‘Prairie Home Companion’-inspired ‘Shad Ladder Radio Hour’ finds a home at Shea Theater

For The Recorder
Published: 5/10/2017 7:24:46 AM

“High atop the winding ridges of the Mohawk Trail, tucked into wooded hollows alive with the melody of cows (‘mmmmm’) and the furious boil of sugarshacks, (‘bblbblbblbl’) divided by a river and divided by a Bridge of Flowers, blossoming over in a riot of richness each summer, 12 towns, one county, residents young (‘DAVEY!’) and old (‘You kids get off my lawn!’) new and not so new, knitting up a web of light each evening that lets you know, out there in the darkness, here we are, all across the hillsides of Western Massachusetts! (‘Howwwwwwl.’)”

Woebegone we may not be, but the “Shad Ladder Radio Hour” is a distinctly Franklin County figment of creative imagination. So creative, in fact, that it’s a radio-free production.

Going into its fourth show with a live recording on May 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Buckland Town Hall, it will include readings, dramatizations by the Shad Plaid Players and music by the bluegrass band River Rhapsody.

The show — with “pseudomercials” from “Tiny’s Tire Barn,” “That Back Country Workshop” and its classes for flat landers — offers proof that the hilltowns are alive with creative energy.

It’s that creativity that convinced Carmela Lanza-Weil of the Shelburne Falls Area Business Association and Sarah Kanabay of the Franklin County Community Cooperative that this project — modeled on public radio’s “Prairie Home Companion” — would be a great way to showcase and encourage the vibrant arts community.

“At a lunch, we were talking about public art and projects we both always wanted to do,” said Lanza-Weil. “I love ‘Prairie Home Companion.’ Wouldn’t it be fun to do the kooky hilltown version with those colorful characters everybody knows?”

The show, with Kanabay as producer, was a recipient of a Hilltown Art and Thriving Community Happenings, with funding from a Massachusetts Cultural Council Adams Grant that was awarded to the business association last year. Along with a sponsorship from the co-op, it was off and running.

Both women say they come to the show as artists — Lanza-Weil from an art-producing background in Colorado and Oregon, and Kanabay, who is originally from Connecticut, from writing — and believe, in Kanabay’s words, “The more we can get it out there, the more it can be financially viable, the more exciting it will be, the more attention it will get and the more support the arts economy in Franklin County generally will get.”

Kanabay comes up with the theme for each month’s show — maple sugaring, mud season, April Fools, or this month’s cycling theme — and hands it over to what’s becoming a regular team of writers to come up with comedy skits, fake commercials, and add it to “stories good enough to be true.”

“I like to keep it a little loose,” she says. “Part of the pleasure of producing the show is having a core group of writers and seeing the different interpretations of the theme. They take it to places you could never have imagined you’d go with it: inventive, wonderful things like “Law and Order Spear, Maple Syrup Unit” or “Karl the Kombucha guy,” who’s a UMass soil biologist who hangs out in the back of Tiny’s Tire Shop.

“A big Tiny hello out there! It’s me, Tiny of Tiny’s Tire Shop in Heath, giving a big shout out to ...! You know, at the tire shop we don’t upsell, even if we yell. Hear Tiny holler and you save a dollar! We’ll find the right tire at the right price to make the driving life in our big hilltown a breeze!”

Some of the regular, irregular characters who appear in segments of the show, which has attracted a few dozen audience members to the monthly productions, may ring true to some of the zanier Franklin County inhabitants, like the “past-life aromatherapist,” Hera Rosacea, who shows up in “That Back Country Workshop” skits.

“We’re starting to get submissions from people from around Franklin County and the lower (Pioneer) Valley,” said Kanabay. “We’re excited to be able to create a sense of artistic community, because people are making art everywhere. But it’s really easy to be making art in a little pocket somewhere and not be aware of what people are doing elsewhere, because you’re in your little Ashfield bubble, say. This can really be a catalyst for bringing people together and fostering a collaboratively produced art project. It’s sort of the same thing in trying to create an identity for ourselves as a region, that’s distinct from the lower (Pioneer) Valley but still has a really strong, cohesive presence.”

For now, Shad Ladder Radio Theater has yet to hit the airwaves as a live program, although a podcast version of recorded shows is available.

The show, which is still looking for additional sponsors — the real kind — to help with production costs and maybe even offer pay to performers someday, may get help in bringing the larger community together, in the form of major production assistance from the Shea Theater in Turners Falls.

Beginning in June, the show — which up until now has had to move back and forth across the Deerfield River between the Sheburne Buckland Community Center and the Buckland Town Hall — will be hosted at the Shea.

“It’s a monthly show, so it means being constantly in promotion mode, working on ways to better get the word out about it,” said Lanza-Weil. “Partnering with the Shea is going to help us with a permanent home, support and advertising. (Shea Managing Director) Linda Tardif’s really excited about the Shea becoming like the Grand Old Opry for our community.”

Tardif added, “We’re really wanting to put Shea on the map as this gem in the Pioneer Valley, but also to be a real hometown theater and keep our doors open to just say, ‘Do you have an idea? We have a space for you, and it’s yours.’”

Beginning June 15, the 340-seat theater — a stone’s throw from the Turners Falls Fish Ladder — will become the monthly home of the Shad Ladder Radio Theater and Tardif says the storylines will likely expand to reach beyond the hilltowns.

“That’s the great thing about the show as is right now, with its wonderful sense of humor and also a love for our colorful area, with all its idiosyncrasies and characteristics. I’m just excited to be a part of bringing it home.”

Once the show gets rooted in its new home, Tardif, Lanza-Weil and Kanabay see spinoffs possible spreading the Shad Ladder brand to storytelling events, concerts showcasing local talent and variety shows around the region.

The Shea may even actually be able to bring the radio theater to the radio, says Tardif.

Jacob Bernstein, the sound-effects creator for the show, says his that apart from courses at Berklee School of Music in film scoring and watching a broadcast of “Prairie Home Companion,” he’d never seen a live Foley artist at work before doing it.

He’s decided he has much more control by bringing his pre-recorded sound effects to the show rather than an entire shopping cart of typewriters, whips, bells and ratchets.

Some of the noises listed in bold on the scripts he’s sent are available online at freesound.org, he said, but others take some imagination on his end, and then maybe on the part of audience members. Those he has to come up with live — like walking on gravel along his driveway or substituting the sound of his car engine from under the hood for a UFO approaching.

The hardest one — the sound of sap boiling — “doesn’t sound like much,” Bernstien concluded, so he simply recorded some water boiling on his stovetop.

The audience may not get to watch the saber-rattling or aluminum foil thunder or — in the case of next month’s show — bicycle tires spinning before their eyes, but Bernstein says he always feels prepared: “It all just depends on what the script calls for.”

Meanwhile, Kanaday admits, “It’s been a challenge finding spaces that are good for shows that are also good for audio recordings. There are a lot of moving pieces.”

As outreach manager for Franklin Community Co-Op, she says, “I’m a big-picture, long-term planning person, so I really hope this grows and becomes a beloved hilltown institution that lasts forever. It would be wonderful if there was one major, beautiful art venue in each of the larger (Franklin County) communities,” she adds, noting that the Town of Greenfield recently bought the former First National Bank building to spur its renovation and Shelburne’s Memorial Hall is also being refurbished.

“We’d love to have the show performed in each one of those venues, because it’s really for all of Franklin County,” Kanaday says. “It’s the sort of thing that could really help us put ourselves on the map as an artistic community and would tie those sort of disparate communities together.”

To listen to recordings of the Shad Ladder Radio Hour, visit: https://soundcloud.com/user-678487851.




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