"Are we having fun yet?" The tongue-in-cheek question elicits a smile from Van Williamson, but, uncharacteristically, the creative force behind Radio From Downtown doesn't have a clever rejoinder at the ready. Instead, he hems and haws about how, when you really think about it, fun is a complex word with different meanings and such forth and so on until at long last he finds his way to a fitting reply.
"You know that old joke about the circus worker who spends his days trailing behind the horses and the elephants with a shovel, scooping up after them?" he says. "Well, when someone asks that guy why he doesn't just quit, what he says is, 'What? And give up show business?'"
So, yes, it's been a grueling day of rehearsals for the stage show everyone involved calls "RFD." And yes, the rehearsals came on top of a run of days chock full of impossible deadlines and logistical complications that Williamson tackled while, at the same time, grappling with his pressure-cooker of a real job as a director on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.
But the headaches are in the past. For now, Williamson is enjoying a dinner break with friends at a corner table in a tavern in downtown Easton. In an hour, he'll stride onstage at the nearby Avalon Theatre, take a spot between Phil and Ramone, the pair of lawn-ornament pink flamingos that serve as RFDmascots, and introduce himself to a full house of theater-going patrons by promising that the production they're about to see is, well, "not that far from art."
"That tag line kind of says it all for me," Williamson says. "The idea here is to bring a bunch of talented friends together and make a piece of entertainment and humor out of things I love. I'm a radio producer; I love the golden days of radio. I'm a musician; I love music. I live on the Eastern Shore; I love this place."
Put those elements together and you get a piece of theater that's a sort of "Delmarva Home Companion." Like the popular syndicated radio show A Prairie Home Companion, RFD employs a format that mixes musical performances, onstage interviews, and comic skits done in the old-time radio style of Jack Benny and Burns & Allen.
But RFD has a sensibility all its own. That's partly a measure of Williamson's personality, especially his penchant for absurd, over-the-top humor. In addition, RFD steers well clear of the slick professionalism of "Prairie" in favor of something that's less rehearsed and more raucous.
But the show's Maryland roots are what really sets RFD apart. It aims to capture the cultural flavor of the Eastern Shore—not in the usual museum-piece fashion, but in all of its messy modern-day complexities. Once isolated and rural, the Shore is drawing an ever-increasing influx of formerly city-dwelling artists and professionals, and these newcomers are now living side by side with farmers, watermen, and crab pickers.
"This is an incredibly unique place with an incredible mix of people right now," says Williamson, who resides in Stevensville. "I walk out my front door and it seems like there's this never-ending parade of one really interesting person after another. I think that's what people want from this show, that local resonance, that feeling that it's all about Delmarva."
And so a champion duck caller or decoy carver might take the RFD stage one minute, while Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ben Cramer is slated to come up next, to be followed in turn by a brass band or blues singer. That rich and mostly homegrown mix of talent is what author, environmentalist, and frequent RFD guest Tom Horton appreciates most about the show.
"I suppose you could say that Prairie Home Companion is better produced, but they don't do muskrat jokes, now do they?" he says. "What Van does with this show is the same thing so many of us writers and painters and photographers are trying doing on the Chesapeake Bay: evoke a sense of place. And he pulls it off. To me, this is just the quintessential piece of live regional radio."
"What amazes me about the show," says Dave Harp, a Cambridge-based photographer who specializes in Chesapeake Bay images and has been an RFD guest, "is the way Van brings in so many people who are really world-class talents. Then he puts them all to work on this project that sort of pokes fun in such an affectionate way at life on the Eastern Shore."
RFD traces its roots back to 1989, when Williamson was working at a radio station in Salisbury and created an early version of the show to fill an empty time slot. Nowadays, it's performed two or three times a year at the Avalon, a beautifully restored Art Deco theater.
More than two dozen actors, musicians, stagehands, and sound technicians work on each production, and most are already at their stations by noontime on this Saturday in February. It's a dedicated bunch: Many of them have been working on the show regularly for years, and some have been at it for more than a decade.
That level of commitment is something Williamson finds amazing and gratifying, especially since no one is making any real money on this gig. Basically, the RFD box office take adds up at best to maybe a little bit more than covering expenses and saying thank you.
"The fact that all these people buy into it and keep coming back is something that gives me confidence that it's worthwhile," says Williamson.
Recording engineer Jim Smith has been working on RFD productions on and off for 15 years. He used to live on the Eastern Shore but now drives in from West Virginia to make the broadcast-quality tapes of the show.
"Every time I finish one of these, I swear I'm never coming back," he says with a laugh. "But I always seem to come back the next time anyway. I guess it's mainly because Van's personality and his vision are just infectious. The let's-put-on-a-show quality of this and the flying-without-a-net quality it has, it just infects everybody."
RFD rehearsals are always a bit of a train wreck, and today is no exception. Eight hours before show time, the stage is cluttered with musicians unpacking instruments and a foley artist unpacking boxes. Williamson appears from stage right to deal with a vexing technical question involving an overhead microphone.
He's wearing a hooded sweatshirt and worn jeans, a pair of sunglasses dangling from a band around his neck. He has bushy eyebrows, and his thinning hair is wildly askew, giving him the look of a mad scientist from a classic B movie.
Soon enough, Williamson surrenders to his grumpy technical advisers and agrees to do without the overhead mic. Next, he sets about testing the latest additions to his RFD toy collection, honking on a new duck call one minute and distorting his voice by running it through a discount-store walkie talkie the next.
Old-school radio sound effects are central to the Radio From Downtownexperience. Rebecca Jacobson, an NPR intern, will be onstage tonight working from behind a table to concoct simulations of everything from knocks at the door to ringing doorbells to twittering birds.
