Monday, May 7, 2018

Today's Brave New World of Instant Gratification

Nearly two decades have passed since I first started making friends online. I got my electronic feet wet on a local DOS-based bulletin board system (BBS) named The Back Door, whose owner would host monthly get-togethers at a restaurant in San Francisco. During the meal, members were able to connect a face with a person's screen name. Repeated exposure led to several close friendships.

Not surprisingly, a group of gay men dishing about computers and boasting about their sexual prowess led to some interesting stories. One guy (who had an engineer's fetish for precision and detail) regaled us with how he had been monitoring his bodily responses so closely that he had finally reached the point where he knew (a) when he was closing in on an orgasm, and (b) exactly when to pick up his phone, hit a speed dial button, and order a pizza so that it could be delivered five minutes after he stepped  out of the shower.

As websites like, Craigslist, and videochat sites like ICUII began to facilitate hookups, I began making friends with people on other continents (a friend from Kuwait who visited me built his itinerary for international travel according to which bears had offered to host him). During the bubble, a smug young techie informed me that he almost never hooked up with anyone who didn't own an iPhone (I decided not to bother suggesting that he ask his doctor about phimosis). Another time, a local physician got down on all fours and begged me to milk him like a cow (proving that Peter Steiner's 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker had been remarkably prescient).

Copyright by Peter Steiner (1993)

With 24/7 accessibility to, shopaholics can easily find instant gratification online. Even though Craigslist recently shuttered its Personals section, it's still easy to seek out new friends on platforms like Silver Daddies and Daddyhunt (if two recent dramatic experiences that focus on how social media has impacted our lives were to be included in the study materials for a college course, it could easily be named Hookup Culture 2.0).

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Director Tung-Yen Chou's hour-long documentary entitled Looking For? (which will be screened during CAAMFest 2018) offers a curious mash-up between stage and screen. Its central figure interviews 60 gay men in seven cities around the world (Taipei, London, Seoul, New York, Guangzhou, etc.) to learn what they were hoping to find when they joined Grindr and other hook-up apps. As one might expect, some were looking for friends, some were looking for love, and many were looking to get laid within a narrow time frame.

Poster art for Looking For?

As the filmmaker interviews men of all shapes and sizes (including Geng Le, the founder of Blued, a Chinese dating app for gay men), he hears familiar stories about men trying to understand and refine the desires that drive them to seek out other men for casual sex and companionship. Followups with some of the men who have become coupled -- and even married -- reveal that some delete their online profiles if they have found happiness while others simply can't resist the lure of electronic cruising.

A scene from Looking For?

What sets Looking For? apart from other documentaries about online dating is the filmmaker's multidisciplinary approach to the subject. A graduate of the Taipei National University of the Arts who majored in Theatre Arts, Chou subsequently earned a Master of Arts degree in Scenography at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. In addition to his work as a lecturer in the drama department at the Taipei National University of the Arts, he is the founder of Very Mainstream Studio. Currently employed as the director of Mainstream Multimedia Co., Ltd., Chou works primarily in video art and theatre.

A scene from Looking For?

As a result, he was able to stage certain scenes which depict the isolation felt by many men as they keep checking their phones for profiles of potential contacts and messages from friends and people who have shown an interest in meeting. The obvious differences in lighting, body language, and content from the sit-down interviews he conducts in restaurants, offices, and apartments adds a winning touch to Looking For? Here's the trailer:

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It didn't take long after Tinder was released for the dating app (primarily aimed at a heterosexual market) to acquire a feminine suffix. The name Tinderella (which can be found all over the Internet and YouTube) has entered the lexicon as:
  • "Tinderella: A female user of the dating app Tinder, especially as a romantic connection or potential romantic connection of another user." (Wiktionary)
  • "Tinderella: Your dream girl that you see on Tinder. After swiping right you just don't want to leave your chances to Tinder's matchmaking so, instead, you decide to figure out your own way by using the advanced search on Facebook to search through all the girls with the same name in your town or the neighboring ones judging by the distance, which corresponds to the shoe size in the tale." (Urban Dictionary).
San Francisco's Custom Made Theatre and Faultline Theater are co-producing the world premiere of Tinderella: The Modern Musical, which boasts a score by Christian B. Schmidt and lyrics by Weston Scott. Smartly directed by Ken Savage, the show features choreography by Meredith Joelle Charlson, costumes by Alexis Lucio, lighting by Maxx Kurzunski, and a highly adaptable unit set designed by Randy Wong-Westbrooke.

