J.C. Hotchkiss chats with Robyn Lynne Norris to talk about Norris’ hilarious show #DateMe, its origins, the insanity of online dating, and even talked some Twin Peaks.
J.C.Hotchkiss: What can you tell us about #DateMe: An OkCupid Experiment and what made you want to take on this project?
Robyn Lynne Norris: #DateMe is now playing Off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre on 43rd street — DateMeShow.com. It is a unique comedy show based on a true life story and experiment that I did a few years ago on the dating website OkCupid.
The entire experiment (and show) was born out of a happy accident. I had just moved to Los Angeles and it was a particularly lonely and overwhelming time in my life.
My friend Lauri called me one day and told me she had just set up her first OkCupid profile. She asked if I could log on and see if she “wrote anything weird”. So I attempted to log on but you have to have a profile to even view other people’s profiles. And I was not in a place to put my real self out there. So I took five minutes and created what I thought was a crazy, insane person nobody would take seriously – “TracyLovesCats”.
Being a writer and performer, I had fun answering the profile questions in the most stereotypical way possible. My self-summary: “I love KITTIES! If you don’t love KITTIES then you won’t love me. Beep, Boop, Beep, Bop.”
I laughed when I did it, checked out Lauri’s profile, and then forgot about it. A few days later I was with my girlfriends and I logged back on to find hundreds of messages from men speaking in “Meows”. It was hilarious.
And I realized this crazy cat lady was more popular online than I was in real life. So that prompted the experiment – “Is anyone truly Undateable?”
JCH: Are the characters is #DateMe based on real life profiles?
RLN: The “Undateable” personalities that Bob (Ladewig) and I created are not based on real people. Although they are often inspired by my life:
“DoorSlamEric” is a guy who’s always “on the go” and “looking for an exit”. He’s based on my history of dating unavailable men.
“CokedOut” is a girl who loves Coca-Cola Classic. Not Pepsi. Not Diet Coke. The REAL thing. And is adamant about it. And… I am that way with Coke. I love it! And you CAN taste the difference!
“Pioneerinabox” is a historical re-enactment actor who “Never breaks character” but knows how to party – “Butter Churn 4Eva”. Growing up in Indiana I lived next door to a historical re-enactment center. And it always cracked me up how seriously people took those acting jobs.
And some of the characters were just based on stereotypical Undateable ideas – Crazy Cat Lady. A man who is TOO available (“MarryMeNowStat”). Or just costumes we had lying around our apartments (“BoobsandWangz” – a bubbly girl whose lifelong dream is to work at Hooters but, for some reason, they won’t hire her).
We really didn’t know exactly what we were doing when we started. We were just brainstorming and creating characters.
But the REAL people we interacted with in the experiment – the people who contacted the wacky characters we created — those are verbatim responses from OkCupid users.
JCH: What was the process of writing the show? Did you start writing on your own and then brought in Bob Ladewig & Frank Caeti?
RLN: After “TracyLovesCats”, I took the idea to my friend Bob Ladewig. We set up rules so we wouldn’t hurt people or lead anyone on. Then we got some friends to do a photo shoot. We created “Undateable” personalities and posted them across the country tracking the results.
We knew it would be funny. But I didn’t expect the journey I would go on. I’ve always been an overly emotional, empathetic person. And I found myself attached to all these strangers and worrying that they would never find love. I was curious. And it was funny. And emotional. And I tracked the whole thing, found patterns, did research about online dating — and then we decided to turn it into a show.
At that point, Bob and I needed a director. Our first choice was Frank Caeti. He is one of the funniest improvisers and comedians I know and such a collaborative person to work with. He said yes to our crazy idea, we got the cast, and we put up the show in Los Angeles at Second City Hollywood where it was supposed to run for three months, but ended up going for 3 ½ years.
When we transferred to Chicago to the Up Comedy Club, we expanded the script into a 2-act show that really focused on my narrative as the central character. Our producer, Diane Alexander, saw that there was a true story with a woman at the lead, and she pushed me to write more on that. And that’s where the play grew from a funny show with heart, to a full-fledged narrative.
We ran in Chicago for 3 years and made even more script changes when we transferred Off-Broadway to New York. We made a couple narrative changes and added some more interactive improv elements.
This script is also unlike many others in that it’s not just the words of dialogue. Because the Internet is a major character in the story, there are visual cues for almost every line. So I had to figure out how to put all that TEXT you see on the screens into a script that people would understand. Still, to this day, people really don’t understand until they see it. A lot of the story and punchlines are told through the screens onstage.
We also have an interactive #DateMe dating app that people can join when they attend the show. (Shout out to our designer Sam Hains!) All the language on the app was carefully crafted to be funny, but also true to life to dating apps. A lot of work went into writing several elements that would technically be outside the “script” for most shows. I like to think of this show as an experience. And the experience is part of the script.
JCH: Did you decide on a central dating theme and the rest just came to you? How much is real life inspiration and how much is your imagination?
RLN: The dating theme was inherent due to the accidental nature of the idea. As the show evolved, I examined where I was at that time in my life and I realized that it wasn’t just about romantic love. It was about love and connection, in general.
Everything from the experiment itself is verbatim and real in the show. I felt strongly that it was too absurd to invent. It’s funnier when it’s true. It also makes it much more human and heartfelt. These are real people.
As far as Robyn’s narrative journey in the show. That is also almost entirely true. We did take dramatic license on a few small things. But, for the most part, it’s my life story.
JCH: What made you decide not to star in the run in New York? Is it harder to perform your own work or watch your work being performed by someone else?
