Halloa! below there!

OK, boring now. Wake early, blah blah blah.

Today is the last performing day of the tour and one that I have been working towards ever since I finished my performance of The Complete Works of Dickens is Salem (although I still had Nickleby to perform, I started work on The Signalman that morning).

I have two performances scheduled but the first isn’t until 2 o’clock, which gives me plenty of time to rehearse this morning.

Breakfast at the Hampton Inn is a small buffet, including cereals, fruit, pastries, scrambled egg, sausages and waffles. Oh! Waffles! They have two of those do-it-yourself waffle machines that make huge, thick, round, fluffy, delicious waffles.  I am in heaven.  Whenever my son Cameron wants a special breakfast he always asks for waffles.  That’s my boy.

The Waffle

The Waffle and Script

I sit reading through the script of The Signalman, as the news about Ebola outbreaks in Texas and the resignation of the head of the Security Service in DC, plays out in the background. My waffle dominates my plate.  But not for long.

Back to my room and it is time to start work, so I launch straight into my first run of the day: ‘Halloa! Below there!’ As I am progressing through the script the world outside becomes darker and darker and then the heavens open as the parking lot is lashed with stair-rods of rain, completely obscuring the stores on the far side of the mall.

The Storm

The Storm

The Storm

The Storm

Still the skies get darker until suddenly the low clouds are ripped open with a slash of electricity and the windows in the hotel shake with the crack of thunder that follows. The storm sits squarely over Liberty, MO and rages for an hour or so.

I dutifully finish my first run of the show and then go out and take a few photographs of the tempest (I’m loving this, so many splendid clichés to be written about storms. I just need to get ‘lowering’ in now).

The heavy clouds are still lowering over the hotel (there, I did it!).

As exciting as the storm is, it actually gets in the way of my plans slightly. I have been carrying a little packet of books with me for the whole trip that I am donating to a charity auction in Pennsylvania.  Kimberly has kindly said that if I packed them up, she would ship them for me.

Across the car park is a branch of Office Depot, where I will be able to buy a packing box. At the moment, however, there is no prospect of getting there so I have another coffee and get stuck in to another run through of The Signalman.

The dark clouds and loud thunder add extra atmosphere to the rehearsal and I find myself hoping that the same weather will rage over the library branch later today.

As I finish the second run through, so the rain has abated and there is a semblance of daylight once more. I take the opportunity to walk over the lot to Office Depot and buy the box.

Once back I have time to do another run before getting into costume and waiting for Kimberly to pick me up at 1.

The Woodneath branch of the Mid Continent Library Service is very close by and is a remarkable place. It is built in the grounds of an old homestead and incorporates the original, beautiful house  in its modern design.  The plan is to make the mansion itself a national centre for storytelling, so it is a perfect venue for my performances.

It is also a perfect place for me specifically to perform The Signalman, as it was here that Kimberly and I were chatting last November and she suggested that the idea of a ghost story performance would be a great one, and I mentioned to her that there was this little story, which would work…..

Woodneath Library (architects image)

Woodneath Library (architects image)

I am greeted by the enthusiastic library staff before checking the microphone system out and pacing around the room going over the lines again. As you can tell, the Signalman is not sitting comfortably in my mind yet.

The audience starts to arrive gratifyingly early. Most of them are long time fans, who have been coming to see my performances in the area for many years and are bubbling with excitement about a new show.

A group has come from The Douglas County Historical Society in Omaha, another of my venues, and it is great to see them and amazing that they have driven through the rain to be here.

The audience fills up as the clock ticks towards 2.

I start, like any good Brit, by talking about the weather and then launch into the story of the terrible Staplehurst rail disaster of 1865, from which Charles Dickens was fortunate to escape with his life; and which must have influenced him in the writing of The Signaman a year later.

And now it is time to see if all that rehearsal has paid off: The Signalman.

‘Halloa! Below there!’

The atmosphere builds up and I can see audience members leaning forward on their seats as the tension mounts. I do get tongue- tied at one point (frustratingly, not in one of the places where I have been struggling during rehearsal), but get myself out of trouble and back to where I should be.

I wrap the story up and then close the show with the remarkable coincidence that when Charles Dickens did die it was five years to the very day after he had survived Staplehurst.

Good. Not perfect, but I very pleased with the way things went.

I spend some time chatting with audience members, all of whom seem to have enjoyed it, despite being so different to A Christmas Carol. One lady makes the point that The Signalman is very much in the style of Edgar Allan Poe, which is correct.  There are no long, florid descriptive passages in The Signalman, it is tight, well structured and dark.

The audience drifts away and Kimberly takes me back to the hotel. I have another healthy BK lunch, before laying on the bed for an hour or so until the phone rings and Kimberly is here once more to pick me up again.

The evening’s performance is in The John Knox Pavillion a huge performance space in the heart of a retirement and care community. The pavilion itself seats 750 gazillion people and is used for rock concerts, shows, presentations, weddings and much more.

I have been performing A Christmas Carol here for the past two years and know it well. There is a superb lighting and sound team that can make even the smallest of shows look good.  Which is just as well.

John Knox Pavillion

John Knox Pavillion

The registrations for the evening event have not been high and the bad weather may well put people off. All of the library programmes are free, which is a good thing, but it also means that  people do not have the same commitment to putting on their coat and travelling as they would if they’d paid.

The other issue tonight is The Royals game. Kansas City’s baseball team have reached the play-offs and after winning their first match are tonight playing the Angels in California (I almost sound as if I understand).  Usually I would suggest that the demographic of my audience would not match that of a major league ball team, but the Royals haven’t achieved such success since 1985, so there is a great deal of interest throughout the city and its surroundings

I am resigned to a small crowd in a big hall.

After a sound check, and finding an appropriate stool for the stage, I retire to the dressing room and perform yet another run through of the script. There is a large clock on the wall, showing 6.35.  Excellent, plenty of time before the start.

Half an hour later I glance at the clock again. Ah: 6.35. Clock purely ornamental. My watch tells me that I have 3 minutes before kick off.  I stroll into the hall and take a look at the audience, it is small but there is a nice buzz of conversation.

I know that I am going to be alright when I am announced: ‘Please welcome Gerald Dickens’ and I get a standing ovation from the front row!

I run through the same preamble about Staplehurst and into the story. It is a better performance tonight and the stage gives me plenty of space to work with.  When I make my closing remarks about Dickens dying on the same day as the train crash there is a gasp from the front row as if someone is on the point of joining him.

Of course with the audience being small, there is not much signing etc to be done but I do get into conversation with a family who have moved to Missouri from California and who are fascinated with the whole story. Through the wonder of the iphone, they have already looked up the Staplehurst crash, studied the pictures, read the history.  I’m glad that I didn’t take too many liberties with the facts.

Eventually, the Knox Pavillion is deserted except for the lighting guys, Kimberly, the venue manager and myself. We say our goodbyes and hit the road to drive the hour back to Liberty, where we divert to a Longhorn Steakhouse where I have a delicious Ribeye.

The meal has a very end-of-term feel about it.  I have no shows now until the 12 October. Nothing to learn. Off duty.

Kimberly and I talk about future possibilities, maybe bringing the double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold to town next year but for now I am ready to turn in.

It has been a good day and a good tour.

Dates and details of my forthcoming tour can be found at: http://www.byerschoice.com/our-company/events/gerald-dickens

For details for Doctor Marigold DVD or other recordings email via: http://www.geralddickens.com

From Massachusetts to Missouri via Motown

Massachusetts

Frustratingly my sleep patterns seem to be regressing. There was a time in Salem when I thought things were improving, but here in Newton at 3.30 am it seems as if I was wrong

I try to get back to sleep but never really succeed. I don’t even have a blog to write as I efficiently did it last night.  I read for a bit, then get up and do some more work on my A Christmas Carol poster, before finishing my packing.

It seems as if I have been up for hours when my alarm rings at 5.45. I have a moment of panic when I can’t find my spectacles but there they are on the bed, under the quilt.

My suitcase seems horribly heavy and I am rather worried that I may incur excess baggage charges for my flights today. Oh, well, there’s nothing I can do about it now.

I check out and load up the car. My flight is not until 9.20 but the traffic around Boston is notoriously awful and the rush hour starts early, so I decide to leave plenty of time and have breakfast at the airport.

In fact the journey is completely non-problematic, apart from negotiating the construction work at the airport itself and missing the exit for the car rental drop-off.

I haven’t spent that much time in this car, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it. There is a sense of parting as I drag my cases through the garage and towards the shuttle bus that will take me to terminal A.

At the Delta desk I lift my case onto the scales with as much flair as I can muster after a few hours of sleep, as if to give the impression that it is feather-light. Of course that is pointless but the agent doesn’t say anything about it and my case  disappears on the conveyor belt into the mysterious world beyond.  How on earth the system will spit it out onto another conveyor belt in Kansas City later today, I don’t know, but I am sure it will.  Maybe.  I hope.

I get through security easily and find a restaurant to satisfy my breakfast needs, which are satiated by ‘An All American’. The waitress asks me if I’d like orange juice and coffee?  ‘Yes, both.  Thank you.’  She returns with the juice and I assume that the coffee will follow but it does not.

I ask another server for a coffee: ‘Sure, honey. Cream and sugar?’ ‘Both, thanks.’  And still coffee is not forthcoming.

I ask the first lady again for coffee: ‘Sure, honey. Cream and sugar?’ ‘Yes’ tersely.

This time the coffee arrives but no cream and sugar. Then the cream comes. I ask for sugar – it’s just as well I’m not in a rush, but I have lots of time this morning.  I pass the time by reading Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall on the Kindle App of my phone.

After I finish breakfast I make my way to gate A15 and wait to be called. This is my first experience of American domestic flying this year and I am a little ring-rusty in the manoeuvring to be at the front of the queue when my zone is called.

I manage to get near to the front and am fourth on board out of our group: not bad.

When I get to my seat I notice that I have a family with 2 young children in the row behind me. I’m in for a pummelling, I fear.

Whilst I still had a wifi signal at the hotel I rented and downloaded  ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ to watch on my phone. I plug my head phones in and start the film.

