Interview: Dale Curd and Andrea Syrtash

Everyone has a story. You might not think you have anything all that exciting, meaningful, funny, or thoughtful to say, but you always have those anecdotes in the back of your mind that are part of a shared experience. Quite often telling one of those tidbits will lead to the listener having a question that will lead to another story, or a clarification that expands upon what you were telling. After a while, that anecdote becomes a full story. That’s the nature of doing any interview and it’s also how the best stories often come out, even in daily conversation.

On a sunny January morning, Dale Curd and Andrea Syrtash are making the rounds in Toronto promoting the aptly titled Life Story Project – showing on OWN Wednesday nights at 9:00pm – and sharing their own experiences about the new series that shows both hosts in different locations with nothing more than a couch and a microphone to ask people to tell their stories on simple, everyday, relatable topics that often blossom into heartfelt, funny, or enthralling stories often told by people who don’t think they have very much to say until they’re asked.

Curd, a trained counsellor, and Syrtash, a dating and relationship expert, sat down with us to talk about the show, the challenges of getting people to talk, what makes the simplest ideas the easiest, and how their work on the show has affected their careers as a whole.

This is a show that’s so simple – and this isn’t a slight – that I think a lot of people could have unconsciously come up with it at some point. Even when I look at my life and think that it would make a great TV show, I realize that I have more great anecdotes than I have a life that has a fully functional plot that people could follow on a weekly basis. There’s really only two ways to go with something like what you guys are doing. There’s something like Seinfeld and there’s this. Do you think that’s something that makes it a tougher sell sometimes because the concept really is that simple?

Dale Curd: I think the show is extremely relatable and what most people don’t appreciate about their lives is that their lives are relatable to other people. In terms of what you’re talking about which is a storyline, we don’t think our life is interesting to another person in that respect, but because our life is full of interesting moments that are essentially around big themes – which is something the show anchors itself on; these big themes that are sometimes contrasting like love and regret or fear and change. We all have stories and moments that fit into that which are actually quite relatable to another human being.

Andrea Syrtash: A lot of people we spoke with gave us both reaction. “Oh, I’ve got nothing to say” or “I don’t have any good stories” or “My life’s not that interesting”, and some of those were the best stories because once you ask the right questions a lot comes out. And then some people would say “Oh, I have so many stories for you”, and those would be so rehearsed, because we all walk around with our best stories. What was cool about the show was that we often led them down a different path and we would invite them to tell different versions of a story they had told for years and maybe look at it from a different perspective, so that was really cool.

And you guys don’t even have to ask these hugely leading questions to get a great story because there are always these phrases that I think if you bring them up to someone immediately they will have a story that can go along with that if they realize it or not. Did you guys take a step back and think about how you were going to phrase and frame each interview?

DC: We had questions that were guidelines around each show. Each day Andrea and I would have a set of question cards that once we started a conversation with someone we could turn to. For instance, if someone had a story and we’re talking about something that we thought was kind of rehearsed or that they had told a thousand people before we had guide questions that would help us to see if we could take the story in a slight different direction. Like if they hadn’t thought about a specific perspective on that story that they hadn’t thought about before. Sometimes, though, and most often it was just in the moment.

AS: It was. It was usually a really spontaneous show. And of course what you see on screen is a few minutes of a much longer interview, so what you see where we just ask a simple question and all the emotion comes pouring out might have been a situation where we had been sitting with them for about twenty minutes at that point and asking all kinds of questions to lead to that moment.

And as an interviewer I know it’s hard to get anyone to ever get to that point in a limited amount of time. Did you think your subjects were sometimes willing to put in that time to get to that point or was that one of the bigger struggles?

AS: Well, a lot of it comes from the fact that so few people ask them these meaningful questions that in the time it does take to make them want to stay with us, we found that they were kind of excited and relieved to be able to tell their story in its entirety and share their feelings in a deep way because so few conversations are like that. I think that if they thought at first that they wouldn’t go there, they were happy once they were actually able to go there.

