Photo via Paramount Theatre site with thanks
Of Vermont's many attributes, its theaters are venues for first-rate performers. So it was that on Saturday night we impulsively signed up for "AN EVENING WITH IRA GLASS" at the Paramount, Rutland's premier venue (we saw Joan Baez there last summer; Melissa Etheridge and Ziggy Marley are coming soon, but not together :).
I'm not a regular listener to "This American Life" but I hear it often enough to remember stories and to think that it's an interesting show, one that I learn from. Plus I worry about Ira's dog, Piney. Others do too, apparently, as when he opened the show up for questions, the first was about whether the little canine is still eating kangaroo meat. (No, they've run the gamut of mammal meat and are back to pork. For those who don't know, Piney develops allergies to his carnivorous offerings after a time. We won't talk about the bunnies.)
Ira Glass photo from TAL site (grazie, again)
It was a good show but, don't hate me, Ira, not the best he's capable of. A very clever opening. Ira enters in the dark, carrying an iPad, kitted out to look like a radio in the dark (at least that's what we can see from the balcony), and speaks about the power of radio, the power of voice, the power of just words.
After a few minutes the lights go up and there he is taller, older, and more slender than his voice would imply. And in a suit and tie. If one were to do a suit-and-tie survey of Vermont and compare it with other states, it would place near the bottom, I'd wager. Perhaps this is explained by Vermont having recently topped the charts for the state with the highest number of hippie indicators and, for the third year running, is number 1 in the Strolling of the Heifers Index, which measures a state on the locavore scale--number of CSAs, food coops, and the like. Not too many hippie heifers strolling around in suit and tie in the greenest of states (it means "green mountain," thanks to explorer Samual Champlain who so named it).
Still he looked good in it. And he did a nice job of weaving in appalling stories (one about a thirteen-year-old who'd been bitten by a shark and suffered not surprisingly dire consequences, another about a fourteen-year-old who had become a pedophile, which was horrifying not just because he was one but because the psychologist whom he saw said that she had no idea how or where to have him treated). So the tidbits, including a scatological one featuring David Sedaris (shocking, I know), were alternately funny and thought-shaking-upping.
The centerpiece was for me, finally as in I've been waiting to understand it for years, a decent explanation of semiotics. Perhaps you're different from me and, when you hear about something that sounds very sophisticated, you don't assume that the rest of the world knows about it and that you're the village dunce. Or that references to those associated with it (in this case Roland Barthes) are familiar to these hypothetical in-the-know other people and that they all probably studied with him. Or roomed with him.
Me, I had no idea what semiotics really was (or is as it still exists) until Ira explained it. He majored in it at Brown, in fact, a defeat for his parents who were hoping for a career with a more predictable revenue stream, viz. why the hell didn't he become a doctor? OK, semioticians, I leave it to you to explain properly but what I understood is that this field is more about meaning than style, more about meta-messages of text than whether the writer uses good analogies, so, out on a limb I climb, it's more about the undercurrents, the deep raison d'être of a piece, than its genre or literary/philosophical category. PS: I'm certain I have this wrong as proved by this definition:
But it helped me to understand a bit more about how Ira and Co. put their stories together, about which he offered the following formula: action-action-action, idea; action-action-action, idea. Listen to the program and see if you can make out the pattern. First this happens, then that, then that, then they throw in some kind of overarching statement explaining what they're talking about.
Ira is funny, self-effacing, and mumbles just a bit, which had my dear companion, who has perfect hearing so far as I can tell (he seems to know what I'm doing from a room or two away), asking, "What did he say?" several times. I didn't always know.
Ira's wrap focused around a clever theme, which I wish he'd used for the whole show. Having just listened to some tapes of the incomparable Studs Terkel interviewing Zero Mostel (as he said, you have to be of an age to get these references), Ira contrasted what he was doing with a genre that Mostel eschewed, what he called "mishpuchah" stories. Mostel disliked yarns about families (mishpuchah, in Yiddish means the WHOLE family, friends, hangers-on, you know, your network) where the same problems happen to the same kinds of people with the same kinds of outcomes. The example, if I remember correctly, was daughter gets pregnant, parents get upset, etc and so on.
Ira thrives on mishpuchah (although he pronounces it mishpAchah, which means he's from a different Yiddish background from mine, mine being right naturally). His stories are all mishpu-ah-chah and they reel us right in.
That to me is his theme and that could be his hook, line, and sinker, speaking of reeling us in. Who am I to tell Ira Glass how to tell a story? But if he asked, here's what I would say: Start with Zero, throw out your counter-intuitive hypothesis that challenges one of the greatest performers of all time, illustrate with a bunch of shark/pedophile/Piney stories, and then end with a clip from a show, going out with music, leaving the last words unsaid.
Still I loved it: We rated the show to each other: my he, the trained engineer, gave it a 6, I, untrained critic, gave it an 8, and I'm busily integrating what I learned even as I type. Thanks, Mr. Glass.
Real PS: The question about his use of music was perfectly illustrated. The iPad is his guitar, piano, and harmonica all in one, and he demonstrated how they use music in the show to show progression, how they fade to make points, and how they go silent to stun the audience with the big reveal.