How much of our relationships is performance? Lexie and Nicole are both performing artists, matched for their love of the stage, and when performing is in your blood, I don’t think you can help but treat a new encounter as an opportunity to put on something of an act. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that everyone always tries to play to their strengths – if performing is what you’re good at, you’re likely to think your best chance of making a good impression is in performance.
I was performing in courtship rituals before I ever got up on a stage – unless you count a couple of reasonably triumphant primary school play roles, during one of which I collapsed into completely involuntary hysterical laughter and somehow managed to play it off as in the script. In the days before my love of attention overcame my terror of embarrassment, I would attempt to perform for the unfortunate girls to whom I was attracted. It’s possible I performed a little too overtly for the circumstances: when one party to courtship doesn’t know that courtship is going on, the rapport can really suffer.
Of course, when you’re on TV, the performance element is unavoidable, even for non-artists. Sharn is a beauty therapist and Predz is an IT consultant, but they’re on TV, so they’re performers for at least a little while. But how much of a performance they’re giving for each other is another matter. The temptation to perform, to show ‘em what you’ve got, can be irresistible. After all, every date is basically an audition: you’ve got a brief window in which to show off your chops.
The eternal question, for most of us, is: just what are our chops? I’ve never had a “skill” per se, in dating terms – I couldn’t play an instrument, or skull a yard glass, or any of those things that gather admiring crowds at parties. The fallback is always being funny: everyone loves a funny guy. But everyone hates a guy who’s trying to be funny, but isn’t – and how can you tell ahead of time whether she’s going to think you’re funny or not? These days I meet a lot of people who have already had the chance to make their minds up – it’s so much easier meeting someone when they know who you are and think you’re funny already. Back in the day, I usually wimped out of the jokes and just tried to be a “good listener”. Which is an admirable quality, but not one that tends to inflame red-hot desire right off the bat.
Naturally, since Nicole and Lexie have been matched based on their performing backgrounds, they give each other a showcase of their abilities, which is a damn gutsy thing to do, because nothing would cool the flames of passion faster than the discovery that the person you’ve just met has no talent. But it’s high-risk, high-reward: if they are talented, it’s really going to fast-track the relationship. That’s the big advantage of being an artist, in normal, non-Undressed circumstances: if people know your work before they meet you, they’re already impressed, or they’re not; and if they’re not, they’re probably going to try to avoid meeting you in the first place. It’s hard for me to imagine trying to put on a performance, one-on-one, before they knew whether I was any good. I don’t even know what I’d do: write them a humorous essay? Awkward way to spend a dinner date. Do a tight five of stand-up? Believe me, nothing spells “death to laughter” more effectively than trying to do stand-up to an audience of one. I mean, I’ve done it, and it was awful. Mind you, I wasn’t on a date, it was just a really unpopular show, but that’s the dynamic you’ll get when you try to do comedy for someone you’re “just talking to”: your date very quickly becomes an embarrassed audience member.
Singing is a better option, I suppose: somehow singing seems a more natural way to show off to another individual than joke-telling. Maybe because it’s showing off an innate talent – a great voice is a great voice no matter what the material, even if doing it a cappella can make it feel a bit weird.
But in the end, no matter what we do, whether it’s a song, a rap (Predz is seriously brave to try that one on), a tight five, or, I don’t know, a speedy caricature – when we’re put in front of another person who we want to impress, we’re going to be performing. Three out of the four people in this episode have performing experience, but maybe it’s Sharn who is in the best position here: is it easier to perform for a date when you’re not a performer? The whole point of a romantic performance is to make it seem like you’re performing as little as possible: maybe someone who doesn’t jump on a stage in their everyday life can pull that off more easily. It’s just so easy to fall victim to the temptation of the show-off: to turn the easy banter into a routine, to turn an expression of opinions into an oration. It’s easy, in essence, to fall prey to the conviction that is pretty common for performers, the conviction that as an ordinary person, you’re just not enough, and you’ll never meet anyone’s standards without putting on a show. And maybe that’s true, or maybe it’s not. But sooner or later, the person sitting across from you will want more than a show – they’ll want a person. How do you make your show impressive enough to hold their attention, without letting the person be subsumed under the performer? Maybe the answer is to disregard the distinction: the show and the person are one and the same, and we’ve all been performing for each other for millions of years. Maybe we shouldn’t try to suppress the performing instinct: maybe we should just stop pretending that relationships aren’t performances in the first place. As they say, birds do it, bees do it…
Undressed airs Monday nights at 9:30pm on SBS. Or catch up with episodes on SBS On Demand: