On Saturday at Wolf Trap, public radio host Ira Glass will present a new solo show to the largest audience ever to see him perform live.
At least, that’s the plan, but it assumes that Glass can do two things: (1) Get at least 5,000 of his fans to head out to Vienna, Va.; and (2) present a performance that is truly a one-man show and not just a talk given by the man who co-created “This American Life.”
“I’ve done 3,000 and 4,000 people, but never 5,000,” Glass said recently from the “This American Life” studios in New York. During a wide-ranging interview, the Baltimore native discussed his evolving onstage persona; his new show, “Seven Things I’ve Learned”; and his recommendations for New York theater beyond “Hamilton.” (He’s already seen it, twice.)
Growing up in Baltimore’s northwestern suburbs, Glass, 57, performed in the musicals “South Pacific” and “Damn Yankees” at Milford Mill High School (now Milford Mill Academy). He also dabbled in theater at Northwestern University.
Glass then began a long climb up the public-radio ladder, starting as an intern in Washington in the late 1970s. He later worked as a reporter and host for several national shows, eventually moving to Chicago. In 1995, he and producer Torey Malatia created “This American Life,” which parlays quirky, slice-of-life stories into a thematically linked hour of radio every week. More than 500 stations now air the series, which has more or less launched well-known writers such as David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and the late David Rakoff.
But in 1996, the attempt by Chicago station WBEZ to syndicate the show felt like something of a foolhardy stunt.
“We had no money for publicity, and it was explained to me that once a month, you go out to a public radio station and give a talk, because then the station will run promos promoting the talk,” Glass said. “Just them saying your name over and over on the air is really good marketing, and they won’t say your name over and over unless they have a reason. Basically, you are going out and giving speeches to support a promo.”
First up was Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
“I hadn’t been onstage since college,” Glass said. “I was nervous about it, so what I tried to do was treat it like a radio show. . . . I would sit at a radio console and tell stories and basically mix the thing live for people.”
That ended up being Glass’s onstage modus operandi for more than a decade. “Now, I’m basically as comfortable in front of an audience as I am on the radio,” he said.
“Seven Things I’ve Learned” is just Glass onstage with his iPad. Glass debuted the show, which is full of personal anecdotes and beyond-the-studio stories, this month at Mountain Winery in California. He’ll follow his Wolf Trap performance with dates throughout the year, although none of the venues will be nearly as large.
Glass credits the development of his ready-for-an-amphitheater stage persona to three things: press tours with comic Mike Birbiglia (with whom Glass produced the movies “Sleepwalk With Me” and “Don’t Think Twice”); his ongoing tour with choreographer Monica Bill Barnes; and improv comedy classes in New York.
Each experience has taught Glass something different, but the show with Barnes was the most challenging.
“For the dance show, everything was scripted,” he said. “I was listening to the music, knowing I had to finish the sentence on a certain word, because that was a cue for the dancers. That was an exercise in learning how to say things over and over, and make it feel like I was saying it for the first time. I have to say, of all the things I’ve done onstage, that was the hardest.”
Other challenges have included sharing a stage with Amy Schumer in 2014, which drove Glass to that New York improv class. It was there, he said, that he learned to let go of his interviewer’s instinct to propel a narrative forward.
“Seven Things” will be unscripted, but not off the cuff. For the first time, Glass is touring with video clips, including footage of “21 Chump Street,” a short musical adapted by Lin-Manuel Miranda from a 2012 “This American Life” story about undercover cops at a high school. Miranda was workshopping “Hamilton” when that episode was recorded at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Glass is a big fan of the mega-hit musical, but lately he has been most interested in Bedlam theater’s imaginative adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility.” (The Bedlam production opens Sept. 13 at Folger Theatre.)
Ira Glass as an Austenite who loves off-Broadway theater? Yes, that’s a role he can play.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen onstage,” he said. “Save your ‘Hamilton’ dollars and go see it.”
In Synetic Theater’s recent remount of “Twelfth Night,” Kathy Gordon and Philip Fletcher starred as the mismatched lovers Orsino and Olivia. They don’t end up together in Shakespeare’s play, but offstage they are partners as producers and performers of “Dark Night,” an annual variety show and fundraiser that features other veterans of the Arlington-based physical-theater company.
The third “Dark Night” is Monday at Synetic’s Crystal City venue. Acts will include Gordon’s dance company, KG Dance, and works choreographed by Tori Bertocci and Chanel Smith, two other Synetic members.
The “Dark Night” project began two years ago, when Fletcher asked Gordon to create a solo piece he could perform in honor of his father, who had died of cancer. They soon realized that other company members also were interested in sharing short works, and so they put together a program. Instead of selling tickets, they put two donation boxes by the door: one for the American Cancer Society and one to cover the costs of renting the theater.
To their surprise, Gordon said, “we collected enough money to cover the costs of the next year, too.”
The two hope to expand the project next year, soliciting works from artists with an ethos similar to Synetic’s. There are other dance showcases in Washington, Gordon said, but most that accept genre-crossing artists require hefty deposits.
“We never know what we’ll get,” Gordon said, “but we have a really strong lineup.”