He’s reported from above the Arctic Circle. He’s reported from Air Force One. He’s reported from wars in Iraq, Ukraine, and Israel. He covered the Justice Department for National Public Radio during the administration of the second Bush and the White House during the Obama years. In 2012, National Public Radio embedded him in Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign. And now, Ari Shapiro, co-host of All Things Considered, the most popular radio news show in the United States, will be heard by a new generation of listeners.
When not consumed by the business of reporting world events, Shapiro is a guest singer for Pink Martini, a jazzy “little orchestra” which has recorded eleven albums – Shapiro appearing on four of them – and which plays all over the world. Shapiro has sung in the Hollywood Bowl, the Royal Albert Hall in London, L’Olympia in Paris, and Carnegie Hall. He was also a guest singer in the Washington Ballet’s original production of The Sun Also Rises and a soloist at the Kennedy Center with the Washington Chorus in Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. You may have caught his original solo show, Homeward, in 2016 as part of the Halcyon House cabaret series in Washington, DC. He subsequently performed it around the country, including at Joe’s Pub in New York, with featured guest singer Alan Cumming.
Starting June 21st, he will be playing to an audience, most of whom have never heard him before when he, as the voiced-over grown up Boy, opens Adventure Theatre MTC’s production of The Cat in the Hat with these lines.
“The sun did not shine
It was too wet to play
So we sat in the house
All that cold, cold wet day.”
We spoke on a Friday afternoon which, he cautioned, would need to be interrupted in case of breaking news.
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What made him take this on? I began.
“The theatre reached out to me,” he said. How did they think of you for the role? “I don’t know. Perhaps because I’m on radio, heard by thousands, maybe millions, of people a day?” he said, laughing. “A few lovely people came to NPR headquarters and sat in my office with the recording equipment that they had brought and I got to read through this fun, delightful story a few times.”
Acting for young people is a little different than acting in theatre for adults. Did he need special prep?
“I just felt like I was reading a children’s story to my niece or nephew or godson. It felt like story time.” He did get some direction, though. “There was a bit of coaching – this part is scary, this part is sad. And we did it a few times.”
The Cat in the Hat performs June 21 – August 18, 2019 at Adventure Theatre MTC. Details and tickets
Like any actor, though, Shapiro takes care of his instrument. To him, this means moderation — not any special strategies. “I don’t abuse my voice…I don’t smoke or scream a lot but I don’t do any kind of vocal exercises or special drink…I haven’t had to take any dramatic measures to preserve my voice.”
That voice, incidentally, is quite distinctive. Does that ever cause a problem?
“Rarely, but occasionally…I have for example been at a restaurant with a dear friend having a personal conversation and someone leans over who clearly has just recognized my voice and says ‘I really enjoy listening to you on the radio.’ And I think – How much of our conversation have you just been listening to?” Shapiro hastens to add that in most instances people give him his space, which is his preference.
Notwithstanding the occasional privacy issue, Shapiro loves his radio gig. ” I think it’s such an intimate medium. On television it feels like you are orating to an audience of thousands or millions and on radio even if thousands or millions of people are listening it feels like a conversation that I’m having with you, whether you are in your kitchen or in your car or getting ready for work or doing errands. It’s just me talking to you.
“And when you hear the voice of somebody on the radio you circumvent all of the preconceived notions that you might have about that person if you met them face-to-face. Stereotypes based on the way they look, the way they dress, how tall or short or tall they are, how young or old they are.
“On the radio you let your guard down a little, I think…and much more easily cut to the heart of what’s important.”
Moments after our conversation, Ari Shapiro rushed into the studio: a gunman had opened fire in a municipal building in Virginia Beach, VA, leaving 11 people dead and more injured. Ari Shapiro was on air, cutting to the heart of what’s important.