Rebecca Northan in her Secret Salon studio space. Photo by Joel Charlebois/Torontoist.
Rebecca Northan, who wears many hats (and occasionally, a red clown nose), had an annus mirabilis in 2010. A spring revival of her one woman production, Blind Date, in which “Mimi” brings an unsuspecting audience member onstage to be her date for the entire evening, garnered a Dora Mavor Moore nomination—a first for a fully improvised show. In December, Northan had a sold out trial run of Blind Date off-Broadway, earning rave reviews from the New York press. We spoke to Northan about her experiences on the Great White Way, and her upcoming Secret Salon presentation of David Mamet’s Boston Marriage, which opens this weekend.
Rebecca Northan as Mimi Gosselin, her Blind Date character. Photo by Greg Tjepkema.
Torontoist: Why don’t we start with the story behind your recent run of Blind Date in New York?
I ended up on the phone with Bob [Martin, who created The Drowsy Chaperone] while I was rehearsing Evil Dead: The Musical in Calgary. I was asking him just general questions about how I might go about bringing Blind Date to New York… and then, mid-conversation, he said, “Oh, my other phone is ringing, I’ll have to call you back.” And Bob called back shortly, and said, “That was Kevin McCollum [producer of Rent, Avenue Q, and The Drowsy Chaperone], and I described your show to him, and he wants it! He wants you to call him.” And I said, “I don’t know who that is.” I had no idea.
It sounds like you had a great time.
I did! But it was also really exhausting. It was the first time that I’ve done eight Blind Dates a week; we were doing two shows a day on Saturdays and Sundays, and four shows in two days was crazy.
The thing I’m learning about Blind Date is that it takes about ten times the energy that a normal scripted show does.
Because you can’t put yourself on any sort of autopilot when performing it? Not that actors do that with a regular show… No, they do. [Laughs] It’s a dirty little secret in theatre: you say the lines, you remember your blocking, and you can coast a bit.
[Laughs] Yeah; you’re fully present, but then your mind wanders, and you realize you’ve been out of it for a few minutes, and you have to jolt yourself: “Oh, shit, I’ve gotta start paying attention!” But I can’t let my mind wander for a moment when I’m performing Blind Date.
Even in most other improv shows, you have other performers to rely on.
Exactly. Being opposite a non-performer, and interacting with them for the whole show… If you think about the tension and adrenaline of an actual blind date, where you’re nervous, and you want the person to like you, and you want to impress them, and make sure they have a good time. That’s exactly what I’m doing.
So you got fantastic reviews, from a bunch of publications in New York.
There’s a website that takes all of your New York reviews, and gives them a letter grade, and then gives you an average. I got a B+.
I learned a lot about the scene there, though; the reviews started coming out, and they were all good, and the producers were saying, “Great, that’s great—but we’re waiting for the Times.” Because the deal down there is, you can get all these great reviews, but if the New York Times review is bad? You’re fucked.
And it wasn’t.
It wasn’t! Thank God!
Any plans to go back to New York with it soon?
Kevin’s brainstorming with his fellow producers and investors, and we’re looking at this fall.
I don’t want to do one-offs anymore. I want to create my own work, that continues to have a life. Ideally, you work on it off the top, and then you release it, and you make money while you’re sleeping—that’s my goal.
How do you do that in theatre?
[Laughs] Well, with Blind Date, the idea is that I train other women to do it. Which would be very odd, for me, to watch someone else do the show. But also, good.
So, let’s talk about Boston Marriage, which opens on January 21. Is this the first time you’ve done a scripted show at Secret Salon?
Sort of. This is the third show in the Salon series; the first was a cabaret, and the second was Eric Woolfe’s Haunted Medicine Show, his one man puppet show.
Boston Marriage co-stars Julie Orton and Rebecca Northan. Photo by Joel Charlebois/Torontoist.
So what is Secret Salon, besides just shows in your secret studio?
Part of the reason I love theatre, and am involved in theatre, is I have a yearning for community. I have a sense of community with my fellow performers—we have a great community—but I also am really interested in the people who come and see our shows.
I was reading about salons in the eighteenth century—French salons, where people would come together and enlighten each other through discussion. So the environment at our Salon is casual, and inclusive: the performers and the audience are just hanging out together, and having wine and cheese, and patrons are chatting with the artists—and not in a “did you think I was great?” kind of way, but asking what brought you here, and what’s your interest in the arts, so that there’s a dialogue. The vibe in here for those first two events was amazing.
That first show, Brad Hampton (host of the Spiegeltent) and Patti Loach did excerpts from a cabaret they’re working on. To be in an intimate space with that kind of talent, and no fourth wall, was overwhelming. There’s just something about it that I haven’t felt in any other theatre event in a long time. For me, the idea of Secret Salon is trying to capture that feeling of inclusiveness.
What’s special about Boston Marriage?
It’s exciting because it’s David Mamet’s only play for women. It’s set at the end of the nineteenth century, so you have Mamet’s trademark interrupted speech patterns, but also heightened nineteenth century language.
We’ve spent a ton of time tearing the text apart, because it’s like Shakespeare; there’s been a lot of, “What am I saying?”, and pulling out the dictionary. [Director] Ted [Dykstra] has been great for that; his direction with the text is so specific, and detailed, which it needs to be.
Has it been produced much?
It’s never been produced in Toronto—this is the Toronto premiere.
Also, for the first Secret Salon, the prices were quite high—$50 a ticket. Which is outside most of my artist friends’ price range, but I explained to them: “I don’t want to do shows for you, where you pay $20 to see my show, and I pay $20 to see your show a few weeks later, and on and on, the same $20 going back and forth.” I want these shows to be for, like, computer programmers, and people who have more disposable income, who want to experience something different.
The cross-section of people who were here for that first Secret Salon was amazing: there was a professional butler, and a construction worker, and a transvestite mechanic…
I suspect we’ll get more artists and regular theatre-goers to this one, because the tickets are cheaper, there’s more shows, and we’re doing some publicity, whereas the first two were super hush-hush.
Is there any concern about the legalities of producing the show in this venue?
Um, probably. [Laughs] We’re not selling alcohol, at least, though people are free to bring their own bottle of wine.
Basically, you’re coming to a house party—or a grown-up “dinner party”—and then, you’re paying for a performance to happen at this house party. It’s similar to if a musician were playing at a party, and then afterward, passed around the hat; we’re just doing that ahead of time.
David Mamet’s Boston Marriage, directed by Ted Dykstra, with Rebecca Northan, Julie Orton, and Daniela Vlaskalic, opens Friday January 21, and runs Thursdays to Saturdays until January 29; visit the Secret Salon website to book tickets.