DC: I’m thinking of a woman that I talked to in a park and she had just been watching us most of the day while we filmed. It was kind of at the end of the day, and I just walked over and asked her “Hey, would you like to come over and sit on this couch because you’ve been watching us all day.” And she said “Well, I don’t really have anything to talk about.” I said I was talking to people about falling in love and she said [looking surprised] “Oh… okay.” Then she comes over and the question I asked her kind of related to falling in love and I asked her if she had ever cheated on anybody, and her face just dropped some more, and she said “I haven’t, but I just had this happen to me just this moment and that’s why I’m sitting here in the park.” A lot of those moments are things where both Andrea and I kind of stumble upon a story or a moment that somebody was having.

AS: Some people even came back to me. At first they rejected me… and we got rejected on this show…

DC: A LOT…

I can imagine and that was one of the things I was going to bring up later, which was how often rejection happened. I can assume that since you were always in public places like the park or in front of Toronto City Hall, or if you did it in any major city you would have to weather a lot of that.

AS: (laughs) You know, it does happen quite a bit, but you never take it personally and the ratio is probably a little better than you would think. But a few people did come back later and say that they thought about it and that they did in fact have a story. So some people’s first response, and kind of naturally, is that they don’t want to be on camera and they don’t want to reveal this right away, but they get intrigued and sometimes they come back.

DC: And it was another thing where it depended on the location, like if we were in parks or the beach or a square, the people who would say no initially would kind of hang around for a while and try to figure out what’s going on. More often than not they would loop around and say “Yeah, I actually do have something that I want to say” about whatever particular topic, and that was pretty cool.

But in terms of the rejection, for every episode we spent a good deal of our shoot time doing what we call “hunting and pecking.” Which is just us going out into the streets around the location, and I would say that overall my average was about a little less than 50%. What was yours?

AS: (laughs) I would say it was about 5 to 1. A few people, we should note had written into the network saying that they had a story to tell. That was the minority and not most people. With those people, Dale and I weren’t really prepped on them at all, so that was still spontaneous and in the moment. But we did that, and the network did that just so we could be sure that we actually had something. (laughs)

Because you can never be sure how well something like this will go right off the bat.

DC: Exactly, and the way the producers handled that was really great, to their credit. They would bring us somebody and we’d be doing a sort of pre-scheduled interview kind of like what we’re doing here, and they would just say to us this person’s name and that it was who we were going to be talking to next, but they never told us anything about what they would have to say. Our job in the first part of the interview process was the same as with anyone else, which was just getting to know them and asking some questions. It was in that same vein where it was all about asking the right questions or asking things that hadn’t been asked before. Then we get to a story.

One of the things that’s always fascinating to me both within this show and in life in general is that you can never tell when you come up to someone or when you start talking to a stranger just by looking at them what kind of story they are going to have or what their life has been like. Have there been any moments when you sit down with someone and you have no idea what you are about to get or you’re shocked by what you ultimately hear?

AS: Absolutely, and that’s a really good point you’re making because we do typecast people. We see someone with a bunch of tattoos and think one thing about them and assume things. There have been a number of times where I see someone that might be shy or reserved and they end up having the wildest stories. It made me look and everything and everybody differently, and after we shot this summer I started finding myself out at like the Eaton Centre, just looking at someone and wondering “Ooooooh. What’s up with you?” (laughs) You just realize that we have no idea how someone looks or acts what they are going through. We just don’t.

DC: I said to Andrea while we were shooting early in the summer through May, June, and parts of July last year that I was starting to see people as if they have these cartoon bubbles above their heads and they’ve got these stories and I’m really curious about what those are. It really shifted my perspective on people.

I had a guy that I literally chased down the boardwalk at Sunnyside, and I was trying to get his attention, and he came and he sat down and he had just come form a run, and he was full on sweaty; the whole bit and in his workout gear. Then he told me this amazing story about having an affair on his wife, and then how he was getting ready to move in with this new person, and how he had this “Eureka” moment on a flight back from Europe when the only thing he found himself looking at was this footage on his camera, and it just happened to be footage of his wife, and there was no other devices he could look at on this flight. He was actually flying back FROM Europe to leave his wife, and he had this moment when he wondered “What am I doing?” And this totally floored me. I had no idea that’s what this guy was going to tell me.

