News organizations step on stage to experiment with new storytelling forms

Inside a cream-colored brick building in downtown Berkeley, Calif., journalists with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) tap out updates for the Web and gather to discuss their next projects. It looks like a typical small newsroom, except when you walk past the digital team and find spoken-word poet José Vadi sitting at his desk.

Vadi is directing the Off/Page Project, a collaboration between CIR and Youth Speaks, the San Francisco-based organization that gives a voice to young people across the country through spoken-word poetry. He called the organizations’ partnership “sourced storytelling,” in which investigative reporting is paired with stories of young people who have personal experience with the issues being reported, such as gun violence or the loss of a home through foreclosure.

José Vadi/Photo by Xandra Clark

When CIR uncovered data about crime and financial problems in Stockton, Calif., Off/Page presented the information to teenagers who live there. The teens interpreted and commented upon the reporting through a poetry performance last month.

“I knew Stockton was bad, but seeing all the statistics … just shined a light,” said 18-year-old performer Corey Baxter.

Jayda Daniels, 17, another of the performers, added that “it brought me a better outlook of trying to motivate people to go do something.” 

Jayda Daniels/Photo by Xandra Clark

Experimenting with the stage

At a time of uncertainty for their business, news organizations are increasingly experimenting with fresh ways to engage audiences – and for some, that means stepping onto the stage.

Public radio shows such as “This American Life” and “Radiolab” have begun collaborating with musicians, dancers and comedians to produce live stage shows. Writers are participating in storytelling nights such as Pop-Up Magazine in San Francisco and The Moth in New York City. And The Chicago Tribune has established a partnership with The Second City improv troupe.

Off/Page is scheduled to have its official launch in August at Brave New Voices, the national poetry slam festival founded by Youth Speaks in 1998 and held in Chicago this year. (Baxter and Daniels will represent Stockton in the slam competition.)

CIR has also partnered with San Francisco’s Tides Theatre to write and stage plays based on investigative stories. In June, they performed two one-act plays that were written and produced within about five weeks.

“One of the things we’re trying to do here is take really deeply reported, fact-based investigative reporting to audiences the way they want to receive it,” said Robert Rosenthal, the executive director of CIR.

For Rosenthal, such performances are “a great way to engage people” and a way for CIR’s reporters to learn about issues teenagers face and consider “how we can humanize and tell their stories well.” But he added that performances like these also get the young participants, who may not read the newspapers every day, thinking about “the value and the role of journalism in a democracy.”

Such terrain is new for journalists, but familiar ground for performers. Artists have been creating work inspired by real events throughout history, and the established genre of documentary theater presents stories built from verbatim dialogue, interviews and thorough research.

Productions such as “The Laramie Project,” delving into the fatal 1998 beating of Matthew Shepard; “The Deputy,” investigating the actions of Pope Pius XII during the Third Reich; and “8,” exploring the California ballot proposition that banned same-sex marriage, have informed audiences across the globe. Some efforts have even been federally sponsored: in the 1930s, the U.S. government funded a project that performed Living Newspapers to engage citizens. What’s new is that journalists are reaching out to artists to initiate such work, with a variety of goals in mind.

Building audience through live events

Ira Glass, host of public-radio favorite “This American Life,” said that some 20 years ago the producers of radio shows like “Car Talk,” “Fresh Air” and “Prairie Home Companion” advised him to build an audience for his then-new show by holding live events at local radio stations.

Those events gave the stations a reason “to run promos, saying the show’s name over and over again to their own audience,” Glass said. “And hopefully people bring friends who are not super-fans, and they become fans, and you gain more audience that way.”

Since then, “This American Life” events have come a long way from just talking and playing audio clips and have entered the realm of performance. In “The Invisible Made Visible,” last year’s stage show, “This American Life” brought onstage comedians Mike Birbiglia and Tig Notaro, the alternative rock band OK Go, the dance company Monica Bill Barnes & Company, and writers David Sedaris, David Rakoff and Ryan Knighton. Besides the audience in New York City, thousands of people watched the live broadcast in movie theaters across the U.S. and Canada.

Experiencing true stories as a collective is something that “Radiolab” co-host Jad Abumrad is also exploring. Another public-radio favorite, “Radiolab” describes itself as “a show about curiosity” and investigates science and philosophy through storytelling. But the radio show has also tried out the stage.

“Never have I been so in the moment,” Abumrad recalled.

At first, Abumrad said, he thought to imitate Glass and “pretend we’re making radio onstage.” But his perspective changed last year, when “Radiolab” found itself collaborating with dance group Pilobolus for “In the Dark” and building a huge functioning eyeball to demonstrate the evolution of the eye onstage.

“This is actually a new form,” Abumrad remembered thinking.

Glass said he isn’t planning to bring “This American Life” to the stage again unless “it amuses us” or “we need the money.” But Abumrad said, for now, he is committed to further experiments with the form, such as this fall’s “Apocalyptical.”

“It’s become corded to who we are now,” he said.

Newspapers slowly hopping on the bandwagon

Newspapers have rarely pushed the performance boundaries much beyond live discussions with journalists and celebrities, such as the TimesTalks initiative of The New York Times.

Actress, monologist and playwright Anna Deavere Smith said she would “never call that performance,” referring to TimesTalks. Smith is known for creating her own genre within documentary theater: she interviews people about certain events, issues and themes and then performs their words and gestures with painstaking specificity.

After hearing about these types of collaborations happening out of the newsroom, Smith expressed concern that the line between fact and fiction could become blurred. Given the impulse to entertain, she asked, “where will the pot full of facts be?” She added that she would like to know she’s reading facts when she opens a newspaper, and the same is true for viewing a journalistic performance.

“There need to be standards,” she said. “Not having the facts is just sloppiness.”

(Indeed, “This American Life” has encountered the line between fact and fiction – last year it retracted a popular episode about Apple’s manufacturing practices in China when it was revealed that monologist Mike Daisey had falsely represented parts of his experience. But “he is a performer,” said Smith about Daisey, adding that he was operating in the world of the theater, “where we know there are a lot of things going on that aren’t fact, no matter how much fact we try to have it be.”)

At the same time, Smith allowed, creative license is important in art because it’s “giving you a chance to become active.”

The Chicago Tribune is one newspaper that has moved a bit closer to the edge by partnering with The Second City through the program Chicago Live!, whose events sometimes include news-related comedy sketches.

“We wanted to really respect what the newsroom was, but we also wanted to make it lively and engaging,” said Lara Weber, who produces the events for Chicago Live!

Weber said she was wary “about some of the ethical issues that might come up,” but she hasn’t seen the line between fact and fiction blur. Even the most traditional journalists in the Tribune newsroom eventually opened up to the idea. “One of my biggest victories was that it didn’t take long to crack into that circle,” she added.

So far, the events program has proved a worthy experiment — Weber called it a $1 million business this year for the Tribune.

“It’s very much a part of the new newsroom,” she said.

Here’s a video highlighting CIR’s efforts:

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