Radio Spectacular Comes To The Big Screen Via This American Life Live!
On May 10 the ultimate “shared experience” will be simulcast in over 550 theaters between the US and Canada as PRI’s award winning show, This American Life (TAL) brings radio to the big screen for the third time! TAL host and executive producer (and public radio rockstar) Ira Glass, serves as ring master for the cinematic event broadcasting live from NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in NYC. The Invisible Made Visible is the theme for this production, starring a veritable “whose who” of the public radio culture!
For starters, there are feature stories from Ira Glass himself, as well as regular contributors David Sedaris and David Rakoff and yet another regular, Mike Birbiglia, throws in a short film into the mix. Also joining these TAL all stars is the host of NPR’s Snap Judgment, Glynn Washington, as well as comic Tig Notaro, author Ryan Knighton (to the delight of Canadian TAL fans) and live music with audience interactive Android / iPhone App performance by the band OK Go. Original animation and projected illustrations will be sprinkled throughout the show plus special surprise guests!
BUT WAIT! There’s MORE! What, you may be asking yourself, would a radio show be without dance? The Monica Bill Barnes & Company of New York is not only featured in this performance, but was the motivation behind bringing This American Life back into the cinema! In a recent interview, Glass recounts how inspired he was while attending a live performance of Monica Bill Barnes & Company for the first time…
“There was something about they way they did their performance that reminded me of our radio show. There was something about the personality of it and the way the dances unfolded. They were just very good actors. The pieces seemed to be about moments of awkwardness and anxiety and the thought flashed in my head.” Glass went on to say that, “Our audience would really be into this, it’s just like our radio show…but it’s entirely visual, maybe we should think about doing another cinema event.”
I asked him how long it took from the actual moment of inspiration to the concrete production of this live show. He was surprisingly specific…
“I saw the dance show (I’m pulling it up on my calendar as we speak) June 4th, 2011, but we didn’t really decide to do it until September.” He cites being in ‘infinite editing mode’ on a Birbiglia film during the Fall of 2011 and preparing for the January 2012 Sundance Film Festival, for putting this live event momentarily on the back burner.
Yet, this moment of inspiration led Glass into a parallel universe to produce The Invisible Made Visible. For the better part of the last year, while continuing to work on the radio show, Glass found himself in “the weirdest period of my life” approving drafts from Disney animators, attending dance rehearsals, as well as working with the band OK Go in developing an interactive iPhone & Android app. To heighten the shared experience, the vision for the music app is to include 50,000 audience members in a musical performance with OK Go, similar to the bands 2012 interactive music video, Needing/Getting which aired as a Chevrolet commercial during the Superbowl.
“We basically tried to invent things that you could never do on the radio.” – Ira Glass
This production is not the only cinematic venture in the life of Ira Glass. In the summer of 2011 he co-wrote and shot a feature film with humorist and author Mike Birbiglia titled Sleepwalk With Me, which is based on Birbiglia’s This American Life piece of the same name which, in turn, was developed into a book and one man show. In January of this year Sleepwalk With Me received an audience award at Sundance Film Festival and will be go into general release August 24, 2012.
When asked what his thoughts were pertaining to the Invisible Made Visible project, he laughingly said, “I wished for a multi media adventure and I got my wish!”
When I asked Ira if fans could look forward to these cinematic/multimedia events on a regular basis, say every two years or so, he gave an enthusiastic nervous laugh, saying, “I have no idea if we’ll ever do it again! It is such an ambitious sort of undertaking that with all the animations and movies and things like that, it’s either going to be the most AMAZING thing that we have ever put on, or, it’s going to be a complete train wreck! There’s no middle ground! It’s going to be the greatest triumph of the shows history OR we will always look back on this day as the WORST thing that we ever attempted. Nothing in between is possible!” (more nervous laughter) “That is my promise to the audience!”
Judging from the success of the radio show, the brief stint of This American Life on Showtime and the last two cinema events, Glass doesn’t have much to worry about. The financial weight of this, the third, live show is much less daunting than the previous one in 2009. That entire production was funded from the pockets of TAL and was an extreme business risk.
