You don’t expect This American Life—the storytelling radio show that’s been delighting millions of intellectual hipsters for nearly 20 years on public radio stations across the country—to tweak its format.
Why mess with the thing that helped make David Sedaris famous? Why add some weird, new element? Or, as host Ira Glass says in an ad that’s been flooding our local station, KNPR 88.9-FM, “Nobody listens to my radio show thinking, ‘You know what this needs is some dancers.’”
His statement seems comically self-evident. ’Cause, you know, ya can’t see radio. Yet, somebody must’ve thought it was a good idea. Or else there’d be no way to account for Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, the stage show that has toured intermittently since debuting at Carnegie Hall in 2013. It will be stopping at The Smith Center on January 17, and yes, it consists of Glass telling stories while two dancers … dance.
“When the audience shows up, there’s a sense of, ‘We really don’t know if we’ve wasted our money,’” Glass says in a recent phone interview. “[When] you add a dancer, for so many people that’s like adding a modern poet or adding spoken-word poetry—something where people think, ‘that’s not for me.’ … Everybody walks in the room with a huge question mark that I feel hovering above our heads. [After] about 13 minutes, we flip ’em, and it’s satisfying.”
That right there, what just happened, is the genius of a master storyteller at work. No, not the fact that Glass could successfully combine dance with a proven style of radio, but the fact that he created this meta narrative that pulls you, the listener/potential ticket buyer, into the drama of whether his underdog experiment can even work. How wacky is it? Will audiences understand? Find out for yourself by buying tickets!
But when you do a little research into what this storytelling-dance combo actually entails, you realize that of course it makes sense. According to the show’s website (3Acts2Dancers1RadioHost.com), the program consists of three acts, exploring “the job of being a performer”; “falling in love and what it means to stay in love”; and “nothing lasts forever.” Performance photos are appropriately joyous and quirky—exactly what you’d picture if you closed your eyes and imagined what public radio might look like. Additionally, once you’ve migrated the stuff of radio to a stage, there is nothing unexpected about upping the visuals by adding a little dance (and confetti) to the proceedings. Glass himself says that theatergoers get “an experience that’s pretty much exactly like the radio show … the dancing just makes the whole thing more intense.”
Director, choreographer and dancer Monica Bill Barnes expands on the ease of merging these two mediums: “A lot of our audiences are not dance audiences. The show wants, at its heart, to welcome anybody. It purposely opens itself up. … We wanted to create a performance experience that was really unusual. I don’t actually think people need to be big modern dance fans or need to know the radio show. It’s just a charming night of talking. It’s funny and a little bit sad.”
As director and choreographer, Barnes faced the practical challenge of “putting two art forms together that nobody asked to be put together.” She says: “It’s really tricky to understand how to make the movement and the language not be repetitive. It felt really important that we weren’t [just] narrating the stories. The stories could stand alone and the movement could stand alone, but together they added up to more than the sum of their parts. It took a lot of trial to see what worked and what fell flat.”
The show’s other dancer, Anna Bass, loves her role. As associate artistic director for Monica Bill Barnes & Company Productions, she works closely with Barnes. Their company’s mission is to “celebrate individuality, humor and the innate theatricality of everyday life, and to uncover and delight in the underdog in all of us,” which could almost double as the mission of public radio. Thus this seemingly odd collaboration reveals itself to be an ever more natural fit.
Also, Bass loves stepping inside of Glass’ stories. “Ira’s storytelling combined with Monica’s choreographic storytelling is a dream come true for a performer,” Bass says. “There’s a lot of character development. We’re not just dancing, we’re really embodying different characters.”
So how does it feel for Glass to share the stage with Bass and Barnes? “It’s hard not to feel like a big construction truck that’s slowly backing up into a busy intersection, and they’re the cars that whiz around me.”
Barnes has a different perspective. “[Glass] would never say this about himself, but he really is one of the most skilled performers I’ve ever seen,” she says. “He has a stand-up comic’s sense of the audience and of pacing. It’s a pleasure to watch him gauge the audience and change his performance in subtle ways. He has such a natural way of making everything he says seem spontaneous. It’s a real pleasure to see him perform and know exactly what’s coming next, but to be hearing it as if he’s thinking and feeling it for the first time. He’s quite good.”
Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host
7:30 p.m. Jan. 17, $29-99, Reynolds Hall at The Smith Center, 702-550-7625, TheSmithCenter.com.