Radio for the eyes

Ira Glass is nervous. The host of the popular public radio show This American Life is scurrying around, preparing for a live performance featuring acts that could never be on the radio. Dance, video and animation are just not communicable through the airwaves, but Ira Glass dreams big.

This American Life enjoyed success with past live shows in 2008 and 2009, but Glass says this year will be more complicated than anything they have attempted. “Either it's going to be the most amazing thing we've ever put on as a program, or it's going to be a train wreck,” Glass says. “There is no middle ground.”

On Thursday, May 10, This American Life Live will be beamed live to more than 500 movie theaters across the U.S. and Canada, but the magic will happen at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. The production will feature everything from dance by Monica Bill Barnes & Company to a highly anticipated short film by comedian Mike Birbiglia. Audiences from California to Canada will see memoirist David Sedaris and other This American Life regulars perform live on stage. It's a peek behind the curtain of public radio and a chance to see the inner workings of this mysterious medium.

Radio is often an isolated pursuit; many hosts and producers practice their craft in silent rooms, often thousands of miles away from listeners. But a live stage show depends on the immediate response of an enthusiastic crowd. “My favorite thing about getting up in front of an audience is getting energy and laughs,” Glass explains. “On the radio, we put a lot of funny things in the stories, but you put it on the radio and you can't tell if anyone reacts.”

One would think that a live show would allow Ira Glass to stretch out and enjoy the spontaneity of live theater. But Glass says that every act will be carefully choreographed, just like an episode of This American Life. “This will be programmed down to the second, more than any live show that we've done,” says Glass. “Every second counts.”

Glass literally takes sound into his own hands with just two iPods and a mixing board. Intertwining music and disembodied voices live may seem like a parlor trick, but watching Glass create radio in front of the audience's eyes is remarkable. A show like This American Life, which features true stories from everyday people, requires precision. Each clip is placed with care to create tightly crafted narratives. Every minute is considered, down to the very last breath.

So why bring scripted radio out of the studio and onto the stage? Glass says it's all about the crowd. “The advantage of doing it in the theater is that it's exciting for people who are fans of the radio show to get together with other with fans of the same show.”

Public radio enthusiasts have much to look forward to at this year's performance. Monica Bill Barnes & Company will present its innovative dance. The Village Voice describes Barnes as, “one of the wittiest young choreographers around.” Clearly, there will be a lot to see.

But This American Life Live is not just for the eyes. It will also be a feast for the ears. Several guests will use more traditional storytelling techniques, including essayist David Rakoff. His past appearances on This American Life included personal experiments, such as fasting in search of enlightenment and gorging on television to better understand average Americans. His stories are both funny and sad, two elements that are at the heart of the radio show.

The band OK Go, known for its highly original videos, will provide musical accompaniment for the evening. If all goes according to plan, audiences across the country will pull out their smartphones to play a song together, using an app designed specifically for the night's collective performance. A one-night-only band consisting of fans near and far is a risky proposition. “The worst case scenario is some sort of technical failure,” Ira Glass explains. “There are dozens and dozens of little cues that all have to hit perfectly for the show to even make sense.”

There is a lot at stake at the live performance, but This American Life is known for turning months and often years of hard work into stories that can seem deceivingly simple. In spite of Glass' anxiety, this year's live show promises to capture the joyful poignancy that lies at the heart of This American Life.

— Jen Nathan Orris can be reached at jorris@mountainx.com.

what: This American Life LIVE! Things You Can’t Do on the Radio, featuring Ira Glass, David Sedaris, OK Go and more
where: The Carolina Asheville
when: Thursday, May 10 (8 p.m. $20. http://www.carolinacinemas.com/asheville)

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