From a distance, on a stark, clean, post-rainstorm morning, the StoryCorps mobile recording booth looks like a glistening mirage — an improbable car accident in the middle of Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. Up close, though, the silver 1950s Airstream trailer, which was custom-designed by architect Michael Schuman, is a busy hive of activity as a steady parade of couples, family members and friends — all eager to have their lives recorded in perpetuity — steps up to the trailer and is welcomed by facilitators Jackie and Piya.
The women work together like a tag team, shuffling one group in as another exits. Suddenly, Piya yells, “Oh my God!” and grabs a camera as a flock of feathered showgirls doing promotion for Spike TV accosts the trailer. The showgirls act like they’re in Vegas, posing lasciviously and cheering for no specific reason, while their loud male chaperone/pimp invites passersby to visit Sin City.
“Should we record them?” a volunteer asks.
Award-winning radio documentarian Dave Isay teamed up with NPR for this contemporary experiment in archiving national folklore. Modeled after the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) oral histories from the 1930s — albeit without all that downer Depression and Dust Bowl subtext — StoryCorps has been traveling the country since last spring collecting interviews with everyday Americans, which are then edited into brief but intense radio segments.
Though it smacks a little of This American Life, StoryCorps is a total innovation for NPR in that its subjects have free reign. Groups of two or more make appointments to come to the booth and interrogate one another — and get a CD of the conversation when they’re done. If they find themselves at a loss for what to ask each other, which they rarely seem to, they can refer to the spiffy Question Generator on the StoryCorps Web site, or check the list of provided, sometimes-disconcerting questions like: “Was there a time you didn’t like me?” or, “How many lovers did you have before I was born?” The goal is to get a chainlink of answers and follow-ups, which the facilitators softly encourage.
Piya commented on the stories collected so far: “It’s weird, I’m getting themes . . . mother-and-daughter day, two-dads-and-a-daughter day, moms-who-can’t-cook-and-their-daughter day . . .”
Jackie offered me some sleek headphones, and I sat down to listen to a sample of the Santa Monica sessions. (The Airstream will be parked on the Promenade through February 5.) I felt like a reluctant arbiter in heaven, browsing people’s stories as though I were evaluating souls. There was the grandma recuperating in bed at the hospital, whose loved ones came to give her her weekly beauty treatments. And the Yugoslav father whose penchant for song amused his family at the dinner table but, as he found out after enlisting, not the Navy. And, finally, there was the resilient 95-year-old man who adopted his able young caretaker.
The elderly, with their wealth of experience and inherent perspective, were clearly the stars of StoryCorps, and the whole experience made me wish I’d paid more attention to my late grandmother’s attempts to explain our family history.
Some local sessions even added to America’s historical record, shedding light on obscure portions of the past, like the description of the Orphan Trains from the mid-1800s that rounded up immigrant children and shuttled them to the countryside, where they would become indentured servants. A soldier told of belonging to one of the Ghost Armies of World War II, which played recordings of explosions and troop chatter from their tanks to decoy the enemy and get them to waste ammunition. Perhaps the most moving story was the border-crossing drama told by Blanca Alvarez, who added that she “never felt illegal” and that she opposes our immigrations laws.
Not everyone had the right stuff for StoryCorps. One Promenade personality, a hard-talkin’ clown from Chi-town, asked for an appointment, then offered a slightly phallic balloon creation to one of the female facilitators. Damien, a hyperventilating 33-year-old skateboarder who warned, “Boy, do I have a story for you,” told a barnburner involving 35 countries, working for drug dealers and mobsters, and going to the prestigious Berklee school of music.
“Why am I a freak magnet?” asked the volunteer screener assigned to Damien.
Fittingly, all the stories that get taped will end up in the Library of Congress.
KCRW general manager Ruth Seymour says she got the idea to bring StoryCorps to the Promenade after seeing its opening in NYC. “[The Promenade] is a cheap, cheap Saturday night, full of ordinary and diverse people,” she explains, “and the closest thing we’ve got to Times Square. Asked to explain the apparent magic of the StoryCorps process — people consistently disclose more than they were initially prepared to — she likens it to “taking your clothes off in the booth, in the most spiritual kind of way . . . a spiritual striptease!”
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