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Madeline Miller
Photo by Nina Subin

Novelist and NEA Big Read author

In Circe --Madeline Miller’s second novel and our newest NEA Big Read title—the goddess/witch moves from the sidelines of The Odyssey to the center stage of her own story. Miller knows and loves the classics and Circe is an imaginative response to questions Miller had about the exiled goddess. She doesn’t change the story so much as expand it and give us Circe's back story. For example, Circe still turns men into pigs, as she does in Homer’s telling, but in Miller’s book she gives us the context behind this piece of magic. Miller and I talk about gods and mortals, the fine distinctions between witches and goddesses, what shifts when you put a woman’s story in an epic frame, the timelessness and timeliness of these myths, and why every woman should have a lion. She is engaging, fun and funny—in other words, she’s a great addition to the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program and a super podcast guest.

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Photo courtesy of Pam Muñoz Ryan

Award-winning children’s and young adult writer

For young adult novelist Pam Muñoz Ryan, a multi-cultural perspective comes naturally. She grew up in Bakersfield, California, with her grandmother who was an Oklahoma pioneer woman moving in as she grew older, and a big extended family nearby anchored by her other grandmother, Esperanza, who was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Muñoz Ryan based her novel Esperanza Rising on her Mexican grandmother’s life, and it’s become a classic of young people’s literature—taught in schools and beloved in homes throughout the country. She has written over 40 books, and she casts a wide net in terms of subjects: from the childhood of Pablo Neruda in The Dreamer, to a young kid living in a trailer in Oklahoma in Becoming Naomi Leon, to the magical realism of Echo in which three young people in pre-World War II Germany and post-Pearl Harbor America are connected by an enchanted harmonica. But whatever the topic, Muñoz Ryan knows how to write for young people; her respect for them and the way they move in the world is enormous, and it’s reflected in her writing. (She has the awards to prove it; it’s a staggering list!) In this episode of the podcast, Muñoz Ryan talks about her upbringing, learning the histories of both her grandmothers, her writing in general and writing for young readers in particular. She’s fun, thoughtful, and full of stories.

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Photo courtesy of Vermillion Films

Documentary Filmmaker

Documentary Filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky is the daughter of two deaf parents and the mother of a deaf son. Clearly she has thought long and deeply about deafness; as she says, “I’ve never known a life without deafness in it.” Her first feature documentary, the award-winning Hear and Now, told the moving story of Brodsky’s deaf parents, their decision in their mid-60s decision to have cochlear implants that allowed them to hear, and the consequences of that decision. In some ways she has returned to that topic with her latest film, Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements. It’s another family story that centers on her deaf son’s desire to play Ludwig von Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" interwoven with the story of her father growing old and forgetful, and Beethoven's life the year he was affected by deafness and wrote the iconic sonata. In this podcast, we go behind the scenes of the film with Brodsky and discuss it as a portrait of the place of sound and silence in life.

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Photo by Smeeta Mahanti

Novelist and 2016 NEA Literature Fellow

Novelist and 2016 NEA Literature Fellow R.O. Kwon's first novel, The Incendiaries, was ten years in the making. But that persistence and hard work paid off: the debut novel was named a best book of the year by over 40 publications. It’s a vivid, dark story that deals with faith, loss, a fractured love, and fanaticism. But Kwon herself is anything but dark. Talking about that ten-year journey of writing The Incendiaries, she told me she would wonder, ”Why didn’t I become a dermatologist? I would have been a good dermatologist. I love thinking about skincare.” It’s one of the funny asides that pepper this conversation in which she is also thoughtful about herself and about writing. We find out about the genesis of the book—the loss of her deep Christian faith and her grief over that loss, her deep love for fiction, and her sadness that when she was growing up there were so few Asian-American writers for her to model a career on. Kwon also shares how her love of language tripped up her writing in the novel's early drafts and some of the strategies she used to keep going. It’s a wide-ranging conversation with an engaging, thoughtful, and smart author.

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Photo by Gregg Mizuta

2019 National Heritage Fellow Basque musician and tradition bearer

2019 National Heritage Fellow Basque musician, teacher and restauranteur Dan Ansotegui brings his passion for the Basque culture into everything he does. But he also sees culture as a breathing entity—not something set in amber. The roots of the tree may come from the Basque Region, but those leaves are growing in Boise, Idaho. Ansotegui is a great talker. In this podcast, ­learn about Basque music, dancing, and food (he does it all!) and the deep social connections these traditions give a community.

