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Theatre: Interview

Rebecca Northan's hot date with the Big Apple Add to ...

Rebecca Northan has finally earned her New York badge.

"In my mind, since I've finished school, I've always had an actor's sash the way you do in Brownies or Scouts where you earn different badges. And I sort of feel like, wow, I got the New York badge," explains the Calgary-born actor and comedian whose show Blind Date wraps a "trial run" Monday night at the Ars Nova theatre in Manhattan.

The badge may be imaginary, but the show's run in the Big Apple has won Northan every accolade she could have wished for.

New York Magazine called it "a perfectly unctuous improv act" and "a blind date you'll actually enjoy." The New York Post hailed it as "a high-wire act of improvised theatre." Theatre Mania declared it "screamingly funny." How funny? "Terrifically funny," according to AM New York.

"They make me feel like I'm dreaming," Northan says of the reviews.

The show, which sees Northan playing a Parisian temptress with a red clown nose who pulls an audience member up on stage every night to improvise a blind date over the course of 90 minutes, has received much the same gushing praise during performances in Toronto and Calgary.

And while every actor dreams of performing in New York, Northan says getting there was largely a matter of luck.

"I was actually speaking on the phone with [actor and comedian]Bob Martin about taking a show to New York … and halfway through that conversation he got a call from his producer from The Drowsy Chaperone, Kevin McCollum. So he hung up with me and then called me back and said, 'I asked Kevin some of your questions and described your show, and he wants it.' "

Over the next 18 months or so, Northan hashed out the details of taking the show to New York with McCollum, who has produced Rent, Avenue Q and The Drowsy Chaperone.

Initially, Northan wondered how different the sense of humour would be among audiences south of the border. "Canadians are slightly more ready to laugh at themselves. We're a little more self-effacing," she says.

But, she says, "To be honest, I don't really feel a huge difference between them."

Besides, dealing with fears head-on is part of an improv actor's nature. And building a show around an audience member with no theatre training certainly offers more than its share of worry.

"It's a very scary show to do as a performer," Northan says. "Absolutely that's part of the attraction. I'm an adrenalin junkie, for sure."

A big part of the show's success comes from creating a sense of intimacy with her "date," a skill she learned from her improv training at the Loose Moose Theatre Company in Calgary, Northan says. It would be all too easy to bring someone up on stage and make jokes at their expense, as so often happens when audience members are enlisted during a show.

"I find that really mean-spirited," Northan says. "We were always taught, if you bring an audience member on stage, you take care of them and you make them look good. That's your job."

Now that the New York run is over, McCollum will decide where it goes from here, Northan says.

"This whole run in New York for him was a test run to see what kind of reaction will the show get from the press, and does the audience respond to it here, and what are the next business plans, basically," Northan says. "I have to think that he wouldn't have invested money in a test run if he doesn't think it's going to go to the next level. I just don't know what the next level is.

"Beyond this, I have no idea what will happen. But I am along for the ride, and it's already exceeded any expectation I may have had when I thought, 'Hmm, I wonder if I could do a little 10-minute clown piece,' " Northan says.

Regardless of what happens, she's got her New York badge. "That's going front and centre on the sash," she says. "I don't have the Shaw Festival badge yet and I don't have the Stratford badge yet or the Soulpepper badge. Hopefully I can earn those later. But I got the New York badge, so I feel pretty good about that."

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