Radio Interview Production Workshop #6: That Is, The Question

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As I mentioned last time, nothing so determines the final shape and content of your interview as the questions you ask and the order in which you ask them. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.) Here’s how I have been going about putting together a question outline.

At first, I don’t worry at all about the order of the questions—I am more interested in brainstorming questions. Before I do any research at all, I draw on my initial curiosity about the guest that prompted me to do the interview in the first place. I’ll open a Word document just for questions and enter them. I like to keep the mindset that I probably will never have a chance again to speak to this person—so I remind myself not to hold back on whatever it is that I’ve always genuinely wanted to know about the guest or his or her work. There are some questions that I find that I repeatedly ask of my guests, because they are issues that I am obsessed about, and that I am genuinely curious about when I meet someone well known or unusually productive. I like to understand people’s lives from the inside, from their perspective,  so I often ask about the guests’ working process, and what they consider to be their most important understandings about their work. I am also curious how an artist’s working life changes with age, and I am often apt to ask questions about that.

But the bulk of my questions come as a result of research into the guest’s work. As I am reading about a guest, or reading a guest’s book, I have my computer file by me, and I am typing into it both salient points that are made, as well as points I would like to understand further. I will also make note of places where I disagree with the guest, places where there could be fruitful further conversation. If I am seeing a film or a theater piece that my guest is involved with, then I have a pad with me and I am taking notes as I’m watching. At a minimum, I become familiar with the guest’s latest project. But, really, ideally, it is much better when I am able to become familiar with a much wider range of the guest’s work, and can situate what the guest is doing within the context of his or her own work, and within the work of his or her contemporaries.

I double space each question, and through experience, I know that when I have about a page and a half of 14-pt type questions, I have enough for a 30-minute interview. Once I have all the questions down, I start moving them around into the order I want. Here, for example, is the final question outline I used when I was preparing to interview playwright and actor Wallace Shawn (I’ve included the intro [which was cut considerably in the editing process] and the outro):

Intro: Hi, I’m Jack Shalom. Actor, playwright, essayist Wallace Shawn has been provoking thought from audiences for over four decades. His memorable film roles have included co-starring in My Dinner with Andre, and his comic turn as Vizzini in The Princess Bride. His work as a playwright includes the Obie Award winning Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever, and The Designated Mourner; and his essays include the recently released Night Thoughts.

His 2015 play, Evening At The Talk House has been released as an audio drama, with a fine cast that includes himself, Matthew Broderick, Larry Pine, Jill Eikenberry, and Claudia Shear. It can be found gratis on the website of The Intercept online magazine. I’m happy to be talking with Wallace Shawn. (WAIT) Hi, Wally.

Tell us about Evening At the Talk House.

The play was originally done in London, then opened in New York. Did you see a difference between the London and NYC reception?

How did this audio version come to be, and how did it land at The Intercept?

How much did you have to change the play for audio production?

Many of your plays deal with a similar theme: The dark apparatus that it takes to maintain a privileged society. How is Evening At the Talk House different from your previous plays in its working out? Does it represent an evolution in your thinking about these matters?

The characters in Evening At the Talk House keep insisting that they are just trying to have a pleasant evening. In a sense, the play is what it costs the rest of the world for those people to have their pleasant evening. Do people give up their own comfort willingly?

It’s often the self-absorbed artists in your plays who are the people who seemingly can only relate to their own needs. You seem to target artists in particular in your works. Can you speak more about that?

Because this play shows the problems the privileged have in trying to square the contradictions of their wish to appear benign, I could imagine that some might complain that this work is in some sense privileging the problems of the privileged. Is that a fair criticism?

As complex and layered as your plays are, I find your essays on the other hand, remarkably transparent and lucid. When I read your essays, I say, well of course, why hasn’t anybody else explained it so plainly? How do you decide whether something is going to become a play or an essay?

I really enjoyed reading Night Thoughts. It’s like your communist manifesto. A short simple book that anyone can understand. Rather than talking about owners and workers, though, you speak of the lucky and the unlucky. Can you talk more about that?

You are not just someone who is interested in both politics and theater, but you see the two subjects as intimately entwined. A few years ago you wrote a wonderful essay called “Why I Call Myself a Socialist: Is the World Really a Stage?” Could you talk about some of the ideas in that essay and what in your view is the relationship of acting  to the necessity of socialism?

What’s the most important thing you know about playwriting?

Anything else you’d like to add, Wally?

 I’ve been talking with Wallace Shawn whose play Evening at the Talk House is now available as a free podcast at Thanks, Wally. (WAIT) This has been Jack Shalom with host Prairie Miller.

By looking at the outline above you can see how I structure the order of my questions. I generally want the guest to feel comfortable, and I want to situate the listening audience, so I start off by asking questions about the guest’s most recent projects. Next, I’ll move onto other projects I’m interested in, and then I use those projects as a springboard to ask about overall process and more personal questions. If I feel that the guest is amenable, at this point I’ll bring up disagreements or questions which might be a little more challenging. How far I go with that depends on the kinds of responses I get. Finally, I’ll tend to finish up with asking about future projects and where one can obtain more information about the guest’s work. I’ll also ask at the end if there’s anything else they wish to add—surprisingly, often the guest takes a thoughtful breath, regroups and comes out with some of the most interesting material here.

When the interview actually happens, do I stick to this outline?

