The Drinking Game: Hard Questions & Hard Alcohol

gina thornhill

It is interesting to me that while onstage and creating our art we, in the theatre community, are so often searching for authenticity and truth, yet once the curtain falls many of us find ourselves clashing with facades and personas that keep us at a safe distance from one another. In DaPoPo Theatre’s The Drinking Game, which played Saturday Night as part of the MayWorks Festival, this group of artists seeks to challenge this notion and to encourage each other to delve deep into the honesty of one’s own truth and to share a truly intimate and raw experience, no acting involved, with an audience.

The way this works is that two people are selected from DaPoPo’s group of nine by the vigour of the audience’s applause and then, for the next two and a half hours, these two will continuously drink alcoholic beverages of their choice and answer a series of intense, personal and political questions from a multitude of categories.

This performance is rooted very deeply in the conventions of a game, the players roll bottle caps like one would roll a dice and their player pieces are moved around a game board which determines which category the question asked will come from. This is really interesting, especially since theatre and games and the idea of play are irrevocably intertwined. The players never skip questions that they don’t feel comfortable answering and if the other DaPoPo members want a player to delve deeper into the answer of a question they can yell “HEMINGWAY” (as in Ernest Hemingway; garnered from his iceberg principle) and the player will give a more detailed answer. The Drinking Game is very much about unlocking secrets, opening the floodgates, and allowing the thoughts and emotions we so often keep bottled up to take center stage.

The performative aspect of this game is twofold. Firstly it is interesting to watch the way in which these two performers tell their stories. Although they are not playing a character, in simply being, they are improvising monologues that have dramatic arcs and that are often quite poignant and very humorous at the same time. The more obvious performing aspect of the evening are the challenges that the other DaPoPo members issue to the two players at random throughout the night. Sometime they are told to add movement to their stories, sometimes they are told to sing and at one point they were asked to sing karaoke to the Ru Paul version of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” I found these interjections gave a nice silliness and playfulness to the evening, which reminded us that we cannot take anything too seriously for we are all playing a game.

On Saturday night Ann Doyle and Gina Thornhill were the courageous and generous players of The Drinking Game and they both exhibited such endearing charm, I could have sat and listened to them speak all evening. In everything that Ann Doyle says and does she is so poised and funny and her chemistry with Gina grew more fervent as the evening went on. Doyle also treated us to a gorgeous a Capella rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind,” which she so effortlessly pulled out of her hat seemingly at random. Incredible. The evening was divided into three rounds, and it was fascinating to see how distinct each became because the second round was quite raucous and then the third was so gentle and serene, it was clear a shift had taken place.

In the theatre a question we often ask our playwrights about their plays that they sometimes have difficulty answering is “What happens?” In a work like The Drinking Game, the arc of the story isn’t something its players are focusing on creating, yet, as in other improvised shows, this very often takes care of itself in a truly magical and beautiful way. What happened on Saturday night was that I saw a huge transformation in Gina Thornhill within the third round. Very suddenly all the fear, the restraints, the walls that she had been using to protect herself melted away and she immediately settled into herself in a way that I  have never seen in her before. The intimacy between her and Ann became so rich I would have believed them capable of anything. We all arrived at a very vulnerable place, a very delicate balance, the very epitome of what exquisite theatre can be.

Of course, it takes a certain audience to be truly nurturing of this type of performance. I know that Garry Williams, who came up with the concept of The Drinking Game, thinks very highly of theatre audiences, as I also do, and therefore feels comfortable in challenging them and expecting the best from them. Certainly he got that from the audience on Saturday night who were so captivated that at times you could have heard a pin drop. Upon reflection I couldn’t help but remember a weird experience I had once at an Improv show in Toronto where a comedian tried to do a similar thing, to answer intimate questions about himself as posed by the audience. It was quite disastrous because the audience was far more interested in humiliating him than listening. The Drinking Game thrives best when both the players and the audience open their hearts and fully embrace the experience.

When I was watching these terrific monologues spring to life before my eyes from profound and often difficult questions, I thought, “what an amazing way to develop a one-person show!” and certainly Garry Williams’ game offers a multitude of potential for the creation of something more conventional and more refined. Yet, I find The Drinking Game in this format irresistible as well. Now I would like to see the rest of the DaPoPo members play the game. This company undeniably has something truly unique here. I felt very lucky to have been in that room on Saturday night. I hope we are all given many more chances to experience such theatrical magic again soon!

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