18 May 2006

coming to you live from the National Theater in Iceland

It's art festival time here in Iceland again, and on Tuesday, J and I participated by going to the National Theater to hear the Prairie Home Companion recording that will be broadcast in the US this weekend. I grew up with this show on Saturday evenings, and Garrison Keillor's smooth voice is intertwined with memories of making supper with my family on Saturday evening, so I was curious to see what it would all be like in person.

For those of you who have never heard of this show, it's kind of an old-style radio program that's been on public radio for over 30 years now. They have skits, music, stories, and musical guests from wherever they record the show that week. The focus has always been local talent and specialty shows, like their annual (I think) recording where all the artists are from towns with a population under 2000 people. It's based in Minnesota, so the humor tends to be dry and Nordic, and the music is usually pretty down-home. The host is Garrison Keillor, a stoic giant of a fellow, often described as having a face made for radio. He spins an enthralling tale though, and his voice and delivery has been honed by his decades on the job.

J and I met the special projects producer of the show at an American Embassy event in February, back when he was scouting out the artists to have on the show and doing the groundwork, and his love of the country was evident then. It promised to be a good show.

So, like good Iceland residents, we got suited up on Tuesday and walked through the sprinkling rain to the theater downtown (ok, maybe the walking part isn't particularly Icelandic, but we like our neighborhood). It's a classic Deco theater with fancy glass chandeliers, lots of red carpeting, and a ceiling modelled on the hexagonal lava formations that also inspired Hallgrimskirkja.

The show had all the behind-the-scenes radio elements that made it feel like we were part of a secret as we watched the leader of the band send his cues to the other members, and sound guys scurried to correct microphone heights and untangle wires. I also got to see the guy who always fascinated me as a child- the sound effects man. During the skits, there were always the most amazing sound effects, all made by a human voice. He can make the sounds of different kinds birds, people talking in a bar, trolls in the mountains, or cows, and I always wondered how he did it and what he looked like. Now I know.

The stories and skits contained much more of an Icelandic element than I had expected. In addition to two Icelandic guests, Garrison (or his research team) had done his research well, and all the stories had an element of Iceland to them. Of course a lot of it was based on geysers and steambaths, hákarl, and dark winters, but he mentioned musical leanings, the sunny beauty of this time of year, and the language in a way that connected with the Icelandic members of the audience as well. I'm not sure what the ratio of the audience was, and if it was half and half (judging from the amount of English heard before the show started, it's possible) but it sounded like everyone enjoyed the show.

I kept imagining what it will be like for the people in the US to hear this show on Saturday, people that have never thought of Iceland before now trying to imagine this rocky place. Will they be curious and want to come visit now? I've told some of my friends about the show, and they'll be listening too. Even in this modern world where we have dozens of ways to communicate real-time, there's still something special about the connection of a radio program.

Ship sighting: it's all cargo ship action today, and most of them are ships I've seen or mentioned before. I always find it entertaining to do image searches on these boats. Sometimes I find exactly what I'm looking for, and other times, like when I did a search for the boat Wilson Humber that's coming today, I find vintage bicycle pictures.

1 comment:

SB said...

It is now 19:40, Saturday night here in Boston, and NPR, or National Public Radio is on. To my great joy, to say the least I've been listening to the show. It's been fantastic!!!
Diddu was phenominal with her song, Eitt Litid Spor by Halldor Laxness our old Nobel Prize winner of literature. I'd say that was my highlight, I remember back in the 70's when she sang it on TV and it became a big hit (in Iceland)
What a treat, thanks E + J for writing about the show.
It must have been a treat for you too, to get to listen and see it with your own bare eyes.