Onstage Dating: a comedy about intimacy and power dynamics

After several seasons of her live art comedy, Bron Batten has realised the show says more about how men behave with women than about the vulnerability of dating.
Onstage Dating: a comedy about intimacy and power dynamics

Bron Batten and a date play Twister in Onstage Dating. Image credit: Theresa Harrison Photography.

I find a hidden Melbourne bar with Google Maps. It’s empty in the mid-afternoon, but there are booths for snuggling, small tables for hand holding and a balcony with flattering natural light. ‘Are you meeting someone?’ the bartender asks as I’m looking at my phone messages. ‘Yes’. I hope he thinks I was on a nothing-better-to-do-this-afternoon Tinder date.

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I’m not. I’m meeting performance artist Bron Batten, but she does buys me a beer.

Her show Onstage Dating is playing at The Butterfly Club during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. We meet at a bar where she’s gone on dates. It’s a great choice. Above the main city street, it’s easy to forget the tourists and takeaway food below – especially as the trams ding-ding and the pale green plane trees give shade and, for once, hold tight to their balls of hay fever fluff.

‘Let’s talk about dating,’ I start.

She sighs, ‘What do you want to know?’ I know that sigh. It’s the sigh of a 30-something who’s been on a lot of dates.

Batten’s been on 85 onstage dates at festivals and theatres in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. She developed this show when she was granted the Australia Council Cite Des Arts Internationale residency in Paris in 2015. ‘All that bread, wine and cheese – I had such a terrible time,’ she says.

She also went on ‘about 60’ in-real-life dates in Paris; all internet procured. I ask if it was just research. ‘It was always two birds, one stone,’ she says. ‘I’d never really dated before. I’d always just met people through friends or at the end of the night at the pub.’

The resulting show premiered at the 2016 Festival of Live Art in Melbourne. Batten’s known for work that finds a delightfully awkward and super-smart balance between reality and performance art. She was a founder of The Last Tuesday Society – a much-missed monthly subversive bo-ho performance-comedy-cum-cabaret night – where I remember her singing ‘Red Headed Woman’ naked after Julia Gillard was ousted as prime minister and choreographing a jazz ballet nativity play. She began to get more attention with a show called Sweet Child of Mine, which she performed with her father. It started by asking her country-town parents (she’s one of six siblings) if they really understood why she danced a chicken abortion in an empty swimming pool at university.

In Onstage Dating, her co-performer is a date chosen from the audience. She describes it as ‘a romantic comedy with weird performance art bits.’

I saw her first date/show and it’s that and more. It’s every hope and fear you have while dating with the bonus of connecting with other people who make that same dating sigh. Or laugh. Or eye roll. And there’s a sexy bee suit and an apple.

She explains that ‘it’s not just about online dating. It’s about the vulnerability of meeting someone for the first time. Or the vulnerability to say, “I want romance or sex or partnership or companionship” … I wanted to capture the expectations and stress of meeting a stranger for a date.’

It’s also about becoming invested in the date. Even knowing that their romance is almost certain not to happen, audiences want the date to go well. We want a happy ending. At least I do.

Batten rolls her eyes when I tell her that I still want to watch a stranger fall for her on stage.

She tells me she’s been on two second dates following shows.

Neither resulted in a third date.

I can understand if she’s getting cynical about it all until I ask what struck her the most about going on those 60 IRL dates. She says, ‘hopefulness’.

Image credit: Theresa Harrison Photography.

Theatrically the show captures the hope and vulnerability of showing up and not knowing what to expect. ‘I don't know what they're going to be like. Are they going to be nice to me? Are they going to be a dick? Are they going to be sweet? What's going to happen? So that feeling that happens in real life is still in the show and the audience recognises that.’

She also has a story about meeting someone on those IRL dates but ‘that’s the next show’.

On stage, she’s dated straight, queer, single and partnered men and women, but she thinks that it’s become more about how men behave with women than about the vulnerability of dating.

Her audiences are often mostly women and ‘there’s a sense of recognition when we share the bad behaviour.’ But ‘it’s not a show that accuses men. It gives them space to be better. It’s just really disappointing when they fuck that up.’

She tells the story of one who fucked up.

‘He was very tall, a Disney-prince-type dude with a blue linen shirt, beige pants and boat shoes with no socks – you know that guy. Really tall. Not terribly smart. He came with a whole bunch of friends and I was sort of playing to the friends. I realised that he wasn't very clever, and he sort of clocked that I was making a bit of fun of him. When we were playing Twister [spoiler, her dates play Twister with her], my eyes were at crotch level and he hit me in the face with his cock – on stage. Like a little thrust. Like a little kind of reminder about “Hey I’m in charge; know your place”. Like it was it was deliberate smacking me in the face with his dick and I had to make a decision at that point about what to do as a performer and also as a woman.

‘Do I call him out? Do I risk turning the audience?

‘I am so shocked as well, but I didn't know what to do. So, I let it go. Let’s just get to the end of the show.

‘And then, when I took him to the couch and got him to take his shoes off, underneath his oh-so-casual boat shoes he was wearing tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiny little sockets.’

She says the audience snorted with laughter as much as I did at this revelation.