Rosa Joshi
Courtesy of Folger Theatre

Theater Director

Director Rosa Joshi is a lover of classical theater, particularly the work of William Shakespeare. She is also committed to producing theater in which the cast reflects the demographics of the audience, and she is passionate about creating work that has big, juicy roles for women. That might pose a dilemma to a director who is driven by the text of the play—as Joshi is. But she approaches casting creatively—casting actors of colors in all roles and switching the gender of the play’s characters—so that in her current production of I Henry IV at the Folger Theatre, Wooster, Poins, and Vernon are played by women. Additionally, she is one of the founders of the Upstart Crow Collective—a theater group that creates classical work in which all the parts are played by women. That creative flexibility is one of the reasons Joshi loves theater. As she noted, “There’s nothing you can’t do if you ask the audience to engage their imagination.” Listen to my conversation with Joshi about theater, imagination, Shakespeare, and I Henry IV. Her passion is contagious!

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Photo by Edwin Remsberg

 

2019 National Heritage Fellow and decoy carver

2019 National Heritage Fellow Rich Smoker has been carving decoys for half a century. He is one of the people who elevated this utilitarian craft to an art form. Rich is a self-described river rat: he grew up along the Susquehanna River in rural Pennsylvania and now lives alongside the Annemessex River in the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland—an area with long and strong tradition of decoy carving. Rich spends hours on the river observing wildlife and pouring through his massive collection of books and images. He’s able to bring those observations and research to his art and realize his vision. Rich is a master of both utilitarian and decorative carving—winning over 500 hundred ribbons, 100 best-in-show awards and a best-in-the world award. But he is also committed to passing this art form to others, particularly younger people and has taught upwards of 2000 students. Rich Smoker is a natural-born storyteller who frequently turns his humor on himself. In this podcast, we learn about his passions: for nature, for carving and for telling a good yarn.

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Photo courtesy of Algonquin Books

NEA Literature Fellow, Big Read author, 2013 National Medal of Arts recipient

Twenty-five years ago, Julia Alvarez published In the Time of the Butterflies, which was chosen as a Big Read title in 2010. Set in the Dominican Republic, In the Time of the Butterflies is a fictionalized account of the Mirabal sisters, three of whom were murdered by henchmen of dictator Rafael Trujillo for their resistance to his regime. The girls were known in the underground by their codename “Las Mariposas,” or butterflies. Their story was very close to Avarez's own. She spent her childhood in the Dominican Republic, but her family got out. In this podcast, Julia Alvarez discusses how In the Time of the Butterflies came to be, the rich source material she finds in her family's immigrant experience, and how her life as a reader led to her life as a writer.

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Photo courtesy of J. Dash

Musician, composer, producer, and arts advocate

You might know J. Dash as the man who wrote and performed the double platinum song “WOP,” but that hardly scratches the surface. J. is a musician, composer, and producer who is also a great advocate for arts education. He works with schools in his hometown city of Jacksonville, Florida, and his current town of Austin, Texas. And J is a longtime volunteer with the National Association of Music Merchants’ Foundation, or NAAM, making yearly trips to Congress to lobby for more Title IV funds and working with students trying to break into the music industry. Even though he is best-known in the hip hop world, J. Dash is also a big fan of jazz and blues (he used to play in a blues band). And he also has begun to score films and television shows. Have I mentioned he has a parallel career as a computer scientist? What sparks his creativity and how does he juggle all the aspects of his careers? Listen to the podcast and find out…..

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Photo courtesy of The Highwood Theatre

Artistic Director of The Highwood Theatre

Matt Nicola, the artistic director of the Highwood Theatre, believes deeply in the company’s double-pronged philosophy: “anyone can do theater” and “theater builds community.” Highwood is an educational theater with classes for students from kindergarten to 12th grade covering all aspects of theater, from acting to lighting to set and sound design to directing. In addition, the students put on 12-13 full-fledged shows a year, taking care of all aspects of the production with some guidance from theater professionals. The shows are sophisticated—these students are performing in shows like Sweeney Todd and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. They are also uniformly very well-received, which is a bit of surprise since there are no auditions for the student productions. Whoever signs up, gets a part. But Highwood has discovered that given an opportunity and a certain amount of guidance, students are capable of extraordinary things. In this week’s podcast, you can hear about what theater teaches students, and what the students teach Nicola and the rest of the Highwood staff.