“This time we’re doing it for the purest of reasons. It seemed like it would be fun for the audience and fun for us.” – Ira Glass
Even with the hefty price tag of such a production for a cinematic event like this, the thought of the possible higher revenue from Pay Per View is not as attractive to Glass as one might think. The impetus for taking on such a huge endeavor such as this may be explained by something Glass had been witness to in the past. As a huge fan of Howard Stern, Ira recalled how magical it felt to be in a theater with other fans and the moment of sharing the standing “O” when Stern entered the theater.
“One of the big advantages to doing it in a movie theater is, I know that when we’ve done our show live on stage, it’s exciting for people who are fans of a radio show to get together with a group of people who are fans of the same show.” Glass said.
Glass respects the intelligence of the audience of This American Life, and leaves it up them to discern the difference between journalism and story telling. Briefly touching on the recent controversial Mike Daisey episode, Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory and the following retraction show in March 2012, Glass spoke to issues of fact checking and the responsibility of shows that deliver a mix of off beat news through entertainment.
Pertaining to the pitfalls that can occur with a show such as TAL, Glass said, “Truthfully, I would like to believe that the audience is sophisticated enough that they can tell the difference and that we don’t have to cue them.”
Even in light of his high regard for the audience, technical concerns and complicated timing during this live show is nerve wracking.
“I feel confidence in the material but, it’s a very complicated tech thing to pull off and so I feel very nervous about that.” Glass expounded on that thought by saying, “I feel confident or I wouldn’t be doing a show…but I go into it very, very worried. It’s also the excitement of doing things you’ve never done. Hopefully, with fear comes enjoyment.”
With all the anxiety that comes with producing such an ambitious event, Glass is equally excited about the format. He loves the energy and reaction of a live audience versus being in a sound proof production booth.
“It’s exciting to be on stage in front of people, especially with material that you’re excited to present! Maybe this is a bad thing to say because we have all these people collaborating, but I am most excited about my own part of the show.” Glass went on, saying, “I’m most excited about the parts I get to perform! There’s a story I get to tell at the top of the show and there’s another one in the middle of the show and their both going to be really fun to perform!” Taking on a giddy tone, his inner geek came out while talking about mixing music, quotes and cues live with an iPad. “It’s really fun to do!”
“I feel like we’ve been doing promos on the air and try to express to the audience, ‘No, no! I know I’ve promoted other things but this one is really unusual and special!’ and I don’t know how to wave my arms around enough and say, ‘We’re pulling all the stops out here! Even stops we didn’t know existed!’” Glass added, “I want to communicate to the audience, ‘We’re not kidding this time! You’re not going to want to miss this one!’ The stuff we’re making for the show is so exciting! The animation and the movie that Mike Birbiglia did…they’re so exciting that it’s really hard not to just show (it to) those to people and say, ‘See what we’re talking about?!?’…but then we don’t want to spoil it.”
Dayton, Ohio witnessed this “live” mix in the flesh last May (2011) when Ira performed his solo act at Victoria Theater, in support of WYSO. I was fortunate enough to be in the first class of WYSO’s Community Voices as a producer training. Ira conducted our last class the afternoon before his show. He had a lot of great stories and practical advice. One thing that stands out with me even today was his advice on finding stories, which was pretty simple actually: “Do stories on things that amuse you.”
This American Life has always had its finger on the pulse of what amuses people. Whether it’s tragic or comical, it draws us in. They have done what radio of the past has done; given a shared experience using only sound. This live show is the rare event to bring us the sight that goes with it.
Things you should know before attending the show:
~ Dayton showings are at Regal Hollywood 20 at Fairfield Commons in Beavercreek, Dayton South 16 (near Dayton Mall), and Huber Heights 16. Tickets are $20.00 and can be purchased in advance here: http://www.fathomevents.com/originals/event/thisamericanlife2012.aspx
~ If you have an iPhone or Android and would like to participate in the live interactive “OK Go” performance, (imagine being encouraged to loudly use your phone in a theater), you need to get the App before going to the theater. Cell phone reception is poor in theaters for a reason, so don’t wait to download your App in the theater. You can get it via iTunes or the App store or for easier linkage, go here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/blog/2012/04/download-the-live-show-app