ALIVE Interview: 'This American Life's' Ira Glass Comes to WashU This Weekend in New Show (Dancing Included)

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

“This American Life” radio show host Ira Glass is coming to Washington University’s Edison Theater Nov. 1 and 2 to perform his new show, “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host.” ALIVE caught him on a editing break to chat with him about the performance, which he says combines elements that “have no business being together” into a sparkling show that examines the life of a performer, relationships, and what happens when you lose that significant other.

"Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host." Courtesy Washington University.

“Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host.” Courtesy Washington University.

ALIVE: So…there’s dancing now.

Ira Glass: It’s a new step for radio people – it’s an undiscovered frontier for radio personalities.

ALIVE: And from what I can gather, it’s funny, human, relatable dancing.

Glass: Have you seen it? When you say it’s a dance show, I think people get a little scared. It’s super-accessible, really, really fun-to-watch dancing. I thought there was something about these dancers where I felt like their aesthetics were the same.

ALIVE: Let’s talk title. Why did you decide to make the transition from your old title of “One Radio Host, Two Dancers,” adding “Three Acts”?

Glass: Honestly, it’s still an awful title. I thought it should be kind of like, “One Person Things, Two of Them Dance” or “One Talks, Two Don’t.” Putting in the “Three Acts” makes it seem too complicated. It took a while to figure out how to describe it. The show is better than its own title—which is true for the radio show, too.

ALIVE: You’ve said the two forms have no business being together. Is that why you did it?

Glass: It definitely made for an interesting challenge. I did it because I saw the dancers and thought we had something in common, and it seemed like it would be fun to try to make this thing and try to make this thing together. It just seemed like it would be fun and we set out to try it. It wasn’t very complicated—not a big art concept idea. It was just a “Hey, let’s hang out and try it.”

ALIVE: Is there an interplay between this show and “This American Life”? Off the top of my head, there’s the irreverence, the humor, your voice. 

Glass: It’s like a good radio show: There’s funny parts and more serious parts. Part of it is relationships, part of it is losing what you love…

ALIVE: So you suck the audience in before you break their hearts.

Glass: That’s exactly right. That’s what I’m trying to do.

ALIVE: What are your favorite parts of transforming “This American Life” into other forms? You’ve done TV, had movie scripts based off of stories, done a live tour…

Glass: I think this and the musical are my two favorite non-radio things we’ve ever done… The dance show is one of my favorite things because it’s just a weird, unlikely thing and just so unnecessary. I have a weakness for things that have no reason to exist, and then someone made them exist for their own amusement. And I like that. Honestly, one of the things that happens with the audience when they come in is they walk in the door wondering if they’ve just wasted their money and wondering what it’s going to be like. I think after the show everyone is very pleased with themselves for showing up. There’s a nice feeling in the room, like “This is actually kind of good, isn’t it?” People show up because they know the radio show. People are pleasantly surprised.

ALIVE: “This American Life” has been on air since 1995. What do you think keeps it best suited to radio? Even when most people don’t tune into the radio to listen to stories—like in the ‘40s— it continues to thrive.

Glass: There’s something really fun about listening to someone tell their story over the radio – it’s a seperate kind of pleasure. Except for Garrison Keillor’s monologues and bible stories, we kind of had the market to ourselves…The first time I heard someone tell a story on the radio, I was really old, and I was like, “That’s really interesting that that could be a thing.” I think the pleasure of it is that. And honestly, it’s still going strong on the radio.

ALIVE: Obviously you love it, or you wouldn’t still keep doing it, but what keeps you surprised enough that you continue to devote yourself to it?

Glass: I like doing it because there’s a lot to do. There are stories that are exciting to do— tons and tons of stuff that would be good to put on the radio. As the staff and I have gone on we’ve gotten better, and there’s more of us because it’s better funded, and we keep trying to invent things that would be hard for us. When it’s hard, you know you’re doing it right: I don’t even know how to do this story—and you have to figure it out.

A year ago our producer brought a car, and she was like ‘There’s something about this place.” So we went out there to see if we could record there and spend a month there recording, watching people try to sell a certain amount of cars by a certain date…And there came a point where to record all the salespeople on the last day when everyone’s trying to sell and hustle…we had to have seven reporters together like it was political coverage…

What’s the structure of the show, how to tell it—all of it was an interesting puzzle to think through. And worrisome. And that’s when it’s going great.

ALIVE: And one last thing to leave off on: What are you looking forward to about your trip to St. Louis outside of the performance?

Glass: I’m looking forward to see my friend Seán Collins and seeing Agnes Wilcox of the Prison Project. One of the most popular episodes we ever did was a St. Louis-based arts group, Prison Performing Arts. They go into the prisons in the area, and they have the inmates do productions of Shakespeare. They were doing a production of “Hamlet”—a play about the question of, “Should I commit a murder?”— and many of the guys in it had committed murders and had really strong opinions about how Shakespeare had portrayed the decision.

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