A conversation with conversationalist Martha Teichner

Martha Teichner

Martha Teichner knows how to carry a conversation. Over the course of a 40-year career, the CBS News Sunday Morning correspondent has won seven Emmys for broadcasting and has interviewed subjects from South Africa to Bosnia to Baghdad.

For the last 18 years, Teichner has been hosting “Conversations With,” a series of free public interviews with some of Spoleto's most influential artists. On Thursday, she will sit down with monologist Mike Daisey following the 8 p.m. premiere of his monologue “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” at the Emmett Robinson Theatre.

Wednesday afternoon, following her interview with cellist Alisa Weilerstein, Teichner sat down with The Post & Courier for a conversational role reversal.

Q: How long have you been coming to Spoleto?

A: I first came in 1978, which was the second year. And then I kept gravitating back — I've been to all but three of them. This is the 18th year I've done the “Conversations With” series.

Q: Your education isn't in the arts, but you clearly know your stuff when talking to these artists. How do you stay so well versed?

A: I love the things these people do but I also do a lot of studying — I have to do my homework on these artists. I try to meet as many artists as possible beforehand to pick their brains and see how they talk. I like to take them out to meals. It's always easier to talk to somebody who you've had dinner with.

Q: So how do you prepare for the interviews?

A: An interview doesn't happen entirely by itself. I make a mental outline of what I want to talk about, but I never write down questions. It's better to be spontaneous. Every now and then I get something that completely surprises me.

Q: How do you get someone to open up and feel comfortable with you?

A: I don't really know. Partly, it's developing a rapport in advance so they have a sense that you're not the enemy. The difference between a conversation like this and, for example, the kind of interview I might do with a hard news subject for CBS is I'm trying to elicit as much information as I can. I'm not trying to be adversarial because I don't need to be.

Q: Artists are typically very thoughtful people. Does that make them better interview subjects?

A: There are some who are easy to talk to and some who aren't. Talking to Jack Hitt was really easy. It was less of an interview and more of a conversation. Most people had seen his show and knew what it was about, so we could bounce ideas back and forth as opposed to me asking, “Where did you grow up?”

Q: What's been the most memorable moment so far in the series?

The interview with Motoi Yamamoto. It was difficult because he doesn't speak much English, so we had to communicate through a translator. But it worth the wait. He got to the heart of his work — which is about memory and mourning — in a very elegant poetic way. It was profound.

Q: When you're going to performances, you're ultimately working. Are you still able to enjoy them?

A: Oh yeah. In fact, having to do the conversations makes the performances more meaningful because I have to think about them harder. I can't just sit in my chair and let them wash over me. That's one of the reasons I do the conversations; everything I see becomes more meaningful when there's a conversation attached.

Q: When you talk to Mike Daisey will you bring up the recent controversy surrounding his play?

A: Of course. You have to. You want to go over what's happened and how he feels now and how he felt then.

Q: What's the worst interview you've ever done?

A: Anywhere or just here? Q: Anywhere.

A: Well one of the ones I did at Spoleto a few years ago is up there with the worst ever. It was Abbey Lincoln. Her flight was late and Michael Grofsorean (the festival's jazz producer) picked her up at the airport to get her to the interview. She insisted on going to the hotel first. Meanwhile there are close to 200 people in the recital hall waiting to hear from her and I keep going out onstage to say, “She's coming!”

When she finally showed up she ... clearly was completely out of it. I would ask questions and her answers bore no relation to my questions at all.

Q: How do you handle that? A: You just keep at it. Finally I asked her what she would still like to do, musically. She said, “I would like to see God.” I sat there and I thought, “OK, I think we should end here.” And we did. It was, on the one hand, completely off the wall, and, on the other, it was completely profound. That was probably the most difficult interview I've ever done for “Conversations,” but it may be right up there in the top one or two in my career.

Q: So do you consider yourself a performer when you're onstage? Do you have to put on an act in a situation like that?

A: Of course, because of the audience. You're always a performer when you're doing an interview because you have to figure out how to use yourself as a vehicle to get at the person. Sometimes it's body language, sometimes it's posture, and sometimes it's how you ask a question. All of those things come into play when trying to elicit information because people are reacting to you at all times. Sometimes you wear a poker face and sometimes you enjoy it. I thoroughly enjoy the conversations, just as if I'm a member of the audience.

Chris Baker is a Newhouse School graduate student.