Sure enough the back of my seat is kicked, and the tray table behind is banged for the entire flight but I get lost in Robin Williams’ performance and the brilliant cinematography. There is a moment, when Adrian Cronauer has been entertaining truck loads of troops on the road, and they drive off, that Robin Williams has an expression of such wistfulness and caring.  As I watch a huge wave of grief comes over me for such a talent lost.

After an hour or so, and remarkably just as the film comes to its end, we land in Detroit, where I have a forty minute layover before heading off to Kansas City. Detroit is one of those airports with multiple concourses connected by a monorail.  Fortunately for me my next plane is to leave from a nearby gate so there is no rush.

Motown

For this flight I am more careful to get myself to the front of the zone two boarding group. The last zone one people vanish down the jetway: now is the moment to make a move.  The passengers on Delta flight 1997 are a competitive lot and we all surge forward.  However we, as a group, have misread the signals: the gate agent has clearly decided not to play.  He stands and watches us without making an announcement.  One sacrificial lamb tries to go through the gate but is repelled with the words ‘priority boarding and zone one only’.  There is nobody else boarding.

Eventually he picks up the microphone and again we surge towards the door. ‘Zone two passengers may now board through the general boarding lane.  Priority and zone one passengers may continue to board through the fast-track lane.’

These two lanes are separated by one strip of fabric tape. They both lead to the same door.  In our surging we have all congregated on the ‘wrong’ side of the tape and the whole group has to shuffle backwards until we can re-surge on the correct side.  The agent is loving every moment of his power and control.

Once on the plane I settle into my seat and am delighted to see that there is nobody behind me for this leg.

Once airborne I get my script for The Signalman from my bag and read it through a few times. It is not exactly line learning but I’m sure it will help when I come to rehearse this afternoon.

The sky is clear as we make our way over the Midwest and the huge patchwork of scrubby brown fields, all recently harvested, spreads as far as the eye can see. Occasionally there is a town or city with its golf courses, athletics stadia, churches and strictly regimented housing, sitting like an island in the sea of farmland.

The flight is a little over an hour and we are soon descending into Kansas City airport.

Missouri

I have travelled and performed in the Kansas City area for many years, indeed it is the only venue that I have visited every year since I first began travelling to America in 1995. I work with the Mid Continent Library Service, which operates out of Independence Missouri, servicing branches all around the Kansas City area.

I am usually met at the airport by my long time friend Kimberly Howard, who is in charge of the adult event programmes at the library.   During the tour last year as we stood in a library lobby, waiting to start A Christmas Carol, we got talking about ghost stories.  I mentioned that The Signalman was a superb, spine-tingling, hair-raising little tale and it would be fun to perform it.  ‘How about October?  For Halloween’, asked Kimberly.

And here I am, not quite at Halloween, but at least nudging into October.

Sadly Kimberly couldn’t be at the airport to meet me today, as she has another meeting, but that does mean that I have a driver standing with a ‘Gerald Dickens’ card in his hand. I LOVE it when that happens!

Kansas City airport is a very small one and the baggage carousel is right next to the gate, on the same level. The driver goes to collect his car and I pick up my large, heavy silver case which has made it all the way from Boston, via Detroit.

We drive the thirty or so minutes to my hotel, where I check in. There is a Burger King next door so I treat myself to a delicious, healthy lunch, before returning to my room and starting work again.

The Signalman was part of my Dickens Double Bill performed in Abingdon on the week before I left. I had spent a frantic week learning it and perfecting it.  Since then I have crammed The Complete Works of Dickens in, squeezing The Signalman out.  I know I have plenty of work to bring it back.

I run through the script, stopping when a line is sticky, or the phrasing doesn’t sound correct. I get to the end and start another run, which is much smoother.  After an hour or so I give it a rest and watch the tv.

At around 4, Kimberly calls and we arrange to meet for dinner later, which will be nice.

Eventually I start another run of the Signalman and am about three-quarters of the way through, when I get a call from the front desk to say that Kimberly has arrived.

We get into her car and she asks what I would I like to eat?  We then sit in parking lot as she  waves her smart phone in all directions and watching as the details of each local restaurant appear on the screen.  We select Olive Garden, a chain of Italian restaurants, and drive the short distance.

It is nice to catch up on each other’s news. We talk about Liz’s concerts back home, our cat, the shows I’ve been doing, as well as her son, the library service, a forthcoming trip she is due to make to Tennessee and so on.  It is a nice relaxing dinner.

At around 8 ‘clock Kimberly drops me back to the Hampton Inn, where I lie on the bed and start to drift off straight away. I know I will pay for it with another early morning, but right now the body is crying ‘enough!’

Dates and details of my forthcoming tour can be found at: http://www.byerschoice.com/our-company/events/gerald-dickens

For details for Doctor Marigold DVD or other recordings email via: http://www.geralddickens.com

Perkins

In a new hotel for the first time since my arrival and my sleep patterns are back to their bad old ways. I first wake at 1, then at 3.30; then at 4 and finally for good at 5.

I make coffee, and iron and make preparations for my show this morning. I am performing Mr Dickens is Coming at Perkins School for the Blind, so I need my white cat, a red cloth, a book and the walking cane.

