Wednesday, September 26, 2012

about face : robyn tenenbaum : live on stage for an airwave audience

For more than two decades, Robyn Tenenbaum has been captivated by the spontaneous and unexpected moments that happen on the live stage, as well as the audience’s reaction to those sudden bursts of artistic expression, humor, theatrics, or improvisation.

Whether promoting concerts or producing radio variety shows, one of Tenenbaum’s core principles is the idea that live entertainment should not just amuse people but also incite discovery. As the co-creator and executive producer of her own show, Live Wire! Radio, which airs weekly on OPB, Tenenbaum ambitiously translates this unique live experience to the airwaves.

Branding Live Wire! as “radio variety for the Jon Stewart set,” Tenenbaum sees her show as “a cultural curator for the rich arts and culture scene here in Portland, throughout the region and beyond.”

“It’s hard to put the words to the feeling you get—that sense of community you get when you come to a show, that sense of knowing you can get a lot of your culture in one night,” Tenenbaum relates.

Nevertheless, “It really is a radio show,” Tenenbaum says, grounding herself. “There’s so many more radio listeners, so we really always try to remember that, and that the live show is then sort of a bonus.”

Hailing from San Francisco, Tenenbaum spent the '90s working for Bill Graham Presents, studying the way the storied impresario and concert promoter was able to arrange different acts together—whether it was rock with jazz or just an unlikely pairing—to expose audiences to new sights, sounds and schools of thought. “People would come for one act and would be exposed to another,” she says of the bills Graham used to book.

Falling in love meant moving to Portland in 2000, where Tenenbaum likes to say, according to her official bio, she “gave birth to a boy, a girl and a radio variety show.”

Tenenbaum says the concept came together serendipitously in 2003 when mutual friends and random connections introduced her to Jim Brunberg, Live Wire!’s technical producer as well as the owner of Mississippi Studios, and Kate Sokoloff, the show’s other co-creator and “the driving force in the early days,” Tenenbaum says.

Entering its ninth year, Live Wire! is looking to push more boundaries as well as revise and rejuvenate old routines in ways that will engage both the live and listening audiences.

But, as Portlanders, the best way to truly capture the experience is to attend a live show. Tenenbaum states, “Our mission is to harness the intimacy of the theater experience and the power of the public airwaves to enliven, inspire and engage communities.”

How often do you encounter people that just don’t understand what you’re doing? How do you explain the show to them?

It seems that many people in Portland have either heard Live Wire! or heard of Live Wire!, because people in Portland love their OPB, and with great reason.

When we do encounter people who don’t know what we do, we try to explain it a few different ways:

“It’s a radio variety show that incorporates live music, interviews, performance, and original comedy.”

“It’s a radio show taped on stage and it’s a live theatrical event.”

“It’s radio variety for the ADD Generation.”

It’s one night of great arts and culture. In one night, because we tape two shows back-to-back, an audience member will get exposed to two bands, two interviews with a filmmaker or author or thought leader, and essayists or storytellers or a piece from a local theater production. Plus, they will get some comedy from our talented cast as well as a few unexpected elements that we don’t even plan for—that’s the really fun stuff. All of this occurs at the Alberta Rose Theatre, which is a beautiful and intimate venue that’s a great place to spend an evening.

We like to entertain people in a way that makes them think differently. We love when Live Wire! becomes the conversation around the water cooler the next day at the office, or when something sticks with someone enough that they want to share it with friends. Inevitably, people’s minds are opened to a new idea or band or something they didn’t know about before. That’s the best part. And because there’s so much variety, everybody takes home a different favorite part of the show. It’s all just a smorgasbord of great entertainment that’s provocative too.

One of the things we hear from people who come to a show for the first time is, “I had no idea this was what this is. I’m definitely coming back and bringing friends too.”

Photo by Jennie Baker
In your experience, how do you make a show that’s engaging for the live audience but also translates well to radio?

That’s always the great challenge because the live audience is the only audience we can see, so we’re always tempted to make the show for the live audience, and yet, our radio audience is far bigger and far vaster. We’re constantly making sure that we’re not doing anything that alienates the listener or making the show feel too live—where people when they’re listening feel left out of a joke. We’ve definitely grown in this area throughout our experience.

For me, the biggest thing is not forgetting the radio audience and to really make it sound like something that you can listen to if you’re driving in your car or hanging out in your kitchen, because it’s just a really entertaining show and because things change up every five to seven minutes, in a true variety show format. You get that opportunity, both as a live watcher and a radio listener, to stick with it or leave the room and come back and get a restart button for the next segment. So, hopefully we’re achieving that, but that’s something that we’re always trying to hone.

You have to use your live audience to make the best radio show you can make. Because we’ve had so many people who are theater-oriented within our organization, it’s been really important to us to make a very polished live show.

We’re charged by every live show because they’re so much fun to make and they’re so much fun to be at. I always feel blessed and I get a front row seat for all of this amazing entertainment and wonderful talent. So, it’s fun to be able to see and be here, but again, that’s 1 percent of our audience, compared to the listening audience.

What are the most exciting shows for you?

The most exciting shows are shows that strike that perfect combination of funny, informative, great music, and totally entertaining. We love incorporating our guests in sketches or in something off the wall.

Have some recent examples?