The real star of the show is Rose Oser's whip-smart libretto, which updates traditional versions of the Cinderella legend by placing the action in the trend-obsessed Bay area, where people are constantly photographing their food in order to gather "likes" on Instagram while drunk white girls hypnotized by their smartphones cluelessly wander the streets of Oakland in search of a BART station. The action takes place during the 12 months between the release of the iPhone 5 on September 21, 2012, and the iPhone 5C on September 20, 2013.

The opening number ("Like Me") from Tinderella
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Much of the action focuses on the misadventures of a timid young woman named Meg (Juliana Lustenader), who grew up in Marin County and whose unemployed friend from Los Angeles has been crashing on her couch for several months. Meg is as whitebread as they come while Dylan (Brandon Noel Thomas) may be just what she needs to pull her out of a lonely, self-pitying funk. Though Dylan may be fat, gay, black, broke, and dress in notably less than fabulous attire, he is the very model of a sassy, app-wise fairy god-roommate that a clueless straight white girl could mistakenly assume to be an accessory rather than a friend.

Juliana Lustenader (Meg) and Brandon Noel Thomas (Dylan)
in a scene from Tinderella (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Meg's two closest friends are her sister, Allie (Adielyn Mendoza), and step-sister Tanya (Alex Akin), who have been "living the social media vida loca" while constantly posting selfies on Facebook, Instagram, and other websites that enable them to build a personal mythology of who they wish they were (as opposed to who they really are). While Allie can't stop shopping (even though she's head over heels in debt) and Tanya never hesitates to remind people that she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, they desperately crave validation.

Adielyn Mendoza (Allie), Juliana Lustenader (Meg), and Alex Akin
(Tanya) in a scene from Tinderella (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Soon after Dylan helps Meg create a profile on Tinder, she is surprised by the amount of attention she receives. An unwanted stream of dick pics from local "bros" (which is celebrated in a hilarious musical number entitled "Old School Chivalry") may leave the audience convulsed in laughter, but it holds little appeal for the hopelessly blonde and bland Meg. Like many insecure users, she doesn't handle things well when someone fails to respond to her messages.

Andrew Chung, James Seifert, and Ryan Wakamiya sing about
dick pics in a scene from Tinderella (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Meg's first Tinder match is a handsome young stud named Marcus (Jackson Thea). After he invites Meg to a party, she realizes that she has nothing special to wear to the occasion. That's what a fairy god-roommate like Dylan is for!

Juliana Lustenader (Meg) is dressed for success at a party
in a scene from Tinderella (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

In real life, Marcus has been in a relationship with Julie (Sarah Jiang). As much as he claims to hunger for excitement, he's a spoiled Millennial who wants to marry a pretty woman and let her suffocate in the suburban home they will own where she can raise two kids, look after the dog, and keep him happy. Julie has no such plans for her future

Sarah Jiang (Julie) and Jackson Thea (Marcus)
in a scene from Tinderella (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

After Meg arrives at Marcus's party with totally unrealistic expectations, Julie makes a surprise appearance and warms to the attention of DJ Countdown (Andrew Chung). Marcus and his guests drink too much, someone throws up, and Meg flees at the stroke of midnight, leaving Julie to discover Meg's golden high heels (which she decides to keep as a souvenir of a decidedly less than fabulous party).

When Julie and Meg come to their senses, they jointly realize that they each deserve a better man than Marcus, Meg accidentally hurts Dylan's feelings and he moves back to Los Angeles to get his gay career back on track. Among the supporting cast, Kimberley Cohan appears as a sullen waitress in a coffee shop and James Seifert shines in a variety of cameo roles (including the handsome Kyle Henderson, Stalker Steve, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg).

Brandon Noel Thomas (Dylan) and Juliana Lustenader (Meg)
in a scene from Tinderella (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Tinderella has some appealing musical numbers ("Like Me," "Picture Perfect," "Old School Chivalry," "Slow Grind Love Song," and "Reality Check") which, for reasons I can't quite explain, are powerful onstage and totally forgettable once the action shifts to another scene. Some of this might be due to Evan Wardell's sound design, but I think it has a lot more to do with music director Joel Chapman's orchestrations.

As much as I enjoyed this show, it's hard to predict what kind of future lies in store for Tinderella: The Modern Musical. My guess is that its best chances for subsequent productions lie with suburban community theatre groups and college theatre departments. Performances of Tinderella: The Modern Musical continue through May 26 at Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).

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