Ira Glass at the Flynn Center (2015)
Through Ira Glass, Darkly
Journalist: Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?
Bob Dylan: Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y'know.
-- Dec. 1965 press conference at KQED, San Francisco
Ira Glass, the famed radio host and creator of “This American Life” (TAL) came to Vermont to perform in a one night spectacle. The title of the piece was “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host”. That is an accurate account of the evening’s performance - to a point. Needless to say only someone of Mr. Glass’ stature could command a sold out venue with such an obscure premise. He has, for decades, transformed the mundane musings of over-looked people into life parables. He is known for his analytic, incisive questions delivered in a self-deprecating manner. His speech has a nervous quality, think of the silent nerdy kid tasked with explaining a homework assignment in front of the class. This person, mostly known as a disembodied voice, has teamed up with two professional…. dancers? Well if anyone could make it work…. and he did. He produced a mesmerizing evening filled with wit, charm, gravitas, dogged professionalism and… humor.
Many ambitious celebrities focus on self-promotion rather than skill. Glass is about craft. Certainly mastering the mechanics of journalism combined with a solid work ethic can bear fruit. In Glass’ case it goes beyond merely being a great reporter. He has taken 1960’s New Journalism and added the sublime. Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese can deliver highly polished entertaining portraits of cultural happenings or celebrities. Glass manages to put you in the frame of the story with a cast of nobodies from nowhere. A great TAL segment is akin to a Buddhist koan or a biblical parable. It’s not simply entertainment. No matter how dispossessed the protagonists or how odd the setting, the audience becomes enmeshed with the two runaway sisters, or the man who spends days trying to win a car, or the kidnapped North Korean film actors, or man who is delivering mental health surveys on an Indian Reservation…. . He is in a league with Mark Twain or t H. L. Mencken. The latter even shares Ira’s Baltimore roots. In this performance Glass makes reference to his mother commenting the TAL debut. Whereas many parents might feel the need to shower their children in unmitigated praise, Mrs. Glass is severe in her honesty. She tells her son he is not good at beginnings but better at ‘middles’. She adds that life is mostly ‘middles’ then judiciously weighs in on the side of success. The son has made his mother proud but one wonders if he shares his mother’s skepticism. On stage Mr. Glass alludes to his Peabody Award, the highest honor in broadcast journalism. No one could accuse Ira of bragging as its mention is in the context of a humorous aside. Nevertheless there is a tension between acknowledging personal achievement while discussing yourself . That can also be said for the performance as a whole. The evening is a meditation on the struggle of being an artist and maintaining confidence despite never-ending awkwardness and searing loss. It is a lonely struggle. At the same time the show goes to extraordinary lengths to pretend Mr. Glass is not the main attraction. The result is a delightful evening where Glass touches on his vulnerability without revealing too much. One wonders, however, if the work might have benefited from the main attraction being more overt with his demons.
Back to the dancers. Although the performance discretely centers on Glass’ struggles, it is a collaborative effort with two important, albeit less acknowledged, performers. Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass are the definition of seasoned professional working artists. It is interesting that Ms. Barnes, in addition to handling the choreography, is also credited as director. Artistic joint ventures are born of being a team of rivals. Naturally this very topic becomes the focus in a segment in which the dancers perform and Mr. Glass plays an interview in which one is extremely explicit in her belief that her ‘partner’ is constantly upstaging her. It is fascinating to watch them move while hearing the stream of consciousness musings about what is in their mind’s eye. In a sense this speaks to why the dancers are ideal foils for Mr. Glass’ menagerie. They are literally silent. One might say that since one of the two women is directing she is ‘in control’, furthermore half the evening is pure dance. In reality Mr. Glass is steering the action. This is not to say he is abusing his position of power but it’s important to note he does not relinquish it, despite what your program indicates. Their silence renders them unable to probe Mr. Glass in the same manner he explores their struggles. Once again our Radio Host’s ineptness as a physical performer gives a veneer that his partners have the upper hand. The bedrock of physical comedy was born in watching rank amateurs attempt to mimic professionals. Watching Mr. Glass follow Monica and Anna brings to mind the best of comedia dell’arte or Chaplin. Ira is an unabashed clown - but he also has the last laugh. In these carefully mapped out sequences Glass heartily plays the fool - but this is on his terms. Of course no one would knowingly create a stage production highlighting their unflattering attributes. The point is that this production shades qualities that seem to unnerve Mr. Glass himself. Would Ira Glass trust Ira Glass to ask him questions in the same manner he asks the dancers? Categorically the answer is NO. That would lead to revelations experienced by one of the performers who exhibits a unflattering competitiveness. Mr. Glass colors disclosing his embarrassing traits. Making an ass of himself as a dancer is his offering in exchange for their trust. It’s much safer than being them. He knows it’s not fair trade and his disquiet is the hidden seam of this show. He desperately wants to be a good guy but, in lock step with discussions about his success as journalist, it is not that simple. What is the true nature of the relationship between interviewer and, victim?