The breakfasts at the Salem Inn were very nice, although there was not a huge choice. Here I can help myself to French toast, bacon, syrup, breakfast potatoes and all of the rest of it.  I return to the room feeling rather over-fed.

Looking down upon the Mass Pike (for the hotel seems to hang over it) I can see that traffic is building up quickly so I don’t want to leave too late to get to Perkins for an 8.30 sound check. I get into my costume, collect my props and head down from the eleventh floor.  On reaching the lobby level I realise that the one thing I didn’t pick up was the car key.  Back in lift: lobby to floor eleven, pick up keys.  Back in lift: floor eleven to lobby.

The bright hot sun of the weekend has gone and it is a wet day with low cloud hanging over the buildings and wooded slopes which surround the town. I start to set the Sat Nav system and realise that I don’t actually have the address for Perkins.  However, I noticed yesterday as I drove in that there are signs to it all along the route.  I set course for the middle of Watertown and hope I can pick up the local signs from there, which is exactly what happens.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I visited Perkins once before in, I think 2002, and loved it then but I am so looking forward to returning.

My fears about the traffic are unfounded and I arrive at 8 o’clock, thirty minutes early. Even so I can’t find a parking space but a Victorian costume does wonders and the security guard lets me leave the car in the ‘STRICTLY 30 MINUTES ONLY’ zone.

Into the building and I find my way to reception where I am met by Marilyn Rea Beyer who is the Director of Media and Public Relations at Perkins and representative of the school’s 185th Anniversary Committee, which has invited me to perform as part of their celebrations.

Marilyn couldn’t be more helpful and takes me into the gorgeous Dwight Hall, where I will be performing. It oozes character with gothic wood carvings at the back and a wonderful stage.  Ron is there to assist with lights and sound.  He makes the stage look warm and theatrical and makes me sound good in the hall.  This is going to be a lovely place to perform.

Dwight Hall

Dwight Hall

A chair is put on stage and a lectern is draped with my red cloth to resemble Charles Dickens’s own reading desk. My white cat is hidden, cane put in place and we are all ready to go.

There are still two hours before the show and Marilyn has plenty to do, so I sit in the museum space and read about the history of Perkins.

First incorporated in 1829 the school started life in a private home, which it rapidly outgrew. Thanks to the generosity of one of the school’s trustees, Thomas Perkins, the school ended up in a disused hotel where it was to remain for the next 75 years.

The first director, Samuel Gridley Howe was a visionary, if stubborn, man. He recognised that children who suffered from a physical disability, such as blindness were ostracized and neglected and he wanted to run a school in which the students were taught in such a way as to allow them to be intergrated with the rest of society as much as possible.

There are echoes here of Doctor Marigold’s request when he takes his step daughter to the school for the deaf in London:

I want her, sir, to be cut off from the world as little as can be, considering her deprivations, and therefore to be able to read whatever is wrote with perfect ease and pleasure.’

Howe used a system of reading called Boston Line Type in which the letters were raised so that a blind reader could follow them with their fingertips while a sighted reader could read from the same volume. This system meant the blind students would not have to have ‘different’ books and a parent could easily be part of their children’s learning.

Boston Line Type edition of The Old Curiosity Shop

Boston Line Type edition of The Old Curiosity Shop

When Braille was introduced it was actually much easier for people who were blind to learn and follow, but Howe stuck to his guns and used Boston Line Type long after most others had changed.

In 1842, at the very beginning of his journey described in American Notes, Charles Dickens travelled to South Boston to visit the school. He wanted to see how an enlightened nation was dealing with issues that had become old fashioned and corrupt in England.  Over the next few months he would investigate prisons, asylums, mills and factories.  Top of his list was education (this was the man who a few short years before had uncovered the horrors of the Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby).

He arrived on a bright winter’s morning and was able to see the school in action. The first thing that amazed him was the lack of uniforms, unthinkable at home.  He was delighted that the students were shown in:

‘…his or her own proper character, with its individuality unimpaired; not lost in a dull, ugly, monotonous repetition of the same unmeaning garb: which is really an important consideration. The wisdom of encouraging a little harmless pride in personal appearance even among the blind, or the whimsical absurdity of considering charity and leather breeches inseparable companions, as we do, requires no comment.’

During his stay he was introduced to Laura Bridgeman who was a remarkable pupil. The only sense she possessed was that of touch and yet she was as industrious as any at the school, reading, writing, sewing and much more.  Dickens was so moved by what he saw that he gave over a huge part of the chapter to a description of Laura’s history and progress.

The passage in the book was a huge PR coup for Perkins, and soon the remarkable establishment in Boston would be much more widely known. In the 1880s a family in Alabama read American Notes and realised that their daughter Helen needed the same sort of education as Laura Bridgeman had received. The Keller family began to make enquiries….

Dickens even engaged the print works at the school to produce Boston Line Type editions of The Old Curiosity Shop, one of which is proudly displayed in a case opposite to my table.

The only sad thing about my visit is that Perkins is no longer in the building that Charles visited. The needs of the school grew as a Kindergarten was added and in 1912 the whole establishment moved to its current Watertown location.

