Finding Community, One Radio Variety Show At a Time

May 11, 2017

Finding cures for the blues can sometimes take some ingenuity. Commentator Sarah Kanabay wondered whether relief might come from putting together a radio variety show, a kooky Yankee cousin to "A Prairie Home Companion." She says it's worked wonders.

The first time everyone met to audition, I kept expecting Christopher Guest to step through the door and take over. And by "everyone," I mean the 15 actors who'd shown up, through word of mouth, or Facebook, or some other form of post-election conjuring, for the community radio show we named after a fish ladder in Turners Falls.

A year ago now, over lunch, my friend and I talked about someday starting one. She tolerated my fantasy of eventually getting John Hodgman to host. (I was pretty sure I could pull this off, since I’d sold him a tincture -- Monsters Under the Bed -- at a pop-up shop that December.) But, like most well-intentioned ideas, it took a backseat to the practicalities of our day jobs.

Until the election. Another lunch. By turns cynical (We knew this would happen.) and dumb-struck (What the hell did just happen?), we decided what it all boiled down to was: We've got to do this show.

I wasn’t sure we'd get any takers. But it felt right -- to be putting out the call for local talent in an effort to shore up the things we all need to muddle through: Melody. Beauty. An opportunity to laugh until you snort water out your nose.

But we did get takers -- a table full of strangers -- a mother-turned-actor, a local pickle maker who's also a comedian, a member of a rock choir who also performs Shakespeare -- ready to share in our crackpot vision.

I'd written an intro for the show that spoke to the sense of place we were trying to create -- a call to action to participate in civic life together, to create community and to be the magic makers.

And that's what happened the first night of the show, which we performed on the small stage of a community center where it looked like we should be serving church suppers and smelled of stale soup. People showed up in the fullest sense of that word. They tapped their feet when the band was playing. Laughed where we'd hoped they'd laugh. It didn't feel like we were doing something for them. It felt like we were doing something with them.

Every time, I’ve worried it wouldn't work. All three times, somehow, it has. Each show, like magic, really does shore up those vital things: community, loud laughter, rollicking Irish jigs dedicated to the infamous always flooded drainage ditches of Sunderland. In other words: art, in the darkness, holding up the light.

Sarah Kanabay is the producer of "The Shad Ladder Radio Hour." By day, she's a manager at the Franklin Community Coop in Greenfield, Massachusetts.