Mr. Glass does reveal personal information that puts him in a very negative light. He would consider his most daring truth to be his marital discord. Ira plays a TAL segment from the first season in which a man is given a marketing assignment. The spouse in the story decides to sell himself to his wife. He deconstructs their marriage in terms of “branding” and “customer needs”. Needless to say most mammals feel a great deal of sympathy for the wife. Upon hearing the piece decades ago I felt a wave of unmitigated revulsion towards the husband. Glass shared this feeling during the initial airing but, after years of marriage, he now sees the husband’s point of view. He adds that his wife sometime accuses him of being “Mr. Spock”, the Star Trek character who scrupulously replaces “emotion” with logic. It is brave that Glass would publicly admit an emotional empathy towards the worst caricature of male thoughtlessness. That nerdy voice is assuming a darker cast. More revealing and disturbing, however, is a small aside in which Glass speaks of a strategy he adopted as a child to gain friends. Ira decided that he needed to connect with people so he embarked on a deliberate effort to ask questions of his classmates in order to win their trust. Unfortunately he discovered that, although they had felt a bond with him due to his ability to listen, he felt even more isolated from them. He went so far as admitting it was bothersome. As Mr. Glass is famous for saying, “let’s stop the tape for a moment.” Any child who consciously devises a plan to 'win people over' by careful probing is Mr. Spock, squared. Furthermore the degree of isolation he experienced must have been extraordinary. It is also interesting that his reaction to having them as confidants was, annoyance. The heretofore avuncular disembodied voice is, unconsciously, morphing into something closer to the sociopathic computer HAL in 2001, who places ‘the mission’ over human lives. Incidentally there is a TAL segment in which the staff is given a test for this disorder. Guess who scored highest? One wonders if Ira’s mother ever heard about his “asking questions to get friends” ploy. Maybe she encouraged him to pursue reporting? The frustration he felt with his new confidants might be put to better use than fretting about lack of emotional connection. In fact here is a quote from an interview about his craft, “The best storyteller is a crossover … the person who doesn’t actually belong to a group but is familiar and comfortable with and accepted by the group.” (Stefani Twyford, “Epiphanies, Ira Glass, and Why I Tell Stories”, Legacy Multimedia). Glass harnessed his outsiderness into one of the great journalistic careers of all time.
Ira’s mother, with her knack for candor, might have told her son that he would have a dystopian relationship, part friend part clinical subject, with all those individuals who have born their souls on TAL. The marketing husband is a case in point. Would a friend let this poor soul make an ass of himself on national radio? Glass subtly shields him, albeit decades later. He not only takes his side but he obscures a the central embarrassing detail. Everyone in the audience wanted to know: is that guy still married? Glass never says. It would have been easy to discover and would have enhanced the story. Yet he held back. This hints at a struggle Mr. Glass has as his role as reporter. There is an invasive edge to uncovering truth. Sometimes that “reality” can negatively impact someone who gave you their trust. One would have assumed that Glass joined most of his colleagues in accepting this unfortunate relationship as part of the trade. Unfortunately the usual font of introspection goes dry in terms of weighing his own relationships with his subjects. Although Glass suffers from personal demons, e.g. being a callous spouse, the real devil is in the reporter’s notebook. That childhood strategy of probing others’ lives has turned into a legendary career, unfortunately so has dearth of connection. Given all the accolades and a job everyone envies, what is he to do with all this trust that has been thrown on his shoulders? Cue the music.
