To unlock the mysteries of color, Isaac Newton, then 22, took a stiletto knife and pressed the flat side firmly against his pupil as he stared at the sun. When he took the knife away, he began to see myriad colors, lights and dashes, which made him wonder if his eye stored light that he had just squeezed out like water from a sponge. Or, to put it more bluntly: What the hell just happened?
Radiolab co-host and co-creator Robert Krulwich tells this story over the phone soon after he himself heard it while researching a potential opening act for the public-radio program’s latest live theater performance, Radiolab Live: In the Dark, which explores the nature of light and dark.
“That’s a guy that was just trying to figure out a mystery,” he says. “[Newton then asked,] ‘How am I going to figure this out when I have to use my eye to figure out what’s in my eye?” Which, of course, leads to the deeper questions: What’s in light? And where is the light?
Radiolab shines by tackling deeper questions, taking public-radio storytelling and production to a new level that includes slick sound design, unorthodox sound bites and good-cop/bad-cop-style banter between co-hosts Krulwich and Jad Abumrad. It’s an entirely new aesthetic—one that’s so intricate, they can craft only 10 full-length shows, plus as many podcast “shorts,” a year. Since its launch at public-radio station WNYC in 2005, the hour-long show has been picked up by 300 public-radio stations and has an estimated listenership of 1 million, with another 1.8 million via the podcast.
The Newton anecdote, aside from shock value, would work well—because, for one, the core of Radiolab’s stories is people; science is secondary, although it’s often labeled as a “science show.”
“I think we are a point between things: science and philosophy,” Abumrad says. “I think we are interested in science, but not in an applied sort of way. I wouldn’t call us science journalists. Where the tug is really tight between those two is where we are the happiest.
“You can live in the mystery of the world just by getting high and sitting in your dorm room and kind of thinking half-baked thoughts about the world,” he continues. “It’s fun to want that feeling, but do it through science inquiry, because you get yourself broiled in all of these thick, meaty ideas.” The duo has previously delved into topics such as “Altruism,” “Time” and “Morality” on the show.
“Our trick is that we just do it in front of the audience,” Krulwich says. “The audience gets to hear what it’s like to be curious out loud, which is the reporter’s privilege.” Every story starts with deceptively simple questions, which, in a way, are an invitation to listeners who know nothing about these topics, Krulwich says.
“If you air your dirty underwear in front of the audience, it is weirdly inviting,” Abumrad says.
In the Dark does that, and in front of a live audience. Abumrad and Krulwich narrate stories about the evolution of the eye, a NASA astronaut’s experience of being locked out of his space shuttle, and the two contrasting viewpoints on blindness of two men who went blind.
It’s also “a bigger party than we usually have,” Krulwich says. Dance troupe Pilobolus uses a free-form modern-dance language—“They are almost like dancing journalists sometimes,” Krulwich says—creating images, including jellyfish, to evoke lightness and darkness. Emcee/comedian Demetri Martin uses his sly wit, while San Francisco-based indie-rocker Thao Nguyen conducts a live score.
In recent years, Abumrad has publicly discussed his admiration for graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, who takes a year-long sabbatical every seven years and then changes his aesthetic for the sake of creativity. When asked if Radiolab’s direction to a stage-centric performance a similar evolution, Abumrad says, “There have been times when I’ve felt like [that], but not anymore. Now, I think it’s just implicit in what we do.” Change needs to be built into the institution, he says—and there is a bit of a paradox there.
“We became Radiolab as just two guys fuckin’ around, to be perfectly honest. And we didn’t really have a plan,” Abumrad says. “We just knew we wanted to be slightly different with noises that were coming out of the radio—different moods, beats and relationship among the two guys talking.
“I think the stage show is very pure with the beginnings of [Radiolab],” he continues. “It’s a situation where we didn’t know the rules, and we’re just figuring it out. As long as we have enough of that in our lives, I think we’re just ... happy, to put it simply.”
RADIOLAB LIVE: IN THE DARK
w/ Pilobolus, Demetri Martin, Thao Nguyen
50 W. 200 South
Wednesday & Thursday, April 4-5, 7:30 p.m.