There are certain names canonically associated with dance: Mikhail Baryshnikov. Fred Astaire. George Balanchine. Bob Fosse. Ira Glass. Alright, that last one doesn't exactly fit the bill, but the bespectacled host of This American Life has entered the realm of dance with his new touring show Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, which comes to the Paramount Theatre this Saturday, April 11. The performance mixes Glass's signature knack for storytelling with the expressive dance of Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass for a one-of-a-kind live experience.
In anticipation of the show, we chatted with Glass about the origins of this unique performance, his struggles adapting to the routine of live repetition, Katy Perry, and his lack of improv comedy chops.
What was the impetus for Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host? Did you meet the dancers and just decide to collaborate or was there a specific mashup or hybrid performance that inspired you to want to do something like this?
The impetus was seeing them perform and just thinking, “Oh, I understand them completely.” I don’t have that feeling very often; a feeling like I totally understand the aesthetics of this and really like it. There’ve been writers who I’ve had that with. When I first saw David Sedaris read—back before he was famous, in a tiny little club—I was like, “I very much understand this thing he’s doing.” You know what I mean? But I’ve never had that with a completely visual artist, to be sitting there and to think, “I totally get this.” That was a huge part of it. And that’s what got me excited. It just seemed exciting the thought of working together. And before we did this thing, I actually concocted an entire thing that we did for an episode of This American Life onstage that we beamed into movie theaters.
How does this show's experience differ for you when compared to when you tour and do more traditional speaking engagement style shows? Does it hit a different type of performance nerves?
Yeah. For one thing is it’s a real show show, like with lighting cues. It’s very tightly put together. And so I’m having, for the first time in my life, the experience of having to perform something over and over. There are a couple of places in the show where I’m allowed to ad lib, but really there’re huge swaths of the show where it’ll mess things up if I ad lib. So I really have to stick to my lines. So I’ve had to learn to be a performer.
I know people who go onstage for a living as actors, and I feel like I never really understood that job until now; trying to seem sincere while you’re saying the same words that you said three weeks before in Pittsburgh. It’s hard and it’s interesting. And when it works it’s very zen, to be just as alive in it as I would be if I’d never said it before. I’m a radio person, so usually I'm saying the stuff I’m saying for the very first time out loud when I say it on the radio. You know, I’ll read it to somebody a couple times to see if it works. We’ll do edits on it, and I’ll read it out loud, but really, usually I write it and then within a day I’m recording it and it’s on the radio. So that’s really different.
And then it’s a much more consistently funny and emotional show than when I go out and give a speech or something, which is usually how I’ll appear in front of an audience. I’ll be at some fundraiser giving a speech, where this is like a show. It has the feeling of an episode of the radio show, when the radio show’s really working and there’s really an emotional one. There’re really funny parts and then there’re very touching parts. Because if you think about the problem of combining what I do with what they do, you don’t dance about stuff that’s everyday. You dance about stuff where there’s a lot of feeling to it. They’re very much about documenting everyday moments in their dances: good old human moments of awkwardness and things like that.
Is there any sort of process to help get you into a headspace to handle the repetition of it?
I mean, we run the show in the afternoon. Honestly, when it starts, I have this feeling of like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe we’re doing this again.” It’s like saying you have to walk a few miles before you get to have a snack or something. It’s totally like, “Take a deep breath.” And it’s really hard to do the show with nobody in the theater, too. But you have to run it because it’s a different crew in every city, and they have to run the tech and everybody’s got to learn what they’re doing. It’s good if you’re a performer to be fresh; to re-be inside the show and get inside of it again.
