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Thalia Book Club Camp offers up-close interaction with renowned children's book authors and illustrators, book discussions, and book-related field trips around the city. This blog follows the camp's activities.

Selected Shorts Tours the Far West: Part 2 of 3

Published on November 10, 2009

This is the second in a three-part series of entries. Read part one here.

The next morning, at crack of dawn, I make the drive back down through the desert to Albuquerque, a drive that is beautiful in a different way in the morning sunlight.  I return the rental car and embark on my trip to Austin, Texas (with a change of planes in Dallas).  Now, changing planes in the huge Dallas airport is notorious among air travelers. Legend has it that a convicted murderer, being extradited from New York City to face lethal injection in Oklahoma, is reported to have said, “Even to go to Hell you have to change planes in Dallas!”  But this time I have little trouble making it to the short flight from Big D to Austin.

My reason for going to Austin is that I have been invited by my old friend and James Joyce scholar Tom Staley, who runs the impressive Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus, to create a program of readings from the poetry and prose of Edgar Allen Poe, whose bicentennial is being celebrated this year.  For this purpose I am joined in Austin by two leading Selected Short stars, one of them the incomparable Fionnula Flanagan, who will once again be reading the complete three-hour Molly Bloom monologue from James Joyce’s Ulysses at next June 16th’s Bloomsday on Broadway.  Fionnula is stopping off in Austin on her way to Ireland, where she is the central figure in a film being shot about her unusual family.  Our other Poe reader is the masterful actor Rene Auberjonois, who is on his way, with his wife Judith, to a trip combining world-wide tourism with celebrity appearances at Star Trek conventions, where Rene, who played the character of Odo in Star Trek Deep Space Nine, is a very popular attraction.

But before we do the Poe show, I have another not-so-secret agenda in Austin, Texas.  The local public radio station, KUT, carries Selected Shorts, and has for many years.  And for quite a few years they would invite us, as part of our annual Texas swing to San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas,  to do live Shorts evenings which would help them raise money by selling out the immense LBJ Auditorium with our radio fans.  But we haven’t been there in the last couple of years, due, I think, to scheduling difficulties, or whatever.  Now I love touring to beautiful, cultured Austin, and my goal on this trip is to see if I can encourage the resumption of this annual visit to our multitudinous and vocal Austin radio fans.  On the night before the Poe show I am the featured guest speaker at a dinner of KUT executives and major donors.  I entertain them with a little reading, and after dinner have a heart to heart with the radio station people who agree that we must try again to schedule Shorts live in Austin!  (Memo to Kathy Minton: Let’s remember to follow up with them.)

Next night, after Fionnula and I have a fun dinner of southern-style grits, okra, and black-eyed peas at my favorite Austin restaurant, Threadgills, up on Guadalupe (pronouncec GWAD-A-LOOP) the Poe show is a grand success, with the audience understanding, I think, my attempt to read the hoary old classic “The Raven” without the overwhelming rhythmic intensity we are used to (“Once upON a midnight DREARy, as I PONdered weak and WEARy”), but in a fashion that made it more of a chilling and heart-breaking short story of love and despair ( “Once . . . upon a midnight…”).

Flying from Austin down to San Antonio, the next stop on the Selected Shorts tour, is possible, but not really worth the trouble of changing again in Dallas, so I hitched a ride down Interstate 35 with a Texas Public Radio friend, and there we were at The Alamo.  Our San Antonio gig was a very different kind of experience: we were part of the local public radio station’s celebration of an Hispanic Heritage festival and our readings were held in a high school auditorium in a not-very-upscale neighborhood. For reading our Latino stories, I was joined by our friend and neighbor Sonia Manzano, a frequent Shorts performer who lives half a block from Symphony Space, and Jesse Borrego, a San Antonian who had flown in from Los Angeles.  As the token gringo on the program, I was assigned a story by Julio Cortazar, while Sonia gave a superb reading of an Isabel Allende fable, and Jesse did a terrific job with a story by Rudolfo Anaya.

The audience included both public radio Shorts fans and local Hispanic community members, including students of the high school in which we were performing (in front of a backdrop of an adobe hacienda that was the pride and joy of the school’s scenic arts crew). I was very moved by a conversation I had in the lobby with a 16-year-old Latino high school student who approached me and said that he wanted to say hello and that he was a regular radio listener.  Then he said, “Mr. Sheffer, the story you had on the radio a couple of weeks ago, by Cynthia Ozick, you know the one about the woman  and the child in the concentration camp…well that story changed my life.”  It was a vivid illustration to me that our story-telling impact was not limited to the sophisticated, experienced Upper West Siders who form our primary audience back home.

The next morning, a smooth flight back to JFK, including a smooth change of planes in Hosuton’s George Bush (41) International Airport.  End of Trip #1: four cities, nine stories, six take-offs and landings, two radio stations cultivated.

Next up: Whitefish, Montana.

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