Review by Wes Babcock
Listen to Me is an odd show. The only people with tickets are the eight audience participants who begin the show sitting alone at café tables, who are shortly joined by their first of eight possible actors. After three minutes, you change tables, and begin to listen to and interact with a new member of the cast. By its very nature, no two people will have the same experience. No one person will have the same experience two nights in a row. But this show is not improv, and it struggles to reconcile its scripted nature with the premise of individualized experience that provides its motion.
It is also hard to talk about. It’s only my own guesswork as to what aspect of what play-goal each individual actor was attempting to elicit. It’s hard to know which parts of my interactions with near-total strangers were real, and which were “planned.” It’s hard to speak conclusively about a piece that lives separately and simultaneously in the experiences of 16 individuals. So I will talk about my experience as best as I’m able, and make a few assumptions about the play as a whole that I’ll attempt to acknowledge as I go.
First, I began my experience in the show by talking to someone I already know. Not a close friend by any stretch, but an acquaintance I’ve gotten along well with on a handful of occasions. In the past, we’ve tended to have conversations that get off the script of casual chat very quickly, and this time was no exception. It happened almost instantly that we moved from talking about how my day went (something I imagine to be part of the script) to talking about the nature of our cultural definitions of goodness being linked to productivity (something I imagine could not have been scripted).
She shortly tried to bring us back into casual get-to-know-you chat, which always feels a bit like forced mask-building, but which felt extra false having just looked into the way a real person sees the world. This return turned out to be a requisite for the rest of the “plot” of the show that followed, which tries to draw attention to the struggle of making genuine connections. But it also worked against this goal by cutting short what was a genuine connection in the service of a scripted “genuine” that I was supposed to encounter later in the show.
This happened again in the date with the cootie catcher, which served well as a device to get past those initial interactions to see a real person. I felt like the answer I gave to the question inside was sort of interesting, or at least provided a number of avenues for actual conversation. However, the actor had a scripted “genuine” thing he wanted to share with me, so he quickly moved to answer a question of his own choosing.
The “genuine” that I feel I was supposed to experience, and for which two actors sacrificed two potentially genuine relationship-building interactions, came in the form of some stories of struggle and reconciliation told in a pair of “dates” that followed the first. These didn’t really work for me, since they felt a bit rehearsed and also struck me as “over-sharing.” I don’t expect to hear a story about childhood trauma in the first three minutes of knowing anyone; even the most intimate and immediate of connections that I’ve ever experienced have started with who we both are in the present long before they begin to address the past struggles and traumas that we use as the touchstones of our personal narratives. In the show, the bond the actor and I had established to that point couldn’t support the weight of the revelations shared, and I struggled to find something to latch onto to continue our conversation.
The show struggles where it attempts to control things that it has no way to control: forcing people who know one another to revisit the platitudes they’ve already worked past; other actors not knowing about the conversation that their “date” just had and asking nearly identical platitudinous questions; contrived over-sharing of vulnerable moments to build rapport. The latter two of these mimic the ways I imagine real speed dates struggle; we go to an event like this because we are looking for connection, so we front-load vulnerability into the interaction to build trust in the new relationship, but we often share in the wrong way for whomever we’ve met because we can’t know how to share this thing with them in the right way. We don’t know who they are, or how they think.
I think this show would do better if its goal were more focused on drawing something real from the audience participants. This is harder, because the actors would have less structure to fall back on for the content of their conversation; they would need to demonstrate more conversational skill to get at the point they wanted. But by embracing the trajectory towards the goal, rather than the specific strategies you’ve pre-planned to execute the goal, it would create the potential for the real connection this show is trying to talk about, and the emotional journey it attempts to lead us on. And even if it failed, in that context, the struggle for connection would have been real.
A Resounding Scream Theatre production
Created by Stephanie Henderson
Directed by Stephanie Henderson and Catherine Ballachey
Performed by Tony Adams, Artem Barry, Alain Chauvin, Norah Paton,
Danielle Savoie, Jake William Smith, Mahalia Golnosh Tahririha, & Chelsea Young