

This was my fourth time seeing Blind Date, including its genesis as a 10-minute piece at the Spiegeltent at Harbourfront Centre and the queer version at Buddies in Bad Times last year, with Northan playing Mimi in three of those performances (Julie Orton played Mimi in the girl/girl queer version). And every time, Northan amazes me with her generosity, her candor, her great big, open sense of humour and her fearlessness. Sexy, charming and sassy, as Mimi interacts with her date and gets to know him, she gets the audience to fall in love with him too. And along the way, we also fall in love with Mimi. Every single time.

With big shouts to Horak (the French waiter with just the right amount of snootiness) and Degenstein (the affable restaurant manager and professional, friendly motorcycle cop); producer/stage manager Marcie Januska (who took care of running improvised sound and lighting cues); and set designer Brandon Kleiman. And to Raymond’s date Abby, who got to see an audition/preview of Raymond on a date—and this was their first date!

This was a one-night only performance—and that’s the beauty of Blind Date. There’s a different date every show; and, for the first time in the production’s history, there are three rotating Mimis (Northan, Bruce and Degenstein). So you could see Blind Date several times during the course of the same run and never see the same show twice. What you will see every time is a unique, hilarious and poignant improvised theatrical experience, where Mimi takes care of her date, making sure he’s comfortable and having a good time. And making us fall in love with him in the process.

The implications of a kiss. When Raymond met Mimi in a hilarious, moving, cerebral Blind Date.

Blind Date continues in the Tarragon Mainspace till June 25; advance tickets available online—strongly recommended as this is a very popular show. Make sure to get there early to catch the pre-show activity in the lobby; and stick around for a drink after the show.

Preview: Keeping it real, present & loving when Mimi met Tara in delightfully funny & touching Blind Date

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Julie Orton & David Benjamin Tomlinson in Blind Date – photo by Tanja Tiziana

Every person in the room is trying not to get caught staring at your beauty. – A complementary compliment from Blind Date

When Blind Date creator/actor Rebecca Northan announced that her famous clown/improv/audience participation piece would be getting its first time ever gay make-over at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, I was one excited gay lady. And it was a dream come true for those who’d chatted with her on this very subject after performances of Blind Date during its run at Tarragon Theatre last season (I saw a performance and was one of those people).

Northan collaborated with Buddies A.D. Evalyn Parry on this queer couples run of Blind Date, which includes a girl/girl version and a boy/boy version, featuring actors Julie Orton and David Benjamin Tomlinson, directed by Northan. Orton is on this week, as Mimi dating women; next week, Tomlinson appears as Mathieu, dating men; they alternate performances for the final week. Check the show page for the full schedule. I saw Mimi on a girl/girl date in a preview last night, which was followed by a talkback.

Before the show starts, Mimi circulates the bar, chatting with women (including my friend Dee and me; but, alas, we were ineligible because I was there as media) in search of a date selection for the evening. Once inside the packed theatre space, Parry welcomes the audience and gives a brief introduction as we anxiously anticipate the start of the show. Who will Mimi choose?

We find Mimi, a lovely and lively young French clown, drinking a glass of white wine on a café patio, waiting for her blind date to arrive. For two hours! The audience empathizes, feeling bad for Mimi and annoyed at her no-show date. But, a trouper and not feeling like going home, Mimi decides to select a date from the crowd. And she picks Tara. Some brief ground rules: all Tara needs to do is be herself, be honest, including times when she chooses to not answer questions, and project so the audience can hear. Mimi’s job is to take care of her date. Either can call a time out; in this case, they’ll take a break from the play and move down stage right to the time out box, to clarify or sort out any issues that come up.

Orton is adorably charming as Mimi; equal parts playful, bashful and irreverent – and always supportive, complimentary and positive with her date. As the date unfolds, Mimi and Tara, a Gestalt therapist (who we learn in a titillating and fun revelation used to sell sex toys), get to know each other in a natural, organically unfolding way that is lovely to watch. They talk about their day, moving into discussion of family, coming out and their families’ reactions. Though Tara is admittedly nervous at first, Mimi puts her at ease, and the two find real connection through mutual trust and a sense of being present. All while being served by a hilariously surly French waiter (Bruce Horak), who is overseen by the affable, accommodating manager (Tomlinson).

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Julie Orton as Mimi (left) in Blind Date – photo by Connie Tsang

Moving from the café to Mimi’s car, things get wacky as they interact with a police officer, and then continue on for a nightcap at Mimi’s uncle’s apartment, where the scene becomes more intimate and easy-going – and Tara tells an awesome and funny story about a teenage concert outing to see Guns ‘n Roses at the CNE Coliseum. Then the audience gets to choose whether they continue the date or fast-forward to five years into the future. We chose the latter (apparently most audiences do) and we find them in an open marriage, getting ready for bed after a long work day, with even more revelations to come. And all the while, we’ve been falling in love with Mimi and Tara.

The post-show talkback revealed some interesting similarities and difference between the straight and queer versions of Blind Date. Horak noted commented that the constant, universal experience is “the joy of watching two people connect;” guards gradually come down and the “theatre becomes a sacred space” as they get to know each other. Orton mentioned that it’s always a “delicious, delightful challenge” keeping the show going and making the date comfortable.

Having trained at Loose Moose (alongside Horak) with Keith Johnstone (creator of Theatre Sports and Life Game), Northan said the concepts of being present, telling the truth and telling stories – especially in Life Game – became the inspiration for Blind Date. When asked why the noses, Tomlinson said the noses give permission to be open, go bigger and still be safe; it’s a reminder that it’s a play, and it keeps the action playful and prevents things from getting creepy. They also like to think they’re bringing the sexy back to clown.

Northan said she got schooled during her queering of Blind Date – that it wasn’t simply the same deal as the straight version, just with two women or two men. Parry concurred; there was a discovery process. Northan marvelled at how straight audiences tended to be suspicious of the offer of a compliment (served on a slip of paper from a tray during the pre-show mingling), while queer folks dive right in, even asking what the paper colours meant and if this meant they’d be chosen as the date. She also noted that the women had a natural back and forth rhythm to their discussion, asking questions and empathizing with situations; during straight dates, Mimi would ask her date question after question, but it usually took him a while to ask her anything. And, most importantly, situations that straight people would take for granted as a safe space, like being asked by a cop if they’re on a date, becomes a different thing when it’s a same-sex couple. It was a lesson in power dynamics, and they realized they need to be sensitive to situations like that – and, for both straight and queer productions, especially if the date is a person of colour.

Tomlinson commented that sharing and coming together with stories is particularly important and timely right now. And an audience member noted that the storytelling is based in personal experience and how everyone’s story is different – there’s no one way to be queer. Orton (who is a lesbian) noted the differences in her experiences doing the straight and queer versions. As Mimi, she draws from her own life as she gets to know her date and her date gets to know her; and she had to edit, change pronouns and leave out parts of her story during the straight dates. This became problematic for a show about being present, open and truthful. Last night, she shared a story of a secret high school girlfriend for the first time, which was lovely to watch and liberating for her. As for Mimi’s date Tara, she had a great time. She had no idea what she was in for when she came to see the show with a friend, but had been wanting to go on a first date and had even been looking into doing an improv class. Just goes to show you: the universe is listening and delivers.

Rebecca Northan’s baby grows up to be queer in the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s production of Blind Date. Keeping it real, present and loving when Mimi met Tara in last night’s delightfully funny and touching preview.

You can read Orton’s post about Mimi and Tara’s date – and like Blind Date – on Facebook.

Blind Date continues at Buddies until October 9; I’d highly recommend purchasing tickets in advance to avoid disappointment: online or by phone (416) 975-8555.

Still wondering what it’s all about? Check out Rebecca Northan’s CTV News interview about Blind Date, taped for its Tarragon run last year when she was playing Mimi:

When Richard met Mimi – all the nerves, humour & excitement of a first date in magical, sassy Blind Date

BlindDate_Final_webAfter recently seeing Rebecca Northan perform her solo show Troublemaker at this year’s Soulo Theatre Festival, at long last, I got to see the full-length version of her play Blind Date at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace last night. I’d fallen in love with Northan’s character Mimi and the show when I saw its 10-minute premiere at The Spiegeltent at Harbourfront Centre during World Stage in 2007, but the 90-minute version had eluded me. Well, no more my friends. And it was marvelous, brave, sexy and inspiring.

