I have to admit that I wanted to see “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host” because I am a fan of This American Life. I guess I wasn’t the only one, the theater hall at Yale was packed and this was only a matinee, there is going to be a second show tonight.
I didn’t know what to expect, but juxtaposing the two dancers, Monica Barnes and Anna Bass, whose voice is their body with Ira Glass, the creator and host of This American Life, who normally is only a voice, sounded intriguing.
The show consisted mostly of old episodes from This American Life and recordings of Ira Glass’ interviews.The artists reexamined and revisited those stories with dance and narration.
For example the first act presented a story from the episode “Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time”( number 306 from 2006) about the cast of Riverdance which had been performing eight shows a week and suffered from boredom. In order to break the tedium and the fatigue of their work the group members decided to pool their money for the Mega-Millions lottery. Somehow the dancers convinced themselves that they were going to win and the idea filled them with frenzy, yet exhilarating, energy. On the night of the drawing the cast gave their best ever performance.
This episode led to an unexpected discussion about some inevitable consequences of turning art into profession. Glass spoke honestly about the monotony which often occurs when passion becomes a job. While he talked, the two dancers on stage demonstrated the same sentiments through repetitive and monotonous movements.
Although is it a well-known secret among artists, the struggle to keep the art fresh is not usually discussed. Ira Glass shines when he makes an issue personal, and he won the audience when he admitted that he too suffered from that same boredom.
In the interview from “Numbers” (1999 episode 88) Ira Glass talked to Will Powers (an interesting name), a Salesman who worked for a marketing firm. In order to understand better the principles of brand loyalty and how to achieve it, Will and his coworkers did an exercise where they had to market themselves to someone they knew, using all the tools of modern brand marketing. Will chose to market himself to the person he loved most, his wife.
Talking to your spouse about love and emotions in marketing terms enabled Glass and the dancers to demonstrate problems of communications in relationships in an amusing way. Here again Glass drew the audience even closer when he revealed that he had difficulties being emotionally engaged, and that it has always been easier for him to ask questions rather than to talk about his feelings..
But we did experience strong feelings in the tragic scene which presented the voice of Donald Hall’s reading from his poems about the last days of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyoan who died of leukemia (Valentine 98 episode 93). The dance which accompanied Hall’s reading was a demonstration of love and perhaps the most powerful point of the performance.
The show chose to focus on universal themes such as art, love and death and some of the material was not new to the loyal audience of This American Life. But presenting the familiar themes in dance and voice using sensitive choreography and personal, and clever, texts gave the old stories an unexpected twist, and we remained with some new and satisfying insights.
PS This American Life episodes which were mentioned in the essay: