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When Does a Game Show Become Theatre?

Two new shows further establish an unusual genre

Let’s make it official: “Game show theatre” has become a genre. Right now, in fact, two Off-Broadway productions are proving just what a diverse and successful genre it can be.

Take The Fix-Up Show, which has been running on Saturday nights at the Triad for most of the summer. It is quite literally a game show: It just happens to be in a black box instead of a television studio. Every week, host J. Keith Van Straaten tries to facilitate a love connection for a single New Yorker. Three potential matches are grilled by two of the singleton’s friends and a guest celebrity, and at the end of the night, the panel chooses one match to go on a date with the contestant. Meanwhile, a live audience hoots, hollers, and hopes for the best.

Games are just part of the mix at Power Balladz, currently in previews at the Midtown Theater. The show features three performers who wail vintage rock hits and embody archetypal characters likes “the bad boy” and “the ex-girlfriend.” There are plenty of lights and smoke machines and guitar solos, and there are also trivia contests, karaoke sing-offs, and fabulous prizes.

Granted, “game show theatre” has a lengthy history. Van Straaten had an Off-Broadway hit when he hosted a live version of the classic What’s My Line, and comedy troupes like Upright Citizens Brigade and the Neo-Futurists have created live games of their own. But since the current productions are simultaneously succeeding—The Fix-Up Show has extended its run at the Triad and Power Balladz arrives after a sold-out engagement in Minneapolis—they invite speculation about what makes the genre work in the first place.

The chance to win prizes is always appealing, of course, but Van Straaten, who also hosted the Comedy Central quiz show Beat the Geeks, feels games mean more to audiences when they’re played in a theatre. “I definitely feel the difference when I’m working in front of a studio audience and a theatre audience,” he says. “There’s something kind of magical about knowing this is the only time this is happening. Nobody’s going to see it in their living room in six weeks. This is it.”

He adds that patrons genuinely care about the weekly fix-up, even if they don’t know the participants. “I wasn’t expecting the audience to get invested in people they’ve never met, but they get emotionally attached,” he says. “Every week, someone comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have chosen him. They really should have chosen this other guy instead.’”

It’s possible, then, that the show works because it concentrates the participatory energy of a series like American Idol. When you call in your vote for Kelly Clarkson, you get a vague sense that you’re impacting her career, but when you’re sitting in a tiny room with, say, a single dentist from Park Slope, you can feel much more connected to her destiny. Even if you’re not choosing her date yourself, you can feel like you’re part of an experience that will matter to her. (It’s worth nothing that Van Straaten consciously keeps The Fix-Up Show from becoming mean-spirited or humiliating.)

The addition of a celebrity doesn’t hurt, either. Recent celeb panelists have included Dick Cavett and 30 Rock star Scott Adsit, and part of the show’s allure is the novelty of seeing famous people advocate for Regular Joes. “It really adds a spark,” says Van Straaten. “Sometimes, the celebrities can be fun or silly or glib, but they can also be more frank. They’ve asked a lot of blunt questions that maybe the person’s friends wouldn’t be comfortable with.”

By sitting on a panel with a person’s real-life friends, the celebrities underscore the idea that The Fix-Up Show is an authentic experience. “The audience will turn on people they think aren’t sincere,” Van Straaten says. “For the people on stage, it’s important that I tell them this is not a performance.”

And yet… it is. For all its authenticity, The Fix-Up Show is also a show. There’s something inherently artificial about seeing people get on stage and answer questions just so they can go do to dinner with the cutie in the middle chair.

Paradoxically, though, this artificiality is just as essential as the honesty. Without showmanship, The Fix-Up Show could feel uncomfortably confessional or desperate. It could stop being fun.

Power Balladz also uses games to balance honesty and artificiality. Mike Todaro, the director and co-creator, feels that in one sense, getting people to fire a t-shirt cannon helps them enjoy the rock songs of their youths. “A lot of our audience is in that mid-thirties to mid-forties range,” he says. “They grew up with these songs, and they all go on their own journey with them during the show. I think participating with us helps them give themselves over to that.”

But at the same time, the games are an excuse to get people yelling and cheering and having a good time. “There’s no dramatic pretension,” says Todaro. “Our show is two guys and a girl having fun and asking everybody else to have fun. I think people respond right away to that.”

That may be another secret to game show theatre: It allows us to see what we want to see. If we want a unique piece of theatre, then we can have it, but if we just want to goof off, then that’s okay, too.

For his part, Todaro embraces the contradictions. “There are lot of thing the show is ‘not really,’” he says. “It’s not really theatre. It’s not really cabaret. It’s not really a rock show, and it’s not really a game show. But that’s a good thing. It keeps it interesting.”

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
Photo credit: Scott Richard Foster in “Power Balladz.”

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