Blind Date begins in the lobby before the house opens, as Mimi circulates among the incoming audience members in search of her date. There are information alerts in the program and on signage regarding “consent to be romanced” – audience participation in the show, especially the individual chosen and his loved ones – and “consent to be videotaped/recorded.” The atmosphere of anticipation starts well before the show gets under way, as we wait and chat with our drinks, receiving welcome and a slip of paper containing a compliment from our handsome and affable scenographer/host (Kristian Reimer), and our lovely and attentive scenographer/server (Christy Bruce). Who will Mimi choose?

Blind Date goes beyond your standard on-the-fly improv show in that Mimi’s date is selected from the audience – a civilian, if you will. Oh, yeah – and Mimi is a clown. Not a circus clown, but a sexy French lady clown in a red dress and fishnets; a clown from the classical school of clown. Some stupid bastard has stood her up, leaving her waiting alone at the restaurant for two hours – and being the resourceful and proactive gal that she is, she finds herself a replacement date.

Last night’s selected date was Richard, a fit, married, 70-ish tax planner and South African by birth who likes to work out and once raced sports cars. His wife wasn’t with him last night, but he and the two friends who came with him were sure that she’d be okay with him going on this imaginary blind date. Before they get started, Mimi instructs him about the world of the play and the time-out space (either Mimi or her date can call a time out and move to a taped off corner of the stage to take a break from the world of the play, ask questions or strategize). She also tells him that, other than pretending to be single, he is to be himself. Blind Date may be a play of make-believe and improv, but it is rooted in truth and honesty.

Throughout the course of the date, we learn more about him as Mimi gently encourages him to share things about himself. A man who likes to live life on the edge, though not for some time, he espouses the philosophy that one must live life to the fullest. Mimi is extremely adept at coaxing information out of Richard, but far from a one-sided dynamic of sharing, Mimi also speaks of her life – real-life moments gleaned from Northan’s own life. In this case, some delightful coincidences emerge – just like in a real date. Mimi is charming, sassy, gently seductive and vulnerable. And truthful and honest, and very attentive to the comfort of her date.

Rebecca Northan as Mimi in Blind Date
Rebecca Northan as Mimi in Blind Date

The date travels from the restaurant to Mimi’s car (her uncle’s vintage car, actually) and an eventful and hilarious drive to her place (featuring a very funny performance by Reimer) to the condo (also her uncle’s) where she’s staying. At one point, Richard is left alone in the living room while Mimi goes to freshen up; he takes the opportunity to explore while he waits, and finds a copy of Henry and June, as well as some interesting items in a decorative box, on a side table. Game and a bit bashful at times, Richard did a marvelous job onstage. Who among us would be brave enough to kiss a stranger in front of a theatre full of strangers? And Mimi’s astute observation that he deflects uncomfortable moments with humour was spot on, as was her noting that this kind of response indicates that he was emotionally moved somehow in that moment.

They only took one time out. In this case, it was called by Mimi in order to set up how they were going to proceed: continue with the date or jump five years into the future. This choice is left up to the audience, who overwhelmingly choose the five-year jump, a choice that has been consistent throughout the seven-year, 400+ dates run of the show. Five years later, Richard and Mimi are living together, but not married – and she has a surprise for him.

A remarkable, entertaining, gutsy and moving piece of theatre. My friend Daria and I had a blast, and had a chance to chat with Northan after the show, where we found her chatting with a group of delighted Tarragon Theatre subscribers (the bar re-opens after Friday night performances, giving audience members the opportunity to chat with the cast). Blind Date always has Mimi paired with a male date (and there are five women trained to play Mimi now, including one who identifies as lesbian). Who knows? If Buddies in Bad Times decided to do a run of Blind Date – in Tallulah’s, say – Mimi would have the chance to kiss a girl. And she might like it.

With shouts to the design team of Brandon Kleiman (designer) and Jason Hand (lighting designer); and to SM and sound improviser Jamie Northan, and the lighting crew.

When Richard met Mimi. All the nerves, humour and excitement of a first date and beyond in Rebecca Northan’s magical Blind Date.

Blind Date continues on the Tarragon Mainspace till October 4 – check here for the full schedule and tickets. Christy Bruce, who also acts as the Mimi alternate, will take on the role of Mimi during weekend matinées, with Northan acting as the scenographer/server. Also please note some special events corresponding with the show: Blind Date Talkback Week (Sept 15-20) and Tarragon Tasting Night (Sept 25).

