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The real prairie home companions

Created date

August 25th, 2009

It s Saturday evening and over four million people are tuning in to the nation s local public radio stations. Their speakers pulse to the beat of the Dixieland air "Tishomingo Blues" and, after a few bars, to the familiar baritone of Garrison Keillor s voice.

"Coming to you live from the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul, Minn., it s A Prairie Home Companion."

A throwback to the radio days of the 1930s, Keillor s weekly variety show combines musical acts and comedy sketches, all done live without the 21st-century comforts of digital editing and overdubs. An art lost to television, such performance offers little room for error and, above all else, depends on a cast of few able to provide the voices of many.

Characters come alive

Keillor creates dozens of characters in a single episode s script, but it s the talents of his supporting actors Sue Scott and Tim Russell that give them the dimension and personality that they lack on paper. The vocal equivalents of Swiss Army knives, Scott and Russell have an accent and intonation for just about any character that Keillor could possibly invent.

During the show, Scott s voice moves seamlessly from the gravelly drawl of a tough cowgirl to the shrill cries of a hysterical woman, followed by the silky tone of a sultry temptress, all within a few minutes. Russell also spends much of the two-hour broadcast working a diverse lineup of characters, which often includes dead-on impersonations of Donald Trump s heavily punctuated cadence and the Texan twang of George W. Bush.

What s more, Scott and Russell deliver this impressive range of personalities with an ease and efficiency that belies the craft s many challenges. Creating living, breathing characters in a faceless medium like radio requires a keen sense of human nature; an attention to the most subtle ticks, mannerisms, and peculiarities; and the ability to convey these visual elements through voice alone.

"When we do the show, we re not just creating voices, we re creating personalities, so you have to keep in mind all the things that make a character unique and memorable," says Scott, who started her acting career working with well-known theater companies like Second City. "As you re reading over a script, you start asking yourself questions like how nasal are they and how would their physical build affect their speech. I m looking for anything that will give a character presence."

Russell uses a similar approach when perfecting one of his many celebrity impersonations. As the 36-year radio veteran explains, a spot-on impression requires a combination of instinct and attention to detail. "First and foremost, an impersonator has to have a natural ability to hear not only a person s voice, but also everything that makes it sound the way that it does," he says. "When I find someone I want to imitate, I start out by spending a couple of hours online watching videos of them. I try to absorb as much as possible, listening to their vocal tone, their speech patterns, how quickly they talk, and even how they move."

Keeping the voices straight

The actual performance of these characters also has its challenges. Scott often has to play several characters in the same skit, bouncing back and forth between voices as if in conversation.

An episode of one of the show s most popular segments, "Guy Noir: Radio Private Eye," included a scene in which Noir s girlfriend, Sugar, visits a female therapist. With each exchange of dialogue, Scott alternated between Sugar s flighty high pitch and the therapist s airy sophistication.

"One of the hardest things about doing scenes where I m literally on stage talking to myself is keeping the characters clean and straight," she says. "You have to be careful not to confuse their lines, and you really need to make sure that your performance clearly distinguishes one from the other. That s especially important in radio because the audience can t see them."

Or can they? Every week, Scott and Russell play characters so full of energy that you can t help but picture the entire scene in your head as you listen. In fact, one could argue that there s not a better example of radio as an art form that encourages thought and leaves room for our imagination.

Such qualities may be rare in an age dominated by television, but Keillor s supporting duo and their legion of voices are keeping them alive.