She lets a guy be a 'hero' on stage

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 2012 - 1:22 PM

The creator/star of the improv comedy 'Blind Date' shares her trade secrets.

'Blind Date' performance by Rebecca Northan.

Photo: GREG TJEPKEMA, Special to the Star Tribune

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In the stage show "Blind Date," Canadian actor Rebecca Northan plays Mimi, a clown-nosed French coquette who invites an audience member to be her "date" and co-star. The mostly improvised production, which has played Toronto and New York, is now drawing crowds to St. Paul's Ordway Center, where it runs through Sunday.

Northan, 39, talked about her creation and how she gets ordinary men -- volunteers whom she and her team scope out during the pre-show reception -- to be stars for an evening:

This is different from TV blind date shows, which are all about the nightmare moments. I don't mind light and playful awkwardness but I don't want to sit in that place. I'm most like people out there who improvise in character and mingle with the public. Sacha Baron Cohen ["Borat"] does that, although what he does is often specifically designed to antagonize people. The laughs are at their expense. Stephen Colbert interviews in character, too. But there's no snark in what I do.

To get my dates to be co-stars, I tell them that whatever they do is exactly right. We want to give this guy a hero experience, bring him up for 90 minutes and say yes to everything he does. He has four people hanging on his every word [Northan and a crew that plays waiters and other roles]. We look for places to give him hero moments.

I don't think of my dates as schlubs. Never. They're guests. The thing we absolutely believe is that every single guy I bring up onstage has something lovable about him. All I have to do is find that something. So, the show is about watching that guy relax and transform into that lovable thing.

I suppose I'm using some psychology. The style comes from the improv training I had with Keith Johnstone. He would say strange things to use, like "just be average." That's almost counterintuitive in this business. If I'm onstage, I want to be exceptional. But it turns out being average, being yourself, is totally interesting.

Recently, I had a date with a guy who works in college admissions and financial aid. When I asked him about his work, he said that it wasn't important, that it was boring. I said, are you kidding? You are the gatekeeper for the future of so many people. He started smiling. He had never thought of his job as exciting or important before. But whatever it is you do, it is amazing in some way. Everyone is the hero of their own life.

On another date, this guy mentioned that he played the piano. I could hear the [stage crew] guys on headsets scrambling to get a piano out there. That was a first. We got the piano out there and he played and it was just beautiful.

I also had a date with a guy who's taking care of his father with Alzheimer's. The guy had recently gone golfing with his dad who, just before a hit, nonchalantly said, "You have any idea where your mother is?" He was trying to figure out if she had left him and he didn't remember. [She had gone shopping.] The guy told his father that she was out of town. It was so human and beautiful, funny and sad all the same time.

The show has given me a lot of empathy for men. There's so much pressure for them to have it all together. And I help them lift that burden for a little while -- show them it's OK to be vulnerable or nervous.

There's something strange and powerful about the clown nose that instantly pulls back the curtain on human vulnerability. I don't know how or why it does that. But truly good clowns, not creepy birthday ones, are compelling and magical and totally human while being otherworldly. My clown nose puts my heart right out there. It would be impossible to do this show without it.

Do some of the men ask me out after the show? Absolutely. Many are my friends on Facebook and at the end of the run in St. Paul, we're inviting all of the men back for our cast party. But I think it would be unprofessional for me to go out with them. This is my job, one where we have more fun than tourists on vacation. Besides, I have a boyfriend.

I have gone on dates with many different types of men -- single guys, married guys, men recently divorced. They've been white and black and Asian. The men have been Canadians and Americans. The only difference is how long it takes for men to be comfortable being that vulnerable. American men take a little longer. But at the end of the day, men are men.

  • BLIND DATE

    What: Created and performed by Rebecca Northan, with Julie Orton at select performances. Produced by Kevin McCollum.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

    Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $40-$55. 651-224-4222 or www.ordway.org.

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