Editor's note: Early this week, news broke that local band The Haunted Windchimes will be performing as part of this weekend's Prairie Home Companion show at the World Arena. For more on that, see Bill Forman's interview with Windchimes member Mike Clark here.
At a rehearsal during her first season with A Prairie Home Companion, actor Sue Scott got some direction from the radio show's creator that momentarily flummoxed her.
"I sort of grabbed something for a character, and Garrison stopped me and said, 'I think she's taller than that,'" Scott recalls. "And I remember going, 'Wow. How do I sound taller?'"
It's a conundrum only a radio actor could fully appreciate, and in the nearly 20 years since, Scott has learned how to sound tall (using a slightly lower voice), short, blonde, fat, thin, sultry and countless other adjectives that have no obvious auditory equivalent. It's her job, as the woman who voices the female characters on Garrison Keillor's weekly piece of aural Americana, which is heard by some 4 million listeners.
On Saturday, Keillor brings the St. Paul, Minn.-based show's cast and crew, along with musical guests Robin and Linda Williams and Stephanie Davis, to the World Arena.
In an interview with show sponsor KRCC's The Big Something, Keillor said that fans accustomed to listening to the show at home would become "privy to this secret" in watching it unfold on stage. "They'll sense this little drama," he said. "Everybody gets one take at what they're performing. ... And it's all happening right there in front of you."
Each week, the two-hour production unfolds on a tightly compressed schedule that begins with a Friday evening read-through of Keillor's scripts — he writes the entire show — and ends 24 hours later, with the live performance. Extensive rewrites and a second pre-performance rehearsal bridge the gap. There's not much time for practice, and — when Keillor begins singing an adaptation of "Tishomingo Blues," the show's trademark opener — not much room for error.
It can be a wild ride.
"Often, we'll read it [on Friday], and he'll say, 'All right. Not to worry. It'll all be different tomorrow.' Which is always so funny, because it's like, 'It was great! What do you mean?'" Scott says. "So in his mind, he's hearing something he clearly wants to change, and we'll find out the next day what actually happens with the script."
Occasionally, if the show is running long, Keillor will make edits on the fly. "He'll say, 'I'm going to make some cuts ... so just follow me,'" Scott says. "He means we're going to do it on the air. ... And he's crossing out paragraphs while we're performing live, and you just kind of have to make it seem seamless.
"[But] he's the king of the save. He wrote it; he knows it backward and forward. He will make it work even if someone gets thrown, which we rarely do."
That's due in large part to the experience of performers like Scott, a veteran of improvisational theater and commercial voice work, and longtime radio personality and voice-over actor Tim Russell, who plays most of the show's male characters. The two had done commercial voice work together before Russell joined Prairie Home in 1994, two years after Scott.
Each week, they're tapped to create new voices and to pluck from their brains the indelible characters that populate the show's regular comedy sketches, including "Guy Noir, Private Eye," "The Lives of the Cowboys" and the "Catchup Advisory Board," a faux sponsor Keillor concocted some 15 years ago. The last-named bit spotlights Russell and Scott as Jim and Barb, a chronically dysphoric couple who ought to be happy but can't quite get there without the condiment's mellowing influence.
"We were searching for those characters for the first couple of weeks," Scott recalls. The voice of Jim is Russell's imitation of ad executive Hal Riney, who did the "Morning in America" spots for Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign. It's just one of dozens of well-known voices — including those of former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — that Russell has mimicked on the show.
More often, the actors must conjure characters from Keillor's cues and their own imaginations.
"For the most part, there are clues: age, region, personality traits that he writes into the script. So, we're searching for all that," says Scott, who lives in a Minneapolis suburb just a few doors from Russell. "And if there isn't any of those things, it's just up to us to grab something and try it — see how it works, see if he likes it and if it fits with other characters."
That's the fun part, Russell says, along with making it all sound real. "What makes it come alive on the radio is how we finesse it a little bit," he says. "The key to successful comedy on radio is to have it sound as real as possible, even though it's a silly premise. It has to be in the moment, and it has to sound like it's actually in that place, in that time. So we do a lot of fill-in-the-blanks with interjections, sound effects, creating the atmosphere."
It's an unabashedly low-tech endeavor — the timbre of human voices and music, playing out live, in real time, without technological wizardry — that has set Prairie Home apart since it debuted in front of a dozen listeners in 1974.
"We don't add on things and hype things up and do all the things that you can do in post-production," Keillor told KRCC. "So it simply is people sitting on stage doing what people can naturally do at one time and one place."
That's a big reason for the show's enduring success.
"The musical performances have such a different sound. ... People appreciate the fact that it hasn't been reworked a million times," Russell says. "And as far as the comedy goes, there's still something about filling in the visual imagery yourself. I think that has an appeal that can't be replicated."