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Q-A with Ellen, the Prairie Home Companion researcher

Ever notice how ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ on the road makes very specific, local references? Here’s how they do it.

Courtesy of Stubble

Stubble: What exactly is your job at A Prairie Home Companion?
Ellen:  So every week, or most every week, we have a show on Saturdays. The bulk of what we do is travel, to different cities and theaters around the country. How familiar with the show are you, by the way? It’s totally cool if you’re not.

Stubble: Oh man, I’m very familiar with the show. Like most people who grew up with NPR on all the time in the house.
Ellen: So then you know that wherever you go, it sounds like Garrison is from there. He has all of these insights into local things and every fact and tidbit about what’s going on around town. Things like how old is the venue, what else has been hosted there, and what’s going on in the community. When we were in Memphis, the venue was an old opera house that had been restored. It had all of these old vaudeville aspects of it. He wants to know all of that and what the locals are talking about, what that they’d identify with. For a Guy Noir skit, he might want a specific location that has some kind of local myth, like a bar that Guy would work in. Details that the locals would giggle at because they thought that nobody else knew about it. That’s essentially my job — help him get him that information.

Stubble: How do you conduct this kind of research?
Ellen: I go down to the location on Thursdays before the show and spend all day Thursday and usually Friday morning just going around the taking notes on everything that I observe. Any sights, sounds, smells… I eaves drop a lot too. I really do. I just post up on a street or in a hotel or whoever there seems to be a lot of stuff going on and I just take a ton, a ton of notes and give them to Garrison in bullet-point form. Then during the show, I run the teleprompter. It’s high energy. It’s a live show, so that’s terrifying most of the time — if the teleprompter crashes it’s kind of on me.

Stubble: How do you think your previous experience as an editor at Minnesota Monthly helps you with your role at A Prairie Home Companion?
Ellen: It’s kind of crazy how all of that ties in. I never thought that I’d be doing anything other than writing and editing for a print publication. It’s a total different way to take notes though because I’m taking them of someone else. I have to be pretty conscious of that. I can’t assume that he’ll know where I’m coming from. Whereas my personal notes can be kind of all over the place, when I give them to him I really have to provide a lot of context. That’s been a steep learning curve.

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Stubble: It seems like you play an interesting role in shaping A Prairie Home Companion’s Minnesota mythmaking — you are like Garrison’s secret operative on the ground. I’ve met a lot of people from outside of Minnesota who seem to think of our state totally through the Lake Wobegon lens. How do you think about that kind of responsibility?
Ellen: Just like we Minnesotans don’t want people making assumptions about us, and I don’t want to be making assumptions about them. It’s up to Garrison to determine how much he pokes at Minnesota (in a loving way, of course) but it’s up to me to make sure that he gets the best feel for the audience we’re performing for that night. Here, for example, we’re going toSan Diego next weekend and there’s a big news story going on about the mayor’s sex scandal — I guess it happened a couple of months ago, but the elections to replace the mayor are coming up — and so while that’s kind of an interesting thing, it’s also maybe a sore spot for the San Diegans and so we have to ask ourselves how much should we dwell on the issue because they’re probably sick of hearing about it. Do they like to be reminded that they’re a naval base? It’s finding that delicate balance.

You’re right though, we do represent Minnesota and we don’t want Minnesota to come across as a, “Well hey! We’re from the Midwest and we don’t know anything about anyone!” so it is important that I somehow tap into what they actually care about and what they’re sick of hearing about. At the end of the day it’s still Garrison’s show and if he has a specific idea, it’s my job to help him realize that.

Stubble: What have you personally learned from doing all of this research?
Ellen: Oh man, I’ve learned that traveling is as exhausting as everyone says it is. It’s not always a vacation when you travel. It’s kind of like a forced vacation sometimes. I have to go to Dallas and see everything there is to do in Dallas in one Day. OK, got it. Someone explained it to me once as cramming a 3 week vacation into one week, basically. Let’s say you were planning a trip to Italy and you were going to go in June. You’d spend the next six months researching the place and figuring out an itinerary. For me, that’s every week. Figuring out how can I see everything I need to see in 12 hours on Thursday. Every region has its own vibe for sure. It’s important to make a game plan.

Stubble: Do you ever tell anybody what you’re doing?
Ellen: Sometimes I do. I try to blend in and disappear more often than not. Sometimes I need someone to help me, and then I’ll mostly just ask a bartender because they’re usually the ones who will have good tips on what to check out. Bartenders are actually my best friends — though I know that probably sounds awful. I’m traveling and eating alone so they’re kind of my companions who also have all of the insights into what’s going on. They’ve got no pretenses — they’ll tell you if something is cool or not.

Stubble: How do you know if you’ve done a good job? Does Garrison give you feedback?
Ellen: Depends. He’s a busy guy so it’s more like no news is good news. If you’re editing a magazine you can totally grade yourself — I missed that comma, I misspelled that word — but with this it’s so different. It’s hard to know if I’m doing a good job, especially because I’m so new. During the show it’s immediate feedback because of the audience reaction.

Stubble: Traveling pains aside, I hope you know that you do have a pretty fantastic job.
Ellen: It can be difficult work, but yes. I definitely do.

Ellen Burkhardt is a researcher for Prairie Home Companion.

This post was written by Tom Johnson and originally published on Stubble. Follow Stubble on Twitter: @stubblemag.

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