‘I was like, “What are those Michael?” And I was like “I’ve got you, I’ve fucking got you”.

‘I did a couple of minutes on his socks. “I’m going to tell stories about you.” The audience were pissing themselves and then he turned. He got really angry and I thought of that Margaret Atwood quote that women are afraid men will kill them and men are afraid women will laugh at them.

‘I ridiculed him publicly and that was the worst thing that I could ever do. To my kind of shame, I spent the rest of the show trying to get him back on board because performatively, you know…’

There have been other dates who behaved badly. Like the one in country NSW who acted like he ‘didn't want to be anywhere near me and the audience were laughing at that, saying “ha ha ha isn’t that funny when he acts rudely towards this woman.”

‘By the end of that tour, I was like, “All the guy has to do to win the show is to be a basic human being.” Just be basically humanly decent. To not be a dick. You know the joke about a male feminist who walks into a bar because it was set so low? All you have to do is to be a nice human being and it’s amazing how many times the participant fails.

‘That’s when I started to realise that this was about more than dating. It was about men’s behaviour in public on dates, in private taking up space … whether they’re ok being in my space or whether they try and claim it back aggressively or by trying to neg me or by trying to make jokes at my expense or at the show’s expense because they’re uncomfortable.

‘For a lot of men that’s a very unfamiliar feeling to be in the space and to not know what’s going on, to not feel in charge of it and to not feel entitled to be the centre of it.’

‘That’s when I started to realise that this was about more than dating. It was about men’s behaviour...'

Maybe I don’t want any of these men to fall in love with her. My fantasy of the wonderful story is now as flat as the dregs of my beer.

I ask Batten what she does in real life when it happens?

‘Umm … I don't know.

‘I’d like to say that I always call them on it, but I don’t. But I think as I get older I’m getting better at it. Calling out shit behaviour is really hard. It’s the hardest.’

I ask why she thinks we still put up with bad behaviour. I’m older than she is and I still put up with it.

We’ve ‘got this patriarchal structure that tells us that we're wrong all the time and that we're hysterical or we get what we deserve. The ultimate goal in life is to find a partner, right, so you have to suffer whatever. There is a myriad of answers: societal, structural, personal.

‘Because it is hard to value yourself.’

We know why we sigh. So, I ask how many men ‘win’ at the show.

‘Between 85 and 90%.’ A much better hit rate than I expected.

‘I want them to win. The show’s not about humiliating, it’s the opposite; I always want to make the guy the hero.’ She explains how the audience usually clock very early if ‘the guy’s a jerk’ and they mostly don’t let him get away with it.

‘I had a guy in Edinburgh who was a big masculine kind of “hey” type dude. Very basic.’ He had 80 people boo him for trying to humiliate her. ‘He was really shocked … so, I was like “Give him a go” and I said to him, “See, in the biz, this is what we call turning the crowd” … and he spent the rest of the show trying to make up the ground that he’d lost.’  

So even the dud dates can come around.

As we keep talking about dating and the show, Batten has more positive than negative stories.

Like the ‘bloke-y tech’ who told her that he’d been thinking about the show and how he and his friends talk about and interact with women.

Or the guy who talked very lovingly about his mum on stage without knowing that a friend was recording it. And his mum saw it.

Or her receiving ‘this incredible letter’ from a date who said, ‘I didn’t intend to talk about that on stage, but you made me feel so safe and it’s really shifted something in me and I feel like I’ve let it go so thank you for giving me that opportunity’.

And one of Batten’s friend’s telling her that the show inspired her to date again.

And Batten telling me how she can have an opinion of someone and how quickly it changes. ‘It only takes 40 minutes for them to open up and say things and be silly and construct this kind of fantasy with me.’

I ask if she’s still dating in real life. She laughs with the sigh this time. ‘That connection is so rare, and people keep looking for it.’

Which is one reason why Onstage Dating is still popular and touring. We keep looking. The two of us share meeting stories we’ve seen. She has a friend who fell in love with the first person they chatted to online, and one who saw someone in the crowd from the stage. I’d recently been to a wedding of a friend who met his husband on a train on a holiday. It happens. Wonderful stories happen.

I still want it to happen for me. And for Bron. I want to tell the story about seeing two strangers falling in love on stage in a performance art show about dating. Or hear about a couple who went on their first date to this show or went by themselves and started talking to the stranger they sat next to.

‘Maybe this time, Anne-Marie. Maybe this time,’ says Batten as she gets up to leave.

And we should have left together so that the bartender had a good story to tell about the mid-afternoon Tinder date he watched.

Bron Batten – Onstage Dating at The Butterfly Club from 26 March to 7 April 2019 as part of Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Visit www.comedyfestival.com.au for details.

Anne-Marie Peard

Friday 22 March, 2019

About the author

Anne-Marie Peard has been a Melbourne-based independent theatre critic, arts writer and editor since 2006. Before that, she spent many years working in festivals and arts event management in Adelaide, Perth, Canberra and Melbourne. She writes for various arts publications as well as her blog, Sometimes Melbourne. She also teaches arts journalism and criticism at Monash University, and has been a panel member for awards including the Melbourne Fringe and Green Rooms. Follow her on Twitter: @SometimesMelb