You can follow Blind Date on Facebook and Twitter, and check out the trailer on YouTube and the CTV interview with Northan.

Go see this – and see it again. It will never be the same show twice. Take a look at some audience reaction from opening night:

Raw, honest & irreverently funny with no apologies – Troublemaker @ SOULO Fest

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Rebecca Northan is a big ‘ole Troublemaker

You can’t say you weren’t warned. Tracey Erin Smith and SoulOTheatre opened the 2015 SOULO Theatre Festival last night at Aki Studio at the Daniels Spectrum with a gala performance of the Toronto premiere of Rebecca Northan’s Troublemaker. And what a celebration it was!

Opening to a packed house with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “Bad Reputation” blasting from the speakers, Troublemaker is Northan’s first autobiographical piece, taking us from her childhood and young adulthood in Calgary ‘hood Rundle to present day by way of memory, personal anecdote, family history, and pop culture and fairytale-inspired storytelling. Her brother’s cat Misty becomes her own personal Mr. Miyagi in her pursuit of bad-assery, she finds a kindred spirit for neighbourhood shenanigans, and discovers her inner dragon – the instigator, the heart of troublemakery – and finds a way to embrace it.

Northan’s performance is brave, frank and without apology. Engaging and entertaining, yet vulnerable and truthful, the audience can’t help but be her partner in crime on this journey.

Troublemaker is a raw, honest and irreverently funny piece of storytelling, full of magic, sardonic whimsy and sharp insight. Keep your eyes open for future productions.

A bit of SOULO Fest trivia: Northan directed Smith’s solo show mega hit The Burning Bush (Toronto Fringe 2006).

While you’re waiting for the return of Troublemaker, Northan’s own mega hit improv show Blind Date returns to T.O. this season at Tarragon Theatre (Sept 8 – Oct 4). I saw the show once, eight years ago at the Spiegel Show at Harbourfront – and loved it! I fell in love with Mimi and with Northan’s work. I’d love to go on a date with Mimi sometime. Sadly, she only dates dudes.

You can keep up with Rebecca Northan’s shenanigans on Twitter. And you must check out her humourous, insightful and honest TedxYYC talk examining state of fear behaviour, the rules of improv, her eureka moment connecting her experience performing Blind Date with how we behave when we’re madly in love, and the value of the arts in society:

SOULO Fest continues until May 24, with workshops and panels, and the remainder of the solo shows taking at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

SOULO_2015_POSTER-FINAL-668x1024Here’s the line-up:
A Tension to Detail (Gerard Harris)
A Nurse’s Worst Nightmare (Zabrina Chaves)
Fractured (Nicola Elbro)
The Archivist (Shaista Latif)
Love with Leila (Izad Etemandi-Shad)
Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl (Rebecca Perry)
Lost in Lvov (Sandy Simona)
Killer Quack (James Brian Judd)

The solo show schedule also includes a PWYC Masterclass Showing.

Check out the Shows page for details on dates/times.

Advance tickets are available online. Reservations are strongly recommended – these shows get only one performance each, so book ahead to avoid disappointment.

SoulOTheatre’s SOULO Theatre Festival is coming (May 21-24)!

2015-soulo festBig treat coming up for you theatre fans: Tracey Erin Smith and SoulOTheatre are back with an awesome line-up of solo shows with the 2015 SOULO Theatre Festival!

Running May 21 – 24, SOULO Fest opens with a gala performance of Rebecca Northan’s Troublemaker at Aki Studio at the Daniels Spectrum. Workshops and panels, and the remainder of the solo show run take place at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

Here’s the line-up:
A Tension to Detail (Gerard Harris)
A Nurse’s Worst Nightmare (Zabrina Chaves)
Fractured (Nicola Elbro)
The Archivist (Shaista Latif)
Love with Leila (Izad Etemandi-Shad)
Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl (Rebecca Perry)
Lost in Lvov (Sandy Simona)
Killer Quack (James Brian Judd)

The solo show schedule also includes a PWYC Masterclass Showing.

Check out the Shows page for details on dates/times.

Advance tickets are available online. Reservations are strongly recommended – these shows get only one performance each, so book ahead to avoid disappointment.