Review: Three dozens questions to intimacy

What do you get if you mix two complete strangers, 36 questions and four minutes of unbroken eye contact?

36 Questions
August First Productions
Simon Ward / Arthur Aron
March 15-19, Basement Studio, Auckland

What do you get if you mix two complete strangers, 36 questions and four minutes of unbroken eye contact? According to psychologist Arthur Aron’s study on interpersonal closeness – intimacy.

Originally set over a 45-minute period and using predetermined pairings, participants carry out reciprocal self-disclosure and relationship-building tasks using questions designed by Mr Aron that gradually escalate in intensity.

As opposed to small talk when strangers meet, the typical peripheral questions such “What do you do for a living?” were unsurprisingly absent. Rather they began with the wide sweeping but still informative question: “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” By question 35, however, they were much more exposing, “Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?”

Mr Aron’s questions are an accelerated ride into a person’s private and public views with the hope of creating intimacy that could eventually lead to love.

With this in mind, Simon Ward and August First Productions set out to recreate Mr Aron’s experiment, only this time he added an audience.

“Part show, part social experiment,” as the ticket promises, the idea of two strangers, 36 questions and no rehearsals prompted just as many questions in my mind as the show’s title. Thankfully any fears of feeling like an awkward third wheel to a speed-dating event were allayed.

On entering, the studio was small with a capacity of 65. The stage was simply set: two brilliant-red chairs, a matching table that was noticeably small – presumably to create just enough, but not too much, distance between the participants. The audience and stage were divided by a large sheet of Perspex that hung from the ceiling – a clever device that acted as a window for onlookers but more importantly, a mirror that (almost) blocked out the audience for the brave participants.

Everything, from size to the colour of the props – red symbolising love – through to the divider and even the hand-written questions on cue-cards, seemed conducive to creating a sense of intimacy and ease.

When the pair of strangers were introduced, they emerged not from side doors but from the audience. Immediately, the crowed cheered as they took their seats and a sense of connection between us and them formed.

At first, the participants spoke loudly and intentionally into the mics stationed by their side. But over time and a few laughs to stave off nerves, words became less audible in what became a more personal, rather than a three-way, conversation.

The first set of 12 questions probed each other on possible quirks or world views. These gradually merged into the next set of 12 that covered family and childhood. By the last set, which began with making three true ‘we’ statements such as, “We are both in this room feeling …” the pair seemed more relaxed, even venturing off ‘script’ to ask follow up questions.

Meanwhile, although it sometimes felt a little like eavesdropping, the audience laughed alongside the participants, engrossed with every disclosure of memory, wish or personality trait.

Still, one has to wonder, does the experiment produce real closeness? Mr Aron says, “Yes and no.” He thinks that the closeness produced is similar in many ways to feeling closeness in naturally occurring relationships that develop over time. But that it also seems unlikely the procedure produces loyalty, dependence, commitment or other relationship aspects that might take longer to develop.

In saying this, Simon Ward created a fantastic experience out of Mr Aron’s study. It was the perfect mix between intimacy and entertainment where nobody – not the participants, the audience and even Mr Ward himself I suspect – would know how it would turn out. Nor even how long, or short, it would be. After an hour and a half, that concluded with four minutes of staring into each other’s eyes without speaking or moving, it was interesting to note the participants’ body language mirrored each other at last, hands crossed on their laps, feet flat on the floor.

By the end, the beeper as well as the lights and music shook everyone out of their trance, and without hesitation everyone applauded.

Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.

List of the 36 Questions:

Set I

1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?

3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?

4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?

6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?

7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?

8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.

9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.

12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

Set II

13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?

14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

16. What do you value most in a friendship?

17. What is your most treasured memory?

18. What is your most terrible memory?

19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?

20. What does friendship mean to you?

21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?

22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.

23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?

24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?


25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling ...”

26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share ...”

27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.

28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.

29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.

30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?

31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.

32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?

33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?

34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?

35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?

36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.