Zach Helm Is “Interviewing” You
In his new Off Broadway play, the artist makes his audience the star
There are certain shows that stay with you long after you leave the theatre, and Spalding Gray’s Interviewing the Audience has been with Zach Helm for decades. He was a student at Chicago’s DePaul University when he saw the show, which featured Gray spontaneously conversing with people in the crowd. It altered his understanding of the theatre, and for the last several years, he’s been working to bring that experience to a contemporary audience.
He has succeeded. Helm’s adaptation of Interviewing the Audience is now at the Vineyard Theatre. Seven times a week, he moderates an interactive evening where performance becomes pedestrian, literally.
After a brief introduction, the house lights come up and Helm peruses the aisles. He selects an audience member at random, and invites that spectator on stage for a 15-20 minute conversation. By the end of the show, he’s passed the time with three willing strangers.
Helm, who’s perhaps best known for writing the Will Ferrell film Stranger Than Fiction, begins every interview with the same basic question: “How did you come to be at the theatre tonight?” After that, he lets the conversation go where it may. In that spirit, TDF Stages recently turned the tables, getting Helm to answer a few questions himself.
TDF STAGES:So, how did you come to be here?
ZH: I had an experience with this show now almost fifteen years ago, and there was a particular moment of that evening that stuck with me for a very long time: It was Spalding Gray bringing up a young girl onto the stage, who had only come to the theatre that evening because she had a school project that required her to go see either theatre or dance. This was the only show that her mother could get tickets to, and she had never been to any type of theatre before. They had this really amazing conversation, and at the end of it Spalding said to her, “This is quite amazing because you came to see theatre, but instead you became theatre.” Her response was: “That’s weird. I could have been anybody.”
I always sort of use that to say that the protagonists of theatre are meant to be anybody. It’s a very particular situation we find characters in, but whether it’s Hamlet, or John Gabriel Borkman, or the characters of Avenue Q, or the people I bring up onstage, there should be a sense of an Everyman quality to them.
TDF STAGES: How much do you control the pace of the interview, or guide the conversations you have with audience members?
ZH: I’m aware of the rhythm and the meter, but I don’t necessarily affect it too much. It’s a case by case basis.
I have tried over the past several years to learn as much as I can about interviewing people from a non-journalist standpoint. I learned a lot from the way Spalding Gray was constructing his interviews, and then there are three other people who stand out for me in terms of interviewing.
Studs Terkel: He had a really sort of beautiful way of highlighting the simple everyday working class story and idiolect. He did that by letting people tell their own story their own way, and by creating the space for them to do that. He then listened very, very carefully to the way in which they were telling the story as much as to the story they were telling. In a similar way, I try to speak at the same rate or level in a way that’s connected to the person onstage.
Errol Morris: He’s a documentary filmmaker, and he’s known for having built this thing called an interrotron. It’s sort of a two way camera that allows people that he’s filming to see his face on the front of the lens of the camera that they are looking into. He’s often spoken about how that connection eases people in a lot of ways. He uses this technique in which, even if they’re done speaking, he won’t respond. He’ll just sit there and look at them, knowing that they will be inclined to continue or fill the space or open up a little bit. Once they feel as though they’re in control of what they’re talking about, they open up more and more.
Werner Herzog: Morris’ counterpart in contemporary documentary filmmaking is Werner Herzog, and Werner Herzog could not insert himself more into the way he makes documentaries. Werner appreciates the fact that, no matter what the story is, it connects with him on some human level, and therefore, he is a participant already. He then actively participates. And that has taught me, by the same token, to allow myself to be as much a part of their storytelling as they are. It’s about finding the balance.
TDF STAGES: Do you keep a personal record of the people you interview?
ZH: I do. Every night I walk off stage, and I immediately reveal the three moments onstage that stand out for me. I only take people on a first name basis. So it’s Laura, or Zach, or Dale, and there’s a certain anonymity to that. When I go back and write something down that’s memorable, I write something down that’s entirely detached from the person. I won’t write down somebody’s story. I’ll write down a thing that they said or an image that they created, and that, for me, is as much of a documentation that I’d like to have. Otherwise I feel I’m intruding upon very personal moments in somebody’s life. I’m not a miner in that sense. I’m not interested in pulling out these moments for my own gain later on. The gain occurs onstage.
TDF STAGES: You’ve written your own plays and movies. Do you think that influenced your approach this show? Or in other words, did you have to tell your own story before you focused on helping others tell theirs?
ZH: I think that when I was younger, I was very focused as an artist on my vision. What I thought. It was very self-involved. That level of self involvement led to what I consider for myself to be an error that I made. I spent a couple years not doing the best work that I possibly could because I was too focused on what I thought was right. I’m as opinionated as any artist I’ve come in contact with, and there are times that I still think that I’m right. But it wasn’t so much about being right artistically, it was that I thought I was right about how I viewed the world. My understanding needed to broaden a tremendous amount.
The moment when I knew that that was the issue, that I had made this error artistically and that my focus had been in the wrong place, [that] was the moment that I decided to do this show. I don’t think I was conscious of that by any stretch of the imagination. Having people surprise me now as consistently as they do with this show has allowed me to broaden my view of the world. But more than that, I know my view of the world will continue to broaden.
What I learned immediately is that I had to take myself out of the equation. This show is not about me. From that point forward everything else began to fall into place.
Laura Hedli is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with a focus in magazine writing. Along with TDF Stages, she writes for The Wall Street Journal and The Philadelphia Inquirer.