Backstage at A Prairie Home Companion
A look backstage at one of America's most-loved radio programs
"A Prairie Home Companion." It's a radio program that just about everyone knows. The show's creator and host Garrison Keillor launched the show in 1974 in St. Paul, MN. The idea was to create a live stage show for radio in the style of the "Grand Ole Opry." In that time, "A Prairie Home Companion" has easily reached (and surpassed in the opinions of some) the same level of public recognition.
I attended a performance of the program on Sept. 24, 2011, and I was able to arrange a visit with the production crew for most of the day of the performance. David O'Neill, station relations and media manager, provided me with access to all areas backstage and on-stage. I spent a great deal of time with Sam Hudson, producer/audio engineer, and Tom Scheuzger, broadcast/transmission engineer, as well.
On the surface, final production of the show looks like a group of people just having a good time, which we know is part of the magic of a good production. The performers and technicians don't make it look like work.
Show production is actually an on-going process. While Keillor writes ideas for the script on an on-going basis, the final elements are decided by the rehearsal on Friday. Guests are also arranged on-going; some are booked months in advance, others are booked the week of the broadcast. It's this flexibility that requires everyone involved to be aware at all times, and be ready to make on-the-fly adjustments as needed.
Keillor leads a talented troupe of performers, including actors Tim Russell, Sue Scott and Fred Newman. Tom Keith handled the sound effects, done in the old style with shoes, hardware, bits of random debris and his own voice at times. (Keith unexpectedly died in October 2011.) The music is provided by The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band, led by keyboardist Richard Dworsky, with Pat Donahue (guitar), Gary Raynor (bass) and Peter Johnson (percussion).
At stage left is the broadcast equipment set up. This is where Hudson and Scheuzger, along with engineer Noah Smith, spend their time. Entrenched behind a Yamaha PM1D, they mix the audio for the radio feed, and they handle the monitor mix for Keillor and the band. Front-of-house mixer Tony Axtell handles the monitor mix for the rest of the performers.
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