August 10, 2012

This American Life, live and cut short

This American Life is one of my favorite shows. It appears each weekend on Public Radio, but I never much listened to it until I started downloading podcasts a few years ago. Each week, they brings us several stories based (often loosely) on an overarching theme. The storytelling ability of the show's contributors is what really makes it special. They can take seemingly mundane topics, and relate them in such a way that you understand their hidden significance. Some stories are profound, some funny, some remain somewhat mundane, but I am always glad I tuned in.

The show has been on the radio for some fifteen-plus years, and part of the appeal is that it in fact, on the radio. The storytelling becomes more compelling because of the format. They have to describe things in such a way as to capture your imagination and make you "see" it for yourself without the aid of visuals. There was apparently a tv show for two seasons on Showtime a few years ago, but more recently they have done three "live" shows that are broadcasted to movie theaters around the country. Matt and I went to the most recent one back in May.

I didn't know exactly what to expect. The regular show relies so heavily on the spoken word, would we just be watching people speak? Would this add anything to the experience? The theme of the show was "Invisible Made Visible". There were a few presentations that were typical of the regular radio show, but seeing the facial expressions and mannerisms of these people you have heard but never seen, added to their stories. Just being in a theater full of people, instead of alone on a run, also made the laughter come a little easier. Tig Natoro's well-told story of repeated run-ins with 80's pop musician Taylor Dayne was more entertaining by seeing her tell it.

But the show made use of the added video ability and the "live" aspect of the theater. There was an audience participation section with the band OK Go. Theater goers were asked to download a free app to their phones ahead of time. There were four different versions randomly sent to each person's phone. As the band played in Chicago, there was a cascade of colored symbols on the theater screen telling us when to hit our colored keys. The phones produced sounds of hand bells and across the country we all played our own live version of the song. Simple but entertaining.

The opening two segments of the show were about a man who is blind. He travels quite a bit for work, and the first section described how easy it is to get lost in a hotel room. As he described how he walks around the room, feeling his way to a picture in his head, the theater screen showed a drawing of the room he was creating. He could not find the phone, even after several passes, so as strange as it sounded, he assumed there simply wasn't one in the room.

Then the phone rings in the middle of the night, on a table he knew was empty before. When he tried to return to bed after answering the call, and walks straight into a wall, he wonders where exactly he has woken up. It turned out there was an alcove in the room, on the opposite side of the bed, with a matching coffee table (this time with a phone). The drawing of the room made it easy to understand the assumption he had made that the wall simply continued straight to enclose the rectangle of the room, and shed a fraction of understanding what his life without sight is like.

The second section has the author walk out on stage to tell another story. In it he talks about trying to explain blindness to his young daughter. In one moment he is walking across a rural campus, where it is not unusual to see wildlife, bears in particular. He has his daughter on his shoulders, and when she says "Bear", he calmly high tales it in the other direction. When she says it again and again, with increasing tension, he is soon zig-zagging in all directions unsure of the road to safety. It takes him some time to realize she has simple dropped her Teddy Bear. There are other moments of confusion, mistaken identity, and the eventual understanding over a cookie.

The section that most benefited from the theater live show was about the life of a woman, Vivan Maier. She was this solitary, somewhat cantankerous woman who worked as a nanny. She kept her private life hidden from everyone, though she did not welcome many to seek it out. She may have gone largely unnoticed into history if she had been able to pay her storage bills. Her effects were auctioned off, and some pieces found their way into thrift shops. This is where John Maloof discovered her photos. Thousands of them.

The photos are primarily street shots of New York and Chicago, shot in black and white. She seems to capture in these random photos, the stories of the cities and their people. In her photos, the beauty of the everyday comes through. Yet it appears she never showed any of the photos to anyone. This invisible life and talent only came to light after her death, and a fortunate discovery in a thrift shop. As the story of her life was told during the show, several of her photos appeared behind Ira on the movie screen. Although the story about Vivian, and the way her photos came to light was very interesting, it would not have translated nearly as well to the radio. In fact, this segment of the show did not appear in the eventual radio rebroadcast.

Why am I finally telling you about this show some three months later. Because of one of the presenters, David Rakoff. His story was told live, on stage in act three. In it, he describes a recurring dream he has. It is simple, and I suppose expected when you know his story. He had recently had a tumor removed from behind his collar bone, and in the process, nerves were severed. Although this relieved him of the intense pain he had been experiencing for a number of years, it left him unable to use or even feel his arm. In the recurring dream, his limp arm floats up into the air as if buoyed by air and light.

He goes on to talk about his experience and all it has meant to him. For some reason, it is the segment that I remember most vividly from the show. It is mostly him speaking, and it would (and was) translated to radio, but there were parts of it that felt important for you to be there with him while he spoke. Indeed, there is one section toward the end that Ira has to simply describe to the audience. In that section, David dances gracefully across the stage, recalling the fluid movement of his youthful life when he felt less heavy.

David Rakoff passed away last night, ultimately losing his battle with cancer. I had just heard another piece of his on This American Life a week ago. It was a clever bit of writing in the persona of Dr Seuss, but I will always remember him for the performance I was fortunate enough to see three months ago. It was rebroadcast on the radio a few weeks after the live show, and if you would like to hear what we saw, you can find the segment here. Click the small arrow just underneath the photo to begin play.

Update - In honor of Mr. Rakoff, This American Life has now put the video of his performance up on YouTube.

The other acts that made it to the radio, including the blind man in the hotel room and with his daughter, Tig Nataro's Taylor Dane encounters, and the thoughts that run through David Sedaris' head while standing in line waiting for coffee, can be found here. Vivian Maier's story and wonderful photos can be found here.

Rest in peace, David.

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