Ira Glass has landed in Chicago. The host of This American Life has just disembarked and he’s on the move. He asks if he can call me back once he finds a cab. A few minutes later, we’re chatting about a range of things, starting with Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, his touring show with dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass, which makes its Chicago debut at the Athenaeum Theatre tomorrow.
Glass’s ties to Chicago run deep. He spent a year at Northwestern before transferring to Brown, then in 1989 moved back to be with his girlfriend at the time, the cartoonist-novelist Lynda Barry, and started producing award-winning reports for NPR. But he’s of course best known for his show This American Life, which he began producing at WBEZ in 1995. He stayed for a decade before marrying (his wife, Anaheed Alani, was an editor at the Reader) and relocating to New York in 2006.
Chicago remains his “hometown crowd,” Glass says, and now his townies are on the verge of seeing something they haven’t witnessed before—Ira Glass, professional dancer.
Matt de la Peña : Good to be back?
Ira Glass: It is good to be back. From the air, all anybody who lives in New York can ever think when they fly over Chicago is the lake looks so big even from the sky.
This performance sort of snuck up on us. What spurred the idea to bring [Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host] to Chicago and the Athenaeum?
We wanted to bring it to Chicago. We’ve been touring it in a lot of places, and a lot of it was just figuring out how to coordinate it with WBEZ. There was a dream at one point that we might film it, that we might make a movie at the same time, and we thought Chicago would be the best place because it’s our hometown crowd. That delayed it getting out there. But right now we have a real question if it’s something that should be filmed. We can’t decide as the creators if it adds to it.
That’s interesting, because a lot of dance companies are hesitant to put out into the greater realm, whether it’s social media or whatever, just because it’s proprietary.
I didn’t even realize that. The good thing with this show is that doesn’t matter. We’re going to do this tour, and then we’ll never do it again. And also, if somebody wants to steal this show, good luck!
You guys have no plans to continue doing it elsewhere?
Well, we’re still on tour, so we’re doing it in a bunch of places between now and July. This fall we’re doing Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Princeton, New Jersey. We continue to do it once or twice a month through July, and then we end the tour at the Sydney Opera House, which is so lovely because the very first place we performed it was Carnegie Hall.
What was the extent of your dance background prior to working with Monica [Bill Barnes, founder of the company that bears her name] and Anna [Bass, a company member]?
I would occasionally go to a dance show. That’s it. I don’t know anything about dance. Honestly, I think the way that most people see dance is that they know somebody in the show—we know a kid who’s in a dance recital, it’s our own kid or a nephew or a niece or grandkid. As adults, occasionally you have a friend who’s in a dance company who will invite you to a show. When I saw Monica and Anna perform, the number of dance shows I’d been to in my life was probably a dozen or less.
I read that when you saw Monica’s company perform for the first time you talked about noticing some kind of awkwardness in the movement that appealed to you.
It wasn’t just awkwardness. The fact that they were staging these moments of awkwardness was interesting, but overall there was a feeling of watching . . . I don’t even know how to say this. I felt like I was watching a play more than a dance, even though it was continual dance. They were such relatable people on stage. Monica and Anna, they’re playing characters in this way that there were moments that were funny, moments that were awkward. Awkwardness contains so much. Awkwardness contains both shame and embarrassment, and then you have to recover from the moment of shame or embarrassment. It also has a documentary quality where you’re trying to capture a moment or feeling that’s real and a physical representation in a heightened form of things that we all do in a way that classical dance doesn’t and other dance doesn’t either.
It was funny working with them because there’s certain pieces that I’ve seen them do, then we would be rehearsing the piece and I realized there’s a point where Monica and Anna are standing, kind of like getting ready to move back to the stage. One of them bumps into each other in this way that looks totally real, and it was only when we were rehearsing it that I realized, “No that’s completely rehearsed and they do that every single time.” I had seen them rehearse it before it occurred to me that, “Oh, right, it’s all so supercontrolled!”
Has anything changed since you first performed it?
Yes, a lot actually. When we started taking it on the road it had a shape, but just putting something in front of an audience you learn to make it leaner. Certain writing got better. Certain things we dropped or just moved things around. It definitely improved. And then it’s been locked in the current form for a year, I would say. We’ve done about 40-50 shows, probably closer to 50. I’d never been in a real show where there are, like, hundreds of lighting cues and costume changes and all that. But there are parts of the show where I get to ad lib, so that makes it more bearable for me since I’m not used to doing the same thing over and again.
