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Ira Glass Opens Miami Book Fair With Monica Bill Barnes & Company

David Bazemore

This year, the Miami Book Fair International isn't opening with an author (though Ira Glass did edit a book once). It's opening Sunday (Nov. 16) with a cross-pollination of storytelling and contemporary dance. Glass was at a performance of the extremely well-respected Monica Bill Barnes & Company dance troupe, and it occurred to him that what they do onstage bore some resemblance to what he tries to do on the radio in his show, "This American Life,"  each week. So they got together and created a live show, "Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host," and have been touring the country with it.  The Book Fair is presenting the show with MDC Live Arts. 

Glass talks with WLRN's Alicia Zuckerman about what his style of storytelling has in common with  contemporary dance.

Sunday (Nov. 16) at 5 p.m. at the Gusman Center for Performing Arts in downtown Miami. Click here for tickets info. 

What is the show all about?

The show is a combination of two things that nobody wanted combined. I tell stories like on the radio -- and they dance. Like, Monica and Anna, the two dancers -- we all know nobody in the world thought this should exist except the three of us. I saw them perform, and I thought, “There’s something about this dance company where the feeling of what they’re doing is exactly the feeling that we’re trying to give people over the radio in our show.” There was a documentary quality to it. There’s something about it that was like little moments of everyday life and feelings that you have. And then the other thing about them is they’re out for fun.

Credit Christopher Duggan
Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass

What are the stories about?

One of the acts is about love. So one of the most beautiful parts of the show ... that a lot of people talked to us about is ... an interview I do with a writer named Donald Hall, and he’s a poet. ... He wrote about the months that he cared for wife while she was dying. And he just writes about the everyday things that happen when you’re caring for somebody, like “what does she want to be buried in?” And the dance that goes with this entire piece is -- Monica and Anna happen to have a dance where they’re in house coats and they’re on top of a dining room table fully set with, you know, silverware and cups and plates and all that. And it’s this slow, sad dance where one of them picks up the other and, like, holds her in the air, which mimics the whole thing that’s happening in the words of him caring for his wife. And then there are other things that are just funny and we just made for the show. In fact, most of the show is pretty funny.

So, what did you have to change about your life in order to be able to do this?

I feel like - OK, I can stand on a stage with professional dancers and not look like a complete klutz.

I mean ... I felt like I couldn’t even do my stupid moves across the stage that I’m supposed to do without being totally awkward. And so I just started going to the gym and I lost 30 pounds. And I feel like “OK, I can stand on a stage with professional dancers and not look like a complete klutz.”

How does being on stage in this context feel different from being on the radio or being on stage doing your straight-up storytelling shows?

I mean, the biggest difference is we do the same show every place. And so I’ve had to learn to perform the same words more than once. Like when you’re on the radio, you only say the thing once. You know what I mean? You write it and then you get in front of the microphone and you say it. And now I’m having to learn to perform the same thing over and over and over with the same sincerity. And, in fact, one of the pieces in the show is about this actual thing. It’s a story about dancers who get bored with the dance they’re doing. ... I don’t understand why performers don’t talk about this more. You get detached from it.

 So, do you feel that happening to you? Do you feel yourself getting detached from it?

I have, and then I’ve learned to train myself to get back into it and to experience it all like it’s the first time even though it’s the 20th time.

Well, I have to tell you that after I saw the performance in New York, I felt really inspired by watching all of this. And I went and took a modern dance class at Miami City Ballet, and, uh...oh, my God. I was in pain for a week. I did not have it in me to go back, I'm sad to say. It brought me right back to gym class, being the worst one in the class.

[Laughs] That’s so sad! So, so sad. I remember it so well. What you’re saying is that we inspired you to do something that you failed at. 

That's right, that's right.

We sent you on a rocket ship to nothing! And that’s what we did. I feel like if we can just affect more lives that, then I feel like it would have all been worth it. Go for salsa next time.

Alicia Zuckerman has loved audio since she was a kid listening to comedy albums and call-in radio advice shows she probably shouldn't have been listening to. She is Editorial Director at WLRN where she edits narrative and investigative audio journalism. She routinely reminds reporters to find and make moments of joy, which is how she learned you can grow mangoes on a balcony, and about the popularity of Manischewitz in the Caribbean. In 2020, she was named Editor of the Year by the Society of Professional Journalists Florida chapter.