The opening number is a tongue in cheek vaudeville routine, complete with literal air kicks, bit of the ole ‘soft shoe’, a mini proscenium arch and some confetti at the climax. Despite Monica and Anna’s technical prowess, the elder Mrs. Glass was correct. Beginnings are not Glass’ strong suit. The audience’s unease about the feasibility of combining dance are story are heightened as the performers are having a better time than the perplexed audience. Adding to the strangeness is Glass’ insatiable need to deconstruct. We are told that there was a discussion amongst the collaborators about the structure of the play. Should the opening be a “radio segment” or “dance routine”? Perhaps it was the correct choice but , inverting an old theater maxim, there should have been “more art, less matter”. The in-depth commentary about the creative process undermines the free-flowing nature of the work. Strangely all the chatter about the mechanics draws the audience away from the action. It is as if the performers are acting out an elaborate inside joke. As the dancing ends Glass opens his large leather suitcase and brings forward the tools of the trade, a lectern complete with microphone. The show settles down as all performers join to illustrate the parable of Act I. This is a TAL tale about a troupe of dancers who are grinding through a never ending tour of “Riverdance”. Mr. Glass explains this story would be ideal as a medium to combine his strength in storytelling with his collaborators' art. Once again lets stop the tape for a moment. Monica and Anna are outstanding in physically giving form to an artist’s battle with that rare commodity in the creative community, enthusiasm. What is most interesting, however, is Glass’ choice of the narrative. The “reveal” of the story is that the audience is completely oblivious to the artists struggle. The dancers are able to mask their extreme joys and sorrows and deliver a solid performance regardless of their personal triumphs or turmoils. One might see this as Glass meditating on his own feelings and those of his friends/audience. The selection of this material, despite the veneer of playfulness, reflects Glass’ discomfort with the inauthenticity of performers own truth vs. their audience’s beliefs. This is especially difficult for Glass, whose hallmark is trust. One might even see him as the Walter Cronkite of our time.
Act II is focused on awkwardness. Although Mr. Glass announces it is an exploration of “love” it is really about learning the craft of masking emotion in order to appear appropriate. Glass brings us the paradigm moment of feeling “out of place”, the prom. He selects individuals from the audience to come up to a mock up of a high school gym, complete with picture taking booth and mirror ball. The sheepish, wide eyed, participants perfectly create that excruciating moment of having to slow dance with a stranger. The chosen adult audience members have experience in interacting with the opposite sex but being thrust on stage was a perfect analogy to the awkwardness of tweens enacting their first formal social dance. This segment showcases Glass’ tender genius. Only someone of his extraordinary capacity for capturing the detail of ritual could have produced something that rang true for even the most the socially disengaged audience member. Glass manages to wring a wry smile from life’s never-ending “grin and bear it” demands. This moment was pitch perfect in terms of conception and execution. Glass smoothly managed cueing a number of interviews via his iPad lectern while supplying pithy commentary. Monica and Anna casually glided across the stage and gentlely managed the couples. Bravo. Note: the couples are given small props and actual pictures in payment for their services. No doubt most would do it for free but perhaps Glass wanted to avoid any hint of exploitation. Once again there is an awkwardness in the relationship that extends beyond this simple skit. In a rare moment of anger on TAL our usually genial host angrily confronts a performance artist who stages happenings that revolve around coopting uninformed participants. Some of these people seem genuinely traumatized by the experience and Glass come to their aid. The degree of his annoyance might touch on an uneasiness about the relationship people in his work, which moves us to the final sequence.