Jacobson has five cardboard boxes of the stuff: old spatulas and tin cans and worn boots and who knows what else. She seems especially proud of a hideous old dog collar done up in garish Christmas colors and laden with jingle bells.
While waiting for rehearsal to begin, Jim Smith notes that each show invariably includes a few curveballs that place extra demands on actors, musicians, and technicians.
"Van has such an expansive vision for this thing," Smith says. "He always wants to do more. He's always adding new things to push the limits of what we do."
In a perfect world, Smith says, he'd have several days to prepare for an RFD taping. In a less-than-perfect world, he'd do it in a day with help from maybe half a dozen experienced hands. Instead, he does it in a day, often flying solo.
Smith's real-world job is running Muddy Hole Studios, and his impressive resume includes recording stints with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Ralph Stanley, and Wynton Marsalis, along with jobs doing sound on broadcast programs that have aired on PBS and the Discovery Channel.
"This is close to the most complex thing I do," he says, "and yet it's the thing I have the least amount of time to do and the least amount of help doing. What kind of sense of does that make?"
The five actors who will perform with Williamson in tonight's radio drama are among the last of the RFD regulars to straggle in, arriving on schedule for a 2 p.m. "table reading" in an office on the theater's second floor. Their ranks include two journalists whose presence lends Radio From Downtown something of a celebrity quotient among NPR aficionados: husky-voiced Susan Stamberg and velvet-toned Carl Kasell.
Neither has seen so much as a word of the script yet. "Of course not!" Stamberg says with a laugh. "Why should this show be different from any of the others?"
Soon enough, Williamson appears upstairs to participate in the run-through of the two-act radio drama he wrote in concert with an old college friend, Baltimorean Jack Purdy, with editing help from fellow cast member Greg Smith.
As creative teams go, this is one that loves the absurd. Purdy's all-time favorite RFD skit was inspired by a real-world suggestion by a Dorchester County state senator that the Eastern Shore should consider seceding from Maryland. The skit involves a Gone with the Wind-ish household, nods to Ken Burns, and the National Guard arriving to quash the rebellion.
Williamson's favorite was a version of the old Westerns that pitted cattle ranchers against sheep herders; in the RFD version, the range wars pitted chicken farmers against snake ranchers. He and Purdy also once concocted a Delmarva take on Orson Welles's famous War of the Worlds broadcast, only with invading aliens that look like giant cucumbers.
"Writing comedy is especially fun when you're doing it with someone you've known for 40 years," says Purdy, who's been an arts critic, marketing writer, broadcast producer, and folk singer over the years. "I suppose that if that well ever runs dry Van and I will have to give it up, but we have no plans to stop as long as we're still having fun."
By the time the cast, band, and crew have gathered onstage for a full rehearsal at 4 p.m., the schedule is backed up by a full hour. Smith is at the front of the stage, inserting last-minute edits in everyone's scripts. No one knows how to work the stage lights that will let the cast read those scripts, however, and that leaves Williamson crying out, "Is anyone from the Avalon here?"
The lights come up at last, and Williamson is having his share of fun. When 8 o'clock rolls around, he appears on the Avalon stage wearing a sport jacket and dark T-shirt. He emcees the production, of course. He also plays guitar in the house band, a nine-piece ensemble dubbed the No-No Nonette. And he acts with The Downtown Players ensemble in the role of a recurring RFD character, "Bif Delmar, Detective at Sea."
Tonight's drama, "The Case of the Fallacious Fortune," strings together a collection of jokes that run the gamut from clever to groan-inducing (with a marked fondness for the latter), in a plot that somehow manages to incorporate a pair of Jewish oystermen, a raft of pirates marooned at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, a beer-swilling private eye who lives in a double-wide trailer, bits of Maryland colonial history, lots of accordion music, a 1947 DeSoto, Sesame Street, and the 17th century stock market bubble in Dutch tulip bulbs.
Despite the chaos of the day's rehearsal, technical complications are few and far between as the show progresses. The audience pretty much eats the thing up, and never more so than when Stamberg and Kasell break into a Rockettes-like dance to the dulcet tones of the accordion.
Each of the show's two acts features a performance by the folk-flavored duo of singer/guitarist Lisa Moscatiello and cellist Fred Lieder, who hail from the Washington, D.C. area. The No-No Nonette serves up a few toe-tapping jazzy interludes as well.
In the first hour, Williamson conducts a phone interview with folks participating in the National Outdoor Show that's simultaneously under way some 30 miles away in south Dorchester County. A 50-year-old tradition based in a unique marshland culture, the Outdoor Show culminates each year in a competition for the title of world champion muskrat-skinner. It also features a beauty pageant for local teenage girls, and Williamson is bantering away with the newly crowned queen of the Outdoor Show.
In the second hour of the show, Williamson brings on the Baltimore-born filmmaker Amy Nicholson to talk about Muskrat Lovely, the funny and insightful documentary she conceived and directed about the Outdoor Show. It aired on PBS this past spring, winning rave reviews from papers across the country.
Sprinkled here and there through the performance are an array of one-off skits and parody plugs for the likes of "Bob's Bait City" and the "International House of Muskrat." There are even messages from a couple of real paying sponsors as well.
When the show draws to a close, the audience response is warm and enthusiastic. Cast and crew gather onstage for a curtain call, and Williamson offers handshakes and back slaps to all comers. He's been at this for nearly 20 years now, but it's still as much fun as ever.
"I don't know what I would have done if I tried this thing out and people didn't like it and didn't come out to see it," Williamson says later. "Fortunately, I never had to find that out. They came, and they seemed to like it just the way it was. I think that what this is all about for me is making art with my friends. There's just something special about that, something very cool."