AS: I never had any idea what people were going to tell me.

Everyone does have that story, and I’m sure you guys do, as well. You guys are both known as counsellors as part of your day jobs where you have to be impartial, but when you sit down and you listen to these stories and you hear this degree of relatability to you feel you have to stop yourselves sometimes from chiming in with how much you can relate to something you’re hearing?

AS: Well, that’s how we connect with people everyday, right? We find those threads that we share and that creates a different relationship. I interviewed a woman who survived the earthquake in Haiti, and I had gone through the Chilean earthquake a couple of years that was an 8.8 in magnitude. It was something where I just wanted to say how scary it was being in one of those, but I had to stop myself. (laughs) But that would be MY story. (laughs)

DC: I had many moments where I’m listening to someone’s story and all I can be thinking about is “Man, I’ve been through that moment. I know what that feels like. Exactly.” The other interesting thing, though, is hearing people who have made a different choice. The same kind of moment, but they made a different choice than the one I made or the one I would have made, and then hearing how that played out for them.

AS: Or even hearing a different perspective of the same experience as us, but they looked at it so differently. There’s this one great beat in an episode coming up where a woman says to me “People say live with no regrets, and that’s BS.” And then in that same hour I interviewed someone else with such a different perspective on regret. So we all carry different perspectives, and not just different experiences.

In terms of when you guys where you set up where you’re going to be, do you find there are different places that are going to be better served for different stories?

DC: Oh, wow, that’s a great question.

AS: Yeah, it is.

Because I imagine if you’re out at the beach or you’re out at City Hall, you’ll get two different… not necessarily stories, but different kinds of people at different moments in their lives who could have different ways of telling a story.

DC: That’s interesting, and it’s great because I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of locations. I think the days of the week definitely made a difference. When we shot on a Saturday or a Sunday in a location like the beach or in a park, it was my experience that people tended to be a lot more reflective, a lot more laid back, than they would be on a Monday to Friday shoot in the middle of a busy intersection. That seemed to be true. I didn’t really notice anything really with regard to specific locations and certain types of people.

AS: What was interesting for me on the couch, and I don’t know if you experienced this, Dale, but for me the background kind of faded away. When we’re on the couch it was as if I was suspended in this other kind of reality. I forgot about the cameras, and the passerbys and the people who would just kind of come by and sit down on them and not realize we were filming and episode. (laughs) But for the most part, we also forgot about the locations because you become so immersed and it so intimate.

Well, that’s because it becomes a set and not really a location shoot anymore if you conduct it in the right way.

DC: It’s a very intimate world, too, because the cameras are shooting so far back from where we are. They’re anywhere between thirty to fifty feet back from us and we’re set up with lav mics, both Andrea or myself and the guest, so within the space of two minutes the guests forget that they’re often even on camera. It literally is like having a conversation in a living room, but the living room just happens to be in the middle of a public place. And Andrea’s right, because there was this kind of bubble that happened in the most public of places. Like in the Distillery at around four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon at the height of wedding season. There’s weddings going on all around us, and yet, we’re able to still have this conversation with people.

AS: It kind of reminds me of being on an airplane. There are people everywhere and all around you, but you’re in a bubble with the person next to you and you kind of block out everybody else.

DC: That’s a really great analogy.

AS: It’s a really similar feeling on the couch.

DC: That’s true!

I never really thought about it like that. Next time you should do nothing but interviews on planes where people can’t leave!

AS: (laughs, joking) Second season!

Of the questions that you asked and the episodes that you shot, what was the hardest topic to really get people to open up the most about and people seemed the most guarded towards?

AS: I definitely have an answer for this one, and this was something that Dale and I were just discussing the other day, but for me it was jealousy. Jealousy comes with a lot of shame to them, and we found that almost all of the stories that we got about jealousy were about OTHER PEOPLE’S jealousy and not about personal moments of envy. We were trying to get there and very few people wanted to get there, and it’s such a basic human emotion. Of course you’re going to be envious of other people, but that was the one that stuck out to me the most. What do you think?

