Zach Helm makes it personal in Interviewing the Audience at The Vineyard Theatre.
BOTTOM LINE: A theatrical experience unlike any other, where the audience is acutely aware of the community created around them.
Writer and director Zach Helm (Stranger than Fiction, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium) adapts Interviewing the Audience from storyteller Spalding Gray's original 1980s performances. The show's premise breaks down artificial boundaries normally observed through live theatre: the subjects are real audience members and they dialogue informally with Helm on stage. There are no rehearsals and no prior planning. Through these conversations, participants expose bits of information that are far more banal than I was expecting, but that are still uniquely evocative. Learning about these folks on stage encourages self-reflection in the rest of the audience and also builds a community atmosphere. The social experiment of it all is totally captivating.
Helm is the consummate host on a set that feels like a comfortable Jonathan Adler living room in some down-to-earth designer's loft. He asks leading questions without seeming pushy, instead making real connections with his subjects and providing opportunities for meaningful conversation. Sometimes it's two-sided as Helm is happy to throw his own anecdotes on the table when necessary.
As the show begins, Helm announces the date and reminds the audience that this particular show will never happen again. The immediacy and inherent community is the central focus as the show kicks off. Helm's wonderment at what we are all about to embark on sets the tone. Even though I heard three lovely interviewees discuss subjects ranging from iguanas to sailing to painting to family sing-alongs, rest assured future audiences will encounter a totally different set of topics.
The reason this show works is, in large part, due to Helm's ability to validate these conversations as something worth hearing. When was the last time we really listened to each other, without distraction? Helm really seems to care. The humanity within the dialogue becomes clear, and this creates a kind of meditative quality to the experience. Although it's only about an hour long, it's easy to lose yourself in the charming exchanges on stage.
If you're skittish about audience participation (and let's be honest, most of us are), it's comforting to know that only 3 of the 100+ audience members will actually be invited on stage. And if you're chosen and aren't into it, you're more than welcome to decline Helm's invitation. Although if you're partial to attention, you'll probably relish in the opportunity to share what makes you tick. And you couldn't ask for a more appreciative group of listeners.
A completely unique experience in a theatre, Interviewing the Audience offers a look into what happens when fiction and pretense are removed from observation. Turns out, actual reality can be a pretty incredible thing too.
(Interviewing the Audience plays at the Vineyard Theatre, 180 East 15th Street, through February 27, 2011. Performances are Mondays and Tuesdays at 7pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $20-$50, and can be purchased at vineyardtheatre.org or by calling 212.353.0303.)