“This American Life” host talks dancing, podcasting and onstage storytelling before the final performance of 'Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host'
Back in the '90s, “This American Life” creator and host Ira Glass decided to take his popular public radio show on the road, staging live performances that became more elaborate with each iteration. In 2014, a stage show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music featured a mini opera written by Glass' cousin Philip Glass, a musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and more.
Those experiences gave Glass the confidence to pursue a theater project with fewer performers but a no-less-ambitious premise. “It's me and two dancers, and I tell stories, and they dance. That's it in a nutshell,” Glass said recently by phone, describing “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host,” which visits the Wexner Center on Saturday, March 11.
Since staging the debut at Carnegie Hall in 2013, Glass and dancers Anna Bass and Monica Bill Barnes have traveled the world together, giving more than 60 performances of “Three Acts.” Over four years, the three have repeatedly tweaked the show, and even though Glass said the Wexner Center date will likely be their final performance, he and the dancers added two new numbers just a month ago.
“The kind of stories I tell are just like the stories on the radio, where there's quotes from people and there's music running underneath,” Glass said. “It feels like an episode of a radio show, but a really good one — like, one we worked years on.”
Combining radio with dance may sound abstract, Glass said, but in the show, the mash-up feels natural. “The dancing adds a layer of story on top of what's being said. It's not like they're illustrating what's happening,” Glass said, and gave an example. “There's a story where writer Donald Hall is talking to me about taking care of his wife when she was sick with cancer, and ultimately when she died.And as he's reading this, what you're seeing is not Monica and Anna acting out what he's saying, but they do this very slow dance standing on top of a fully set dining room table.
“It's really beautiful and somehow goes with what he's saying without illustrating it. It just makes it better and more intense and more emotional. The whole show is like that.”
Theatrical dramas tend to rely on grandiose gestures onstage, but Glass said “Three Acts” maintains the casual, understated tone employed on “This American Life.” To do that, Glass has to constantly remind himself to “keep it small.”
“When you go into a theater, and you're standing onstage in front of 2,000 people, you naturally want to talk louder, even though you have a microphone,” he said. “But actually all the stories work better if they're told in a conversational tone of voice.”
Glass also puts himself in a more vulnerable place onstage by using moments from his private life in the performance. “I don't often talk about myself on the radio,” he said, “whereas in this show … I talk about my own marriage.”
Similarly, the dancers expose their own inner thoughts. “My favorite thing in the show is this interview I did with Anna where she's talking about what's going through their heads as they move around the stage,” Glass said. “They're so perfectly synchronized, and she describes how competitive they are. It totally makes you see them differently. It adds a layer of meaning to what's in front of your eyes.”
With the advent of podcasting, the popularity of “This American Life” has surged in recent years. The radio show, co-produced by Chicago Public Media, is responsible for launching one of the most listened-to podcasts of all time, “Serial.” This month, Glass said the show will launch another spin-off hosted by “This American Life” senior producer Brian Reed called “S-Town.”
“It's as good as ‘Serial,' and it's as different as ‘Serial' was when it happened,” Glass said. “It definitely is inventing a new way to tell a story.”
As other narrative podcasts (some of which are run by former “This American Life” staffers) launch and grow, Glass said he's not yet threatened by shows that occupy a similar storytelling space that he helped pioneer on public radio. But “the day is coming,” he said, citing friends doing great work at podcasts like “Radiolab,” NPR's “Invisibilia” Gimlet Media's “Reply All” and, more recently, The New York Times' “The Daily.”
“So far I haven't gotten to the point where I feel left in the dust,” Glass said. “I'm glad for the competition. I'm a competitive person. I welcome it.”