New Record Label Mixes Storytelling and Comedy

LISTEN, commuters, and you shall hear, a new kind of cassette while stuck in second gear....

An unusual genre of performance-art-for-listeners is afoot that is so new it doesn't yet have a name. It's both verbal and intimate - performers connecting through words to audiences - and is somewhere between comedy and storytelling.

You might call it a soul massage for the overworked funny bone.

"The material is intelligent and entertaining, literate but not effete," says Will Ackerman, the entrepreneur behind an innovative concept known as "Gang of Seven," a tape/compact-disc label featuring some of the most highly regarded names in theater, radio, and literature. Among them: Spalding Gray, Peter Matthiessen, Wally Shawn, and Nora Dunn.

Neither a comedy label nor a retrofitting of the printed word into an audio medium, "Gang of Seven" offers original narratives that are contemporary, extemporaneous, and push beyond the standard shtick of radio fare, stand-up, and oral folklore.

With two titles to be released next month (May 22), "Gang of Seven" will unveil both a sampler of its new art form and a full-length version. Laced with humor and poignancy, offerings run the gamut from object lessons to homily, morality to myth, personal anecdote to cultural allegory.

In the words of one inaugural voice, Barry Morrow (screenwriter of "Rain Main"), "they are varied ways of passing one's own lessons of life and sense of world view ... the highest form of relating one's real tests of true character."

This first compilation represents a wide mix of techniques, deliveries, styles, and content. Author Lynda Barry, a cartoonist and commentator for "Morning Edition" on National Public Radio (NPR), talks about a high-school nerd named Mike who shaved his head for money: "He baldly went where no one had gone before.... On the food chain of friendship, [Mike] Beck was plankton. Nobody could admit to loving him. But we all did."

Mr. Morrow speaks about his interest in a mentally retarded man attempting to assimilate into society after 44 years of institutionalization. After "Bill" holds a Golden Globe audience hostage with impromptu harmonica playing, an official tells Morrow, "I've been coming to these awards for 15 years. That is the only real moment we've ever had."

Peter Matthiessen, author of "Far Tortuga" and the "Snow Leopard," tells how he came to regard a Sherpa guide as his teacher. Author Tom Bodett explains why men don't cry. And journalist Richard B. Stolley relates anecdotes from the Prague Spring of 1968 to the Kennedy assassination.

Ackerman calls his new venture a synthesis of different disciplines, one that is "not yet sanctioned and not yet creatively limited by any industry." The last time he noticed an untapped artistic movement afoot was in 1978 when he put together a disparate set of performers from guitarists to pianists and began the Windham Hill record label. The New Age label became one of the entrepreneurial success stories of the recording industry.

Ackerman's latest idea has created expectations commensurate with the resurgence of comedy clubs and storytelling festivals nationwide. Several observers have noted the growth of such multiweek gatherings as the Solo Mio festivals in San Francisco and Chicago. New, narrative commentary formats are appearing on NPR, and one-performer dramatic shows are on the rise, too.

"There is an increased interest in interpretive performance," says Michael Kowalewski, a professor of English at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., who has staged marathon public readings. "....people want to move beyond the standard ways of communicating. These are ways to be entertaining while giving information so that you don't forget it."

It's uncertain, however, whether consumers will plunk down the price of a cassette or CD for narratives that might captivate them in only one reading. Ackerman, the son of a former chairman of Stanford University's English department, promises sufficient depth - "absolutely gripping stuff" that will last beyond the easy fix of one-liners.

James Farrelly, chairman of the English department at the University of Dayton in Ohio, says he thinks Ackerman will tap into a wave of interest in storytelling. "There is a market for this new kind of tape," he says. "There is a new sensibility toward hearing the good story told without all the visual distraction and interpretation. The listener participates in making it the story he wants."

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