How do you take a radio show – one filled with beloved storytellers and writers whose voices we know but whose faces we rarely see – and turn it into an exciting visual experience? Add aspects that you simply can’t do on radio, like dance, an interactive music experience, animation, and other visual effects. On May 10th, I attended a live taping and screening of This American Life LIVE at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. The auditorium was buzzing with anticipation, and the fact that the show was being broadcast in movie theaters across the US and Canada made it even more thrilling.
I could write pages on all the wonderful aspects of the program, which was hosted by the delightfully charming and occasionally giddy with excitement Ira Glass. Comedian Tig Notaro made the audience roar with laughter, David Sedaris was frightening in clown make-up as he whined (understandably) about waiting in line for coffee, and the band OK Go brought some pleasing tunes to the stage and a musical experiment that relied on a smartphone app. It sort of worked, but was nonetheless fun.
Since this is a blog dedicated to dance, I’d like to highlight the dance contributions to the show. Ira Glass introduced Monica Bill Barnes & Company, a NYC-based group that he recently saw and thought would be a good addition to the show. He was right. In an excerpt from their 2009 work Another Parade, Anna Bass and Monica Bill Barnes mock everyday experiences, like someone lifting weights at the gym or strutting their stuff for attention, to James Brown’s Get Up (I Feel Like Being) a Sex Machine. And although this wasn’t my first time seeing the piece, its humor still resonated.
The other performance, which came as more of a surprise, was from David Rakoff, who is better known for his writing. At the microphone, he talked about how cancer affected his life – and his left arm, which he can no longer use – along with his background in dance. He mentioned walking “across the street” as a college student to take dance classes (referring to the studios at Barnard, across from Columbia). Quite suddenly, he left the microphone and broke into movement. He lunged, arched his back, and had full command of his body. He moved with grace. It was one of the more powerful moments in the show – and one that couldn’t be appreciated on radio.
Thank you, This American Life, for bringing the show to the stage. It was funny, touching, sad, powerful, thoughtful, and downright smart. Please do so again soon.