By The Book
LeVar Burton Reads at the Variety Playhouse

By Lee Valentine Smith

Best known as an actor, director and author, LeVar Burton has added podcaster to his list of accomplishments. He continues to be recognized for his starring role as young Kunta Kinte in the groundbreaking 1977 television miniseries Roots, as Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation and as the popular host of the long-running PBS children's series Reading Rainbow.

But Burton's constant passion is his lifetime obsession with the printed word. An avid reader in school and college, his love for storytelling is finally on full display during three seasons of LeVar Burton Reads, a successful podcast series via Stitcher.

During a break from production duties, he's taking the show on the road this fall with a cross-country trek that includes a stop at the Variety Playhouse. INsite spoke with the eloquent artist recently from his home in California.

This is a great concept, reading live on stage.

I think so. Basically it's a night of storytelling. We tested it out earlier in the year and I found out that I liked it a lot. So now we're going back out this fall and see what happens from there.

It's great that you're taking a decidedly old-school platform and digitizing it for the modern world.

Well that's kind of what podcasting is all about. It's turned content and consumption on its ear. There are a lot of podcasts and podcast festivals featuring live performances, so I feel this show fits right into that sort of presentation. It's been amazing to watch the format grow.

It is exciting especially considering some of the early live podcasts were very low key with just a couple of people sitting around a microphone. But your show is more like a variety show.

Well it is a fun evening. I start out by reading a story by a local author from the city. They're in the house and then we have a conversation. As I'm reading the story, I select a musical instrument that I think will marry itself well with the feeling or the theme or the rhythm of the story. So there's live musical accompaniment onstage. Then the author and I do a Q and A with the audience after our conversation and then we do a meet and greet. That's a pretty full evening.

How do you select the story and guest author for each city? For example, how did you select the Atlanta content?

Well the story is driven by the city itself. For Atlanta, I've just read the story and I haven't even reached out to the author yet.

So this will be as of-the-moment and fresh as possible.

Very much so. I'll do a cue to cue with the musician about 90 minutes before the show, then we're on! So there's no time for it not to seem fresh.

Very much seat-of-pants-style podcasting.

Very much so, except I'll have read the story several times and I know where I'm going with it. It really is a live storytelling experience. All the episodes we'll do live will eventually show up in the feed as well. If you're not able to be in the room on the night, which is a pretty cool experience in itself, you can still hear it later.

How do you select a story for any given episode? Do you have specific criteria for each selection?

I have to like the story and want to read it aloud. (Laughs) That's pretty much it! Hey, it's my show. My rules, right? It's just me, a story and a microphone.

Now that's the pure artistic freedom that every artist strives for.

It is! And it's only taken me 42 years in the business to achieve it!

Podcasts have really superseded radio because it's such a personal experience.

That's really true. It's a customized content, on your time, on your dime. I've found that even with including commercials, it's a situation where my voice actually compliments the product. The goal is to make the ad experience feel a bit more like a part of the content.

Very much the Paul Harvey approach. Remember him? He'd turn a liniment ad into what sounded like a breaking news story.

I loved Paul Harvey! [Drops into Harvey voice] Good ...day! He was a master at it because he was a newsman. Then Madison Avenue took over and America feel asleep. It showed that we have a tendency from then until now, that we'll believe any damned thing - if we hear it enough.

It's still strange to me that people are so easily led.

Well this is the culture that led people to believe that cigarettes were so safe, doctors were smoking in hospitals, right?

Even with The War of the Worlds, people were freaking out that the Earth was actually being invaded.

Yeah, if you say it in a convincing enough voice, some people will believe it. Even these days, if you say a lie often enough and loud enough, it has a shot at becoming a 'truth.' And that's really scary.

Let's talk about the power of reading in your life.

I've been a huge reader all of my life. I was reading even before I went to school.

Your reading level must have been so far beyond your peers, even as a first-grader.

Well the book that I cite when I really got what reading was, was Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous. I read that in third-grade and was so engrossed in the story and the characters. When I finished it, I was struck with a profound sadness because I was leaving that world. To this day, when I'm reading a particularly good piece of fiction, I consciously slow down during the last couple of chapters if I know it's one of those 'I'll be depressed when I leave this world' stories.

You continued to read as you studied the priesthood and into college.

Yeah, one of the first books I read when I got to USC was The Autobiography of Malcom X.

That was a major turning point for you.

It was because the very next year, I met Alex Haley, who was Malcom's co-author.
And Roots hadn't even been written at that point, but it was about to change your life.
Yeah, he was in the process of writing it. The Doubleday edition and the ABC miniseries came out very close to one-another, within months.

What an incredible cross-cultural moment that book and the series became. For your personally and for everyone at the same time.

It was remarkable to see a singular piece of art engage an entire nation in conversation. I'd never seen anything like it. Everybody was engaged at the same time and people were looking at it from the unique point of view of the Africans.

The Roots franchise is unique in that you were actually able to revisit it. But the original was an incredibly rare moment that tied books to television to general public discourse.

It was maybe one of the last moments where we could remember and acknowledge the moment where we all were living in and shared a common truth. These days, I don't know if we can share in a common truth anymore. But that truth was just how rueful the nature of slavery was and how the human cost was something we'd never focused on before. We had managed to anesthetize ourselves against those feelings.

Then the post-Roots period with the PBS shows led to Reading Rainbow and now here you are, reading live on tour.

Well, true to pattern, literature was involved.

That seems to be the one common theme of your life.

The written word has always played heavily in my own personal and career trajectory. And now it continues!

LeVar Burton Reads Wednesday, November 14 at the Variety Playhouse. Showtime is 7 p.m. For more information, please visit variety-playhouse.com.

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