RLN: I write by performing. And this story is in my bones. So it’s easier for me to write it and feel the words when I’m performing. I can tell when I deliver even the smallest line change to a crowd if it resonates as true and honest in that moment. And that’s how I honed the show over the years (in Los Angeles and Chicago).
However, I do love watching other actors join the show and make the characters their own. It’s a joy to find new laughs or touching moments in lines with each new performer.
Right now I’m in Los Angeles, but I hope to tell my story, as me, again soon. And I’m incredibly grateful that we found Kaitlyn Black to play my role in NYC. She’s beautiful, intelligent, funny, and so, so empathetic. When she walked into her audition she brought such a playfulness and an emotional empathy to the role and I was like, “That’s me!”
We are very similar in real life and I’m so happy we found someone to play the role who treats the online people I met in the experiment with such reverence and respect. Plus, she’s gorgeous, so I got upgraded!
JCH: Do you have any memories or anecdotes from working on the show from its inception to seeing it performed in NYC now? What is your fondest memory kicking off this run?
RLN: It’s difficult to choose just one. Night to night, my favorite moments are hearing the real life stories from our audience volunteers in the improv segments. This show is a universal experience of people looking for love and commiserating. It’s just so human. And that’s my favorite part.
My fondest memory kicking off this run was the first week of rehearsal with our New York cast. Frank Caeti and I got to spend an entire week doing an improv boot-camp with the cast. Everyone got to know each other through those tenants of “Yes And” and supporting each other.
This cast (Kaitlyn, Chris Alvarado, Megan Sikora, Jonathan Gregg, Eric Lockley, Liz Wisan, Jillian Gottlieb, & Jonathan Wagner) is insanely talented. And it’s been such a joy to watch them bond, support each other, and crack each other up. It’s also been fun to watch Chris Alvarado onstage in NYC playing the role he originated back in Los Angeles. As a friend, nothing makes me happier!
The other surreal part has been watching the incredible technical aspects of this NYC production come together – from the set, to the lights, to the interactive app – it’s truly amazing and it was a joy to see this team of professionals create the world of the #DateMe. And a big shout out to everyone on the tech crew and our producers Elizabeth Williams and Diane Alexander. Thank you for making this dream come true!
JCH: We know you’re a huge fan of Twin Peaks! What’s one thing you’d like to tell the fan community of Twin Peaks about your show and why they should go see it?
RLN: I am so glad you asked this question. Yes, I am a huge fan of Twin Peaks! It’s my favorite piece of art ever.
One thing I love about Twin Peaks is its portrayal of characters and all sides of humanity – the light the dark. And, even though #DateMe is a comedy, I do think we show several aspects of the human spirt.
I believe that #DateMe is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before onstage. I can’t compare myself to the level of genius of Twin Peaks and David Lynch and Mark Frost. But I will say that when Twin Peaks first aired it was SO different from anything on network television. People loved it. But also didn’t know what to make of it.
#DateMe has also been that way. It is different from the traditional stage play. Many people said it would never work early on (to have all the text and visuals on screens and do an immersive experience). And that has continued to follow us over the years from time to time. It’s a difficult show to describe, but when you see it, you get it. At least I hope!
And I do believe it’s unexpected. I don’t know of any other show that has a narrative based on a true story and experiment that is mostly comedy, but has a little music, the Internet, an interactive app, and improv – it truly is an indescribable experience.
Did I do a good job explaining that it can’t be explained?!
JCH: LOL! You did. What’s something that Twin Peaks, David Lynch, or Mark Frost has taught you, that you take with you into your creative endeavors or even every day? Maybe even in #DateMe?
RLN: Creating any piece of art will have its ups and downs. And I’ve been working on this show for over 7 years. The highs are so high but there have been some lows.
Before we transferred to NYC the stress was taking its toll on me. It was at a particularly low period when I was really struggling that Twin Peaks: The Return aired. I couldn’t believe that after 25 years this magical show with these characters and that I loved so, SO much was back.
Every week I immersed myself into that mysterious world and was inspired to keep pushing forward on #DateMe. I know that sounds strange. But this piece of art fueled me at a time when I had almost given up, altogether, as a performer and a writer.
I listened to every podcast and read every book I could get ahold of. And that’s when I started transcendental meditation (based on David Lynch’s passion for it). I had tried yoga, running, so many things to handle the stress of the show. But the meditation was the one that worked.
I’m also inspired by the specificity of Mark Frost’s writing and the artistic and visual feel of everything David Lynch does. I like things that aren’t the norm. And there’s a lot of pressure in commercial art to fit into the norm. I do believe #DateMe is a different kind of show. And Twin Peaks inspires me to stick to my guns and my heart about the concept. Even though it’s a comedy, I treat it with great integrity.
JCH: Is there anything else you’d like to add or let our readers know?
RLN: I’m just so grateful for the opportunity to talk about #DateMe with 25 Years Later and also the Twin Peaks community.
Just know that this is not your typical cheesy dating show. It’s truly hilarious, full of heart, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. I hope you can make it out to the show if you’re in the NYC area. And please feel free to connect with me Twitter: @robynlnorris, Instagram: @robynlynnenorris. I love meeting new people.
And you can read more about my #DateMe experience on the blog DateMeDiaries.com where I share backstage stories, as well as interviews and featured audience members.
Thanks again, J.C. I am a big fan and I hope we can meet in person one day soon!
JCH: Thank you, Robyn! I do hope that as well!
Check out Robyn’s show #DateMe running now through September 15th at Westside Theatre, 407 W 43rd St, NYC.