It looks a bit like an old-fashioned photo booth: A plain wooden box with a curtain across the entrance and inside, a seat with a swatch of velvet behind it to create a background and a glass window behind which sits a camera. The sign outside says, "Tell us what you're thinking."
And people do. Boy, do they.
Seattle public television producer Peggy Case compares the box (called simply, "The Box") to a modern-day confessional. "We never get to see people alone," says Case, "especially in the media. People are directed; they're made into sound bites. But inside the box, it's like just meeting someone. They're careful and pleasant and not too revealing at first but as time goes on, they begin to embrace the camera and relate more of their hopes and dreams and the darkest parts of their history."
Unlike the video boxes that originated at City TV in Canada and are now being used at some commercial stations in the U.S., The Box does not ask opinions. It seeks self-reflection. (See spotlight "Video Boxes")
All alone inside, visitors are prompted with a very general question that invites a very personal response. "What is your first memory," for example, or "What are you afraid of?"
"What we've observed is that no matter what the age group or economic class," Case says, "after a brief period of time, self-consciousness fades away and people begin to speak freely. The point is to get people to digress."
The resulting monologues are often startlingly intimate. A young woman responding to a general question about love begins with a general answer, "When you're in love with someone, it doesn't matter what they do to you. Just knowing they're alive is good."
But as the unseen camera remains fixed on her, she continues: "I was in love. (Pause.) I still am. (Pause.) We almost got married. (Pause.) We're not together now. But I still love him. (Pause) Here I am, a peep show girl, talking about love."
Exploring people's inner worlds is only part of Case's goal in deploying The Box. She also wants to challenge the preconceptions of viewers. So she takes The Box to locations with distinct personalities about which viewers are likely to have already formed opinions.
The "peep show girl" who talked about love, for example, was a stripper at a bar called "The Lusty Lady," where The Box sat for a day. Case took The Box to a Catholic girls' school, a female juvenile offenders detention center, a hospice and five other distinctive locations in Seattle.
Crews shot documentary style footage outside The Box and that is integrated into the video captured inside The Box for a half-hour TV series.
Earlier this year, Case took The Box to a series of intriguing locations across the United States to make brief drop-in segments for public television stations participating in the Outreach Alliance project on diversity. The Box went to a senior center in St. Louis, Grand Central station for the morning rush, the Special Olympics, an Indian reservation and a Texas rodeo, among other spots. Case says she was most fascinated by video gathered at Gallaudet, a University for the deaf in Washington, D.C., where visitors signed into the camera.
Next year, for the 2000 elections, Case plans to produce a series of half-hour programs to air nationally on PBS that will explore campaign issues by bringing The Box to locations where people are directly feeling the impact of those issues. For instance, The Box might be taken to a hospital or hospice for a show examining health care.
PBS Major Projects Executive Robert Olive says he has high hopes for the series because he believes it will attract a wider audience than more conventional election coverage. "No other program we offer will be quite as unique as The Box," says Olive, "and perhaps no other has the same potential for engaging and informing audiences not typically attracted to news and public affairs."
Case says the series will take advantage of The Box's ability to elicit deeply personal responses to present issues in a new way -- "with the primary emphasis on the people most intimately involved, not on the opinions of experts summoned to analyze and quantify it."
The Box, says Case, can provide a richer understanding not only of issues but of the human experience. "The desired outcome," she says, "would be a greater awareness of and tolerance for the rich diversity that a democracy requires for its continued existence."