DC: Oh, I agree with you entirely. Jealous and envy are things that very few people want to open up about and talk about experiencing. More often they wanted to talk about other people being envious of them, which is really interesting if you think about it.

But for me other that that it was close between first, lasts, and moments of truth, but it was mostly lasts. People didn’t want to really talk about lasts, like what the last time they experienced true love or last saw a particular person or thing. They didn’t want to think of these moments as if they were the last times. They didn’t want to think about the last time they said goodbye or the last time they had regret or whatever the question was. Firsts was no problem and moments of truth were things where they could frame that, but lasts were very difficult.

AS: Also, secrets and lies. One of our episodes coming up deals with that, and of course no one is immediately going to go for “Hey! You’re on national television! Tell us your biggest secret!” (laughs) It’s not Jerry Springer and like “Hey, tell everyone that huge lie you told!” But eventually people did warm up to telling some pretty amazing secrets.

I can see the secrets and lies thing, because no one would want to admit that, but the jealousy part probably stems from people having nothing to gain from admitting to it. It’s such a basic emotion, but a dirty one that can almost be as shameful. It might be the hardest thing to admit.

DC: I think it is.

You’re afraid that not only do you not gain any catharsis by admitting to it, but that you also might make it worse by talking about it. Even with a secret or a lie that could be like ripping off a Band-Aid.

DC: That’s an interesting thing and we’re just really in the moment right here, but I think the interesting aspect of jealousy and envy is that it’s such a very deeply personally though or felt feeling or emotion. It’s not something we would normally share with anyone unless we were in a really intimate relationship with them, and then even then we might still just say it about someone else. “I’m really jealous of this person” is something you really only say outright to a really intimate partner of some kind, but it’s something that we always carry with us inside our heads because it’s how we hold ourselves relative to other people in the world.

AS: We don’t even admit it to ourselves sometimes.

DC: Oh, yeah, I agree.

AS: It’s such an ugly feeling, because if you’re jealous of say, a friend, you end up feeling so disloyal.

You don’t want to realize that you’re actually jealous of someone.

DC: Totally. I think that’s part of what makes it so difficult to talk about is because it’s a very personally felt emotion with a lot of negatives associated with it.

And when it comes to lasts, I know personally I would have a problem talking about those sorts of things myself because it’s most likely something that you are still second guessing and that you probably haven’t had time to fully process. I know I have lasts that I still can’t really wrap my head around if they are just brought up. If a relationship ends or someone close to you passes away, it’s something that you’re definitely thinking about, but you can’t properly frame it or contextualize it sometimes like a first kiss or the first time something tragic happened in your life. How exactly do you approach something like that and do you ever get the sense when you ask someone about their lasts that they’re actively trying to still make sense of it?

DC: Again, what I found interesting, was that there were some people who got what I was asking and the direction that I was coming from. But this is an extremely reflective question, and some people would be willing to go down that road and be reflective, but others really just had a difficult time understanding the concept of lasts. I think a big part of that is – and not to generalize – but I’m not sure how much we all spend in general just reflecting. I think we’re accumulating new moments all the time – new moments, fresh moments – and I’m not sure how many times we actually sit down and spend time reflecting on moments that have happened in the past unless it’s – to your point – really big moments.

Do you guys have a favourite topic or subject that has been brought up on the show yet?

AS: It’s hard. I really love every episode and theme, but I also write about love for a living so I would say that I was extremely drawn to the episodes that centred around love and broken hearts and regret. There’s nothing more important to us in life than our relationships, so in everything that we did and talked about relationships would always come up, but with talking about actual love, the stakes are so high and there’s so much vulnerability. There was also a lot of really funny stories that came out of that, which was great. How about you?

DC: I’m really interested in the moments that have defined a person, and that’s such an interesting thing because of how the moment has shaped them or how they identify with the moment and how they made a person who they are. Someone might say that they are this kind of person because of this moment in my life, and another person might have a similarly life changing moment of the same magnitude – let’s say they’re abandoned by a parent or there was a really tragic break-up – and some will say that they aren’t defined by that moment at all. I’m really curious as a counsellor how people take moments into themselves and what they do with them. For me first/lasts was a really cool episode to shoot because it gave me a way to see these kinds of moments and how they happen to us all the time.

