It requires a unique combination of talents and guts to conduct an engaging, live interview on stage in front of a crowd of 330 people. As a writer, climber and psychologist, Geoff Powter has perhaps the perfect blend of skills and experience to pull it off.
One of my favourite events at the Banff Mountain Book and Film Festival each year is prednisolone chat Voices of Adventure, a live interview between Geoff Powter and a well-known figure from the climbing world. As a writer I know that these interviews can be nerve-wracking, but I usually have the chance to conduct them behind closed doors, in private or over the phone – not in front of a large crowd with high expectations. Yet, despite the added pressure of conducting them live, Powter’s interviews for Voices of Adventures consistently reach a depth that can only come from a well-executed line of questioning and a knowledge of how to get there.
Powter, this year’s recipient of the Summit of Excellence Award, is no stranger to the world of climbing. A climber himself, he has put up more than 50 new routes right here in the Rockies and has participated in 13 expeditions to the Himalayas. A prolific writer, he has won ten National Magazine Awards and written a book about the psychology of adventurers called Strange and Dangerous Dreams: The Fine Line Between Adventure and Madness. In addition to all kinds of public appearances, he steps up to the bat each year at the Banff Mountain Festivals to host Voices of Adventure.
So, what’s it like to be an interviewer in the hot seat with your subject? I caught up with Powter during the festival to find some answers. Call it an interview about an interview.
Preparing for Voices of Adventure
Voices of Adventure was added to the festival roster 14 years ago after Powter himself noticed that the interview format was missing from the schedule. The format was inspired by Inside the Actor’s Studio, a television show that gives the audience a glimpse into the real motivations and lives of famous actors through a live interview with James Lipton. The first “voice of adventure” was American mountaineer, Charlie Houston, and everyone enjoyed it. “It was clear that if Houston had just done a slideshow himself it wouldnt have been the same thing,” Powter remarked.
To prepare for the interviews Powter will usually meet with the subject beforehand, talk to people about him or her, find some great anecdotes, read books, and basically get his hands on anything that will start to piece the story together. He gets to know his subject as best he can. But he doesn’t walk into Voices of Adventure with a line of questioning. He learned that the hard way by over-preparing for his interview with Houston and finding it actually made him more anxious. On that day he threw out his notes before the interview and that’s how he’s done it ever since. The only notes he brings with him are finer details, such as dates, climbs and book titles.
Storytelling in the Moment
Powter deals with being on the ‘hot seat’ during Voices of Adventure by purposely removing himself from it. “My most important job is to step out of the way,” he said. “This isn’t about me; it’s about the subject and the audience.”
This interviewer seems to lean more on his experience as a writer than as a psychologist to make that happen. “It is storytelling in the moment,” Powter explained. There is nothing clinical about it, though his interest in psychology is what ultimately intrigues him about the topics that come up in Voices of Adventure.
It also takes two people to tell the story. The interview subject must do well one-on-one. “It’s all about chemistry,” Powter said, explaining that with Voices of Adventure, two people have to be on the mark to make it an enjoyable experience for the audience.
Each subject presents different challenges, particularly because these interviews are not just about the what and the when, but instead focus on the why. Climbers are notorious for having a dark past (and present), which may explain why they are willing to push their limits to the extent that they do. But this can be tricky to navigate during an interview. Some climbers are quite clear on their personal philosophies and are able to articulate those for an audience. Yet others, such as Steve House – Powter’s youngest subject so far for Voices of Adventure – are still in the process of developing his or her own philosophies, which leaves a lot up to question. This year’s candidate, Stephen Venables, had a very ‘normal’ past. There was nothing dramatic or traumatic that pushed him to climbing, and this gave Powter a whole new slate to work with.
Stepping Out of the Way
With all the different people Powter has interviewed over the 14 years of Voices of Adventure, I was curious to know if any common themes had emerged. Powter’s answer was readily available: “Even people at the extremes are the same as the rest of us,” he responded. “Its all just stories and were all trying to make sense of whats around us.”
And it seems that despite his sense of ease with these interviews, Powter is the same as the rest of us, too. He makes it look easy and does a great job of “stepping out of the way,” yet he acknowledges that Voices of Adventure is a difficult task. “But, I like that,” Powter explained. “It feels like untying from the rope and soloing… and I love that nobody notices that.”
Be sure to catch Voices of Adventure next year at the Banff Mountain Festivals, and download the free Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival podcasts on iTunes (you’ll find a few recordings of the interviews there).