I loved when Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) strapped on an accordion and sang (and danced) Prince’s “When Doves Cry” with the house band. He gave it a little Latin flair that sent the audience rolling in laughter. Comic book author Brian Michael Bendis was being interviewed by Courtenay while his colleague/illustrator Mike Oeming stood behind them and drew an amazing image. We then had an impromptu auction and auctioned it off to a lucky audience member. I love the unexpected, and fortunately, we get a lot of that in our shows. Sometimes more than we wish for...

Is there a conscious consideration to try and maintain a balance of local and nonlocal names on the show?

Yes and no. We cast our net wide, to local and national. We’ve got great, great relationships with publicists in New York for authors, and we have wonderful relationships with the arts communities here in town, so we’re always keeping an eye on what theater company is opening when and what’s happening. It’s kind of a combination of us putting our feelers out, and people calling us. There’s so much talent right here in Portland, and we’ve always tapped into that.

But what happens in the green room backstage at shows is one of my favorite, most remarkable things because there are so many different relationships and collaborations that are starting to brew backstage at a Live Wire! show. There have been quite a few things that have come from that, and it has just been people who meet people who share the same stage.

It’s all sort of a conscious decision. Like I said, there’s so much talent—there’s so much literary talent right here, there’s so much musical talent here—that it’s a great place to focus on.

What kind of exposure are you getting on the radio as well as through other outlets, like online?

We are currently heard throughout the entire state of Oregon through OPB, and in Southern Oregon and Northern California via Jefferson Public Radio.

Within the public radio system, we have garnered the attention of a few key people. This is important to us as we continue to distribute our show independently. Ideally, we would like to take on a marketing partner who can help us get heard by more station program directors. In the meantime, we will continue to grow through our current channels and by coming up with new ideas to be heard.

Social media has been a powerful tool for us as well. We are building our audience by splicing up the show into small segments so new audiences can get a taste of the show before committing to a full 59 minutes.

Are you finding that the rest of the nation outside of Oregon is interested in Live Wire!? Are people seeking it out?

Yes. I mean, it’s a big nation so we have a lot of territory to cover, and we’re one of very, very few shows that is an independent production. There are all these other shows in the system, and many of them are backed by NPR or PRI or American Public Media, but we’re really an independent production and always have been. It’s a bit of a challenge, yet certainly not impossible, and we’ve certainly made a name for ourselves across the country by being around so long and by doing what we do. We’ve been told that we’re the best of all the live variety stage productions out there. So that’s flattering to hear.

Does being completely independent give you some advantages or freedom?

Certainly. We still have to stick and want to stick within the FCC guidelines and regulations, and we don’t try and push the boundaries… well, we try [laughs]. We do try and push the boundaries, but not in any way that would get anybody into trouble… we hope. If NPR or PRI called us up tomorrow and wanted to help us distribute our show, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

We’re open to all the possibilities of where Live Wire! can go, and our main goal is we want more ears to hear us. We want to be sustainable. We are a nonprofit and not many people realize that. We feel like we’ve always been the show from Portland, but not about Portland. We feel the spotlight has been on this town and this state nationally so much in the past few years that broadcasting a show from Oregon feels like it could be, and is, and should be, appealing to the rest of the country—because it’s not like we’re this provincial show—we’re not focusing on Portland so much as we are focusing on the voice of Oregon, Portland and the Northwest. We’ve had some good successes with it, and we hope to get out further in the world. We love what we do so much we want to be able to continue doing it.

As you look to update, allowing the show to evolve over time, what sort of values does Live Wire! adhere to?

We always want to be fresh, we always want to be engaging, we always want to stay relevant, we always want to have a sense of whimsy, we want to be provocative—these are the value words we talk about. When we book authors or write sketches or design the show, it’s important that it fits some or all of these descriptions: authentic, smart, provocative, innovative, fresh, quality, whimsical, informative, entertaining.

How might the show look and sound a little different this upcoming season?

As we do every summer, we take a look back at every aspect of our show and we ask ourselves what’s working and what can work better. Sometimes we get so used to doing something that it becomes routine and we don’t think to change it. This annual sit-down forces us to take the time to focus on the show as a whole, to pay attention to the little things and the big things, and it gives us the opportunity to freshen things up. Our hope is that it ultimately takes the show to a new level.

One of our main objectives right now is to continue to build our podcast audience and our radio listenership in other states. With this in mind, we try to listen to our shows with new listener ears.

We are experimenting this fall rather than making sweeping changes. This season in particular, we are going to change the way we open the show. Tune in or come to a live show to see or hear how we’ll execute it!

We plan to incorporate a new segment dedicated to food and food culture here in the Northwest and beyond. It’s such an important part of who we are and how we build communities that we would like to highlight this for the rest of the country. It’s something everyone can relate to.

We have a segment in most of our shows that involves the audience. This season we are going to try out a few different ideas to see what works for the show and what inspires the audience. Perhaps a “Dear Live Wire!” segment, where our audience can ask us anything, or a segment called “Badvice.” We thought about a segment called “Things you probably can’t say on public radio,” which may be funny. Until it’s not. Again, stay tuned.

You can catch bi-weekly Live Wire! performances at Alberta Rose Theatre from now through December, or the radio broadcast every Saturday night on OPB at 7pm. Please visit for more information on upcoming show lineups and ticketing as well as on-air schedules.

Read this interview in About Face Magazine.

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