Thursday, July 2, 2009

Lake Wobegon Job Shadow: My Prairie Home Companion “Embed” Experience

On July 1, 2009, PBS aired an American Masters special featuring Garrison Keillor. I missed the live broadcast, but hope to catch a rerun sometime in the next few weeks. Reading about the special got me thinking about how back in June 2004, I spent two days “job-shadowing” with the production team for the live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion on June 26, 2004. The show was produced that week at King County’s Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington, not too far from where I live in Seattle.

I’d heard a few months earlier that the show was coming to town, so I’d sent a letter to Garrison Keillor’s office in St. Paul, Minnesota asking for the opportunity to see how the show was done. The reasoning in my request was that since I produce an annual live holiday radio play (one of the only regularly scheduled live radio plays in the United States), I thought I could learn a thing or two from watching some real pros at work.

A kindly member of the staff (who, I believe, has since moved on) called me a week or so before the show to let me know that they’d agreed to let me hang out, and giving me instructions to report to stage manager Albert Webster. I was to arrive mid-morning on Friday, June 25, the day before the show. The weather was perfect the way late June in the Pacific Northwest can sometimes be, sunny with high temps in the mid 70s and low humidity. I drove to Marymoor and parked my car in a secret spot near the maintenance barn, stopped in to say “hi” to the Marymoor crew, and then reported to the backstage area of the then-new Marymoor Amphitheater. Marymoor is a beautiful park that was once a hunting lodge and model farm belonging to James and Anna Clise, a prominent Seattle couple from the early 20th century. It was a place I knew very well, from field trips and picnics there as a child in the 1970s, and from working as Economic Development Manager for the King County Park System in the 1990s.

Albert Webster was professional, courteous and kind—actually, everyone I met throughout my two days could be described the same way. Mr. Webster introduced me to most of the crew and musicians as they went about their important duties, and I did my best to stay out of everyone’s way (and to grasp as much as I could about the logistics and the vibe of the operation). I even got to join the cast and crew for a catered lunch in the nearby Clise Mansion.

Not long after lunch, the cast and guest performers arrived for an early afternoon sound-check and run through. I spent a lot of time speaking with sound effects guy and Mouth Sounds author Fred Newman and with actress Sue Scott, who were both generous with their time. My designated post was downstage left, right next to Albert Webster’s work area. From this spot, I watched all the set-up and rehearsals into the early evening. It seems that Keillor and crew prepare about 120%-130% of the material they need. As rehearsals progress on Friday and Saturday, they assemble a draft “rundown” of the songs and sketches (in a draft order) on a chalkboard backstage, ultimately winnowing down to the right amount of material to fill the two-hour broadcast.

Garrison Keillor arrived sometime in the early afternoon Friday and disappeared into a backstage area. At some point, he made a request for Marymoor Park brochures, apparently to help pepper the script with local flavor. A Prairie staffer went to the park office and came back with an armload maps and other materials. After awhile, Mr. Keillor came out from backstage and asked for someone to help locate a park employee, someone who could provide for him some additional local information for the script. I raised my hand and said that I’d be happy to help myself, having worked at Marymoor. Mr. Keillor motioned for me to follow him backstage and then invited me to take a seat next to small table where he was working on the script. He briefly explained what he was looking for, what the various scripts were about, and what kinds of things he needed help with.

All in all, I helped a teeny bit with the list of Marymoor amenities that appear in what became a sound-effects script called Marymoor and with some descriptive details for the Guy Noir script (I couldn’t find the Noir script online—I recall suggesting the name “Skagit” and the Labrador Retriever breed for the dog owned by a cliché Seattle yuppie type, and suggesting the words “it’s like a snail without a shell” for the description of a slug). Later, during on-stage rehearsal, I gave additional unsolicited recommendations to the sound effects script called Marymoor (clarifying that the cricket pitch at Marymoor served East Indians—not Brits—so that Fred Newman and Tim Russell used East Indian rather than Oxbridge accents for their brief “thank you very much” lines); and to The Lives of the Cowboys (suggesting the replacement of a reference to a cactus with reference instead to a Douglas fir). I was extremely flattered that Mr. Keillor and the other actors graciously and generously used all of my suggestions in the live performance, but I don’t think a single thing I contributed got much of a laugh. My apologies to all concerned.

The next day included more rehearsing and more refining of the various sketches until early afternoon (showtime in the Pacific Time Zone is 3 pm). Watching the actual live broadcast from the special stage seating area was an unexpected treat—I thought maybe I’d be relegated to a stool backstage. If you go to the slide show on this page, you can see me in Photo 8, to the left of mandolin player Peter Ostrushko (I’m the blank-expressioned blurry guy with short brown hair and glasses—remarkable how much higher the hairline has traveled since that photo was taken).

The most useful “takeaway” from my experience being embedded with A Prairie Home Companion was to learn the value of having a decent “warm-up” for the audience before any live broadcast. Garrison Keillor went on stage about 15 minutes before the show, making jokes and performing songs with the musical guests. Later that year, I instituted a warm-up before my live broadcast from Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry on KPLU-FM of The Bishop’s Wife (using the Lux Radio Theatre script), and have continued to include a warm-up every year since. In previous years, I had brought the cast on stage with only about five minutes to spare before showtime, and had depended on the announcer to read a few scripted instructions about turning off cellphones, feeling free to clap and laugh out loud, etc. Nowadays, I handle the warm-up duties myself, telling a few lame jokes, giving a brief history of live radio drama, having the sound effects guy demonstrate a few tricks, and then introducing each cast member as the clock moves inexorably toward showtime. I certainly feel more warmed up by the time the ON AIR light comes on, and I think the audience does, too.

I remain grateful to the good folks of A Prairie Home Companion for letting me spend two days with them back in 2004. The experience provided me with a lot of great memories, and a fair amount of inspiration for what’s possible on live radio.


  1. You had the NPR geek's dream experience! I'm sooo jealous...

  2. Having seen one of your wonderful live radio shows in Seattle, I'd agree 100% that warm-up time helps. The actors were pretty rev'ed up by the time that the actual broadcast began (esp. the person who played Jimmy Stewart's part in "It's a Wonderful Life"), and I think that dynamic brought a more lively experience to the audience. Keep up the great work, Feliks...