As I continue to read the history, suddenly there is a screeching, awful, ear-splitting siren and it appears as if there is a fire drill. Marilyn comes back to find me and escorts me outside where we all stand in the rain as two huge fire trucks and a police car pull up.  Nobody quite knows what is going on but it is definitely not a drill.

After fifteen minutes or so, we are told that we cannot go back into the Howe building for the moment. Marilyn walks me to another part of the campus where her office is located and we wait for further news.

Eventually word filters through that there has been a suspected gas leak in the Howe Building and it looks as if it will be out of bounds for quite a while. My show is scheduled to be in there in half an hour so the staff needs to swing into action, and swing they do: desperately trying to find another venue that will hold the expected audience.

No panic, no fuss. Eventually the Lower School auditorium is appropriated.  But there is another, more serious matter to be attended to: my white toy cat (a vital part of the show as well as being my travelling companion) is still in the Dwight Hall.  In all seriousness Marilyn is speaking to the fire crew to mount a rescue mission.  I wish I’d been there when a brave fire-fighter, tears leaving streaks down his grime-covered face, burst out of the door cradling the delicate cat in his arms.

Anyway, my cat, cane, book, red cloth are duly rescued.

An announcement is made over the school’s intercom system that the show is now taking place in the lower school and as I listen to this broadcast I see the fire trucks leaving. The Howe building is open once more, but the logistics of re routing the audience for a second time is too difficult so we stay with plan b.

The new venue is much less impressive; it is a regular modern hall in a regular modern building with no stage lighting or wireless sound equipment. As I set the stage the students and teachers start to arrive.  These days Perkins does not only care for visually impaired students but those with multiple and chronic disabilities.

Students take their seats, some are helped, some pushed, some negotiating the crowded room with electric chairs. The hall is noisy and active.

Lower School Auditorium

Lower School Auditorium

A gentleman, Derm Keohane, introduces himself: he is going to be on stage with me interpreting for the pupils who are hard of hearing.

Just after 11 Dorinda Rife, the Superintendent of the school makes a brief speech of welcome, thanking everyone for their co operation and patience and then hands over to Marilyn who then hands over to me.

I am uncertain how the show will go, but quickly realise we are all going to get along just fine as the audience, students and staff alike, respond superbly. It is an interesting experience for me as I get two waves of reaction to each line or joke: firstly there is the instantaneous response to those in the audience who are listening to my words and then a few seconds later there is the secondary response from those following the interpreter.  As I get more used to it and knowing, from experience, which lines will get a reaction, I begin to change the timing to allow for the delay.

The show ends and I get a loud, foot stamping, hand clapping reception. Marilyn thanks me and presents me with a Perkins goody-bag, before opening the floor up to questions.  As in any school the initial request is greeted with silence as nobody wants to be the first, but then one student way at the back puts his hand up, I say ‘Yes’, relieved, but he doesn’t ask a question.  Stupidly I haven’t realised that he can’t see me.  As far as he knows the whole audience have their hands up and the ‘yes’ could be meant for anyone.  I walk closer to him and speak directly to him and a teacher taps him on the shoulder at the same time.  He politely introduces himself, tells me that he is in the secondary section of the school and then asks: ‘In A Christmas Carol, what is he describing?’

It is a good question and a good start.

Hands are now going up all round the room and the questions come in thick and fast. Of course the students love it when I tell them that at school I hated Oliver Twist and never even finished reading it, but used the Lionel Bart musical as reference.  English teachers hang their heads in horror.

The Q&A session continues for a while until Marilyn wraps up proceedings and another long round of applause rings out.

One of the last questions is ‘do you feel proud to be carrying on the history of Charles Dickens by continuing to travel and perform and do you feel it is important that you carry on his legacy’, to which I answer that yes I am immensely proud and unbelievably privileged to do what I do but I certainly don’t feel that it is vital that I carry on his legacy because Charles Dickens will do just fine whether I am performing or not!

In much the same way I do not need to say what a remarkable place Perkins is because, like any school, it will stand or fall on its results and it is doing very very well.

But this is a more than a school; it is a community, and a very vibrant, exciting, energetic and positive one at that. I feel very honoured to have been invited back here and to have played an infinitesimal part in its history, just as Charles Dickens has.  In a strange way I feel closer to him here than in any of the buildings, that I have visited in the past, in which he lived or performed.

And now the hall is empty with the exception of a local cable TV cameraman who conducts a short interview with me. When that is finished I get back to my car and drive through the rain to the hotel, where I have bite of lunch and a shower, not forgetting to check-in for my flight tomorrow.

I have a nice relaxing afternoon ahead of me and an old friend from Nashua, Sandy Belknap, has arranged to meet up and take me for an early dinner.

I spend a little bit of time going over the lines for The Signalman and have a bonus thirty minutes, as Sandy is caught in traffic. When she arrives we drive to a nearby town to an Asian fusion restaurant, Blue Ginger.  Dining at 5.30 is strange, but perfect for me as I have an early start in the morning.

We chat about the tour, the blog, life at home, our poor cat Kip. The food is delicious and it is a lovely to way to finish the New England leg of the trip.

