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This American Life, Live

By Jennie McKeon

Since 1995, “This American Life” has shared stories – some of them painful, some of them painfully funny, to listeners of WBEZ Chicago. In early 1996, the weekly radio show went national and currently distributed by Public Radio International, and it’s only gotten more popular with time. According to the show’s website, 1.7 million people listen in every week. “This American Life” was translated to a TV show for two seasons on Showtime and is the most popular podcast in the country.

In 2009, “This American Life” did a live show, not because it was the only medium they hadn’t tried, but because they needed money.

“There was a budget shortfall and we had to make a little bit of money,” said Executive Producer Ira Glass.

The show streamed to 430 theatres with a live audience of 50,000. Before the show could make any money, it had to spend a lot to produce such a motivated adventure. The gamble paid off.

“All that was on us before we could see a dollar back,” Glass said.

This year, the live show will be performed on stage at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York City and streamed to more than 500 theatres in the United States and Canada. The live show will feature stories by Glass and writers David Sedaris and David Rakoff, comic Tig Notaro and “Snap Judgment” host, Glynn Washington. There will also be live music by OK Go a short film by Mike Birbiglia and a dance performance by Monica Bill Barnes & Company, which inspired the idea for the 2012 show.

“I saw this amazing dance performance by Monica Bill Barnes’ company, and I thought ‘That is totally in the style of our radio show,’” Glass said. “But obviously you can’t have dance on the radio. Then I realized we have to do another cinema event.”

The show’s eclectic entertainment was just was Glass had wanted.

“I wished for a multimedia adventure and I got my wish,” Glass said.

“This American Live” is already an entertaining radio show, but there’s a lot of pressure to make it visually entertaining.

“It’s shocking to me the number of people and amount of money that it takes to do anything visual,” Glass said. “The more time I spend diving into these other media, like TV and film, the more I appreciate the incredibly cush deal we have on the radio.”

As the radio show crams as many stories as it can into an hour every week, the live show will have the same rigorous schedule.

“We have to fit all of these visual acts programmed down to the second,” Glass said. “Every moment counts and is milked for efficiency.”

In this technologically advanced world, there are more chances for mistakes, but for Glass, the show is worth any possible glitches.

“It is such an ambitious undertaking,” Glass said. “It’s either going to be the most amazing thing we have ever put on as a program or it’s going to be a complete train wreck. Nothing in between is possible. Worse case scenario is there’s some kind of tech failure.”

As opposed to Pay-Per-View or watching a pre-recorded live show, gathering fans all around the country (and Canada) at local theatres just adds excitement to the show.

“I know it’s exciting for people and fans to get together,” Glass said. “I had the same experience when I saw Artie Lange of ‘The Howard Stern Show’ at Carnegie Hall. All the Howard regulars were there – and I’m a huge Howard fan – and we stood up and cheered.”

Theatres also give the show the advantage of keeping the audience’s attention.

“It’s easier for people to turn off the TV,” Glass said of Pay-Per-View.

If 1.7 million people can sit still long enough to listen to the radio every week, “This American Life” won’t have any issues keeping theatres packed on May 10.

“We basically try to invent things you could never do on the radio,” Glass said. “This is the most ambitious thing we’ve ever done. This one’s really special.”

THIS AMERICAN LIFE LIVE
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 10
WHERE: Rave Motion Pictures 5149 Bayou Blvd.
DETAILS: thisamericanlife.org/cinema