My Spectrum colleague, Richard Glover, could tell you that 10 times over, compared to my own studio dabble. Then there’s Richard Fidler, our finest surgeon in the theatre of ideas. Yet short of either broadcaster distilling their craft into a listicle of koans, I offer you a few of my own threadbare insights.
The domino question is one – seek a fresh twist on a familiar topic. Or a twist full-stop, a bid to chart a fresh tack. Encourage your guest to leave their default script in the green room. When Tex Perkins visited, I asked whether he was the rightful heir to the Perkins’ Paste fortunes. No, he growled (Tex’s laugh), and then proceeded to recount his schooldays.
Flipping my advice, don’t neglect the obvious detail either. Helen Garner recently published Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume I 1978–1987 (Text, 2019). My first question was more a gibe: “Gee, Volume One, that sounds ominous.” Cue Helen’s wicked glee. Just as I’d teased John Bell, our greasepaint emperor, by saying “Bell Shakespeare Company – why is your name first?” Wrongfooted, John’s answer led to talk of how and where ego belongs in an actor’s discipline of embodying another.
Forage for stories over replies. If a banker decided to be an aid worker, ask about the day that transformation took place. What did she eat? Who did she ring? Don’t stand for acronyms, or the phrase “this and that”. Details matter. Human moments matter. Closed questions (yes or no) can be good for establishing facts, but open questions invite mindscapes. Confessions. Surprises.
Resist offering choices if you can. Never ask something like: “So why did you join the circus – was it the hours or the uniform?” As a side-note, when interviewing a furniture designer, avoid any mention of fashioning one’s own stool. Unless you crave a song break to cover for the consequent bedlam.
Research like a demon, too: seek that arcane lyric, that campus Q&A, Twitter feeds, Insta pics, but wear your homework lightly. You also want your guest to flourish, presuming the encounter seeks authenticity versus accountability.
Back in July, quizzing actor Neil Pigot, both those tenets came to bear. Neil was part of a troupe presenting an abridged readathon of Patrick White’s Tree of Man. Tempting me to ask, “As the son of a butcher, how did you begin to fillet White’s text?” Neil grinned like a gunslinger before delivering the fatal round: “As the son of a butcher, the same bloke who went on to become a pilot if you’d researched properly – on the fly.”