WEST L.A. — A spotlight. A microphone. A lectern. An actor and a story. Put them together on a stage and magic happens.
“Selected Shorts,” the live stage and radio literary series that pairs top name actors with classic and contemporary short stories, has been entrancing fans since it was launched in 1985 at New York’s Symphony Space. Heard on 130 stations nationwide, it’s the granddaddy of all public radio storytelling programs.
The series returns to the Getty Center, for its 21st annual appearance on March 23 and 24.
Since the advent of “This American Life” — a hybrid of compelling personal stories and investigative journalism — the “tell me a true story” genre has exploded on public radio with such programs as “The Moth” and “Snap Judgment,” and at live, local, spoken-word events like Santa Monica Rep’s “Shine,” “Tale Spin” at Vidiots and “Word Salad” at Venice’s Talking Stick.
But the spirit of “Selected Shorts” emanates from the written word and the perfect pairing of story to actor’s voice.
The grand master of this art was Isaiah Sheffer, founder and long-time artistic director of Symphony Space, the performing arts center on New York’s Upper West Side, and the man who created and ran “Selected Shorts” until his untimely passing in November 2012.
“Selected Shorts” will be dedicated to Sheffer’s memory when the series returns to the Getty Center. For a few of the actors and loyal regulars, this is the first time they’ll be doing their readings without him.
“I can’t imagine walking out on stage without being introduced by Isaiah,” said actress Christina Pickles. Sheffer and his wife, Ethel, loved Pickles in TV’s “Saint Elsewhere” and he reached out to her when he knew the series would be coming to L.A.
“He first introduced me in 1992,” said Pickles. (It was the year “Selected Shorts” made its West Coast debut at the Getty, originally at the Villa in Malibu). “Little did I know then how I would travel all over the place with ‘Selected Shorts.’ I would go wherever he asked — Red Wing, Minnesota or Dallas, Texas or Carmel, California, wherever — I always said yes.”
From acting on the Yiddish stage to writing plays, directing and producing, Sheffer was a man of many talents who found his true calling as a founder and impresario of Symphony Space, and in particular, of “Selected Shorts.”
Former Getty Museum Director John Walsh remembers the first time he heard “Selected Shorts” on the radio.
“I know about good acting but I’d never heard an actor read a short story before. Fionnula Flanagan was reading an Edna O’Brien story, and it was how every inflection of her voice meant something that made it so gripping,” Walsh said. “We were just building up a concert series then and I thought this would be ideal.
It was then-KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour and I who first suggested that Walsh bring “Selected Shorts” to The Getty.
“We wanted a wider audience, a group of literate and interesting people who might come to the Villa, not if I tried to sell them on Rembrandt or illuminated manuscripts, but rather to see actors whose names they knew performing literature onstage.”
Seymour, renowned for her background in both literature and Yiddish culture, felt an immediate connection to Sheffer.
“We were both children of ‘the vanished world,’ the one destroyed by the Holocaust and the one that struggled to maintain its cultural past in the Yiddish theaters, the journals, the small schools of New York City,” Seymour said. “Isaiah brought his openness to art and ideas to everything he did. He built Symphony Space to celebrate all that he thought was interesting, important, vibrant and set it on the Upper West Side for an audience he knew would recognize those intentions. He put ‘Selected Shorts’ on a national stage when he took it to radio.”
While Sheffer in many ways was the soul and spirit of “Selected Shorts,” both the stage and radio productions are a team effort.
Katherine Minton, literary director at Symphony Space, reads “hundreds of books” a year to find the right stories.
“I’m looking for a story that will take the reader on a journey, either a wild and crazy adventure or a quiet internal one, but one in which something surprising happens to the main character that makes the reader/listener see the world differently,” Minton said.
The match between story and reader is where the magic happens; it was and continues to be a collaborative effort. But Sheffer’s great joy was directing the actors.
As she prepares to fly to L.A. for her first Getty show without Sheffer, Minton remembers him “in his shades, sitting in his rented red convertible, face pink from the sun, driving us up to the Getty and talking about his visits with the actors.”
Christina Pickles enjoyed their sessions together.
“We usually met for breakfast at The Luxe Hotel in Brentwood. I would ask him all the questions I had about the story and pick up on every comment and insight he had. In one sentence Isaiah could convey the essence of the piece,” Pickles said. “I loved talking about the story with him — it was the best kind of directing.”
Sheffer was the host onstage and on radio; these days, it takes more than one person to fill his shoes. BD Wong currently emcees the live show in New York, and on radio he’s joined by John Lithgow, Cynthia Nixon, Jane Curtin, Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris.
Fond memories of Sheffer abound. One touching remembrance comes from Leonard Nimoy, a long-time regular in New York and Los Angeles.
Nimoy also worked in Yiddish theater and when he and Sheffer got together, “We would always end up tossing Yiddish quotes at each other. ‘Sein, oder nisht sein. Das is der frage.’ To be or not to be, that is the question.
“And from that beautiful song by Itzik Manger, ‘Aufn Wehg Shteyt a boym’ (“On the Road There Stands a Tree”), Zug ish tsu die Mama, herr (I say to my mother, listen)…Zollst mich nor nisht shteren (Don’t try to stop me)…Vill ich, mama, eints und tzei, bald a foygl veren (In a moment, mama, I’m going to become a bird).
“I have that image in my head of the Isaiah bird sailing around us over us. Touching us with entertainment, inspiration and enlightenment. Experiences that enrich our lives.”
“Selected Shorts” at the Getty takes place March 23 and 24; for tickets and information visit www.getty.edu. Although it’s not heard on radio in Los Angeles, it’s available online at www.selectedshorts.org.