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A CurtainUp Review
Interviewing the Audience
How so?—Zach Helm
Interviewing the Audience
Zach Helm
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The great monologist, author and performer Spalding Gray has many imitators, some of whom try, mostly unsuccessfully, to merely copy his deceptively simple styles. At HERE in December 2009, performance artist Liàn Amaris presented Swimming to Spalding, a piece that presumptuously compared itself with Gray's famous Swimming to Cambodia monologue. It was disastrous, chiefly because Gray's volatile mix of wit, self-deprecation and universal insight remains close to inimitable. Ms. Amaris' inauthentic response smacked of amateurism and naked adulation. Unlike Mr. Gray, Ms. Amaris failed to make her own story important.

Though I never watched Mr. Gray select and interview audience members, I'd be willing to bet that his techniques were more interesting than Mr. Helm's. Mr. Helm is no doubt a very nice man. He is kind to his interviewees and conspicuously avoids — perhaps to the show's detriment — sensitive, overly personal or traumatic material. His major problem is that he is not an interesting interviewer. His questions, particularly his follow-ups, are neither incisive nor provocative. It's true that ordinary people can have extraordinary stories. Yet, on the night I saw his show, Mr. Helm managed to make his interviewees more boring than extraordinary.

Mr. Helm's first guest was a man named Michael who doesn't see much of his sister and best friend because she lives far away but they have lots of phone conversations. Mr. Helm wrapped up that interview by declaring, "Being a good friend trumps all!" His next guest was Victoria, a frequent theater goer who speaks Portuguese. Mr. Helm asked her to teach the audience a swear word in Portuguese. Finally, we met Ralston. a man with a winning smile and, who had trouble crossing his legs and a kindergarten girlfriend inamed Octavia.

Helm distinguishes his method from Gray's in that unlike e Gray who used a set of pre-scripted questions, he uses just one: "How did you come to be at the theater this evening?" From there he attempts to riff.

The writer/performer and scenic and lighting consultant Kevin Adams do their best to make their subjects comfortable. Their set features two soft arm chairs, a throw rug, a coffee table and some friendly lighting. The audience members appeared entirely comfortable speaking with their interviewer. . Yet, Helm's passive interview techniques place the full burden of the show on the interviewees. (Talk about getting non-equity performers on the cheap!) Occasionally, Helm injects his own anecdotes into the conversation, as when he recounts being protected from a bully by a close childhood friend. But such rapport is too infrequent, and his toothy laughter at the minor funny asides that emerge during interviews is often desperate and forced.

Another problem is Helm's need to come up with a unifying theme for his three random interviews. His attempts to distill such a theme lend an unfortunate Hallmark quality to the evening. Sometimes, Helm even sounds like Oprah: "Enjoying the in-laws is a theme tonight! I love it!" The result can be stultifying, — and it's not the fault of his guests.

After his third and, mercifully, final interview, our host, like a pop psychologist or personal motivator, again reminded us that this performance was the only one like it, on this date . . .ever! He then invited people in the audience to start a conversation with each other. And to smile. As far as I could tell, nearly everyone headed straight for the exits.

Interviewing the Audience
By Zach Helm
Originally Created by Spalding Gray
Cast: Zach Helm and audience members
Scenic and Lighting Consultant: Kevin Adams
Sound Consultant: Brett Jarvis
Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith
Production Manager: Ben Morris
Running Time: About 80 minutes, no intermission
The Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th Street, NYC; http://vineyardtheatre.org/
From 2/7/11; opening 2/10/11; closing 2/27/11
Performance schedule: varies. Check schedule.
Reviewed by William Coyle, based on 2/7/11 performance
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©Copyright 2011, Elyse Sommer

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