Did you guys ever consider a different title for the show?
Oh my God, the title is not very good. The only one that I tried to lobby for with Monica and Anna—and they were like, “eh”—is “One Talks, Two Don’t.”
They weren’t into that?
They neither expressed great enthusiasm nor great horror. The problem was we had so much publicity it was just too late. I do really hate the title, and I don’t think they’re so crazy about it either, but it’s functional. I didn’t like “This American Life” for a really long time.
Really? How were you swayed to stick with it?
It was a compromise candidate. When we started the show it originally had another name: “Your Radio Playhouse.” Kind of like an homage to Pee-wee’s Playhouse. But it was made clear by a Public Radio program director that that was a bad name. It didn’t sound like it was going to be radio drama, and NPR had a show called NPR Playhouse. Basically, we were told you can get on the air in Los Angeles if you change the name. We were only on one station in Chicago. We were like, “We don’t know if we’re ever going to get a second station, so they’re probably right that this is a bad name. Let’s change the name and we’ll double our cities.”
In the bathroom in the office right now we framed my notes from the meeting with all the names that were contenders. My favorite was, and still is, “American Whatever.” I feel like it’s less pretentious than “This American Life,” and it accurately describes the show and my feelings about everything. My staff was horrified. I can’t foist something like that on them. They were like, “It’s too Alicia Silverstone.” They were very much against it, and so then we batted around a bunch of ideas until “This American Life” was a compromise candidate. It went forward into the general election and won.
Speaking of This American Life, your celebrity is a big sell for the show. Was that ever a point of discussion between you, Monica, and Anna?
Yes, we talked about it. In fact, the reason why this show exists in that form is because of Monica saying “They’re coming to see you.” I saw [Bill Barnes and Glass], and I just thought, “We have to get them in front of our audience.” It was just pure entertainment. They’re super entertaining. It’s not the kind of dance where you’re like, “I don’t get what this is about.” And yet it’s emotional and deep in every way that you want something great to be deep. It’s powerful. I thought our audience would go for this because that’s what we’re going for on the radio show.
The first thing I did was I contrived to make a show that we get onstage in New York and then have cameras there and take it to movie theaters around the country. So we did that and at the end people would come up and say, “I really liked these dancers.” I told [Bill Barnes and Bass], “Let’s go to five big public radio cities and we’ll do a thing where I’ll do the promos, we’ll hook up with a public radio station and you’ll do one of your shows and we’ll do a Q&A afterwards. We did it in New York twice. We sold out two shows, and people really liked it. At the end, Monica was like, “I don’t think we should keep touring this because people are hearing you in the promos and they want more of you.”
That’s what set us down the road of trying to make this. It’s clear to Monica that people are coming because they’re public radio fans, but that’s a big attraction for her. She’s like, “Our problem is that we play dance venues and the only people who come are dance people. I genuinely wish there was a way to reach nondance people.”
For me one of the things that was nice was that I wasn’t in charge. In fact, she was suggesting things and saying “You are so wrong” even though I thought it was so right [laughs]. I really love it.
Critics have praised the show, and I imagine a lot of adults have expressed how much they’ve enjoyed it too. Have you gotten any feedback from kids or teenagers that have seen it?
Why are you asking about kids?
To me there’s a lot of magical realism that goes on in dance. Whenever I go to see a show, an adult’s perspective is wildly different than a kid because the adult’s thinking, “This is high-minded, fine art.” A kid’s perspective is just completely different. Their imagination takes a different turn.
I find this question to be so interesting, and I wish I had an answer. Kids and friends have come and they’ve liked the show, but nobody has said anything as interesting as what you’re saying. A lot of dancers have told us that what they liked about it is that easily a third of the show is just about the job of being a dancer. It’s us documenting “Here’s what it’s like to be a dancer.”
I think some of the most effective parts of the show are parts where what you hear are interviews I’ve done with Monica and Anna. They express “Here’s what’s going on in our heads while we’re moving around stage that you have no idea about.” It’s really different than what I thought it would be.
They work hard. I think many dancers never get the credit they deserve.
I know. Now that I’m deep into it, I know.
Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host 10/30-11/1: Fri 7 PM, Sat 7 and 10 PM, Sun 2 PM, Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, 773-935-6860, athenaeumtheatre.com, $12-$57.