a dramatic monologue, between stops
March 30, 2006 11:07 AM   Subscribe

If you were interviewing passengers on a city bus, what would you ask?

I volunteered to pitch in on a 'creative writing' project.
Here's the deal. I want to create a one person show that will take place on an actual Metro bus for the Fringe Festival in June based on a series of interviews conducted with Metro drivers and passengers. I'm asking writers to volunteer their skills to interview one group or the other. The pieces can be any length but i'm hoping they'll be in a form that can translate easily to a dramatic monologue. Some pieces may get melded with others. Dealine for passenger stories is April 15.
That's the synopsis I got. I'll be interviewing the passengers. Anyone here with experience interviewing random people in public places for seemingly no reason? This could be great fun or a nightmare. What's the etiquette? I'll carry a list of questions and a tape recorder. What would you ask?
posted by airguitar to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Tell us more about it. Is there a theme to the project? What's the tone you're going after? I mean, is it Charlie Rose style, Studs Terkel style, or Jay Leno "Aren't people on the street funny and stupid" style?
posted by Hildago at 11:12 AM on March 30, 2006

Don't be silly. It's so irritating, watching student films where they 'interview' random people - and the whole time the college kid making the film is grinning like a retard. Be professional and to the point. Don't try to make jokes. The substance is irrelevant. Even if you're going for humor, it's so much funnier if the interviewer is serious and straightforward (i.e. the Daily Show). Don't lead the witness. Use short sentences.

I would ask them something simple - like, "what belongs on a hotdog?" and then when they answer something like,
"relish, ketchup and chile"
I would have some sort of canned response,
"well, most of the people we've spoken with today have said ketchup and chile don't belong together. What would you say to them?"

I don't know if that would be funny or not.

Probably not.

I don't feel very funny today. I'm going to go make a drink.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 11:21 AM on March 30, 2006

Well you can't just expect drama to crop up if the person you interview is droll. You get that in some of the stories in This American Life where the interviewed person needs to be pushed along and sometimes a voice over needs to be done to explain things in a more dramatic way. It helps to have a direction like, "What made you start taking the bus?". Although not everyone has an exciting story. Some people may just say it was that it seemed like a good idea at the time. If you want real drama then you have to stick with a subject that everyone will have a strong feeling for like, "What were you doing on 9/11?".
posted by JJ86 at 11:23 AM on March 30, 2006

Tell us more about it...

yeah, it's pretty open. The organization is loose. But that's ok. This can be whatever it ends up as. And I'm not concerned about missing the objectives of the project, as they seem to be so open, but I won't go bothering people if it's not going to be a good time.
posted by airguitar at 11:25 AM on March 30, 2006

...a good time for all.
posted by airguitar at 11:26 AM on March 30, 2006

No experience interviewing but here's what I sometimes ask people at parties when the conversation's flagging:

When in your life were you closest to dying? (you get amazing answers to this one, everything from "I was attacked by a bear when I was 9" to the usual accidental close calls to "I was contacted by the police who told me the serial killer they caught had kept a notebook and I was next".

What was the happiest/worst day of your life?

What were you most afraid of when you were 10 years old?


While these questions may sound hokey, it's amazing the glimpses they afford into aspects of people's lives that are normally kept hidden. Perhaps some questions in a similar vein would work for you--I guarantee you'll get some unexpected responses! And keep in mind the questions don't need to/shouldn't be intrusive and personal (when did you lose your virginity?), but rather just elicit information that people wouldn't normally think to tell anyone about.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 11:32 AM on March 30, 2006

Simple things like where you are in relation to your interviewee can change the interview dramatically. You'll want to sit across the aisle from the person. Standing over them would be intimidating, as would sitting next to them then suddenly whipping out a microphone. Ask, then if they're game, bring out the tech. "Hi, I'm making a documentary film, I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions ..."

