Van Badham describes herself as living a double life. In one guise, she is a journalist and commentator. This role has led some corners of the internet to regard Badham – in the words of her friends – as a “folk villain” of sorts.

In her other life, she is a playwright – a job she sees as an antidote to that online vitriol.

“My [theatre] writing has really moved into this territory of telling sweet and funny stories about people who work themselves out and therefore have a more positive impact on the world,” Badham says.

“And I think it’s definitely because I want to be responsible for giving people a couple of hours where they can sit in a nice warm room with a lot of other nice people and feel better about the world. I think that’s really important.”

Her play The Questions – a musical rom-com that will premiere on July 26 with State Theatre Company South Australia – fits neatly in this vein.

The work starts with an unlikely couple on a blind date. Clocking the clash between his love of men’s rights movement darling Jordan Peterson and her expertise in gender studies, both characters are counting down the seconds to the date’s conclusion when it is indefinitely extended by a catastrophe that results in a “shelter in place” lockdown.

In the back and forth that ensues, Badham has planted references to the fundamental forces she believes will help us move on from our current era of trolling and polarisation.

“I like to think that, as humanity, we make the decision that being alive is better than being dead,” she says. “And as long as we keep making that decision, things will keep getting better. And really, that’s what The Questions is about.

“You know, it’s two people in this horrendous situation who fundamentally instinctively believe it’s better to be alive than to be dead.”

Creative collaborators Richard Wise and Van Badham. Photo: Claudio Raschella

The concept for The Questions came to Badham in two stages. The first was on the interminable drive between Adelaide and Melbourne in 2015, when she and long-time collaborator Richard Wise – a psychologist and composer she first met on a Tinder date – were travelling home from presenting a show at Adelaide Fringe.

Badham told Wise about the 36 questions that psychologist Arthur Aron said could accelerate intimate connection.

“We were talking about it because I was asking his opinion of it as a psychologist and we’re having this really interesting conversation. And then he went, ‘That’s our next musical’,” says Badham.

While Badham immediately agreed, both she and Wise were distracted for years by other projects. But when the COVID lockdowns rolled around, she found the key that prompted the pair to immediately start writing.

Appearing as a guest on the Today show in early 2022, Badham was asked to comment on a blind date gone wrong, in which two people in China had been stuck in each other’s company for days after a sudden lockdown. The story illuminated a lightbulb in Badham’s mind.

“I was like – it’s a blind date. They’re trapped. They can’t leave – the Government has locked them in the building, and they do The Questions so they don’t kill each other,” says Badham. “Richard was like: ‘That’s it. That’s the hook.’ And he had a song for me within about 24 hours.”

Musicians Sam Lau and James Bannah Jnr during rehearsals. Photo: Matt Byrne

Badham wrote a synopsis in a single afternoon. Wise composed equally quickly, with his initial work creating the foundations for character development in a way that almost mirrored the functionality of Aron’s 36 questions.

“The first song he [Richard] wrote was not the opening song,” says Badham, “it was a song where one of the characters was talking about something very personal.

“That’s the point of the questions. That’s the whole way the experiment works, is people… divulge these things about themselves that are powerful and [that] transform, or even inform, their characters and help you to understand them.”

The Questions season with State Theatre will be its world premiere – something that delights Badham because of her enormous trust in the company’s artistic director Mitchell Butel, who she has worked with previously and who is directing this play.

When she spoke to InReview after attending early rehearsals for the production, it seemed like the work and the collaboration with Butel and the cast, including key actors Charles Wu and Chaya Ocampo, was proving her belief in the theatre as a place of restorative joy.

“We just had a perfect musical theatre moment, and all of us were just being who we are,” Badham says.

The Questions will be performed at the Space Theatre July 26 until August 17.

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