For the public radio geeks among us, This American Life is a welcome departure from our highly visual world, proof that done right, stories don’t need images to be powerful.
But on Thursday, the program, which airs on CBC Radio in Canada, will stage a live event in New York that will be beamed to about 650 movie theatres across North America – in other words, an episode to be seen, and not just heard.
The visuals are not meant to be some frilly addendum, but an integrated component that will serve to elevate the work.
Case in point: Ryan Knighton, a Vancouver-based author who is blind, will recount to host and executive producer Ira Glass the time he got lost in a Chicago hotel room.
As he tells the story, the details of the strange event will come alive graphically. Disney has created animation to illuminate the tale, so the audience can experience it as Knighton did.
“Disney has sort of animated my confusion,” said Knighton this week from New York. “You’re seeing it as I was imagining it, and you get as confused as I do.”
At the end of the segment, Knighton will appear live to tell another story; this time the backdrop will be an illustration (by acclaimed cartoonist Chris Ware) of that hotel room.
“It’s like I’m standing in the hotel room that you’ve just seen a story about,” says Knighton, who shares the bill with the likes of OK Go, David Sedaris and Canadian expat essayist David Rakoff.
Knighton has been in New York since Saturday, flown out to perform a series of gigs at comedy clubs, so he can refine the material that will form the second half of his contribution: a seven-minute monologue about the time he thought he and his daughter Tess, now 5, were being chased by a bear.
“I’ve been more nerve-racked about this than anything I’ve ever done,” says Knighton, whose typical lecture-tour talk runs about an hour. “Seven minutes is really weird. And the thing is, especially with my shtick, it usually takes a crowd a little while to feel they have permission to try to find some of this stuff funny.”
Knighton’s work has appeared on This American Life once before; an actor read an except from his memoir C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark, which detailed his first trip out of the house with Tess – then four months old.
In introducing that segment, Glass said: “Ryan is Canadian, and I only point that out because in the course of his story, he uses the word ‘nappy.’” As if we all use that word here in Canada.
In any case, Tess – now well out of diapers – will be watching her dad live on Thursday from a movie theatre in Langley, B.C.
“She said: ‘will you say my name?,’” says Knighton. “And I said ‘yeah.’ And she said: ‘will everybody look at me?’”
This American Life Live! will be broadcast in almost 40 movie theatres across Canada on Thursday.