What Tammy Taught Us About Starting a Real Conversation

My friend and colleague Lois Weaver, aka Tammy Whynot, also of Split Britches fame, came to hang out with my students in Theatre and Performance in North America this morning. As Lois the artist, she’ll be visiting us in two weeks’ time via Skype (she lives in New York at this time of year) and the students will be responsible for interviewing her and Peggy Shaw, her longtime collaborator. Today, though, she came in person to class as Lois the scholar and teacher, to talk with us about the kinds of questions that make for a good, productive interview with a working artist.

Theatre and Performance in North America is shaped around a series of interviews with working artists: we read their stuff, research their practice and politics, then host them on Skype. The goal is to help the students on the course to understand contemporary performance practice in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico as no less alive, vibrant, and immediate than the amazing work they see around them in London; the value-added bit is to help them develop some preliminary arts journalism skills (as well as better skills for doing unconventional/non-library-based research). It sounds amazing, but it’s a huge challenge for me as instructor, because most students aren’t that good at asking questions, or at least at asking actually useful questions. Even though the contemporary Anglo-American academy places a huge emphasis on asking questions and thinking critically in the classroom, it’s rare that we take the time to parse the difference with our students between a weak question and a strong one, or to explore the similarities and differences between a good research question for your essay, and a useful question for starting a research-driven conversation with another human being.

I understand these nuances for myself now, thanks to years of on-the-ground practice (and plenty of research question epic fails), but I still find it mighty hard to convey them meaningfully to students. Enter Lois, to the rescue! In addition to some excellent, generous, utterly practical critiques of students’ practice questions, she also gave them today five “top tips” as they prepare to host their first Skype interview. As I reflected on these after class, I realised that Lois’s advice was speaking to me as a teacher in a much broader way than the scope of her lesson originally intended: in fact, I’ll go so far as to say her tips describe, for me, best practice for teaching preparation and classroom organisation, and I intend to hang onto them. See what you think; I think I might give them to my students, along with the syllabus, at the start of next semester’s courses, in the hope that as we get to know one another we can work on building better strategies for talking to and with one another in the classroom.

  1. Do your research. You can’t have a proper conversation with someone, about a shared topic, if you haven’t done your homework. Simple as that. This applies equally well, I think, to interviewers, students, and teachers!
  2. Bring your research with you, but leave your assumptions at home. If you’ve studied your subject closely in advance of a gig, you might have formed a variety of opinions and expectations about who that person is and what he/she will want to talk about. Check those now! Chances are you’ve created a fantasy image of your subject; that fantasy risks getting in the way of you truly meeting your subject when you do talk to him/her. Again, this is so true in the classroom: as a teacher I’m always making the (unconscious) mistake of imagining that my students will have read, understood, and gotten from the week’s reading exactly what I’ve taken away. That is almost NEVER the case. And, the more I’ve prepped for the fantasy version of the class in my head, the harder it is to adapt to the reality when it hits me in the face.
  3. Talk to the person you’re interviewing. This is my favourite tip. When we’ve prepped to do a job like host an interview or teach a lesson, it’s easy to get caught up in the list of questions or tasks we’ve brought with us. But that list is just the starting point; it’s not supposed to be the point. The point – of both a good interview and a good lesson – is to start a conversation and see where it leads us. There’s no real value in ticking the boxes/ticking off the questions; better to ask just one good, perhaps very simple question, use that question as a prompt to start a conversation, and give in to the pleasures of uncertainty (at least, for a bit).
  4. Think of yourself as one part of a research team. Lois argues that, at its best, a good prompt from a thoughtful, engaged interviewer will lead her to explore fresh aspects of her own artistic practice she might not otherwise have considered. In other words, the interview becomes a research exercise for both interviewer and artist, and together they discover things that neither alone might have found. This exactly describes my ideal classroom, in which we’re all part of a learning laboratory (or studio, to use a fine arts metaphor) with one of us acting as an experienced guide. Of course in practice it’s messier and more complicated than that, but the simple act of imagining we’re a research team, working together to make brand-new discoveries, is a good place to start. (For me, too.)
  5. Listen. Really listen. Especially for key words, phrases, ideas that emerge as important while the interview subject is speaking. Then, don’t be afraid to pull on those threads, even to leave your prepared questions behind for a while – or perhaps for good. Leaving the prep behind is terrifying, no doubt, but sometimes it’s the risk that opens the portal to the conversation/the interview/the lesson you really need to have. (Seasoned interviewers do this extremely well, and offer excellent object lessons for teachers; for a virtuoso example, check out Jian Ghomeshi’s recent interview with Janeane Garofalo on CBC’s Q.) I’ve only abandoned my prep a handful of times in my teaching career, but each time it’s been absolutely worth it. On the flip side, those days when I stick too closely to the prep, not really hearing the covert rumblings that suggest something else is needed, usually turn out poorly, with the room’s energy quickly fizzling away. I’ve discovered over time that I don’t prep primarily in order to deliver that prepared material; I prep as a way to build my confidence in the material, and thus to encourage myself to be able to step away if and when necessary.

As class was ending, I mentioned that Lois’s advice seems to boil down to two parallel (and slightly paradoxical) suggestions: do your damned homework, but don’t be afraid to walk away from your script. In this sense, she asks that those of us who interview artists, and those of us who teach the next generation of artists (and scholars, and journalists, and…), be willing to do the kind of work, and to take the leaps of faith, that artists do every day. Sage advice from a lady who knows a thing or two, believe me.


Thanks Lois!


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