Sandy drops me back to the hotel at 8.00 and I am alarmed to discover that my bag full of laundry is not back yet. I call to reception and the girl at the desk says she’s sure it is back, and she will put me on hold while she has a look.  I am then left dangling listening to muzak.  I give up and hang up, hoping that there will soon be a timid knock on the door: ‘We are so sorry, Mr Dickens, here is your laundry.’  But no knock is forthcoming.

In the end I go down to the lobby and wait while seemingly impossible problems are sorted out for other guests. Eventually I can step forward and ask about my laundry.  The girl disappears.  A long wait;  this isn’t good, as I am leaving the hotel at 6.30 in the morning and need those shirts.  I am preparing my complaint (I’m British and we have to work up to complaining, it doesn’t come naturally), when she appears holding all of my laundry.

Back to my room and start to pack before heading to bed and hopefully a good night’s sleep.

In Limbo

Today’s entry will be short and sweet, as I didn’t do anything!  The day was very definitely one during which I was in limbo.

I wake on my final morning in The Salem Inn and start to pack my cases.  I have strewn my belongings across the room and I have to try and get them back into some semblance of order.  At 8 I go to  breakfast and meet up with Kevin from New York.

After breakfast and having said my farewells I walked out into the streets of Salem, specifically to Chestnut Street which people had told me was one of the most elegant and impressive streets in the town.  They were not wrong.

A broad, straight avenue lined by trees (um, Chestnut trees, funnily enough), the houses are substantial and superbly preserved.  Each bears it’s little plaque with the name and date of the original owner, which is quite fascinating.

On Chestnut Street

On Chestnut Street

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My walk takes only about 30 minutes and back at the hotel I just crash on the bed.  This is very much my floppy day.

I check out at 11 0’clock and retrieve my car which has been sitting in a parking lot, improving the profits of Budget Car Rental, without incurring any wear and tear as I have walked everywhere during my stay here.

I have an hours drive to Newton, just outside Boston, where I am able to check in early to the Crowne Plaza Hotel.  I empty my laundry bags and decide what I am going to need for the next few days and get a load ready to be taken to the front desk.

In the afternoon I really do just flop on the bed.  I had downloaded ‘The Invisible Woman’ (the film based on Charles Dickens’s relationship with Ellen Ternan, starring and directed by Lord Voldermort) onto my phone and lay on the bed watching it.

It is very well made and beautifully shot and I was very impressed by Ralph Feinnes’s performance as Charles Dickens.

After a brief snooze I do a little work on The Signalman to bring it back to the forefront of my mind, ready for two outings in Missouri later in the week and then do some work on the computer.

I have booked The Unicorn Theatre in my home town of Abingdon to perform A Christmas Carol on December 20th and I need to get the artwork for the posters created as soon as possible, so I spend some time on that.

There are also some emails to be answered relating to the DVD of Doctor Marigold which was recorded and released earlier in the year.  The exciting thing is that now we have a version that is compatible with America DVD players and are ready to sell copies on this side of the Atlantic.

So: commercial time!  To those of you have already requested copies, I will be in touch to arrange shipping etc shortly.  To those of you who would like to order copies and to witness this beautiful little story for yourselves, simply email me via my website http://www.geralddickens.com and I will arrange everything.

After my admin hour I have a lovely hot, lazy bath, an early dinner and an early night.

On to tomorrow and I want you to do some homework for me.  I will be visiting the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown and it promises to be a remarkable day.

For suggested reading I refer you to ‘Chapter the Third, Volume One’ of American Notes, which chronicles in great detail Charles Dickens’s visit to the school in 1842 and his account of meeting Laura Bridgeman, a blind, deaf and dumb student.  His incredibly moving observations later inspired the Keller family to send Helen to the school.

Good night!

The Last Day in Salem

Today is the final day of the Dickens Fellowship, North of Boston Branch’s Pickwickian Endeavours conference and the final formal event of the final day is to be me, performing The Complete Works of Charles Dickens.

I wake at a decent time, make my coffee and get up to have my first run-through before I shower. It seems to be running well (the show, not the shower), but it still doesn’t feel fully natural and I am having to concentrate too much, which can be a dangerous thing.  The perfect situation to be in is for the words to be so familiar that you have plenty of mental capacity left over to deal with other situations.  I must hope that no other situations arise!

Before going to breakfast I need to make one of my props for the show. During the scene from David Copperfield the script calls for me to pour a tumbler of ale, hold it up to the light and ‘make it look beautiful.’

Beer Brewing

Beer Brewing

I have no ale, but I do have a tumbler, some hot water and a few tea bags. I fill the tumbler, leave the tea bags infusing and head for the breakfast room where I meet up with the trio from Chatham, Ontario.  We discuss last night’s performance of Doctor Marigold and this morning’s programme of lectures which sound very interesting.

I go back to my room where the ‘beer’ is brewing well. I do another run through which I achieve without any problems.  I think that I am ready.