Act I is about the loneliness of being a performer. Act II centers around the awkwardness of social engagement. Act III meditates on heartfelt loss. Stop the tape. The overarching theme of the evening is connection (or lack thereof). Monica and Anna brilliantly ‘dance’ to a carefully crafted monologue in which an established poet meditates on his elderly wife’s death. The dancers embrace on top of a table which is laid out for dinner. The cutlery and the plates crash to the ground as the couple morph from a loving hug to desperately holding on. It was an a mirror image of the prom dance but equally brilliant. Glass then went into monologue about his beloved friend, and fellow TAL contributor, David Rakoff, who died an early death after a bout with cancer. Glass mentions his colleague’s love of dance and mentions a TAL stage show in which Rakoff, in the final months of life, gave a monologue about life entitled “The Invisible Made Visible”. This work, which is available on youtube, might be the seed of Glass’ production. Rakoff intersperses his talk with simple dance gestures. One of his arms is immobile and he is clearly showing the effects of radiation and yet, it is gripping. There is a singular beautiful sorrow involved in watching great artists push through their pain. It is akin to listening to the recording of Charlie Parker, deep in the throws of heroin addiction, stumbling through the song “Lover Man”. The sound and gesture are amateurishly awful yet the effect is sublime. Glass does not show the actual images of Rakoff’s struggle. The dancers do their best to create the moment but it would seem a genuine image would have given the audience more connection. Perhaps Glass felt he was protecting his friend. Ironically in this instance Glass’ impeccable ability to read situations fails him and the show as a whole. There are moments where the author, for complicated reasons, muddles the material. This production is a wonderful, entertaining evening, however it fails to reach the very high bar set by Mr. Glass himself in his work with TAL. In his many talks about storytelling Glass refers to “moments of reflection” in which the author unpacks the sequences of material. This show, for all its wonder, lacks this crucial component.
The ultimate sin, in Glass’ worldview, is narcissism. Here is a quote where Ira discusses the mechanics of storytelling:
Often people submit stories to our radio show which show, I don’t know how to say this except that it shows that they have a HORRIBLE (his emphasis) personality, which is to say they’re someone who only talks about themselves. When someone has a good personality, someone who is good in a conversation, they talk amusingly and interestingly about themselves for awhile and then they let the other person talk for awhile because they’re INTERESTED (his emphasis) in other people and they’re interested in the world.
Glass goes to great lengths to avoid being self-involved during the evening’s performance but perversely this usually solid impulse softens the punch of the material. This is, or rather should be, a show about the man himself. Perhaps amendments to the storytelling rules are in order as this is an occasion where Ira should investigate Glass. It is gracious of him to constantly remind everyone of Monica and Anna but artistically he needs to acknowledge being the main event. There is a great deal of hemming and hawing about this strange collaboration and the seemingly random nature of the material. The fogginess is born of Glass not wanting to accused on being myopic. This might be a problem for most, but the creator of TAL possesses the genius to bring his story front and center without fear of being a bore. His lack of confidence hurts the production artistically. It would have been fascinating to witness a straightforward treatment of his difficulty feeling a part of the whole combined with his ambivalence towards his subjects and his audience. There is a revealing segment from TAL in which Glass speaks of his relationship with his dog, who suffers from life threatening food allergies. It is a rare moment of deeply personal connection with the voice who delivers so many stories about strangers. Perhaps Glass’ conversations with his mother and the loss of Mr. Rakoff are the only other times where one sees the man behind the Wizard. The evening of live performance should have, unabashedly, gone back stage with the person who is Ira Glass. The individual who has mixed feelings about his role as a reporter and a cultural celebrity. Maybe this is too much to ask. In the current production he appears to be having the time of his life. That should be qualified with the asterisk of “within the limits a hip intellectual public radio star’s ability to exhibit jubilance.” Kidding aside, Glass' ecstasy stems from his shedding the austere office of reporter and turning to entertainer. But perhaps there is a way to have both the joy and gravitas. Suggestion for an alternate opening of the show. Glass comes forward in silence and without a music or any flourishes, he sets up his lectern. He looks out into the audience and speaks into the microphone: “I’m Ira Glass. I’ve listen to you. NOW YOU’RE GOING TO LISTEN TO ME. I’ve got a a dog and…”. Cue the music and dancers. It’s an opening every mother, even Ira’s, would love. He should also reveal if the husband/marketing genius is still married. An image of Rakoff must also be displayed. Glass is good enough not to worry about hurt feelings. That is the lonely nature of his art. It's time to recognize this truth. It is the fate of all outsider artists, especially the great ones.