An attractive woman in her early 30s is sitting at the bar at the 3 Clubs in Hollywood. She wears a black trench coat and silver and black strappy heels. Anxiously leaning across the bar, she asks the bartender for the time. She looks to her phone, then to the door, then back to her phone.
At first glance this moment might seem like the beginning of a real and typical first date. It’s not — real, at least. It’s the opening scene of “The Blind Date Project,” a theatrical, purely improvised show performed every Wednesday night in the intimate karaoke bar.
“The Blind Date Project” is the brainchild of Serbian Australian actress Bojana Novakovic and co-director Mark Winter (Winter shares directing chores with Tanya Goldberg).
Performed for the first time two years ago in Australia, the show aims to demonstrate the vulnerable, thoughtful, hilarious and humiliating moments that can happen on a first date.
“We just thought, if a blind date was a piece of theater over an hour [of time], what would it look like?” Novakovic said. “We had to neutralize the plot points as much as possible and create this skeletal structure so that we didn’t have any written dialogue at all.”
Just like her character Anna, Novakovic has no idea ahead of time who her “date” will be — even whether the date is male or female — until the moment the show begins. The show has attracted a diverse group of talent in the date role, including Patrick J. Adams (“Suits,” “Luck”), Jason Ritter (“Parenthood”), Jeremy Sisto (“Law & Order,” “Suburgatory”), Jon Huertas (“Castle”), actress Troian Bellisario (“Pretty Little Liars”) and Edi Gathegi, (“Justified,” “X-Men: First Class”). After brainstorming potential “dates” with Winter, producer Andrew Carlberg does the casting.
All the dates follow the same basic structure. Karaoke is always involved. Novakovic uses one of several Annas she has created. But no two dates are the same. The director provides each actor with a unique “want,” defining what they would like each character to get out of the date.
“I try to provide a real reason why this person has put him or herself out there; something that has some gravitas and some inherent drama to it,” Winter said. “The stronger their grounding is and the stronger their purpose is for what they want to get out of the date, the better it is.”
Throughout the date, direction for the actors is sent via text messages and phone calls by the director in order to heighten tension and conflict. For example, in a recent show, Winter sent Novakovic’s character the text “try and kiss him” and simultaneously sent the date a text that read, “whatever you do, do not let her kiss you."
“I watch what emerges organically then try to heighten that,” said Winter. “I try to give them obstacles to overcome so there is that tension between them. That is when they start to test each other’s personalities.”
Before “The Blind Date Project,” Novakovic had no formal improv training. But the show feels less like a classic improv show and more like an honest, raw moment in time.
“The important thing is, this is not about gags. It’s not about working towards a joke,” said Novakovic, who is currently starring opposite Greg Kinnear in Fox’s “Rake.” “It’s actually about staying in the moment, staying true to the moment — and that’s where the comedy comes from."
Comedy, as well as surprises. Without a script to guide the actors, there have been plenty of them: she has thrown water on her dates, her dates have thrown water on her, she has punched her dates, she has been handcuffed to the bar and, most shocking for her, she has had her toes licked on stage.
“What the show does is really explores the reality of an actual date, which is fear of facing the unknown and daring to date blindly,” Novakovic said.
“It’s untethered. And it’s untamed. And it’s kind of messy. And it has the potential to die flat on its face. That danger is really fun for audiences to watch. People love watching train wrecks, as long as they’re not on them.”