Photo of Jennifer Brennan, Director of Literary Programs at Symphony SpaceBy Claudie Benjamin

Evoking the joy of having a story read to you as a child, Selected Shorts are literary performances that, since 1985, have been wowing audiences at the Symphony Space Theater located at 2537 Broadway at 95th Street.

The innovative format involves a series of 9-12 dramatic readings performed each year. The carefully curated selection of writing is culled from short fiction published in magazines such as The New Yorker and Atlantic Magazine as well as those produced by university presses and appearing on both small press and big publishing house book lists. Writing considered to have both outstanding quality and performance-potential is a decision made by Jennifer Brennan, Director of Literary Programs at Symphony Space, and her literary team. Brennan has held the director position for the past seven years and started on the team in 2009.

The group includes staff and interns, who all spend hours and days reading “all the short fiction we can get our hands on,” said Brennan. The works are from different eras and around the globe. Some are suggested by individuals or groups and guest curators that partner with Selected Shorts. Brennan explained that a big spreadsheet is developed organizing these by keywords so that the selections in the category of “Fathers” for example, can be retrieved and considered for an episode on fathers and daughters.

A key goal, Brennan explained, is to create a season that offers a variety of tones and themes that may include both light-hearted and intensely serious works with psychological and social relevance. Usually, one actor performs each work, but sometimes two or three are involved. Depending on the length of a work, more than one piece may be read.

The description on the theater’s website for a February 7th event reads: “The Most Celebrated Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer of Her Generation” (The New York Times) joins forces with Selected Shorts for an unforgettable evening of boundary-pushing short fiction. Actors of stage and screen perform stories including the Ursula K. Le Guin classic “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and Jemisin’s story in conversation with Le Guin’s, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight.” With readings by Teagle F. Bougere (Debate: Baldwin vs. Buckley), Catherine Cohen (The Twist …? She’s Gorgeous), Hugh Dancy (Law & Order), Jin Ha (Pachinko), and more.

The actors who read the fiction are mostly seasoned stage performers. TV actors have a different type of experience because the material is edited. Many actors have been engaged with the program for years. “We like to encourage new actors to perform with veterans of Selected Shorts,” Brennan said.

What makes a really good, even magical, match between an actor and the story they read is intangible but extraordinary when it happens. In this regard, Brennan points to

“The Foghorn,” by Ray Bradbury, performed by Javier Muñoz. Brennan commented, “Javier gave a powerful reading. It was a superb fit.” Actress Ellen Burstyn also gave an extraordinary reading of Margaret Atwood’s “Widows.” On the night that story was performed, the actor and writer met for the first time. “It was pretty cool,” said Brennan.

It’s not unusual for a contemporary, living writer to attend the performance of a story they’ve written. Some are surprised about how their work is conveyed and moved by the audience’s reaction. Brennan loves to see the interaction between the writer and actor after the show.

Performers with Symphony Space are given some tips to help guide their reading. “‘He said’ and ‘she said,’” Brennan explained are often read best as asides.

The programming is delivered live and as a weekly public radio show broadcast on over 150 stations to about 300,000 listeners. The episodes of the show are also produced as a podcast. Each of these formats has different production requirements resulting in some differences, for example, in the exact 60-minute timing required for radio and some words that cannot be spoken on radio are not restricted in podcasts. In recorded formats, producers aim to convey the spontaneity of a live performance even when the introduction to a work aired on the radio is recorded by the host in a studio. The rotating roster of live show hosts includes notables of the literary world. Among them is novelist Meg Wolitzer, who is host of the radio show and podcast and whose books include “The Wife” and “The Female Persuasion.” She is also an Upper West Sider.

Selected Shorts also goes on tour to 8-9 cities a year, including summer vacation venues in places near the city like the Berkshires and the Hamptons and also to LA, Dallas, Boston and other parts of the country.

So, are you in the mood for something literary with a twist? Pick your format and enjoy a Selected Short seated in your armchair or in a theater with lights turned down. What an enriching way to spend an hour or so!

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