Putting on a Show: Ira Glass steps outside ‘This American Life’ to create a stage show that combines radio and dance

By Adam Grybowski
   The first time Ira Glass helped radio collide with theater was in June 2014, when he produced a live version of his radio show, This American Life, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He called it This American Life Live, and in addition to all-star contributors like David Sedaris, Tig Notaro and David Rakoff, Mr. Glass invited two dancers on stage. Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass of Monica Bill Barnes & Company were tasked to give physical form to a medium that normally renders the human body into nothing more than a voice.
   The show was a smash, and afterward, Mr. Glass and Ms. Barnes decided to push the concept of merging dance and radio further into the creation of a full stage show. “I didn’t have confidence at all that it would work,” Mr. Glass says. “I don’t think Monica had confidence either. But once we had the idea, we wanted to find out if it could work by making it.”
   They started small, and even though they only had about 10 minutes worth of material, they agreed to premiere the piece at Carnegie Hall in 2013 after receiving an invitation from the composer Philip Glass, who is Ira’s cousin. That segment eventually expanded into Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, a full stage show that has been trotted out on mini tours ever since. Lately, Three Acts has been performed about once a month in cities across the country. It comes to McCarter Theatre in Princeton on Nov. 21.
   The mashup between radio and dance often perplexes audiences. “People come in with a question mark hanging above their heads,” Mr. Glass says. “People don’t know if they wasted their money, and you can feel that. Every single time we do the show, though, we feel the audience come over to our side. There’s a pleasure in that.”
   Three Acts has helped Mr. Glass embrace the performance aspect of his career. He says his self-conception has evolved from the beginning of his career, when he thought of himself strictly as a reporter and resented the idea of his work as some kind of show. Over time, he realized performance was simply a part of radio. “I like performing with (Monica and Anna) and it’s fun performing in a show with super-skilled people,” he says. “It’s an interesting hobby to have. I’m doing it for my pleasure as much as anything else.”
   In her performances, the classically trained Ms. Barnes likes to retain the awkwardness often inherent in social interaction, the imperfect nature of human beings trying to get by in a messy world. It’s a sensibility she shares with Mr. Glass and This American Life. “So often with dance, the art form represents grace and beauty, and people don’t identify with that,” Ms. Barnes says. “I feel a need for authenticity in performance on stage. Ira and I find a lot of inspiration in what’s relatable and what feels familiar in our own experiences.”
   Mr. Glass and Ms. Barnes, who also directs the show, each brought specific talents to the creation of Three Acts. Mr. Glass mainly handled the storytelling and Ms. Barnes the dance. Neither impeded on each other’s artistic decisions, even when they disagreed with them.
   For example, during one sequence about the physical demands dance places on the body, Ms. Barnes thought it was best to leave the dancers’ feelings open to interpretation while Mr. Glass wanted it to be stated more explicitly, the way he would do it on radio. They went with Mr. Glass’ suggestion. “The audience had a deeper understanding of the piece because of what we told them, and they responded,” Mr. Glass says. “That’s so not dance, but it was the two crafts coming into collision.”
   On the other hand, Ms. Barnes made choices while directing the show that Mr. Glass viewed with skepticism. “Plenty of times she has said stuff that I think is insane,” he says. One dance, he recalls, was originally choreographed to a sad song — the correct choice, from Mr. Glass’ perspective. “Monica thought whole show was going wrong because of that moment,” he says. “We replaced it with an upbeat song and from that moment it was better.”
   Though he now has a refined sense of storytelling, Mr. Glass had to work hard at the craft. He says it’s still something that doesn’t come naturally to him outside of the artificial construction of stories on radio and other mediums. “In nature, I’m not a great storyteller,” he says, explaining that the stories he ad libs to his wife during dinner or to friends at a party lack the timing, tone, structure and other features that make his editorial products so compelling.
   Mr. Glass studied semiotics at Brown University, where he earned his degree in 1982. “Semiotics is a pretentious body of literary theory, but it’s also a narrative theory,” he says. That education provided a bedrock of knowledge as he tried to figure out the mechanics of what made stories work. He studied how reporters constructed their stories on NPR, where he got his start in radio as an intern in Washington, D.C.
   He admits it took years before he was producing work of decent quality. Of listening to his early radio clips, he says, “I’m less good than the average reporter by far. The performance is bad. It doesn’t make sense as a story. At some point, you get a handle on it, then it’s practice and applying your taste; not enough gets said about taste.”
   Today, at This American Life, Mr. Glass says that while he and his team listen to and edit stories, a simple way to know what is and is not working is to pay close attention to how they’re responding to the piece. “Play the tape and notice where you’re bored,” he says.
   Although Three Acts is set to end its run next year in Australia, Mr. Glass and Ms. Barnes are tinkering once again, trying to decide if a movie version of the show could work. “We’re going through same process,” Glass says. Neither of them is sure the work will translate well to film. To test it, they’ve decided to film one of the dances and see how it goes. “A lot of the process,” Mr. Glass says, “is simply trying things out.”
Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host starring Ira Glass, Monica Barnes and Anna Bass will be performed a McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, on Nov. 21 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $40 to $70; 609-258-2787; www.mccarter.org.