Radio stories get moving
By Lou Fancher
Ira Glass doesn't buy the meme that says attention spans are getting shorter. Nor does the 56-year-old host of the public radio show This American Life ascribe to the alarmist notion that new technology is fearful. Instead, Glass points out that while looking at 20-second tweets, people are also binge-watching hours of television. Outliers who say social media platforms aren't interactive are old people afraid of new technology. "And I say that as an old person," he says in an interview.
Returning to the Bay Area on Dec. 12-13 courtesy of Cal Performances in Berkeley, Glass with choreographer and Berkeley native Monica Bill Barnes and dancer Anna Bass present Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host. They performed the show in SF and Berkeley in 2014, and based on its popularity, CalPerf is bringing it back. The rollicking 90-minute show animates stories about life as a performer, as a lover, and as an experience that ultimately ends. The show's trajectory navigates from personal confidences to grand, universal themes. Along the way, humor, movement, and the disarming presence of Glass, Barnes and Bass steer the show away from pomposity and toward simple humanity.
Even so, the power of combining movement with words isn't lost on Glass. If radio is heard but not seen, and dance at its essence is largely seen without words (postmodern dance-plus-text aside), is the sum of their parts a loss or a gain?
"It's absolutely a gain," he says. "It's not exactly an episode of the radio show, because dance changes it, but of course it's still like the radio show. The dance is infected by the radio."
"Infected" sounds bad until he explains that radio's intimacy – "You talk on the radio like you are talking to one person" – gets a boost from dance's more emotional, primal delivery. "The blah, blah, blah of words – well, words seem like an inefficient machine. Comparing more poetic forms of expression like dance to words, I'm jealous of how much feeling you can convey."
Whether or not a person agrees is less important than the point, which is to combine words and movement, and, like chocolate with peanut butter, invent a sensational experience. "If something's engaging, people will stay with it," he says.
Glass can only guess at the takeaway from the show, but speculates that in addition to learning about the life of entertainers through the stories he and his co-performers tell (or dance), the third act's "sad, sad" stories are oddly satisfying. People tell him they come without having a picture of what the show will be. "About 15 to 20 minutes into the show they learn, 'Oh, this is what this is.'" The diversity of audiences' reactions has been his greatest surprise. "Some audiences laugh a lot, others are quiet and more thoughtful. The contemplative audiences, they react, but to totally different stuff. It never occurred to me that you can get 2,000 people together and they'd be so varied."
It will surprise no one familiar with the heart of most artists that the three performers are as interested in learning new truths about their art-forms as they are in showing off the unique storytelling attributes of dance and spoken words. Glass discovered that the stage show doesn't translate back into his radio show. In fact, playing to large houses even threatened his on-air performance. "The accidental effect is that it was ruining what I was doing on the radio. I got used to being onstage too much. I had to pull back because I was sounding too large."
The trio also found that not all stories translate into exposition by movement, and occasionally, combining words with a particularly evocative, emotional dance diminished its brilliance. Ultimately, the litmus test was whether or not the combined approach lifted a subject to an honest, elevated narrative without becoming pretentious. Interestingly, given that the gay community has played a particularly significant role in dance history, there are no explicitly LGBT stories. Perhaps that's partly related to the philosophy applied to This American Life. "I don't think of it as a political platform," Glass says about the radio show. "We try to document people's lives. That's what every show should be doing. That's the basic [objective], documenting the diversity of people's experience."
In some respects, it's a relief. The gay experience, like any other, isn't something to shove into a box with a label. Glass says he's seen "a real evolution of thought" on LGBT issues over the past 20 years, and contributors to the radio show have been a "tremendous asset," with stories that cover a broad spectrum of topics. "None of it ended up in the 90 minutes of the show, just by luck of the draw. That's unfortunate, because it would make it a better show by getting into more of people's experiences. I could pretend we'd make changes, but we probably won't."
Glass says the show has a "life expectancy," and will end its run that originated at Carnegie Hall in 2013 with a big splash. "The plan is to tour a few more months and end somewhere awesome like the Sydney Opera House in July of 2016."