With the other work that you guys do on top of this, did you learn new things that you hadn’t learned or thought of before? You’re already pretty well known in your respective fields and you come to a show like this and you’re asking all of these questions to different people you never knew you would ever be in contact with, did you learn anything about yourselves and your jobs in the process?

AS: Absolutely. Yeah. Because compassion, empathy, and patience are a huge part of having people on the couch on the show. When I do relationship counselling or as a journalist I’ve interviewed and spent a lot of time with those people before getting to the intimate moment. This way, it kind of refined my interviewing style kind of, and it just taught me… I don’t know. I fell like I’m a lot more empathetic after working on this show. I mean, I hope I was before (laughs), but this show definitely opened my eyes to what people everywhere are going through.

DC: And for me the same. I think as a counsellor the people who come to see me are in a relatively small subset of the population, and people sometimes haven’t said that they have a problem, or an issue, or a thought that they want to address. That’s why it’s kind of a subset of the population, and the interesting part of this show is how much relatability there was out there and how many people had certain events happen to them, and how many people have questioned their work, or questioned whether something they had done had made them any less lovable. It was like doing a lot of field research, but it was a lot of really personal field research. It was like “Wow, this is something that’s felt by almost everybody.” It’s one thing to think you know it and to say it or to read it as a sentence in a book, but it’s another thing to talk to people. Each of us talked to a couple of hundred people and neither of us ever interviewed the same people twice or even on the same day.

AS: We may have spoken to about 18-20 people in a day.

DC: It’s almost like doing personal field research with a few hundred people and realizing that the population as a whole feels these kinds of things all the time, and it really informed me and what I do.

I started working on an anti-bullying campaign right around the same time that we were shooting, and it’s a program that’s based around stories about bullying, because there are these different roles in bullying. There’s the victim, the bully, the bystander, and something known as the upstander, and all four of those sort of relative parts all have stories related to them, so we’re launching this program now that’s based on the conversations that I had talking to people. Everyone can relate to some aspect of a story when it comes to bullying, and that was something that I definitely got from this show.

It seems like when you’re on one specific topic all day or for several days you would definitely start to see certain trends emerge. Was that something that was surprising for you guys to note that you might not have seen before? That seems like the easiest way for the show to come together overall would be to recognize these trends.

DC: I think it was one thing to know it going in – like knowing about something like jealousy and how everyone has it and experiences it – it was another thing to hear it through your own hears and see it with your own eyes from another person. It’s almost like feeling it and not so much like knowing it.

AS: I think that’s very true. Jealousy was paired with gratitude, right?

DC: Yes.

AS: Gratitude really surprised me when we were on the couch. I know we all have grateful moments, but that topic made more people cry and have more emotional moments than almost any other topic, and I expected it to be a much lighter topic. I thought, “Hey, gratitude would be really fun and upbeat,” and those stories moved people and moved me far more than I think any of us would have expected.

DC: Yeah, which was interesting because gratitude became even bigger and more well felt than thankful, which I also thought going in would be similar, but thankful was a lot more surface-y and with minimal depth, but people took to these big gratitudes with all their hearts. They got very emotional.

And it’s not necessarily in a sad way because it’s often a happiness that’s so deep and something that came when someone absolutely needed it the most.

DC: I think people in terms of gratitude were just grateful to have the space to be listened to. We get this question a lot in terms of people talking about the show, which is how we get people to open up, and there wasn’t any specific technique or interview tactic that we used. It was just giving them the space to be listened to.

I think that’s why I didn’t really ask that question. Maybe it’s because I’m an interviewer as well, but I think it should always be something natural, like if you talk to someone just like a person they will respond in kind.

DC: But you didn’t ask that question because on a certain level you must really get that. What’s interesting is that we get asked that question a lot and it somehow doesn’t occur to other people that this could be the key to having people open up.

AS: Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People back in the 1930s gave that very tip. It was something along the lines of how you shouldn’t worry about impressing people and letting other people impress you and that’s how you make a connection. That’s the way to do it.

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