“This American Life” host blends music and storytelling in his experimental live show.
February 10, 2014
Radio personality Ira Glass has been hosting “This American Life” since 1995. On his program, he’s covered topics as ordinary as summer camp and as remarkable as people switched at birth. His voice has become so recognizable in American households that comedian Fred Armisen imitated him on an episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
This weekend, Mr. Glass decided to take a break from the airwaves and try his hand at a live, onstage performance. He brought the dance-meets-storytelling show “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host” to D.C. for the first time at the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.
Mr. Glass admitted a mash-up of radio-style interviews and modern dance might seem strange, but his charm and sense of humor seemed to convince the audience to at least give the combo a try. He explained that he had seen New York-based choreographer Monica Bill Barnes perform and thought her dancing would be a good way to bring his stories to the stage.
“There’s things we’re trying tonight, there’s things that are an experiment,” Mr. Glass explained.
Like on his beloved radio show, Mr. Glass broke the live performance up into three acts. The first appropriately pondered the relationship between audiences and live entertainers. Mr. Glass, who had a slight technical glitch with his audio equipment, used the opportunity to charm the crowd with improvised jokes about the unexpected nature of show business.
In one of the most amusing bits, Ms. Barnes and her dance partner, Anna Bass, paraded to opposite sides of the Lisner aisles, returning with randomly selected audience members. Mr. Glass had them reenact the awkwardness of a middle school dance by making them slow dance with each other. Ms. Bass completed the moment by snapping date photos with a Polaroid camera as the audience roared with laughter.
It wasn’t all laughs and shtick. Mr. Glass is an expert at evoking emotion alongside humor on the radio, and his live show was no different. He had interviewed former poet laureate Donald Hall, and a recording of Mr. Hall reciting a tender poem about losing his wife to leukemia was paired with simple, solemn choreography. Ms. Barnes and Ms. Bass held each other while teetering over a dinner table—a symbolic gesture that represented the routine moments Mr. Hall recalled with his wife.
Mr. Glass also honored the late David Rakoff, a writer and contributor to “This American Life” who died in August 2012. Mr. Glass chose to remember him by playing a hilarious diatribe in which Mr. Rakoff sounded off on how none of the artists in the movie “Rent” practiced a craft.
“Here’s what they do in ‘Rent’ to show they are creative: Nothing. They do nothing. They hang out. Hanging out can be marvelous, but it does not make you an artist,” Mr. Rakoff had said, clearly annoyed.
In a beautiful, understated homage, Ms. Barnes performed parts of a dance piece she’d worked on with Mr. Rakoff just before his death.
Ms. Barnes and Ms. Bass stole a lot of the show with the physical comedy of their routines. In one scene, the two danced side by side to an interview of Ms. Bass describing how competitive they are with one another. Later, the pair came out for a dance in which they balanced chairs between their teeth to the awe of the audience.
Mr. Glass pulled out all the stops for the last moments of the show. The lanky radio host joined the dancers for a finale that involved confetti, batons and one entertaining dance that all “This American Life” fans will find it hard to forget.