Ari Shapiro on the Art of Listening - The Provincetown Independent (2024)

The NPR journalist is coming to Provincetown to sing and tell stories

By Dorothea Samaha

In Ari Shapiro’s cabaret show Thank You for Listening, at the Gifford House in Provincetown this weekend, he’ll sing songs he’s never performed for an audience before and tell personal stories never before publicly recounted. It’s a two-person operation: sitting at the piano will be Shapiro’s music director and accompanist, Henry Koperski. But there’s no denying who’s the star of the show: it’s all about Shapiro.

Ari Shapiro on the Art of Listening - The Provincetown Independent (1)

This is unusual for Shapiro, who is better known as a host of NPR’s All Things Considered. “As a journalist,” he says, “it’s never supposed to be about me. If I’m the focus, I’m doing something wrong.”

Shapiro’s journalistic work has taken him to far-flung places; he’s reported from above the Arctic Circle and covered wars in Iraq and Ukraine. In the U.S., he’s investigated the life and death of Breonna Taylor and the Trump administration’s policies on the Mexican border. During a 2005 investigation into a connection between methamphetamine use and unprotected gay sex, Shapiro stripped down to a towel and entered a bathhouse with a tape recorder in hand.

Shapiro’s radio voice is strong, clear, and decidedly friendly. It’s not demanding — it’s warm, inviting the listener to pay attention but not requiring it.

It’s a voice well-suited to cabaret, which needs a charismatic charmer to entertain a potentially critical crowd. He says he won’t have the usual tricks of his trade: those effects that he uses on the radio to fill silences and smooth transitions. “I can’t bring in quotes from interesting people I’ve met,” he says.

Instead, Thank You for Listening combines tales from Shapiro’s life — everything from flying on Air Force One to his coverage of wars in the Middle East — with songs that run the gamut from Billy Joel to Stephen Sondheim to Taylor Swift. “It’s risky business,” says Shapiro. “There’s always fear about whether the jokes will land.”

But the rawness of live performance allows a certain magic to emerge. When putting on a show for the first time, he says, there’s a “process of discovery between the performer and the audience.”

It’s the ephemeral nature of the performing arts — so different from the documentary act of journalism — that enchants Shapiro. He sang through high school in Beaverton, Ore. and during college at Yale University, performing in musical theater, choirs, and an a cappella group.

Around 2008, he says, after a relatively musicless period when he focused mainly on journalism, he was asked to record a song with the band Pink Martini, a group that plays a spirited cross-genre hybrid of classical, jazz, and pop. Then the band asked if Shapiro would perform the song with them live at the Hollywood Bowl. “So, my first time ever singing with the band live on stage was in front of 18,000 people,” he says. He’s been a regular guest singer with Pink Martini for 15 years.

He’s no stranger to cabaret, either. In 2019, he and Tony-winner Alan Cumming collaborated to perform Och & Oy! A Considered Cabaret, a two-man show that toured the U.S. The two have an undeniable cozy chemistry on stage. But about solo performance, he says, “It’s been a while.”

Ari Shapiro on the Art of Listening - The Provincetown Independent (2)

He humbly calls NPR his “day job.” But the arts are an essential part of who he is. What journalism and cabaret have in common, he says, is the act of storytelling. Both create a connection with an audience: “Whether people listening to the radio in their homes and cars, or readers spread out all over the country, or an audience gathered in one room.

“There’s actually something profoundly important about the way that music gets everybody’s heartbeat and breathing in sync,” says Shapiro. “Like, if you’re at an arena concert, and everyone’s dancing to the music together, suddenly everyone in that space is following not the rhythm of their heart pumping inside of them, but the rhythm of the song that everyone is moving to, together.” Cabaret is not an arena concert, he admits. But it still uses music as a tool for bringing people together.

Finding commonality seems especially important today. “There are very powerful forces that encourage us to retreat into our own corners and see anybody who disagrees with us as an enemy,” Shapiro says. Those forces, he says, include social media algorithms and political parties. “We get points for dunking on someone we perceive as an opponent,” he says. By listening to one another, he says, we can overcome some of what so often tears us apart.

“I’m absolutely an optimist,” Shapiro says. When reporting for NPR, it’s the listening that he loves: “Every day I go out and listen to people and share what they have to say with an audience who hopefully finds some meaning and value in it.”

Ari Shapiro on the Art of Listening - The Provincetown Independent (3)

Thank You for Listening includes a combination of Taylor Swift’s song “You Need to Calm Down” and recitations of excerpts of hate mail he’s received for his work on NPR. He treasures his hate mail, he says, because it means that people are listening. They are paying attention.

And perhaps there’s an element of nostalgia at play. In the early 2000s, as an editorial assistant working overnights on Morning Edition, one of Shapiro’s jobs was to forward emails from listeners to reporters who the messages were addressed to. “I got to see all of the vile, mean, hateful things that listeners were writing about journalists who I worshiped and admired,” he says.

A few years later, when he became a reporter, he started getting hate mail of his own. He felt he had arrived. His standard reply to hate mail, as the person monitoring the Morning Edition email inbox, was: “Thank you for listening.”

Tune In

The event: Ari Shapiro’s solo cabaret show, Thank You for Listening
The time: Friday, June 28, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, June 29, 6:30 p.m.
The place: The Gifford House, 9 Carver St., Provincetown
The cost: $35 at giffordsprovincetown.com

Ari Shapiro on the Art of Listening - The Provincetown Independent (2024)

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