Sydney Festival 2013 review: The Blind Date Project
11 January 2013
The Blind Date Project has a clever conceit: Anna (Bojana Novakovic) waits for her date in a karaoke bar, unsure who will turn up and what will happen. The performance is unscripted, and cues are given to actors via text messages and phone calls from Tanya Goldberg, who directs live from the audience.
It's fashionably meta: the performance is not only about a blind date, but for both the actors and the audience, the structure mimics a blind date invoking a sense of anticipation, awkwardness and emotional investment from all involved. Thus, the play itself is the blind date for the audience as much it is the basis for the performance.
As scholar Lauren Berlant has noted, there are "intimate publics" and we can understand this notion through a shared cultural understanding of emotions and experience. The intimate public is what makes Facebook work, what gives RomComs their audience, and has enabled the rise of reality television, all these examples of contemporary popular culture depending on a shared knowledge of what love and pain both look and feel like.
Certainly, The Blind Date Project presumes a shared understanding of an intimate history, and of a narrative of relationships and emotions which is able to be recognised and felt by its audience.
That the play is so able to be immersive (the audience sit in a karaoke club, where the action takes place) and foster such a connection between actors and audience is indicative of a certain cultural literacy in the reading of intimacies, of dating rituals and modern, inner-city existence. A sense of form and the date structure is intelligible to the audience, but at the same time, there is a novelty in the unscripted "no two shows are the same" nature of this particular show. Once again, the performance itself simulates a blind date. The combination of the familiar and the novel is crucial to the romance narrative in contemporary popular culture. The universality of expectations of "the first date" is coupled with the need for it to be "special". The coupling of the repetitious and the unique is central to The Blind Date Project as a performance piece, as a crucial part of the plot and characterization, and as a meditation on modern (monogamous, heterosexual) intimacies.
It is really through Anna that the date is mediated, and her investment in the success of the date (determined by an agreement to repeat the experience and embark on a second date) sees her fussing with rules, and controlling the flow of intimacy. When things go awry (as they did in the performance I saw), there is still a sense of structure in the disaster.
The denouement was dramatic, but inevitable, because "the first date" must have a beginning, middle and end. Girl meets boy, they spend some time together, they either hope for more or leave disappointed. The narrative structure of romance and love was emphasised here because it was so obviously being performed. The plotting out of monogamous intimacies that we perhaps don't recognise in our private lives was evident here, in the safe distance of a play, but crucially, even though the plot and expectations of modern love might be accused of as being banal, the feelings of disappointment or of hope should not be disregarded.
Anna was disappointed in the performance I saw, and hurt, not just by the particular encounter, but by the promise of "The One" itself. The collective groans and cringes from the audience perfectly punctuated the delivery of lines that wounded Anna, the audience feeling the pain, too.
The Blind Date Project does not only use "the date" as a cue for the audience, but the setting of the interaction, the karaoke bar also performs an important function. Set in the "Karaoke Klub" (the ubiquitous Kardashians no doubt partly to blame for the spelling choice), Anna and her date both sing, the choice of music designed to convey something of their romantic history, and personality. Like other representations in popular culture, karaoke here performs the function of character development, as it has in films such as Bridget Jones' Diary and Lost in Translation, the tendency in all these texts to choose a song that "means" not just something, but someone. The kind of guy that would sing Alanis Morisette's 'You Oughta Know' (the song selected for Anna's date at the performance I attended), for instance, is a guy with baggage, but who also is Gen X and left-leaning in his familiarity with '90's angry girl indie tunes. Karaoke is also (for many) a fear inducing activity, singing in front of strangers, being scrutinised for what song choice conveys, as well as the capacity to suitably perform it. The potential for humiliation and shame are great, and it is an intimate act of sorts to stand behind the microphone and belt out a tune.
The Blind Date Project smartly reflects on the nature of love and romance, and while it does intimate that there is a performative element involved in relationships, the show is nuanced, and considers the potentials in romantic narratives alongside its limitations.
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