This American Dance: 'Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host' hits Boston

Checking in with Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass pre-show


As the longtime host of “This American Life,” Ira Glass has tackled diverse material, from a trip to the country’s biggest party school to a look at life as a Muslim family in post-9/11 America. But he’s taking on a totally new challenge with Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, which brings radio stories to the stage through modern dance in a unique collaboration with Monica Bill Barnes & Company. Glass met Barnes when they were cast in a So You Think You Can Dance parody in New York; soon after, Glass invited Barnes & Co. to perform in a film version of “TAL.” That experience spawned Three Acts, which mixes mediums on Jan. 24 and 25 at the Citi Shubert Theatre. We talked to dancers Barnes and Anna Bass pre-show.

What initially drew you to this project?

Anna Bass: I’ve been working with Monica for 12 years now, dancing with her. She was the one that really conceived and directed and sort of had the initial idea about the project and I was just lucky enough to be pulled into it as her dancing partner. But we worked with Ira in May 2012 on “TAL Live,” the cinema version of his show. And after that experience of seeing him put that show together we were both so drawn to him as a showman. We had never seen him perform before and he was such an amazing mastermind of that even that we said ‘we’ve got to do something else with him.’

I assume you were both longtime fans of “This American Life”?

Bass: Oh yes, we both were.

Did you have any favorite episodes, coming into this?

Bass:  I love the cars one that he did, the care salesman one. Anything with David Rakoff. I love the fiasco one—have you listened to that one? It tells a story about a production of Peter Pan and everything going terribly wrong. It’s fantastic. There’s one that he did about going to camp, where he interviews kids.

I like the ones he does with kids.

Bass: Me too. He has such a sincere and sweet way of interviewing them.

So, how do you go about translating radio stories to a stage, through dance?

Monica Bill Barnes: Yeah, like, what the heck? [laughs] Honestly, it was mostly trial and error, trying to find our way into what the show would be.  I feel like the only rule that we all had was that we never wanted the dancing and the talking to be redundant or representative. We always wanted them both to be relevant and to be able to stand on their own. And the hope is that the combination of the two adds meaning to both. Not illustrating each other, but actually running parallel. And I feel that, ultimately, the pieces of the show all have that theme in common. They’re definitely related, there’s no sort of randomness to it, but they’re bringing their own intentions. So, as an audience member, you have the opportunity to make the meaning, it’s not being handed to you on a silver platter. And that’s what ended up making the collaboration work, is that common thread.

Bass: And every story has a different way of being translated onstage. Some bits are just dancing, some bits are just Ira talking, there are two sections in which actually hear Monica and I talk, on a recording. But the translation is different for every story. Sometimes the dance is overlaid on top of it, sometimes it’s really juxtaposed. And we found that it really made sense for every story to have a different translation. And what works best is when there’s sort of connection where they overlap in an unexpected way.

How did you choose the stories that ended up in the show?

Bass: It was very collaborative. Ira came into the very first rehearsal with a list—because he remembers every episode he’s ever done—and so he pulled from all those episodes…the way we began was with stories that involved performers. And then the show really developed from there. But Monica had a lot of thoughts on stories too. She’s a longtime fan as well, and knows a lot of episodes by heart, so she brought a lot of stories to the table.

Barnes: You know, it’s interesting—I think the amount of material, over the whole process, would be enough to fill three shows. And I think that there’s something about the actual stories and the dances that are in the shows that sort of rose to the top and ended up feeling relevant in the way that the rest of the material, no matter how fun, or interesting, or hard to dance….I just think that, at the end of the day, it sort of comes back to the idea of they added up to more than just the combination of the two. And we’ve been performing the show for a while, so luckily we’ve had the opportunity,  like a new play would, where there was sort of a preview process. We were able, basically, over a year or so of touring, to shape and understand the show in front of audiences. And that I feel really lucky about. I think we didn’t understand—or I didn’t, I’ll say—things that we thought worked well in the studio and then we’d see them on stage and be like ‘ooh, that doesn’t quite feel as good.’ And I feel like, in a way, that’s common of every process and every show, that there’s a learning curve, once you get it in front of people.

Were there any stories that you really wanted to get in, that just didn’t translate?

Barnes: Oh my God, yes. Totally. That’s so great, nobody has actually ever asked me that question! Yeah, there was this one story that I still feel, in the back of my mind, that I’m trying to figure out how to mash it into the show. It’s this totally, utterly charming story that Ira had about an actor who is just a good, solid working actor. Not famous, but has done film and television and a lot of theater. And he’s actually seeing a show and somebody comes up to him and asks him if he wouldn’t mind taking a picture. And he’s flattered and he’s just feeling like ‘gosh, I’ve really arrived and this is so extraordinary,’ and it turns out, of course, that the people wanted him to take a picture of them. [laughs] Not to be in the picture! And between Ira interviewing him, he’s just such a charming storyteller—and that sentiment, there’s a piece of that sort of feeling of mild but deep humiliation that really runs in everything that I choreograph. And I just kept thinking ‘oh, I’m going to be able to figure out how to make this work.’ And I never did. I choreographed three different versions of it, but no, I just couldn’t smash it in to save my life.

How would you describe the show to someone who had no idea what it was about?

Bass: I would say it’s a 90 minute extravaganza of storytelling that’s sort of pulled out of a suitcase, kind of like a magic trick, that takes you on a ride about what it’s like to be a performer, all the different relationships we have in life and how those affect our lives, and sort of the journey of life. And there are a lot of surprises and unexpected twists and turns. And we hope it’s a fun time—we have a great time doing it!

Since we’re on the topic of “This American Life,” I have to ask: Did you listen to “Serial?”

Bass: I did. I listened obsessively.

Barnes: Yes.

So…do you think Adnan did it?

Bass: I don’t think he did it. I think he’s innocent. I believe him. I don’t think Jay did it, I think it was somebody else, and they’re all just covering. I think that Adnan got wrapped up in it, the wrong place at the wrong time. I loved it though.

Bass: You know what’s so interesting? My husband and I were just talking about this, again, because we listened to the last part of it together. Truthfully, I don’t know, but I did feel so utterly sure that whether he did or didn’t do it, if I were on that jury, there was not enough to convict. That, presuming he’s innocent, there was not a case to prove his guilt. And I almost feel like that was one of the really brilliant turns that Sarah took in the whole podcast. Which was to sort of take the attention away from the actual event and to turn it onto an examination of the way we think about guilt and innocence, and sort of a larger examination of our own way of dealing with justice. I’m honestly not sure but I’m sure that he shouldn’t be in jail.

Think you could ever bring “Serial” to the stage through dance?

Barnes: [laughs] I think that we would really be pushing our luck with that. You gotta know when to stop.  No, no “Serial: The Kickline.”

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