Interview: Rebecca Northan

Rebecca Northan

Rebecca Northan’s internationally acclaimed show Blind Date opens in the West End this month. Every evening she will invite an audience member to explore the ups and downs of dating with her. Alex Hopkins caught up with her to talk about her inspiration for this most unpredictable of shows.

How did Blind Date start?

In 2007 I was asked to create a piece for the Spiegeltent, which was visiting Toronto, Canada. I came up with a 10 minute piece with an audience member and it worked really well every night. After doing it about 50 times over the course of the summer I thought, what would happen if I actually took the time to get to know the guy I invited on stage, instead of it just being a little sketch?

What were the initial ideas behind the piece?

I was fortunate enough to get to watch the Spiegel show for about a week before I knew I had to perform, so I was able to look at that show in a bigger context. It was really sexy variety show, full of comedy and burlesque – it felt like an adult circus –  there were acrobats, contortionists, musicians and comedians and I thought that maybe a sexy clown would fit there somewhere.

Blind Date grew from being a 10 minute sketch to a full length show. How did it develop and what did you want to explore?

I went back to Calgary, in Canada, which is where I grew up. My home theatre company, Loose Moose, was founded by improvisational theatre pioneer, Keith Johnstone, who created Life Game. It’s certainly the best place in North America to do improvisation experiments and I had a lot of conversations there with people about what my show may be. Eventually, the artistic director I was working with said he thought I needed to stop talking about it and just try it! The very first performance was 80 minutes long, so we made a huge jump from the original 10 minute piece.

When did you start working in improvisation and decide to take it further?

I started improvising when I was 16 and was doing it every week. The deal at Loose Moose theatre company was that if you volunteered there to rip tickets and sell popcorn they’d give you a free education, so I started studying with Keith at just 16. At that time I really had no idea who he was and it wasn’t until I was older and went to drama school that I suddenly realised the world I’d been exposed to and I felt quite overwhelmed. As time went on I realised that impro isn’t just a tool for making up sketches, but is something you can use to make you a better actor, which had always been Keith’s goal. It’s helped countless people this way and by making better actors it makes better theatre.

What, in your opinion, is the key to really good improvisation? What are some ‘tricks of the trade’ that you’ve picked up?

I think the big thing that Keith Johnstone has been talking about a lot in the last 10 years, which has really influenced me and shaped Blind Date, is make your partner look good and inspire your him. There’s a real sense of taking care of that person and having fun with them, not at their expense.

You’ve toured Blind Date all over the United States now. Do you still get nervous before you get on stage?

Yes, I get nervous every night, although I’m certainly less nervous now. When I first started doing the show I was terrified. I was more afraid than I’d ever been, because it was such a huge risk and experiment. Now I know my way through it better but, of course, I don’t know who my co-star is every night, so there’s a certain amount of nerves and excitement around that. It probably ends up feeling more like what you’d feel before a real blind date actually.

You’ve ‘dated’ over 240 men now. What have been the highlights?

I think the big thing for me is that I can meet somebody in the lobby and think they’re absolutely charming and wonderful, but what I don’t know, the big variable, is how somebody will change when they’re afraid. They’re just fine and relaxed when they’re downstairs, but when you get them on stage, in front of 200 people, I think it’s actually really normal and correct for them to be nervous. But the other thing I’ve discovered – and it doesn’t matter if I’m doing a show from one end of Canada to the other, or in the U.S – the big thing I’ve learned, is that men are pretty great.

Tell me more about the men you’ve encountered?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive. I think the shows have really made me empathise with men, because I’ve got to see first hand the pressure that’s put on them, the fact – for want of a better phrase – that they’ve always got to appear like they’ve got their shit together. That really must be exhausting. I’ve seen how well meaning they are, whether on stage or on a date, and constantly see how they just want to get it right. I’ve consistently met lovely men from all walks of life – from factory workers to accountants and lawyers to millionaires. I think it’s safe to say that, in general, people tend to be kind.

As it’s improvisation, have there been moments when the show has been in danger of falling apart? How have you dealt with this?

Well, our show is a bit different, it’s not 100% impro, so there is a structure. The reason for this is because we need something to move the audience members through. It helps to take care of them. It also means that on a given night, I can always deliver a minimum amount of entertainment. Mostly it’s about creating a sense of safety.

The phrase we’ve tended to start using recently is ‘spontaneous theatre’. We don’t live fully in the world of scripted theatre, we’re not scripted, but there’s a structure, so we don’t live in the world of 100% impro either. Our narrative structure is flexible depending on the guest. But even if you go and see really good, pure improv it’s good precisely because they are following a narrative structure of some sort.

What has this whole experience taught you about dating? 

I think that dating is challenging. When you have two people sitting down across form each other thinking ‘I hope you like me’, that creates a sense of tension and nervousness in us and I think everyone’s always better when they’re relaxed. The challenge is to get to the point when you’re relaxed and you’re dating, but I’m not quite sure how you do that.

You brother created a version of your show for women – in which he invited female audience members on to the stage. How did this work? 

It was very different and I’m not sure that we’d necessarily purse it, or if we did, we’d take a lot more time. It would certainly have to be developed in a very different way because the power dynamic is so different. It was a much more delicate process. Having a woman up on stage as a guest suddenly introduces all manner of booby traps and landmines because you don’t know what women want. I think this is the big question here!

Blind Date is at the Charing Cross Theatre from 28 May for seven weeks.

Words: Alex Hopkins

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