Part 3: Studs Terkel Festival

I’ve been talking about the magnificent Studs Terkel festival that took place from May 9th to May 10th. The festival spent a lot of time honoring the great work of Studs Terkel and the many people who knew him and/or influenced by him. One thing that the festival organizers wanted to do was to create new work. So they commissioned Manual Cinema, a shadow puppet company, to animate stories from StoryCorps. It was magnificent. I will admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for puppeteers.

The puppeteers used three or four projectors to illustrate the stories. They used a variety of puppets; most of them were shadow. There were a few in color but they related to the story in the best way. For instance, there was a story about comic book illustrated with comic book scenes. They used individual puppets, both static and moving. THey also use entire page scenes. They’d overlap scenes and puppets. Sometimes they’d flip paper quickly to add to the animation. They had an excellent moving shadow puppet of Studs himself. Sometimes they used the silhouettes of actual people or their hands projected on a bright white screen.

The stories ranged from hilarious to moving. One of them was about a kid who really wanted to learn to play the saxophone. However, he ends up with an old trombone instead since it was more affordable. He learns to play on it in the family bathroom because it was the only room with a door. But eventually, he learns to play it well. Now, his daughter now wants to follow in his footsteps. The most moving was about a man meeting his future wife in an elevator. He was working in the building that she worked as the elevator operator. At the time of the interview, she had passed away. The last phrase of the interview was “Everyday is a memorial for her.” It was a beautiful story of meeting your love. And if the stories and puppets weren’t impressive enough, all the pieces were scored with a small live band. There were also appropriate sound effects. I can’t wait to see what else Manual Cinema does in the future.

And then there was “Reinventing Radio – An Evening with Ira Glass.” It was pitch perfect. The event started in the most spectacular way. The theatre was pitch black and a glowing iPad wandered onstage. Ira Glass began talking about the sound of the voice and how it frees us from expectations. Visuals can change how we understand people so maybe we should just focus on the voice. It was daring and hilarious. We had come a long way to see him and he wasn’t even going to let us see him. He said that he actually would have loved to have done the entire event in the dark but the festival organizers wouldn’t let him. When the lights eventually came up, he responded with “Well, you didn’t look like what I thought you would.”

Ira Glass did an intensive analysis of how he and This American Life develop stories and how Studs Terkel did radio. He talked about how This American Life strives to bring the fun back into news. In the rest of the news media, there is this separation between serious and important news and humorous news. And this is a problem because it makes the world seem so dire. There is beauty and humor in everyday life. Serious stories can have funny moments or elements. He compared how CNN and This American Life did stories on an aircraft carrier after 9/11. CNN does a serious narration about the power and responsibility of this aircraft carrier with dramatic music. This American Life starts with a woman whose job was to stock all the vending machines on the aircraft carrier. The reporter asked what kinds of candy are popular and what is not. What a contrast. It was a fresh new look at this whole world on an aircraft.

Next, Ira Glass talked about how plot drives their radio broadcasts. With plot, this forward motion as he explained you can make any story sound interesting. You get invested and want to know what goes next. This is where he makes an important contrast with Studs Terkel. This American Life reporters will ask the questions to drive the plot of the story while Terkel would let the person continuing speaking. Sometimes he’d ask the probing question and sometimes he wouldn’t. It’s just a different style from This American Life. Studs Terkel wasn’t focused necessarily on the plot. He wanted to know about people but sometimes it was an overall idea or tone. For instance, Ira Glass pointed out an interview from Hard Times with a society photographer who had done well for himself despite the Depression. The man had no consciousness that people were suffering around him. So Studs decided to ask more general questions to get the man’s impressions of the times instead of focusing on details. This was the effective tract since it really emphasized this man’s complete lack of awareness. The man said he didn’t see breadlines, the apple sellers, or anything. For him, the 1930s was a glittering time.

Next Ira Glass talked about the importance of having an idea at the end. He kept reiterating “Plot plot plot idea.” You need something to make meaning of what you just heard. Again, Studs didn’t really structure his stories this way. As noted before, he let people talk. Ira Glass also admired how Studs talked to everyone including former racists. He pointed to one interview from a migrant worker in the Depression and how Studs walked her through her change of perception about African Americans.

Ira Glass pointed out that Studs was probably the best at finding the most interesting people to interview. He interviewed everyone to give a rich texture to the topic he was covering. He also had a mind for posterity. (At this point, Ira Glass quipped, “That’s not the concern at all for This American Life. When we’re dead, the people after us can go fuck themselves.” Then he points to the camera and says, “Future people watching this, go fuck yourselves.” Hilarious!). Ira Glass pointed to a conversation with Louis Armstrong. And he talks about how it really is a bad interview. Studs is trying to get Armstrong to talk but its 2 am after a set and Louis Armstrong is really not very expressive. But then Studs asks a question about King Oliver, Armstrong’s former mentor. This comment moved Armstrong and then the interview changed. He became more responsive and talked with great emotion about his former mentor. Ira pointed out that Studs had this incredible memory and could use it effectively.

Overall, Ira Glass was a treasure to see. I will see him again live if I have the opportunity to do so in the future.

That’s all for now. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the Let’s Get Working Concert and Studs Place: Episode 4.

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