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G-Sync: Hey. Everyone Is VGL, HMU Now

Last month's "Perception vs Reality" piece by Kara McNabb showcased the dating scene of West Michigan. Now a former Grand Rapids resident's new play based on his online dating experiences arrives for Lake Effect Fringe Festival. G-Sync's Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen hooks up with VGL, 5'4 Top's creator Lucas Brooks.
My speech class, the one for imparting confidence, not the one charged to separate me from my lisp, had many zippy tricks to apply to handle one's stage fright.

My favorite was to "just imagine the audience in their underwear." While not officially sanctioned by the teacher at the Baptist High School I attended, it did become a long-lasting one that I would use often, learning later in life that others, too, employed this device before stepping out on the stage. This is great unless you have a giggle switch like mine, where suddenly the fertile ground of a serious moment yields, giving birth to a play-within-a-play moment.

And that is sort of what is in store for us when Lucas Brooks leaves New York and returns to Grand Rapids, his hometown, to perform his look at modern dating in the show VGL, 5'4 Top at the Lake Effect Fringe Festival. Lucas won't need to employ the same tricks I do before hitting stage, because he'll be the one in his underwear for most of this show. Talk about exposing one's self for their art.

This honesty is what makes VGL such a powerful work of theatre, emerging from the one-person genre of the theatre and employing an art form that's typically a nice addition to the indie theatre movement versus that of big Broadway production. These types of productions need intimacy of space to truly soar and Dog Story Theatre delivers perfectly on the promise of a great night Feb. 25 & 26.

The son of two professors of the humanities at Aquinas College, Brooks, like many others who have authored highly personal one-person shows in the past, developed VGL as his senior thesis while gaining his theatre degree at New York's Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. The show debuted in 2009.

The show patches together the playwright's first-hand experiences within the on-line world of gay men looking to connect with another. Always with a series of checkboxes, much like the sterile filling out of a form via Amazon.com or for applying for a job online, we have selected those boxes we hope to fit in. (That's a loaded statement in so many ways.)

Brooks moves us through his comic presentation starting with his on-stage, step-by-step creation of his online advertisement and continuing to his discoveries along the way, which reflect much of the real life research that would become VGL. Brooks presents some very fascinating questions right at the start that carry us through this intimate production.

Lest you think this is some sort of anti-technology rant on stage, then think again as Brooks saves his real punch for the end of the show where it all comes beautifully together. On stage he can be all puffed up with bravado, much like Elaine Stritch was in At Liberty, and yet Brooks can be insightful like Steven Fales in his award-winning, one-man play Confessions of a Mormon Boy. Like these actors of the stage, VGL delves into the digital domain of modern dating, which in Brooks' show can be humorous – but, as he is quick to point out, some of this humor comes out of very scary situations.

"I have always had trouble talking in person to another as I was very shy, so these platforms open me to others in ways I can communicate," says Brooks about the trouble a person of his stature often has in being seen as a dominant figure. "Yet, I have to always ask myself, 'Are these apps, like Grindr, Ok Cupid and Tinder, helping me become better at human interaction?' I am not so sure I have an answer yet."

This raw honesty is why Brooks performs in his underwear: not just to garner your attention with such a vaudevillian display of so much flesh under the warmest light we have seen in a while here, but because VGL, 5'4 Top most importantly addresses those tiny checkboxes we use so often in our online quests to define ourselves. VGL reminds us of what is missing on this long list of checkboxes: the reality that we are beyond categories and are unique.

This is not to imply that the show is heavy-handed without humor or sex (there is plenty of both) or that this show is some sort of Dr. Phil meets Scruff App hour of candy-coated self-help theatre. VGL is a very stripped-bare performance that deals with what all good theatre has in common and is best when the material is really a mirror to the audience, to society. Are we ready for what we see?

"As I have traveled with this show, I will often meet someone who'll say, 'Wow, I wish I could be in my twenties again with those dating apps,'" says Brooks, whose voices softens as he replies, "No, you don't."

Every generation will gain someone new who will challenge and propel us forward, and at the same time, to make room, we often good-bye to other ways. Brooks seems to know this and it is why, in the short period of time we spent together within the early hours of the morning, I began to get a clearer picture of who he is.  

Brooks is a man not to be defined by his sexuality alone since this show is truly touching on so much that so many people experience. He is between two worlds as he's old enough to remember a pseudo-analog dating world yet savvy enough to navigate a digital dating realm of today. He realizes that the most modern apps of today's dating world are really just another iteration of the decades-old game spin the bottle.

Those who remember that game's first appearance were no doubt just as thrilled as those who discovered AOL chat rooms in the '90s and those who wander other digital domains in 2014. With each new way to connect, the world heard another canon fired over the waters of time.  

The thing is that for every naysayer, we keep going. We keep on loving. Well, at least that is the hope of each generation, even for Brooks.

This period is just as thrilling and as dangerous as the last. In VGL we get a chance not to toss technology aside but to always ask the deeper questions as we offer up our "criteria" for a match: who are we really, how does it  inform our personhood if we are always making these snap judgments, and ultimately can we learn to stop hating on each other and learn to love for who we are – people beyond check boxes.

These new dating apps are not necessarily slowing down just yet as evident by Time Magazine devoting one feature this week to the use of Tinder in society. We have come a long way indeed.

And so has Brooks, who has been performing this one-man show since it debuted at The LGBT Community Center of Manhattan in 2009 and later at the prestigious San Francisco Fringe Festival (2012), FRIGID New York (2013), and the Toronto Fringe Festival (2013) before landing at the 2014 Lake Effect Fringe Festival.

This is also potentially one of the last chances to see Brooks in this role as he is rehearsing in New York for his latest work, Cootie Catcher, and is directed by David Drake, actor, activist, and playwright of his one-man show, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, debuting in March 2014.

Some may feel a bit threatened that I would be so up front as to recommend we visit a theatrical show about a man who dons only a pair of underwear through most of his show. VGL disrobes to take us to the heart of the matter in this intimate staged show and just as I began to feel those old, stereotypical, prudish opinions start to weigh heavy on my keyboard, I recall this is nothing, really.

In the 1980s DeVos Performance Hall hosted a traveling production of Oh! Calcutta! Look it up. You'll soon see that, in 2014, a man talking about his gay dating life on stage in only his underwear is truly no big deal. However, VGL, 5'4 Top is.

Tickets for the remaining shows at the 2014 Lake Effect Fringe Festival, including VGL, can be purchased here.

The Future Needs All of Us

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

Get to know your neighborhood public school system, West Michigan's music scene, a Grammy award-winner, and more than 50 artists in this week's G-Sync Events: Let’s Do This! Check It All Out.
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