It feels like it might have been a dare.
The group of quirky, brainy folks who produce “This American Life” radio show week after week, challenge its creator/host, the wildly popular Ira Glass, to produce a piece on an impossible to produce subject. “Federal Reserve regulators!” Already done that, he says. “Nine shows about poultry!” Completed, he says.
Then someone yells “Modern dance!” And the indomitable man is stumped for the first time in 500 shows. So stumped, in fact, that he has to create a stage revue to complete the assignment.
The long-touring stage revue is real. Named “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host,” it has already toured two dozen cities and is booked for two dozen more. It comes to the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach on Saturday.
But it didn’t happen like that at all. Glass was not forced. He simply watched a dance performance of the small New York-based troupe called Monica Bill Barnes (named for its choreographer), truly enjoyed the show and voluntarily elected to spread the word of live modern dance to his followers.
“When I saw them perform, I thought what they were doing, the sensibility of it, was so close to the radio show,” he said last week from his New York office. “I’m not somebody who sees a lot of dance, but I thought there’s this dance troupe that anybody would get and love. They’re such entertainers.”
Since he still hosts “This American Life” each week, it’s easy to see Glass as unchanged after 18 years: just a smart, workaday storyteller and interviewer. Yet he is also a kind of Florence Ziegfeld of public radio now, offering career-changing exposure to struggling artist. The ranks of essayists and comedians who got their first big break at TAL include: David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, David Rakoff, Mike Birbiglia, Scott Carrier and Jonathan Goldstein, to name a few.
To plug a troupe of obscure dancers into his network, he started by including them during a couple of his live broadcasts, including the May 2012 show that was streamed to theaters nationwide. “What happened after that show,” he explains, “was that (Monica Bill Barnes) were a huge hit, people loved them, and it was a show with a lot of competition – David Sedaris and Tig Notaro and a lot of people were in that show.”
Also on that bill, essayist Rakoff performed a transcendent story/dance (which Barnes choreographed) just three months before he died. “I danced a lot,” Rakoff says in the piece. “… It’s an incredibly generic trait for a certain type of boy.”
Glass, who can be seen hoofing in his show, is not, let’s just say, that “type of boy.” A chair-bound creature, Glass “has fun,” as he puts it, and he is indeed graced with handsome posture. Mostly he tells stories and runs sound on his tablet, launching the clips with imperial sweeps of his fingers. Originally, he wasn’t in it all but to interview the dancers post-performance. And though those shows sold out, “at the end of it,” Glass explains, “Monica said to me, she felt like since my voice is in the ads, people are coming and they want more of me … so she said let’s invent something that’s a combination of what you do and what we do.”
“There is a vaudeville feeling to this production,” Glass continues, “like everything came out of a trunk.” Sometimes he tells stories alone onstage, sometimes the dancers perform simultaneously, and sometimes it’s just dance. “The thing that was surprising to the three of us was that it came out to be such a coherent show,” he says. Audiences, too, seem to be in disbelief at first. “And as this hour and a half goes on,” he says, “there’s a moment in the show with every audience where we feel like, ‘OK, now they trust us.’”
It mirrors Glass’ experience when he first saw them. “You feel like it’s people telling a story, which I know other dancers do obviously, but there’s something in the sensibility of the story they’re telling that was very much like the stories we do on the radio show. It wasn’t grand. I feel like dance by its nature goes so easily to grand and beautiful,” he says. “Their default is much more everyday and human-scale.”
And as compared to his Showtime version of “TAL,” when he first had to add visuals to accompany his stories, “the fact that dance does leave something to your imagination and isn’t so literal, makes the whole experience closer to the radio,” he says.
Now that dance in his blood, might there be more? A ballet about making “This American Life” each week? Glass laughs. “I think it’s more of a Pina Bausch number,” he says. “We’re in chairs in a conference room and each person walks up to the whiteboard and does a thing and then the next person walks up and does the same movement and then the third person does a variation and then finally we all stand and we’re all in motion … And it’s all very emotional, but we all have clipboards and laptop computers in our hands.”
What about one for his celebrated contributors? “Very much like an MGM musical and there’s a staircase!” he says. “David Sedaris is in a top hat in the front, at the point of the spear, and two people behind – it’s Sarah Vowell and Scott Carrier – and three people behind them … That’s a way bigger vision than we have … Obviously the tuxedo- and gown-rental budget for that would be very, very large. We’d have to get a staircase, and then dancing down the stairs apparently I’ve been told is way trickier than it looks.”
‘THREE ACTS, TWO DANCERS, ONE RADIO HOST’
[A version of this article ran in the Sunday Orange County Register.]