Isaiah Sheffer, R.I.P.

After I moved back into Manhattan proper from Brooklyn (circa ’86 or so), one of my regular  treats was attending the Selected Shorts series at Symphony Space. I liked it so much I even bought season tickets for several years. The only other venues I attended with such regularity were the hiphop clubs downtown, and this was a very different experience. No frisk at the door, for starters. The audience – a packed house at every performance, by the way – was split between  elderly, West Side intellectual types and, for some reason I never figured out, huge packs of teen-aged/twenty-something Indian-American or Pakistani-American women. Go figure.

Isaiah Sheffer would mount the stage and introduce the actors reading the stories; on a good night, he’d be one of the readers. The performances (directed by Sheffer) were almost always fine – beautifuly paced, well-thought-out readings.

Before the doors opened, I would take a leisurely stroll around the block to prepare, wander in to a seat, lean back, and close my eyes (I find watching anything while I’m listening to it quite distracting). Bliss, it was.

The performances so impressed me that I once badgered Mr. Sheffer into having lunch, and I asked him – as one spoken word producer to another – how he managed to get such stunning performances from different actors at each performance. “We rehearse. Sometimes just once, but if possible, two or threee times. I give notes, we talk, we make it work.” It had never occurred to me; in advertising, and radio advertising especially, actors saw the script as they stepped up to the microphone. No rehearsal, discussion or any suchlike. Read it and get out, pal. I couldn’t get rehearsal time for advertising (then or now), but it was enlightening to find out how one of the great pros did it. And, I got to lunch with one of the best.

I began buying cassettes of the performances as soon as Symphony Space started selling them. One of the first had Sheffer reading Roy Blount Jr’s story “Things In The Wrong Hands.”

Take a listen (11 meg download). It’s truly awesome (timing! emphasis!) and wildly funny; “My sister… is glued… to the dry cleaners!”

This audio is up without permission; if you’re the owner and want me to take it down, just let me know. It’s offered here as a reminder of a talented man recently gone. I mean only respect.


One thought on “Isaiah Sheffer, R.I.P.

  1. As soon as I heard that Isaiah Sheffer had died, I immediately recalled his reading of Things in the Wrong Hands. My children were little and loved the tape of the story so much, they can recite it with his intonations. It still make me laugh out loud. Thank you Mr. Sheffer, for all of the enjoyment you gave me on Sunday mornings listening to all of the short stories.

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