My show is at 11 this morning so am in costume and ready to leave the hotel at 10.20, In the front parlour there are some little finches in cages and a wave of sorrow comes over me.  Not only because they are caged but also because my head is so full of lines from the show that the passage from Barnaby Rudge presents itself:

At one house near Moorfields, they found in one of the rooms some canary birds in cages, and these they cast into the fire alive. The poor little creatures screamed, it was said, like infants, when they were flung upon the blaze

The Caged Birds

The Caged Birds

I wish them ‘good luck’ and head for The Athenaeum. When I arrive the previous lecture is just finishing so I listen to the end.  It is a fascinating study of how Charles Dickens was influenced by the writings of the mill workers at Lowell, Mass and may have used those influences in the creation of A Christmas Carol.

The question and answer session finishes and everyone gets up to stretch their legs as I set up. The room is an elegant library, a perfect setting for such a show.

The Library

The Library

There is no going back now, no quiet time in a dressing room; no solitary moment for reflection. Before I know it I am introduced and everyone is clapping, then settling back in their seats with expressions of expectation (no, I am NOT going to say with expressions of Great Expectation: that would just be cheap).

I start the show and it works, oh it works well! No, it is not completely natural, but the audience are responding to it all the way through. Mrs Gamp has them laughing and each scene leads smoothly on to the next. I cruise through my problematic Bleak House passage and onto the end where even Edwin Drood passes without a hitch.

Performing The Complete Works.  Oliver Twist falls asleep before waking as Nicholas Nickleby

Performing The Complete Works. Oliver Twist falls asleep before waking as Nicholas Nickleby

I am hot, tired but so happy.

I take questions about the script, how I developed it and why I chose the passages that I did. There is a final, planted question, about the little story A Child’s Journey With Dickens, so I talk about that for a while.

When everything is finished the conference is officially wound up and we all mingle around chatting. The students from Salem State University are due to perform two more short scenes from Martin Chuzzlewit on the back lawn so some of us take seats and settle down to watch.  They are very entertaining and do a great job.

When the students are finished everyone starts to leave The Athenaeum for the last time. Although I haven’t attended many of the lectures, due to other shows or line learning, the consensus is that it has been a highly successful event and that Deb has done a great job.

There are still events laid on for the rest of the day however, the first of which is a Clam Bake by the sea (that sounds like an East Anglian seaside resort). Sadly not many people decide to go and there are only a handful of us there but it is a beautiful setting and the company is very good.

Clam Bake by the sea

Clam-Bake-By-The-Sea

There is a real sense of being ‘off duty’, but I am not done yet and have two further commitments today the first of which is an appearance and book signing in a local book store. It is a very informal affair and I say the same sort of things that I said at the British Beer Company a few days ago.  A decent group of people gather.  Actually I am set up near to the front door so any unfortunate people who had happened to be in the shop when I started can’t really get out, thereby swelling the numbers.

I remain at Wicked Books for about forty five minutes before returning to the hotel. Whilst in the room I call Bob and Pam Byers to chat over things and to confirm how well everything has been going. We chat over speakerphone and it is very nice to hear their voices.

When the call is over I start assembling props and costumes for my final appearance in Salem this year. As a few of the delegates to the conference are not leaving until tomorrow, Deb has arranged a dinner theatre production of Nicholas Nickleby in Finz Restaurant, near to the old docks where I walked on my first day here.

I walk in costume and receive the now familiar cheery greetings and banter. The Nickleby costume is all black, as the main characters are in mourning, so I really fit in to the Salem scene today.

Our group is in an upstairs function room in what I imagine was an old warehouse. The décor is very modern and stylish (as you would expect from a seafood restaurant called Finz). There is a good smattering of people although numbers for each successive event are dwindling.  Only the hardy few have made it to the end.

The meal is a ‘do it yourself’ or rather a ‘choose it yourself and let the chef do it himself’ buffet. Your choice of pasta is popped into simmering water and then your chosen vegetables are fried in oil and garlic, before the al dente pasta is tossed into them.  Very fresh, very crisp, very lovely.

The plates are cleared away, glasses replenished and it is time for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. The setting is very intimate and bright, which is slightly odd for what is a very large theatrical sort of show.  However everyone enjoys it and I am sure the people in the main restaurant downstairs must wonder what is going on as I bellow in the character of Mr Crummles: ‘I AM IN THE THEATRICAL PRO-FESS-ION!’

I bring the show to its end and now at last I am off duty.

A few of us remain and I say my goodbyes to Deb and the rest of the Salem crowd. It so happens that Kevin Quinn, from the New York branch of the Fellowship has been attending the conference, and is staying in the same hotel as I am, so we walk back together, stopping for a nightcap on the way.

When I get back to my room I am suddenly very tired. This has been a mammoth few weeks and all of that energy and adrenaline can now disperse, like the delegates of the conference.  I have more events coming up over the next few days but for now I can switch off and sleep.

Oh, one gripe before parting: why, in hotels which do not offer a turn-down service (which in itself I find bizarre), do they insist on piling the bed high with quilts, scatter cushions and ornamental pillows which I will just throw on the floor where they will stay until housekeeping carefully arrange them again tomorrow ready for me to throw them on the floor again? Grrrrrr.  There, rant over.  Goodnight.

