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Interviewing the Audience

Zach Helm's one-of-a-kind piece in which he talks to theatergoers proves to be a fascinating experience.

By New York City
Zach Helm with audience member
in Interviewing the Audience
(© Carol Rosegg)
Zach Helm with audience member
in Interviewing the Audience
(© Carol Rosegg)
Maverick screenwriter, director, and playwright Zach Helm begins each performance of Interviewing the Audience by simply standing on the lip of the Vineyard Theatre stage to welcome those in attendance. With that, he launches into an hour-long evening that can, on the one hand, be described as a mesmerizing recreation of a theatrical experience first developed three decades ago by the late Spalding Gray. On the other hand, as Helm himself emphasizes, it's also a series of utterly distinct performances that can never be seen again. Either way, the one I saw was a fascinating evening that was far too brief.

Each show consists of three or so consecutive chats that Helm conducts onstage with individuals whom he picks on the spot. There's a talent to searching the faces in a crowd and determining who will be most likely to engage a roomful of strangers for the next 20 minutes. (Gray often screened his guests in the lobby prior to each performance.) Despite gender and ethnic differences, all three of Helm's guests on the night I attended had uncommonly good relationships with their families. But anyone who thinks filial angst is a prerequisite for compelling theater hasn't seen Helm in action.

Launching off of one set question -- "How did you come to be at the theater this evening?" -- Helm extemporized the remainder of his conversations. A memory of a school bully bloomed into an analysis of effective self-defense techniques for six-year-olds. A critique of someone's erotic jewelry morphed into an audience chant of a certain Portuguese obscenity.

Equally importantly, Helm has a gift for asking poignant questions. The obscenity cheer emerged when he unexpectedly interrupted one train of thought to ask a woman named Victoria if her father ever swore. Her answer -- that she had heard him do so for the first time ever within the last few weeks -- was both a charming coincidence and a moving sign of issues that the father is dealing with as he grows older, a thread that Helm was careful to pick up on.

Helm exudes the calming energy of a nurturing, pleasantly offbeat therapist, yet he doesn't hesitate to reveal vulnerable details about himself in the course of the conversations. At the end of the night, he is one of many players in this ensemble.


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