The allure of looking inside an artist’s mind largely rests in the assumption that they know something we don’t; that they make things we don’t know how to make, that they look at the world differently, that—perhaps—they are more interesting people than we are. If this is true, I find this a great spot to be in: I get to be the LEAST interesting person in the room! What a good life that is, to be surrounded by fascinating people! And, if this is not true, if artists are simply regular people who make art for a living, then I get to be in the great spot of learning how and why they make the choices they make.
In reality, both of those things are true: I am the lucky person who asks interesting people questions-and, these people see the worlds in creative ways and make things for a living. For my part, I would like to be a cross between NPR’s Teri Gross (plus live audience) and Inside the Actor’s Studio’s James Lipton (minus unexplainable mustache design). I have a long way to go, but I enjoy practicing and improving with each conversation. *
So how do I approach all of these different types of people and make room for an audience? And how do I ensure that the experience is interesting for that audience? Here are my four unofficial guidelines for interviews and discussions, which I continue to refine as I experiment with what does and does not work:
First: PAY ATTENTION
This begins with interview preparation, which is very informal for me. I simply read the author’s book and make notes, listen to the musician’s music and make notes—you get the idea. A good interview moment is when the guest artist mentions something from their work, and I can add to their comment because I remember their reference clearly. I don’t know how someone like John Stewart does it for The Daily Show because he seems to know every aspect of all of his guests’ work and is likely a busier person than I am. I will try to find out. More important, however, is paying attention DURING the interview: I enjoy circling back around to an earlier comment if it fits the moment, or writing down an interesting comment in the moment so I can ask the artist to explain it more deeply later in the interview. (Which means that I always take notes- I have several notebooks in circulation at any given time and always have the guest artist’s bio in front of me, along with prepared questions and plenty of room for in-the-moment note-taking.)
Along the same lines, I’m always sensitive to what the artist wants to talk about and what they don’t typically get asked to talk about. For example, when Peter Steinbrueck was running for Seattle Mayor, we featured him in our How is Seattle Remembered? event series. He was very eagerly on-topic with his campaign points and very convincing within those parameters. Towards the end of the interview, however, I asked him if he felt the need to carry on the legacy of his famous Seattle-advocate father. He paused, thanked me for allowing him a moment of introspection, and then continued the interview in a much more personal tone. This was then followed by a question from the audience in which he was asked if he supported pea patches. Not seeing a connection to Steinbrueck, I never in a million years would I have come up with this question But his eyes lit up and he got a bit giggly as he shared his earliest childhood memories of gardening, claiming it was his dream career before he became an architect. Who knew? It was one of those moments in which something surprising was revealed!
Second: PROVIDE A STRUCTURE
I always tie my questions to our current theme and topics. This usually gives me a lot to work with since those themes are intentionally huge universal ideas. If you have a great guest artist, they will run with the theme and leave you to merely guide the conversation, highlighting points for further explanation, asking for necessary clarification, and driving the conversation towards some informed moments that may not have happened otherwise. And maybe this is more detail than necessary, but I love to clarify expectations for the guest artist and keep things on time. Everyone immediately relaxes upon hearing how long they will be talking and what exactly the format is. It can be challenging knowing how and when to conclude, but I have found that a sincere thank-you is the best and simplest way.
Third: BE A GOOD HOST
I have what I like to call my audience meter, which is the one eyeball I keep on the body language and visual cues from those in the room. I use this to include the audience as much as possible and make on-the-fly adjustments.
For example, I ask myself:
How many people are on their phones at the moment? (Time to adjust, usually with an excerpt from the person’s work or a detailed anecdote that brings some specificity to the conversation).
Are people taking notes? (If so, this is a good time for audience questions, as they know what they’re interested in and have likely written it down already).
Any raised hands for questions? (I always call on them right away- I would never presume that my questions are more important than the audience’s.) There is no hierarchy in these interviews, only enough of a structure to make it interesting (see #2 above).
Is everyone comfortable? If someone looks lost in the back of the room, I try to gesture to them where a seat can be found. Once, a man standing near the light switch energetically waved to me and pointed to the lights above us while shielding his eyes as if he couldn’t see the projected image we were showing, to which I replied with a discretely pointed finger towards the light switch he was standing near. He then turned off the lights and we continued with better lighting, all without disrupting the artist who was talking at the time; this is the kind of thing that makes me grateful for clever and active audience members.
Fourth: DON’T BE AFRAID OF BEING AFRAID
Sometimes, I am aware that the guest is known for some touchy personal experiences, something that can perhaps feel like the clichéd elephant in the room if not addressed. In these situations, I make an effort to be respectful yet open to talking about anything. I also might ask the guest before we begin if they mind if I ask them about something, and allow them the chance to decline.
One example presented itself when I interviewed author Rebecca Walker, who had a very public falling out with her very famous mother, Alice Walker. I had decided not to bring this up as a piece of gossip, but to stay on topic since our current Big Question was “How Are We Remembered?” and family legacy is a big part of who Rebecca is. What happened was ideal: I asked her about family and legacy in a general sense, and she opened up the subject of her mother in response. This allowed me to show my respect for her privacy while also allowing her to determine if she wanted to talk about something sensitive.
Fifth: BE THE DUMBEST PERSON IN THE ROOM, AND THE SMARTEST
This is one of those win-win situations in which I allow myself to ask presumably stupid questions AND get credit for asking smart questions that got us here in the first place. The goal with this is to be the person the audience needs, the person who demands explanation, who wants to know certain things, and who will be the intermediary so the audience doesn’t have to refer to Google dictionary to keep up with the interview. I don’t know how I determine what’s helpful-stupid and what’s just plain stupid, but somehow it works. This is how you build trust with the audience: by taking them on a brief journey into a creative person’s mind and giving them at least one interesting thing to take away with them. Audience: I am one of you.
*Although I have made it a significant part of my job to talk, this has been a tricky skill to pass down effectively. My daughter, when she was in Pre School, occasionally was moved into the kitchen during lunchtime because it was the only way to keep her from chatting rather than eating her lunch. I love the image of her sitting happily at a small table in the school kitchen, most likely talking to her imaginary friends instead.