Isaiah Sheffer’s mellifluous, slightly quizzical voice is known to NPR listeners of “Selected Shorts: A Celebration of the Short Story,” now in its 26th season. Born in the Bronx to Russian immigrant parents in 1935, Sheffer performed in the Yiddish theater as a child, and went on to a varied career as a playwright, librettist, director, producer and Yiddishist. He wrote the book and lyrics for the off-Broadway musical “Yiddle with a Fiddle” and the English version of Sholom Aleichem’s comic play “Hard to Be a Jew.”
In 1978, Sheffer rented the Symphony Theater on West 95th Street in Manhattan with his partner, the conductor Allan Miller, to transform the building into a community arts center. Six years later, Sheffer started “Selected Shorts.” Almost immediately, the show began touring, and in 1990 “Selected Shorts” inaugurated a yearly residency at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Sheffer also coordinates the yearly “Bloomsday on Broadway” celebration on June 16, when as many as 100 actors read from James Joyce’s Ulysses—which is set on that day, in 1904. At the end of this year, Sheffer will step down as artistic director of Symphony Space but will continue hosting “Selected Shorts.” He spoke with me from his office at the theater, looking back at the success of his literary series with awe.
On Saturday, March 13, at 8pm, “Selected Shorts,” featuring Jane Curtin, David Strathairn, and host Isaiah Sheffer, will appear for the first time at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie. (845) 473-2072; www.bardavon.org.
Who came up with the name “Selected Shorts”?
Well, I did. Symphony Space exists in what was once a regular neighborhood movie theater, the Symphony Theater. It was down and out, defunct as a movie theater, when my partner and I took it over 32 years ago, to make into a performing arts center. The idea of “selected shorts” was that there used to be—you’re probably too young to remember—when you went to movies in the old days, you saw a double bill, a newsreel, a cartoon, coming attractions, and “selected short subjects.” And that phrase stuck in my mind. So it was an echo of the fact that we were once a movie theater.
What percentage of new stories do you read?
My guess would be that 80 percent are new stories, and 20 percent are classics. Sometimes I like to take a story that everybody knows very well, and find great discoveries in it.
Can you give an example of an old-time short story you revived?
One that just leaps to mind is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which everybody knows from their high school anthology. But when you hear it read by a good actor, carefully rehearsed and crafted, it’s a revelation.
Who was the reader?
When you first started, did you think that the project would be a success?
We had no idea. A series where actors read short stories was the idea of one of my colleagues, Kay Cattarulla. She came up behind me in the theater one day—it was during one of our James Joyce Ulysses celebrations we do every year—and said, “Think about it, Isaiah! A series of actors reading short stories!” And with the great vision that made me an important man of the theater, I said, “Nah! Who would want to come to that?” But she insisted we give it a try, and it was immediately successful! That’s the key thing. Before we were any good at it, it was successful. Over the years we’ve learned some lessons about how to pick stories, how to cast them, how to rehearse them, but before we were any good at making programs, it was a success. People just like having stories read to them. And we immediately went to our broadcast partners at WNYC, and they agreed to carry it on the air. And it’s now on the air to 155 cities, distributed by Public Radio International.
You could never read any of J. D. Salinger's stories?
No, that’s never been possible. He just forbade anything like that. And we tried! We tried appealing to his son [Matt], the actor, saying, “Would you care to read a story, if we can get permission?” But none of that worked.
Do your traveling shows have themes?
Each evening we do at the live series has a theme. The one at the Bardavon is magical stories and surprises. We’re starting with Jane Curtin reading this wacky story by the writer Saki (H. H. Munro) called “The Occasional Garden.” Then I’m reading a Ray Bradbury science fiction tale that’s very provocative, called “The Veldt.” And David Strathairn is reading the classic thriller by W. W. Jacobs, “The Monkey’s Paw.”
Did you decide that the Hudson Valley is magical?
We’re not the first to have thought of that: “The Headless Horseman.” Way back then, Washington Irving was making great mystery of the neighborhood.
Do actors sometimes do different voices, for each of the characters in the story?
Well, this question has come up in rehearsal, and my answer is no. What I tell them is, “If you were reading a story to a child, you might make the bad guy sound a little different from the good guy,” but I don’t permit them to really do voices [in a funny voice]. That has an antique feel, to me, of the old-time radio drama.
Because that type of acting detracts from the words.
Yeah. It’s showy.
What worries me when I read aloud are homonyms—like “hoarse” and “horse.”
Yes, there’s that Deadly Homonym Question, but I don’t know how to solve it!
Are the minimalist writers like Raymond Carver difficult to read aloud?
Well, Ray Carver stories have been very, very successful here, because they’re so powerful and emotional, and have such a distinctive voice. A year or two before he died, Ray Carver was the guest host—which we have from time to time. He selected stories and introduced them. That was a historic night in our series because each of the authors he chose later went on to become friends of the series, and host their own programs, like Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and Ray’s wife, Tess Gallagher. Carver’s story “Cathedral,” read by James Naughton, is one of the gems of our whole history.
- David Strathairn will read "The Monkey's Paw" as part of the "Selected Shorts" performance at the Bardavon on March 13.