If you really want to ask strange questions, you better lob a few meatballs first. "Why are you riding the bus today?" "What do you do to relax/have fun?" You'll want to have a lot of questions at your disposal to keep things moving.
posted by user92371 at 11:38 AM on March 30, 2006

Talk to the drivers, too. They have all seen some weird/interesting/heartbreaking/funny things. They may also have ideas which of their regular riders are interesting to talk to.
posted by raedyn at 11:45 AM on March 30, 2006

Anteater, or Fireman Helmet?
posted by TheFeatheredMullet at 11:46 AM on March 30, 2006

Why not just ask them if they have an interesting story to tell? Ask them what's on their mind or something general like that.

I remember this site by a guy who photographed & interviewed people in NYC and Copenhagen (anyone have a link? I lost it of course) - I think he just asked them "why are you smiling" or something like that and he got the cutest answers, just a glimpse into their lives. Some of them would have made great monologues IMO.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 11:51 AM on March 30, 2006

Are you armed?
posted by fixedgear at 11:59 AM on March 30, 2006

You should see if certain routes are more notorious for strange/drunk/insane folk than others. I ride the bus daily and you could be super specific- only interview the single moms who have to transport young children via the bus; only interview the elderly that are, sadly, always traveling by themselves; only interview those guys who simply must sit at the back of the bus--- I would really like to know why they think the back of the bus is the must-be spot (even the ones who are long past highschool).
posted by haplesschild at 12:06 PM on March 30, 2006

Ask them if they were ever bullied as a child. Then ask them if *they* ever bullied anyone else.

Alternatively, you could ask them if they ever found porn in the woods.
posted by jasper411 at 12:08 PM on March 30, 2006

The best of Ask Metafilter on a city bus. That could be something.
posted by airguitar at 12:16 PM on March 30, 2006

If someone were to approach me on the bus with a camera pointed at me, I would not react in a way that the interviewer would end up happy with. There are others like me. This might be something for you to take into consideration.
posted by bingo at 12:42 PM on March 30, 2006

Are you trying for slice of life "reality"? Do you just want to find out how people answer the same question? You'll probably get a different response than with a more formal interview.

If you do want to a formal interview, I think it would be most polite to introduce yourself by saying "I'm conducting interviews ..." or "I'm conducting a survey..." You probably don't have to say "because I want to create a play", although that might work with some people, but it would turn off others.
posted by luneray at 12:50 PM on March 30, 2006

I would be sure to let the interviewee know that they will not be identified in any way, unless the details of their story are sufficiently unique that people might recognize them. This anonymity will likely increase your chances of a good story. You didn't mention a camera, just a tape recorder, right?
posted by nprigoda at 2:11 PM on March 30, 2006

I would ask them to tell me about all the other people on the bus. What jobs do you think they do? Who do you think is married? Who has kids? What sorts of books do they read?
posted by grumblebee at 2:14 PM on March 30, 2006

Since this is presumably in the United States, I would ask them what went wrong with their lives that they have to ride the bus.
posted by arruns at 2:23 PM on March 30, 2006

"When was the last time you built a sand castle?"
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 2:27 PM on March 30, 2006

what went wrong with their lives that they have to ride the bus - arruns

If you choose to ask it like that, be prepared for a poor response. That's pretty off-putting. Then again, you might get on or two really interesting replies.
posted by raedyn at 2:42 PM on March 30, 2006

Since this is presumably in the United States, I would ask them what went wrong with their lives that they have to ride the bus.

That would really depend where the person is. In the highly urban East Coast, people use mass transit all the time. Many people don't have cars, and don't need them.
posted by luneray at 3:12 PM on March 30, 2006

Just a tape recorder.

Since presumably Arruns you have nothing better to do, I would ask what went wrong with your life that you want to show your ass in a public forum.
posted by airguitar at 5:14 PM on March 30, 2006

Ask them where they're going, why they're riding a bus instead of driving a car, ask them who's taking care of their kids, and then just go where the conversation leads.
posted by kdern at 7:26 PM on March 30, 2006

Regarding the suggestion by TheFeatheredMullet: Having myself been asked by a total stranger whether or not I was circumcised, I can assure you that it did not lead to a fruitful and fascinating discussion. Perhaps if the circumstances had been different ... if it had not been so late ... if I had not been so tired ... if she had been asking in my native language, or at least in one where I was actually sure she'd said what I thought she said ... oh yeah, and if she had not introduced herself by trying to discuss my dick.

