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Ira Glass: dancing on air

Sam Langford and Naaman Zhou on Ira Glass, narrative radio and ‘Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host‎’

Ira Glass is best known as a disembodied voice [note] For the uninitiated: he’s a radio host, best known for This American Life and as an editorial advisor for Serial. As the MC put it when we saw him live, he’s the “godfather of narrative radio”. [/note]. He’s the kind of minor celebrity you encounter way out on the electromagnetic spectrum, lonely on the radio waves in the earlier years of his career, his influence expanding out into the low frequencies of the wireless internet more recently.

To see Glass in person, then, is to add a new sensory axis to a cassette tape usually enjoyed in bed. He’s a pacer, a gesticulator, a conductor. Last week, we saw Ira twice. In a lower theatre of the Opera House, he ran a journalism workshop. In the upper theatre, he performed an ambitious stage show, a dance/radio fusion (as weird as it sounds) in collaboration with professional dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass [note] Who were fantastic, but as this review doesn’t focus much on the show probably won’t get another mention. Suffice to say here that these women are incredibly talented, gifted with an ability to translate the full emotional spectrum, from comedy to loss, into movement in a way that was profoundly affecting. This show should not be seen as Ira Glass plus some dancers. Monica and Anna carried the performance. [/note]. Unsurprisingly, both events were packed out with fans of this craft; a sold-out communion of radio nerds and the occasional bemused punter.

In the workshop, he taught with the physicality of a French mime, showing with his hands how we should place “narrative beats” like he was pulling on an everlasting rope. Flicking backing tracks on and off on his iPad with the kind of exaggerated lean-and-flourish you essentially don’t need to operate a completely flat touchscreen. He eschewed the provided chair in favour of a kind of perpetual motion. “Is it violating the laws of theatre if I move around?”, he joked, then did it anyway.

He stressed the importance of fun and of rough edges. Glass is a huge proponent of “putting your-
self in the story”, i.e. refusing to excise messy and honest human reactions from his broadcasts. In the workshop, he praised a student who laughed in the middle of narrating a piece (“That’s a very A-level performance. The force is strong in this one.”), and insisted stories that omit these details are “leaving out so many tools – like amazement, like humour, like being tough on people.”

This kind of honesty pervades both workshop and stage show – in both, Glass stammers, ad-libs, tells bad jokes and laughs at them. But at the same time, there’s a sense that this kind of unfiltered scrappiness is painstakingly constructed, cultivated for its appeal. Glass segues from demanding raw honesty to advising we imagine the stories we create from the moment of their inception, theorising characters and endings. “Great quotes”, he says, “don’t just occur in nature. You have to make them come to exist.”

This walks the line between the tape-as-is: crackly and full of raw gaffe, and this aggressive shaping of everything from the start. The same construction of honesty cropped up in the stage show: Glass delivered personal, seemingly ad-libbed anecdotes while constructing balloon animals, the contrast between words and action seemingly natural but cunningly effective. The show opens with an acknowledgement that Glass is aware of this construction – a voiceover of him and the dancers discussing how the show should start, whether it should be with movement, or with an idea.

The art of the thing is to construct a sense of human honesty. The cumulative impression of Glass was of someone unflinchingly genuine. Throughout the workshop, he was generous with feedback, sincere in criticism and praise, told students their music choice was rubbish – “It’s just horrible, just an embarrassment” – but then went over his allotted time explaining how to fix it.

The answer really, was to make shit and have fun, to not be afraid of endings or mistakes. “We don’t re-ask questions on tape. If you said something stupid, say it stupid on the radio.”