Sunday, June 21, 2009

Mobile Stories

My favorite hour of the weekend comes three times in LA. The brand new, non-repeat version of This American Life is played on Saturdays at 10am (on KCRW), again at 1pm (on KPCC) and a third time on Sunday nights at 6 (also on KPCC). Then, if I'm really itching for another good narrative, or I missed it the weekend before, I can listen to last week's show at 11am on Sunday. Of course, you can hear the entire archive on line, but there's something compelling about a compulsory pause in life's regular racket when you have to stop, and just listen. It took all three broadcasts of 'Origins' this weekend for me to really hear parts one through four.

A few weeks ago, my friend Whitney and I got tickets to the sold out live screening of the one hour This American Life television special. Now a half hour Showtime weekly, host Ira Glass was screening the "John Smith" special episode for Emmy consideration at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Presented and discussed by Ira and his fellow producers and writers, the story follows not one man named John Smith, where it would be impossible to document the events of a life span in a month's worth of production, but six John Smiths each at different stages of life to make up a John Smith whole. Baby John, who was expected to be a girl, was 11 weeks old. Young John, minor delinquent turned short order cook, was 23. Yuppie John was a software engineer with a new baby of his own and a taste of mortality, loss, and love through his mother's illness. Middle aged John, 46, was struggling with his son's return from Iraq and his desire to be personal and emotional in a world, both military and small town, where that is at best uncomfortable. Retired John Smith, in his late 70s, volunteered at the airport after a long life of hard work and taking care of his son who had recently succumbed to AIDS. And, finally, John Smith in his 90s in a nursing home, surrounded by his large family, who died while the show was filming.

They showed two other regular length episodes as well. One a visually fascinating time lapse day of senior portraits at a local high school, the other the story of a boy growing up with a degenerative disease who, by the time of the filming, had barely the use of his left thumb, with which he spelled words on the computer as his primary form of communication, and his eyes. Two long blinks for yes. He, Michael I think his name was, had a rebellious personality, streaks of dyed red hair, black painted fingernails and a pierced eyebrow. He had a girlfriend he met on Craigslist and an adventurous personality. That story was as much about his mom and her commitment (often over-bearing in Michael's eyes) to his health and well-being as it was about him and his adaptability.

Ira asked him, semi-jokingly, who should be his voice in the television show if they could get any star at all. Ed Norton or Johnny Depp, Michael typed. Ed Norton never returned their calls, yet Johnny Depp, the larger star, begins reading Michael's words, and his eyebrow piercing and black fingernails are so filled with the cool of a young 21 Jumpstreet undercover cop, that you can't help but admire the tenacity, and the tongue in cheek arrogance of it all.

After the three pieces, the producers and writers chatted and answered questions. Ira's love, obviously, is telling good stories, and telling them in a way that is highly crafted, expertly produced, and strategically orchestrated.

Their more amateur counterpart, I would say, is StoryCorps. StoryCorps, as told on their website, "is an independent nonprofit project whose mission is to honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening. . . By recording the stories of our lives with the people we care about, we experience our history, hopes, and humanity." StoryCorps began in 2003 with a StoryBooth in Grand Central Station. A simple concept, two people who have an interesting shared story, one more the interviewer and the other the interviewee, reserve an hour slot for a self-directed, narrative conversation. That conversation is recorded for the StoryCorps archive and also provided in cd form to the participants. Tens of thousands of stories have been recorded, archived, edited, and aired to date.

After the tragedies of September 11th, a second StoryCorps booth was dedicated to collecting the stories of anyone affected by the events in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Included are the stories of firefighters, volunteers, survivors, rescue workers, witnesses and family members of 9/11 victims. In a two day session, over thirty stories were collected from those at the Pentagon. The archive will be included in the 9/11 memorial and held in the Library of Congress.

In July 2006, StoryCorps launched an initiative to capture the stories of those suffering from memory loss. In 2007, they began the Griot Initiative, the largest African American oral history project since the WPA slave narratives of the 1930s. A compilation cd of these interviews is being released some time in June to honor the 100th anniversary of the NAACP.

The objectives of StoryCorps are ambitious:

StoryCorps is a public service... StoryCorps reminds us of the importance of listening to and learning from those around us. It celebrates our shared humanity. It tells people that their lives matter and they won’t be forgotten. Through StoryCorps, we hope to create a kinder, more thoughtful and compassionate nation. . . . We hope to build StoryCorps into an enduring American institution.

Near and dear to my heart was the 2005 launch of two MobileBooths, housed in airstream trailers and traveling from city to city to capture the grassroots, often missed relationship tales from over 100 cities in 48 states. Right now the MobileBooths are in Wenatchee, WA and Berlin, NH. Next they go to Rochester, NY; Erie, PA; Paonia, CO and Akron, OH. In October, a MobileBooth arrives in San Francisco.

Which brings us to the cause of the week this week.

StoryCorps is trying to raise $100,000 to keep the MobileBooths operable in 2009. To date, they've raised $68,000 with another $32,000 to go. You can donate to the fund directly between now and June 30th by clicking here.

You can also buy the book, Listening is an Act of Love, or any of their cds, and all of the royalties benefit the project. You can rent a StoryKit to facilitate your own series of interviews.

Or, you can sponsor an on site recording day for six or more where a trained staff member comes to your site with professional equipment to record for a reasonable fee.

Like all of public radio, you can also listen on line for free.

I have no idea how many of these stories I have heard. Most of them are distilled into only a few minutes, so they seem to sneak in in the cracks between the stories we think we are waiting for. The stories are about adoption, cancer, anniversaries, meetings, love, survival, perseverance, history, family, strangers. It is a great democratizing effort to prize every person as equal, every relationship valuable, and every story worthy of presentation in our national public space via a road quest of American telling.