Interviewing the Audience
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
February 11, 2011
There is something oddly exhilarating about Zach Helm’s all-too-brief Interviewing the Audience at the Vineyard Theater.
Helm took inspiration from the late, great Spalding Gray, who created the piece in 1981 with The Wooster Group. Helms saw a version in the late-1990s at the Steppenwolf in Chicago and has, for the past few years, performed his own version across the country.
The concept is simple: three audience members, one at a time, are invited on stage for a twenty minute interview. They are all asked the same first question: “Why are you here tonight?” From there, the stories they spin take on lives of their own, creating theatre that, in some cases, is better than any playwright could come up with. (Gray himself had an arsenal of questions which he asked; Helm tailors further questions based on each audience member.)
Every night is different; naturally, some performances may be stronger than others. We knew there was something special about the Friday, February 11 performance when, in the midst of Helm’s opening monologue, he realized that his microphone wasn’t working. That led, naturally, to a joke about a current gaffe-prone Broadway spectacular.
The first audience member was John, a middle aged man from Forest Hills, Queens, attending the show with his fiancée. He had bought her tickets to the performance that morning, and they barely made it to the theatre on time, as she had gotten out of a movie only an hour before the show began.
We learned that the two have known one another since they were 18 years old and students at Queens College. A youthful romance led them to Venice Beach, California, after which the relationship ended. Many years later, they re-met, after his current girlfriend dumped him on New Year’s Eve. They got engaged in September 2010, at the Long Island City restaurant The Water’s Edge. Currently a registered nurse, she helped John deal with his father’s recent death, bringing the two even closer.
Helm then brought her on stage, solely to verify all of the vivid details in John’s story. Her stories proved just as entertaining, and heartwarming, as John’s. She recounted how his father paid for her nursing exam, and how he would sing Frank Sinatra in his thick Romanian accent. He sat and watched her from the audience, in my row, with a look of such pride. The two are a match made in heaven.
Our last audience member was an older gentleman who was the long-time companion of a prominent New York radio psychologist and critic (though he never revealed her name, she’s easily recognizable, based on her looks and credentials). They first met in Boston over 30 years ago, when he hired her to be his radio station’s psychologist. Differences led to what seems like a painful break-up, as he dealt with issues of anger and frustration, and they rekindled their romance three years ago.
Helm, in between, interspersed the interviews with the story of his own failed marriage, and the reasons why it didn’t work out. He asked the last man to give some recommendations to John and his fiancée, now about to start the rest of their lives together. The man gave a list: tell the truth, do what you say you’re going to do, keep your sense of humor, and have fun.
This strange performance piece-cum-therapy session, an hour in duration, was as cathartic for me as it was, no doubt, for them. I just wish it was longer.