On a completely unrelated note, "What's your earliest childhood memory?" is a good one. Or at least I hope it's completely unrelated. I pity the fool whose first conscious recollection is getting clipped.
posted by eritain at 10:01 PM on March 30, 2006

i think i'd start with the basics, "where are you going" and "where are you coming from." some will be quite boring, "home," "work," etc. and then the interestingness will depend on your follow-up questions. "do you like it there?" "which place would you rather be?" "how did you wind up working (living) there," etc.

or how about this: "what's the strangest thing you've ever experienced on a bus?" "where's the strangest place you've ever gone on a bus?"

here's one put to me by an ex-boyfriend, and it was very thought-provoking. you ask a white man, "who do you have more in common with, a black man or a white woman?" you would ask a black woman, "who do you have more in common with, a white woman or a black man?" etc. for some people it will be obvious, and they'll tell you why.
for others they might not be sure and might do a lot of cool thinking out loud.

here's one: "what's your favorite joke to tell, would you tell it to me now?"

how about this: "if you could (magically) change one thing about your life, what would it be? and why?" you'll get a lot of "more money" answers, and for those i'd ask for a second choice.

i'm rambling a bit, it's late. good luck with your project!
posted by lisaj32 at 10:54 PM on March 30, 2006

Since presumably Arruns you have nothing better to do, I would ask what went wrong with your life that you want to show your ass in a public forum.

It could be worse, I could be interviewing strangers on a bus. To clarify though, I ride the bus everyday, but in NZ it is accepted and common to ride the bus. By and large in the United States however, it is viewed as solely for the disenfranchised or the ecologically-minded during winter. Even in places where mass transit is welcome (such as subways, L, monorail, etc.), buses are at the bottom of the list. The prior phrasing of the question was meant to be vaguely humorous but the question of "why do you ride the bus instead of some other form of transit?" might be more amicable.
posted by arruns at 2:18 AM on March 31, 2006

Gack! Corrected link..
posted by provolot at 4:55 AM on March 31, 2006

By and large in the United States however, it is viewed as solely for the disenfranchised or the ecologically-minded during winter

That's really just not true at all. You see all kinds of people on the bus in a major city where driving and parking is a pain in the ass.
posted by Hildago at 9:25 AM on April 2, 2006

arruns statement about 'the disenfranchised' can be true or not, depending on the city. In Los Angeles, it's true. If you live in L.A. and you are middle class (and often if you're working class), you have a car. The busses are gross and they don't run frequently enough or stop in enough places to make them appealing for anyone who can afford not to take them. However, it's important to understand that Los Angeles as most people think about it isn't really a city in the conventional sense. It's a sprawl. Getting anywhere takes 30 minutes (in a car). If you have to ride the bus, you're inconvenienced hugely.

In New York, on the other hand, a metro card is worth the same amount on a bus that it is on the subway. The busses are clean, frequent, and they stop on almost every block in Manhattan. They're also slow relative to the subway, or to a taxi, but if you have trouble with stairs or simply prefer to see actual scenery out the window instead of tunnel walls, it has some appeal.

In Seattle, the bus system is popular and can take you almost anywhere in the city, and there's no shame in riding it. But there's also plenty of parking and the traffic isn't awful (except on the floating bridges, and some other places, during rush hour). Then too, there is a lot of pedestrianism, and that makes a bus-friendly population. There's certainly no stigma against riding the bus in Seattle, especially since it's an epicenter of left-wing activism (if you don't have a car, you're not hurting the environment as much, etc.).
posted by bingo at 11:32 AM on April 3, 2006

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