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Photo by Michael G. Stewart

Dancer, choreographer, executive director of Urban Artistry and of Next Level

Junious Brickhouse is a dancer, choreographer, and executive director of two cultural organizations—Urban Artistry and Next Level. He’s a powerhouse who is on a mission to teach and preserve urban dance traditions. There’s no question that urban dance is a vibrant and creative art form, and it’s one that’s deeply rooted in community. It is extremely democratic allowing people to tell their own stories through dance. Brickhouse sees hip-hop as modern folk art, and he is clear about its connection to the blues. As he says, like the blues, hip hop ”is rooted in our communities about things that makes us laugh and things that make us cry.” His realization of that connection brought Brickhouse to NEA Heritage Fellow and Piedmont Blues harmonica player Phil Wiggins. And he is now also dancing to the blues as part of Wiggins’ House Party. I spoke with Brickhouse backstage at an urban dance competition that he was hosting. It was a perfect setting for a dynamic conversation about urban dance both in community and around the world, his own experiences as a dancer, and his dedication to documenting hip hop’s deep value to American culture.

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Photo courtesy of Stephanie Kline

Marine Corps veteran and comedian

Marine Corps veteran Stephanie Kline is a DC-based stand-up comic. At loose ends after leaving the Marine Corps and then dealing with the end of her marriage, Stephanie turned to comedy through a workshop with the Armed Services Artists Partnership. There she found the camaraderie she had been missing and she found a way to tell her story that provoked laughter not pity from the audience. It’s not an easy path. As Stephanie says in the podcast, ”for a lot of us, we are taking some of the most painful experiences and issues, we are breaking them down and putting them together in a way to get people to laugh. That is terrifying…. (But) I think the response of laughter really helps build us back up.” Stephanie Kline talks about her time with the Marine Corps and the different kind of strength it takes to get up on a stage and let it all hang out. She’s also very funny.

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Photo courtesy of Dr Nina Kraus

Neurobiologist and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University

Dr. Nina Kraus is a professor of neurobiology at Northwestern University where she directs the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, also known as Brainvolts. She has made the study of how we biologically process sound her life’s work. She and the Brainvolts’ team have conducted long-term, multi-year studies looking at the brainwaves of children and found that making music—whether with instrument or voice—actually makes biological changes to the way the brain processes sound which, in turn, strengthens the ability of the brain to better apprehend the depth and breadth of language and speech. Simply put, creating music builds our capacity to turn sound into meaning. Nina is passionate about sound—she remembers as a child sitting under her mother’s piano as she played. She brings that same sense of wonder and excitement to her rigorous biological research, and you’ll hear it throughout the podcast…which is a perfect way to explore the way we process sound.

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Photo © Tony Powell

Sculptor and three-time NEA grant recipient

Sculptor and three-time NEA grantee Ursula von Rydingsvard’s art is unlike anything else. While she works with all manner of organic material—including the fourth stomach of a cow—von Rydingsvard is best known for creating large-scale, often monumental sculpture from 4x4 cedar beams. These are cut, stacked, assembled, glued, and laminated before being rubbed with graphite. The result are textured, many-faceted surfaces, work that’s both sensuous and massive—that at once conveys solidity and movement. Born in Germany during World War II to a Polish mother and Ukrainian father who spent time in a Nazi labor camp, von Rydingsvard and her family made their way to the United States after years in refugee camps. She senses a connection between her work and Poland—much of her work is given Polish names—but the connections are so subtle that’s she’s unsure of their meanings herself. In this podcast, we talk about von Rydingsvard’s four-decade long career. She explains how she makes her labor-intensive massive sculptures, her early years as an artist when she was poor but joyful about creating art, the importance of her NEA grants, coming to the U.S. as a child of seven, and why she began to make art with the fourth stomach of a cow.

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Photo credit Fireworks by Grucci

President and pyrotechnician at Fireworks by Grucci

Fireworks are such a wonderful amalgam of artistry, science and tradition; and, for six generations the Grucci family has been lighting up the skies with innovative pyrotechnics. Just in time for July 4, I speak with President and CEO of Fireworks by Grucci Phil Grucci and his daughter Lauren who is a pryrotechnician and photographer. In today’s podcast, we learn how the Grucci family put these glorious displays together. From the Brooklyn Bridge centennial to the bicentennial of “The Star Spangled Banner” and all the July 4 celebrations in-between, Phil and Lauren take us behind the scenes of these spectacles of color and light: we learn about the innovations they led in pyrotechnics, the amount of planning that goes into each event, the magic when it all comes together, and the family history that remains at the center of the work. It’s a great way to celebrate July 4!

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