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Ira's Mad Gambit: The Host of This American Life Defies Nature with a Hybrid Dance and Radio Show 

Wednesday, Nov 13 2013

Any young theater nerd can tell you about the powerful allure of musicals. The sets and the props are the bread and butter, but the dance steps and the songs — they're the emotional dessert for a shy-yet-ambitious teen actor.

"It's a pleasure to be caught up in the machinery of that," says Ira Glass, the producer and host of This American Life, who brings his new stage show, Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, to San Francisco this weekend. The title isn't coy; there are indeed three acts, two dancers, and one radio host — the host of the most successful radio show in the country, as a matter of fact.

"When I started making radio pieces — I didn't think about it this way until much later — but I always felt like these pieces could be bigger, feel like more, be better in some way, and I feel like there was some part of me that was trying to make them have the feeling of the Broadway musicals I saw on tour as a kid," he says.

His affinity for theater has always been apparent in his work — This American Life episodes are always divided into 'acts' and the show was originally titled Your Radio Playhouse — but now Glass has the opportunity to get on stage again, as he used to in high school. "I could probably name half a dozen corny old musicals that I was in," he recalls.

The new show, he explains, "is a combination of two things that nobody really wants combined; it's a combination of radio stories and dance."

So how did this unholy juxtaposition of movement and language come to be? Glass saw his collaborators, Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass, perform. "I thought, there's something in the sensibility of what they're doing that reminded me of the sensibility of the radio show," he says.

This American Life, in its 19th year, has a distinct sensibility that sets it apart from other public radio shows. "We're going for something very basic and primal and something that's easy to like," Glass says of the show's aesthetic. "It's the most accessible, possible thing — just telling stories."

Barnes, a Berkeley native, heads her own company whose mission is "to celebrate individuality, humor, and the innate theatricality of everyday life." Along with a shared fascination with everyday stories, Barnes and Glass also share a history in theater — before becoming a choreographer, Barnes says she wrote "bad plays."

In May 2012, Barnes and Glass collaborated for This American Life Live!, a variety show that was streamed into movie theaters across the nation. Their initial short performance together was the inspiration for Three Acts. (Bass performed on This American Life Live! as well, creating a solo dance for frequent contributor David Rakoff.)

Despite the odd collage of artistic media, Glass says he and his collaborators will deliver "an incredibly fun, emotional, funny show." In fact, he promises the strange combination will grow, virally, into the next big phenomenon: "We're going to come through San Francisco and this is the chance to get in on the ground floor of this breakthrough new medium that, you know what I'm saying? Someday, it's bigger than television and porn together! People will be able to say they were there at the birth," he says.

However, aside from the fact that he's combining dance and radio, Glass is fairly mum on the actual content of his new show. But rumor has it that Barnes and Bass won't be the only ones dancing — Glass may bust a few moves himself.

Siouxsie Q, host of local podcast The Whorecast, contributed to this story. To hear her interview with Glass, including his reaction when she calls him the Beyoncé of public radio, listen to our podcast at

About The Author

Kate Conger

Kate Conger has written for SF Weekly since 2011.

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