Almost never.

But that’s for next week, when I talk about actually conducting the interview.

You can read the next installment here:


Radio Interview Production Workshop #5: Introductions



You’ve made it this far and now you’re ready to prepare an outline. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.)  An outline is not a hard and fast script, but it is a road map. It’s what allows one the freedom to improvise during an interview, knowing that there’s a safe place to return to if the conversation wanders about or goes South. Speaking for myself, I can’t imagine doing an interview without an outline. It would be like trying to navigate in a strange city without a GPS. An interview outline will determine—more than anything else—even more than your audio editing—the final shape and content of your interview.

The three parts I have in my interview outline are the intro, the questions I want to ask, and the outro. Let’s take each part, one at a time.

In the intro, I want to intrigue the audience, introduce the interviewee with his or her project, and begin my first interaction with the guest.  To begin, I also always first want to introduce myself to the radio audience. While it’s very important to be able to hang up your ego as an interviewer (more about this in future installments), I don’t believe in the aesthetic of a faceless, generic questioner. As the interviewer, you are in some sense a proxy for the curiosity of your audience. It’s important for them to know who you are, so I get that out of the way at the very beginning. For me, it’s just simply, “Hi, this is Jack Shalom,” at the top of the segment. Others do it more artfully, pulling a teaser quote first from the guest, for example, and then working in their identification, but I believe that if you don’t do it, or wait until the end, the audience will be left with an annoying unanswered question.

After introducing myself, I try to give a hook and teaser for the audience, setting up my introduction of the guest. Here’s an example of an introduction I did for an interview a while back:

“Hi. I’m Jack Shalom. Public education in the United States has historically been a segregated affair, and today that segregation has taken on a new and sometimes disguised form. Author Noliwe Rooks explicates that history and analyzes that new form in her new book Cutting School. Ms. Rooks is the director of American studies at Cornell University and for ten years was the associate director of African American Studies at Princeton University. She is also the author of White Money/Black Power and Hair Raising. I’m happy to be talking today with Noliwe Rooks. (WAIT)”

So you can see here, I’ve first introduced myself. Next, I’m setting the context by talking about public school segregation, and then I segue into introducing my guest and her book. I also include some of the guest’s most interesting or well-known credits.

Sometimes people jump into an interview and record the introductory material at a later (or earlier) time than the actual interview. I like to speak my introduction while the guest is with me, or on the phone, because I want the guest to know up front that I am not some berserk maniac. When they listen to the intro, they know I have done my research, and I am appreciative of their work. While I often ask my guests challenging questions, I don’t want them to think that the interview is going to be some kind of confrontational set-up. I want them to feel that I am on their side. Part of my job is to build trust.

You’ll see in the intro above that I have the word WAIT in caps in parentheses. That is because I am an idiot and I always need to remind myself that at that point in the intro, I need to…well…WAIT for my guest’s reply. It’s the guest’s first chance to speak, even if it’s just “Hi,” or “Thanks,” but you don’t want to step on that by talking over them. Sounds silly, but I’ve messed that up many times. Don’t worry if you have to wait a while while the guest figures out that it’s their turn to speak—you can edit out the pause later. Typically now, just before I start an interview, I’ll tell the guest that I’ll be doing a short intro and that they should answer after I say, “Hi, [guest’s name]” or “Welcome to the show.”

By the way, the other thing I ask my guests beforehand is the proper way to pronounce their name, and how they would like to be addressed e.g. Noliwe? Ms. Rooks? Dr. Rooks? Professor Rooks? I think every guest I’ve spoken to has always opted for first name, but I think it’s an important courtesy to extend beforehand. Again, it helps to build trust and to relax the guest.

The introduction should last no more than 45 seconds. The listeners are waiting for the guest to speak, not you. You don’t want to lose the audience before the interview even begins. I’ll often read out my intro out loud beforehand, watching a clock to time how long it goes. If it’s over 45 seconds, I will ruthlessly cut some of it from my outline. I never wing the intro. The intro and the outro are the one thing that I read verbatim from my outline. I want to make sure I get all the details correct.

The next part of my interview outline is the list of questions. The most interesting questions to me are those that the interviewer genuinely does not know the answer to, and has a curiosity to know more about. I think it’s very important that an interviewer does research beforehand. I know there are interviewers who feel that they should be as blank a slate as their audiences are with regard to the guest and his or her project, but I feel that is a mistake, and for me, at least, unsatisfying. I think it always shows when the research has not been done, and the guest will not be as open to someone who is not familiar with the guest’s issues. Moreover, without research or prior knowledge the interviewer becomes subject to the guest’s agenda, and the guest ends up controlling the direction of the conversation. With a brilliant, dynamic speaker that might be okay, but the more likely result is that the guest will be repeating the same canned words that s/he has given to many other interviewers before. I think if an interviewer is doing the job right, in the best possible case, both the interviewer and guest are surprised and happy about the spontaneous turns of conversation that result. That is very unlikely to happen without a fair amount of preparation.

I see the interviewer as bridging the gap between the audience and the guest. My interviewing stance is that I am an intelligent layman who enjoys knowing more about my guest and my guest’s work, and I want to get my audience to join me in my exploration. That requires that my questions set up an introductory context and then lead into more interesting areas. All of that requires familiarity and research.

More about questions next week. See you then.

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