And so we run it... I hate it so much. Whereas the dancers are just like, “What are you talking about? This is our job. How could it be any other way?” I just can’t believe we have to do this again. And then doing the rehearsal the afternoon of, I just want to kill myself. I can’t believe that I’ve agreed to do this thing, and why are doing this, and it’s so miserable… and then two hours later, we’re finished and the theater has 2,000 people in it, and then it’s completely alive and it’s totally electric. And then it’s like… “Oh wait, oh wait. Oh right, right, that’s right. It’s fun to do. It’s fun to be onstage.” And I go through that cycle as if I were nine years old—not even nine—as if I were four years old, and I don’t remember. And now I’m at the point where I do remember, like, “No. When we do it tonight, it’s going to be really fun; I just hate this.” But like honestly, even telling myself that I don’t totally… it’s hard.
So you're sort of developing a sympathy for, like, the musical acts that no longer want to play their big hit. Like how Modest Mouse doesn't like playing “Float On.” You’re like, “Okay, I kind of get that now.”
Oh, I totally get that. I talk about that at one point in the show, about how like Katy Perry never needs to hear the song “Firework” ever again in her life. If she’s in an elevator and it comes on the elevator, if she’s in a store and it comes on, she doesn’t go, “Oh cool! Business is good.” All she thinks is like, (exhaperatedly) “Oh my god.” Especially since the Super Bowl! After you perform “Firework” with fireworks at the Super Bowl, it just feels like they should retire the jersey of that song. She should never have to sing it again. And, poor girl, she’s going to be singing it again until she’s out of show business.
It’s a grind. You're just getting a little taste of it.
I’m getting a little tiny taste of it. But it’s also super interesting in this weird way. It’s nice to be in a show that somebody else directed. Here at the radio show, it’s a collaboration, and we all make it together. But this very much is like Monica’s show. We brainstormed a lot about ideas, but she’s a really good director with a really funny, great sense of things. It’s nice that I’m not trying to make the final call on things. That’s a pleasure.
So has the experience of this show led you to feel like, “Okay, I’ve done this now. I don’t need to do anything like this for a while. I’ll get out of this whole repetition process"? Or has it immediately got you thinking about other kinds of hybrid performances you could do?
It makes me want to think of other things. In fact, I got dragged into this one. And by dragged into, I mean they asked and I immediately said yes. People who work with David Byrne are putting together this thing where it’s color guard. Do you know what that is? It’s like the halftime show with the flags and the batons that they throw in the air. And basically they’re taking ten color guard teams at the Barclay Center—this arena here in New York—and doing a thing where they’re having pop musicians and other musicians make music for these teams to perform to. So I got paired with this classical musician named Nico Muhly, whose work I love, and we were paired with a color guard team from upstate New York. And I’m going to do what I do with the dancers, which is, there are points in the show where you hear them talking. You hear recordings of me interviewing them about what it’s like to perform their parts as you see them perform. And we’re going to basically do that with this team of young people, where I’m going to interview them about their jobs and about their relationships with each other, and Nico is going to set it to music.
It has totally created an appetite for weirder and even less money-paying opportunities. It’s really hard to imagine from public broadcasting you could go to something that pays less, but I feel like modern dance was a step in that direction. The only thing I feel like would take me further that way is if I start to do poetry. I’m going to try to cross that out as well.
Just do poetry at standup open mics. Only. Exclusively.
Standup open mics. I can see that happening.
If you really want to grind it out.
Have you done that? Are you saying that because you’ve done that?
Yeah, it was one of things that I was like, “I’ve never done it before and don’t really have any strong desire to do so, bit it seems like something that would be hard.”
Touché. I just took an improv comedy class.
How did that go?
I’m not very talented. That’s what I learned. (Laughs) I learned that I have certain strengths and weaknesses in my life, and I get really panicky in that situation.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Obviously you should print whatever you want, but I just want to say, like, I know the show doesn’t sound like it would be good. That it’s combining radio stories and dance. I think a lot of people hear “dance,” and they just think “Okay, that’s not for me” and “It’s going to be hard.” I swear it’s good; that it feels like an episode of the radio show, and that the dance is not corny and, in fact, has a really nice quality to it that is just as awake and smart and fun as the radio show.
Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host
Apr 11 at 8, Paramount Theatre, $23–51