Popping the Question(s)

Anyone who has ever thought, while seated on a therapist’s couch, “this would make great material!” is in luck. At Interviewing the Audience, running this month at The Vineyard Theatre, writer and director Zach Helm invites select audience members to join him on a pair of great looking chairs while answering questions about themselves. Anyone who has never harbored such a fantasy -- or who would rather see a live talk show for free -- should head uptown to a Letterman taping. Originally created by monologist Spalding Gray in 1981, Interviewing the Audience reverses Gray’s standard storytelling technique: rather than drawing on his own autobiography, with Interviewing the Audience, Gray questioned audience members about their lives. In the years since Gray’s 2004 death, both personal storytelling (The Moth) and audience interview programs (This American Life) have become cultural mainstays; both can trace their roots, at least in part, to Spalding Gray.

Gray’s own work, however, continues to receive attention in its own right. At P.S. 122, an ensemble of actors performed selections his monologues as part of last month’s Coil Festival. At HERE, Lian Amaris recently staged her own monologue in response to his acclaimed monologue-turned-film, Swimming to Cambodia. And film festivals the world over are screening Everything is Going Fine, Steven Soderbergh’s new Spalding Gray documentary. With Interviewing The Audience, The Vineyard joins the Gray-enthused fold.

Each performance of Interviewing the Audience consists of three audience interviews. Whereas Gray conducted his production with a specific set of questions, Helm prefers to let his chats meander. He likes to point out whenever his interview subjects say things that are particularly meaningful or revealing, and like a therapist – or theater director – says it back to them in easily digestible sound bites. (“When you’re on your own, you make your own” he surmised last week when a young set designer/ Starbucks manager described a correlation between independence and innovation.) To Helm’s credit, these platitudes never feel forced – just, frequently, trite.

An oriental rug and a square patch of lighting, bolstered by red and black pendent lamps hanging from the fly space, create an intimate setting for the conversation, while The Vineyard’s deep proscenium creates a theatrical frame for each conversation. A glass coffee table functions as a sort of protective barrier between the house and the off-white chairs on which the interview takes place, sturdy enough to keep interview subjects from feeling over-exposed but light enough to grant audience members a full view of the stage picture. Helm matches the set’s comfortably mod aesthetic, from his gray argyle sweater down to the red stripe of his socks. Such carefully conceived production values go a long way toward marking the performance as a piece of theater, working to separate it from the sort of people watching made possible at coffee shops all over the city (where admission is the price of a latte, not a $50 theater seat).

Helm takes pains to emphasize the ephemera of the production. He begins each show by announcing the date (“This is the January 8, 2011 performance of Interviewing the Audience”) and closes each evening by reminding audiences of the date, adding with a certain degree of solemnity that the evening’s performance can never be repeated. That may be so – but one gets the sense that while the specifics of each performance vary, the production is unlikely to change in any substantive way.

It is hard to imagine Helm’s formula (ask audience members how they came to the show, ask perceptive-but-not-probing follow up questions, comment on how meaningful their conversation is) eliciting wildly different evenings. In the original productions, Spalding Gray’s use of uniform questions perhaps better created opportunities for difference by placing the focus on audience response (and not just on a friendly chat). Even rich variety requires structure.

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