Radio and dance aren't your usual suspects for a mashup, but Ira Glass and Monica Bill Barnes & Company aren't your usual performers.
One chronicles modern life, the other modern dance. So it's really not such a stretch for Glass, producer and host of NPR's "This American Life" since 1995. The hourlong talk-radio show features essays, memoirs, short fiction and recordings built around a theme - often exploring current events - and presented in several acts.
So Saturday's Hancher performance at the Englert Theatre will feel like you're watching his radio show. Act I looks at the job of being a performer; Act II examines falling love and what it means to stay in love; and Act III explores losing what you love - interpreted by Glass and dancers Barnes and Anna Bass.
"Sometimes I talk when they dance, sometimes it's just them, sometimes it's just me," Glass, 55, says by phone from New York City, where he and his wife - also a journalist - are based. "For public radio audiences, they'll see me, and it's gonna be just like on the radio."
The format also will incorporate clips, music and personal stories from all three performers.
Audiences will "see these dancers who weirdly, are exactly like the radio show, too, even though they're not using any words. It's sort of like the radio show done in two different ways," Glass says.
"What they won't see is the dancers interpreting stories. It isn't like I talk about an airplane then they make their arms like airplanes or I talk about a volcano and they move their fingers like the lava coming down the sides of the volcano. It's not like that. It's more like I tell a story and they do a thing. In a way they're telling their own story in the movement that somehow interlocks with what I'm doing.
"There's a really beautiful part of the show where in one of the stories, this man talks about taking care of his wife in months before she died, when she had leukemia. And as he's telling that story on the audio track, you see the dancers do this incredibly slow dance together, in housecoats, on top of a kitchen table. It's not the same thing as what you're hearing, but it somehow talks to that thing.
"That makes it sound way artier and sadder than it is," he adds. "Mostly it's a very funny show."
Humor is what sparked the entire project.
"It came about because I saw them perform ... and I had never seen anything like it in dance," Glass says. "I'd been to other dance shows, but I had never seen a dance show that was funny. I had never seen a dance show that specifically reminded me of the radio show I do.
"I felt like I was sitting there watching these people who, without words, were achieving feelings and effects that we only achieve in radio using words.
"Everything about their medium is the opposite of mine, and yet, there was something about the aesthetic that felt exactly the same. ... They seemed totally out for fun, they seemed like entertainers, but at the same time, there was a documentary quality to it, where they were trying to document real feelings that happen to all of us in our lives," he says.
"I really respected it and enjoyed it and loved it. I didn't even think to put together a show."
But the feelings were strong enough that he figured if he would like the dance and be intrigued by merging it with his medium, others would, too. So the journalist and the dancers teamed up and made their debut onstage in New York in May 2012 and beamed it into cinemas across the country.
"Somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people showed up in movie theaters that night to watch it live," he says. "It had exactly the effect I had thought - people went nuts."
Finding the right spotlight runs in Glass' family. He grew up in Baltimore, son of an accountant father and a psychologist mother who made her mark in infidelity research. He's also a first cousin once removed of internationally known composer/pianist Philip Glass, who performed on the Englert stage in April. Still, Glass-the-journalist describes his youth as "very middle class." The fame for all of them came later.
"I have a normal-person's suburban, no-big-deal-going-on-here kind of background," he says.
He began college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., studying radio, TV, film and pre-med, but transferred to Brown University in Providence, R.I., graduating in 1982 with a degree in semiotics - the study of signs and symbols. That sounds very "Da Vinci Code," but has served him well in search of his career holy grail.
"I use that degree every day," he says. "It's almost like vocational training. ... (It) boils down to very concrete things about how stories work. There are other things to it, but the part of it that was most interesting to me, and the most useful, was how does a story give pleasure, how do you create suspense, how does a story keep you reading or listening or watching. And what makes it satisfying, like when you get to the end of a great episode of TV or a great book, what is it about the machinery of what happened that makes it feel satisfying?
"(Semiotics) gives you a whole tool kit that I use all the time, even just down to something concrete like the way our radio show opens - the fact that it opens on action. I just start in on forward-moving narrative, based on things I read in Roland Barthes when I was 20, where he talked about what narrative does and how it pulls you in and raises questions and engages your feelings."
Just like Glass his show, wherever it's staged.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
WHAT: Hancher: Ira Glass in "Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host"
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (10/18)
WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
TICKETS: $10 to $50
DEATILS: (319) 335-1160 or Hancher.uiowa.edu