Full of 'Life'

By Tracy Key

What happens when a radio show becomes cinematic? You get to see what you've been missing

Friday, May 11 —  In the weeks leading up to the debut of “This American Life Live — You Can’t Do That on Radio,” host and executive producer Ira Glass promised fans they were in for a “multimedia adventure” or a “complete train wreck,” and he delivered on his word. For an adventure, that is.

The live show, performed on stage in New York City and streamed to over 500 movie theaters across North America and Australia, was faithful to the unique balance of comedy, intimacy and geekiness that endears the radio show to fans, while still boldly crossing uncharted territories and providing a refreshing take on the popular podcast.

The mood was set before the show began when cartoons were played for the audience in lieu of the barrage of movie trailers that are synonymous with cinema. The first was a classic action-packed adventure in which Superman rescues Lois Lane from an evil genius and his bank-robbing robots. The other, an independent short film called “Little Boat,” wordlessly follows a small sailboat on its adventures through the big sea and beyond while it is transformed by those it meets. This juxtaposition of larger-than-life, in-your-face action and a quiet, subtly emotional journey did a perfect job of tantalizing the entering moviegoers with a tidbit of the dynamic power of storytelling for which “This American Life” is famous.

The show opens with the story of blind Ryan Knightman trying to navigate the world around him, specifically a hotel room that seemingly lacks a phone. He begins his search by feeling around every object and wall in the room, “mauling” and “groping" them with his hands. On screen, an animated map is generated as he describes his endeavors. Initially completely blank, the map is filled in with each item as he touches it, thus limiting the audience’s knowledge of the room to only those things that Knightman has discovered. The story would have been entertaining on its own, but the added visual element to such a decidedly un-visual event served as the perfect opening act for the show, which Glass announced would follow the theme of “the invisible made visible.”

Next up was the anticipated interactive performance of the band OK Go. A customized free application for the iPhone and Android was created to allow audience members to play along with the song “Needing/Getting.” In a throwback to popular rhythm video games, a series of color-coded notes descended down the big screen, and viewers had to tap one of three notes at the right moment on their touch screen to bring the melody to life. For those without a supported smart phone, a “percussion” role is included, which involves stomping feet and snapping fingers.

The application itself was easy to use and self-explanatory. It came in one of four random colors when downloaded, each playing a different set of three notes. In theory, the theater would be filled with music played by the audience. However, only a handful of viewers at the Celebration Cinema had the application, and it seemed as if only a few of the colors were represented in the audience. The resulting music was somewhat sparse and less impressive than the New York performance on screen, but the efforts of those playing along were valiant nevertheless.

Perhaps the turnout for downloads would have been bigger if a larger variety of mobile devices were supported. “They didn’t have the app for the Windows phone,” moviegoer Dan Kofed explained as his wife, Desiree, nodded in agreement. “We just got new smart phones, but we couldn’t download it, so we had to join in the percussion instead.”

The live show delivered hit after hit, whether it was the sharp-tongued humor of David Sedaris, who wore a clown suit to honor the occasion, or a peek into the extremely private life of Vivian Maier, a street photographer who captured everyday moments and froze them in time with her skillful use of a candid camera.

“This American Life Live” wouldn’t have been the same — and, in fact, might not have happened — without the quirky dances performed Monica Bill Barnes & Company, which served as Glass’ initial inspiration for creating another live show. One of the performances began with Barnes herself and dancer Anna Bass dressed in exaggeratedly conservative turtleneck sweaters and knee-length skirts that would make “The Office’s” Angela Martin jealous. The audience’s expectations were quickly challenged as “Sex Machine” by James Brown began playing and the two dancers proceeded to shake their moneymakers and awkwardly flirt with viewers.

Without spoiling any surprises, it is safe to say that Mike Birbiglia’s anticipated new short film, created specifically for the live show, delivered the healthy dose of comedy and awkwardness on which “This American Life” fans thrive. It threw its characters into unlikely and unexpected scenarios that evoked hearty laughter and applause from the audience in Lansing.

Although the live show is bursting at the seams with more stand-up comedy, short stories, music, dance and videos than you can shake a dowsing rod at (you’ll hear more about this during the show), Glass warned that half of the show won’t be on the radio broadcast.

But don’t despair: An encore presentation will be shown Tuesday for anyone who missed the live adventure.

“This American Life Live — You Can’t Do That On Radio”

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 15

Celebration Cinema Lansing, 200 E. Edgewood Blvd.


Lansing Mall Cinema, 921 Mall Drive West, Lansing