“This American Life” host trades radio studio for Wolf Trap stage
On Saturday at Wolf Trap, public radio host Ira Glass will present a new solo show to the biggest audiences ever to see it perform live.
At least that’s the plan, but it assumes that Glass can do two things: (1) get at least 5,000 of his fans to visit Vienna, Virginia; and (2) present a performance that is truly a one-man show and not just a talk given by the man who co-created “This American Life”.
“I made 3,000 and 4,000 people, but never 5,000,” Glass said recently from “This American Life” studios in New York City. In a high-profile interview, the Baltimore native discussed his evolving character on stage; his new show, “Seven Things I Learned”; and his recommendations for New York theater beyond “Hamilton”. (He’s already seen it, twice.)
Growing up in the northwest suburbs of Baltimore, Glass, 57, performed in the musicals “South Pacific” and “Damn Yankees” at Milford Mill High School (now Milford Mill Academy). He also dabbled in theater at Northwestern University.
Glass then began a long rise in the ranks of public radio, beginning as an intern in Washington in the late 1970s. He then worked as a reporter and host for several national shows, before moving to Chicago. In 1995, he and producer Torey Malatia created “This American Life,” which turns original stories and slices of life into an hour of thematically linked radio each week. Over 500 stations are now broadcasting the series, which has more or less launched well-known writers such as David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and the late David Rakoff.
But in 1996, Chicago station WBEZ’s attempt to syndicate the show looked like a reckless coup.
“We had no money for advertising, and it was explained to me that once a month you go to a public radio station and give a talk, because the station will then broadcast promotions promoting the conference, ”Glass said. “Just having them repeat your name on the air is great marketing, and they won’t repeat your name unless they have a reason. Basically, you go out and give speeches to support a promo.
The first was Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
“I hadn’t been on stage since college,” Glass said. “I was nervous about it, so what I tried to do was treat it like a radio show. . . . I would sit in front of a radio console and tell stories and basically mix the stuff live for people.
This ended up being Glass’s modus operandi on stage for over a decade. “Now I’m basically just as comfortable in front of an audience as I am on the radio,” he said.
“Seven Things I’ve Learned” is just Glass on stage with his iPad. Glass kicked off the show, which is packed with personal anecdotes and stories beyond the studio, this month at Mountain Winery in California. He’ll be following his Wolf Trap performance with dates throughout the year, though none of the venues are that big.
Glass credits the development of his amphitheater-ready stage character to three things: press tours with comedian Mike Birbiglia (with whom Glass produced the films “Sleepwalk With Me” and “Don’t Think Twice”); her current tour with choreographer Monica Bill Barnes; and improvisation comedy classes in New York.
Each experience taught Glass something different, but the show with Barnes was the most difficult.
“For the dance show, everything was scripted,” he said. “I listened to the music, knowing that I had to finish the sentence on a certain word, because it was a signal to the dancers. It was an exercise in learning to repeat things over and over and make it seem like I was saying them for the first time. I have to say that of all the things I’ve done on stage, this was the most difficult.
Other challenges included sharing a scene with Amy Schumer in 2014, which led Glass to this improv class in New York City. It was there, he says, that he learned to let go of his interviewer’s instinct to move a story forward.
“Seven Things” will not be scripted, but not out of the blue. For the first time, Glass is on tour with music videos including footage from “21 Chump Street”, a short musical adapted by Lin-Manuel Miranda from a 2012 “This American Life” story about undercover cops. in a high school. Miranda was working on “Hamilton” when this episode was recorded at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Glass is a huge fan of the hit musical, but lately he’s been mostly interested in the imaginative adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility” by the Bedlam Theater. (The Bedlam production opens September 13 at the Folger Theater.)
Austenite Ira Glass who loves off-Broadway theater? Yes, that’s a role he can play.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen on stage,” he said. “Save your ‘Hamilton’ dollars and go see it. ”
“Dark Night” fundraiser
In the recent cover of “Twelfth Night” by Synetic Theater, Kathy Gordon and Philip Fletcher played the roles of mismatched lovers Orsino and Olivia. They don’t end up together in Shakespeare’s play, but off the stage they partner as producers and performers on “Dark Night,” an annual variety show and fundraiser starring others. veterans of the Arlington-based physical theater company.
The third “Dark Night” will take place on Monday in Synetic’s Crystal City venue. Acts will include Gordon’s dance company, KG Dance, and choreographed works by Tori Bertocci and Chanel Smith, two other Synetic members.
The “Dark Night” project began two years ago, when Fletcher asked Gordon to create a solo piece he could perform in honor of his father, who died of cancer. They soon realized that other members of the company were also interested in sharing short works, so they set up a program. Instead of selling tickets, they put two donation boxes by the door: one for the American Cancer Society and one to cover theater rental costs.
To their surprise, Gordon said: “We have also raised enough money to cover costs for next year.”
The two hope to expand the project next year, soliciting works from artists with a philosophy similar to Synetic. There are other dance showcases in Washington, Gordon said, but most that accept cross-genre artists require large deposits.
“We never know what we’ll get,” said Gordon, “but we have a very solid background.”