Story and motion: Ira Glass returns to Zellerbach with ‘Seven Things I’ve Learned’

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Seeing and hearing a radio personality live is an undeniably disjointed feeling. You get so used to hearing a voice in the privacy of your home, car, or in the bubble of your headphones. So when Ira Glass, host of the long-running radio show “This American Life,” took to the Zellerbach Hall stage on Saturday, he played directly into this audio-visual discrepancy: “I’m Ira Glass. This is what I look like.”

Glass, however, being one of the most recognizable voices of the broadcast world, didn’t need much introduction. It was clearly an audience of NPR devotees with jokes about membership drives and tote bags a little too spot-on. As the show fell into the familiar rhythms of Glass’s radio persona, there was a palpable feeling of excitement in seeing a favorite figure face-to-face in real time.

Nonetheless, the evening wasn’t all about radio. Departing from the well-hewn three-part structure of “This American Life,” Glass’s performance was divided into seven sections, aptly titled “Seven Things I’ve Learned.”

Glass’s seven selected truisms spanned from the pragmatic to the emotional playing into the principles of the first truism he introduced — “How to tell a story.” Rather than solely sticking to what makes a radio story work, however, Glass leaned toward the broad, emphasizing “a story in its simplest form is about motion.” The following points “How to interview kids” and “It’s normal to be bad before you’re good” followed in this vein, spanning his work at “This American Life” and as a storyteller outside of radio journalism.

Point four was “Save the cat” — a reference to the trope of “Saving the cat” to make a character more likeable. Here, Glass explored creativity and the little things that can make or break a creative work, such as in the case of when he and Mike Birbiglia, who worked together on the 2012 film “Sleepwalk with Me,” added in a few seconds of dialogue in order to make Birbiglia’s character more likeable — fundamentally altering test audience’s response to the film.

Throughout the talk, Glass used a small tablet and screen to great effect, complementing his words with video clips and the infamous “This American Life” musical cues. This added an element of familiar levity to the tonal shifts, and gave Glass even more command over the room, in full control of timing and imagery.

With the fifth point in the lecture, “Failure is Success,” what could have been another light call to hard work and pushing forward became a heavy meditation on love and loss. This served as the emotional crest of the evening as Glass delved into the dissolution of his marriage, although indirectly. Rather, Glass reflected on his relationship with his wife via his relationship with his estranged, aging pitbull, Piney — a symbol for the things gone wrong in his marriage. The anecdote ended on a pithy punchline, but this didn’t diminish the emotional severity of the tale, worming its way through with a heart-wrenching effect.

Continuing this dramatic dip in tone, Glass departed from his strictly oratorical format. Along with two dancers from Monica Bill Barnes & Company (whom Glass has previously toured with in his 2015 show “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host”), Glass performed a melancholic ditty from that previous performance, moving with limbs dragging and slowing. The motions were simultaneously graceful and deeply sad in this iteration of the dance.

From there, the motion of the evening continued forward on an incline, with Glass’s final two points: “Amuse yourself” and “It’s war,” leaning toward a tentative balance of humor and a call to action. Glass offered an intense look at the damages of our current “informational ecosystem” and the things dividing our society — culminating with an emphasis on creating quality and responsible journalism. Glass’s message was neither hopeful nor dogmatic, and he also chose to end on a whimsy note with a story told in a nursery-rhyme form from frequent “This American Life” contributor David Sedaris that had previously aired.

The show was a precise combination of the things that make “This American Life” so popular — its pacing, structure and incisive look at its characters  — all tied in a neat live package. Glass is a consummate performer, and held sway over the crowd as if he had never left the radio booth in the first place.

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].