A Long Day

At last I wake up at a sensible time. Well, let me qualify that: I still wake at around 4 o’clock but get back to sleep before surfacing for real at around 6.  I remember that someone once told me that it takes roughly a day for each hour of time difference before the body adjusts fully.  On current evidence that is just about right and I will be fully on track by Monday.

The morning routine falls into place: I make coffee and bring my little wooden table to the bedside, write the blog and watch the unfolding drama from Gleneagles.

At 8 I have breakfast and there are some other delegates from the conference there, a group of three from Chatham, Canada. We sit together and chat about various other people in the Dickens Fellowship.  I’d love to travel more in Canada and here at the conference there is not only the group from Chatham but also one from Montreal.  Maybe in the future I can do a mini Canadian tour.

Back in my room and it is rehearsal time. I run through The Complete Works and STILL Bleak House  and Drood are being troublesome. It is not a case of freezing and not being able to remember anything: I’m not going to be standing there not knowing what to do.  No, the problem is nailing the correct phrase.  As I approach the line I know at the back of my mind that I’m going to struggle and when I get there – hey presto!

To take an analogy from golf: it is like playing a shot over a lake and saying to yourself: ‘I mustn’t go in the water’, which puts only one word in your head – water. Splash.  Yes, my issue with the Bleak House passage is a mental one now and I have to break the deadlock (that’s a little Bleak House joke…)

I am being picked up this morning by Debby, the journalist who interviewed me on the telephone on Thursday. Debby has seen me perform in Salem before and is a fan!  I get into costume and wait outside the hotel for her to pull up.  Wow, it is hot.  It is like an August day in England.  I don’t know what the temperature is but it certainly feels as if it is in the high 70s.

Our destination today is the Peabody Institute Library in the town of Danvers, where I performed A Child’s Journey With Dickens last during last year’s tour. As we drive I notice that Saturday 27 September seems to be National Yard Sale Day. Almost every block we pass has at least one house with its front lawn full of toys, fitness equipment, furniture, rails of clothing etc.

We arrive at the library which is housed in a magnificent mansion. Debby unloads a suitcase filled with books from the car and I unload my little case containing my props and we make our way into the children’s section on the ground floor.  The room has been set up with about 100 seats and the librarian confirms that they have had lots of interest in the show.  I move furniture around, hide the toy white cat that features in ‘The Tale of the Bagman’s Uncle’ section of the show, cover a little table with a red cloth to represent Dickens’s reading table.  When everything is in place there is still an hour to go, so it is a question of waiting.

I poke around the library for a bit, and check out the biography section to see if there are any children’s biographies of Dickens. Leanardo Di Caprio is as near as it gets.

I find another book which strikes a chord with me, as it represents a link to my very first acting role. The book is for pre schoolers and teachers them about farmyard animals.  One page has a picture of a rooster with the caption ‘I am a Rooster’. Most of you will know my rooster/nativity story and for those that don’t I am going to leave you trying to imagine what on earth it is all about.

I Am a Rooster

I Am a Rooster

As there is still time I take myself off to a quiet corner of the room and do a short rehearsal of Doctor Marigold which is this evening’s show.  It may seem odd to be rehearsing one show just before performing another but to be honest Mr Dickens is Coming is so engrained in my head that I really don’t need to worry about the lines.

The audience begins to arrive and it seems as if they are going to be very good crowd. At 1 o’clock the show begins and it is such fun.  The audience respond superbly to the performance, laughing and clapping and joining in all the way through.

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When the show is finished Debby and the librarians haul a table onto my set and lay out lots of books and CDs for a brief signing session.

Once the audience has drifted away I say my goodbyes and we go back to the car, drive past the yard sales, now with depleted stocks, and back to the Salem Inn.

It is almost 3 O’clock now and I haven’t eaten yet so I get changed and walk into town to buy a sandwich. On the way I stop by the bank to get some cash from an ATM but the machine will not recognise my card and refuses to give me anything.   I therefore have to use a credit card to buy a sandwich, a bottle of water, some crisps (transl: chips) and a tube of toothpaste.

Back at the hotel I call the Santander Bank’s help line and spend about thirty minutes convincing them that I really am Gerald Dickens and that I really am in Salem, Mass.

Looking at my schedule I see that I have a sound-check for this evening’s performance on stage at the Hawthorne Hotel at 5 o’clock. Back into costume and walk through the middle of Salem where there are lots of other people in a variety of costumes along the way.  A Ghoul statue calls out ‘Good day to you Mr Cratchit!’; a wizard in robes similar to those of Albus Dumbledore says ‘Ah, that is how a gent should dress!’; a grave digger shouts out ‘You are looking good sir!’  It is quite a procession.

The Hawthorne Hotel is a magnificent, solid historic hotel standing proudly on a major intersection. I am shown to the room where the banquet is to be held and find it is quite a small room, with no stage.  I certainly will not need any amplification so a 5 o clock sound-check is a bit irrelevant really.

An Historic Hotel Selfie

An Historic Hotel Selfie

John Jordan (professor from Santa Cruz) joins me. He is giving a lecture tonight before my performance and together we try to set up the laptop and projector to show the slides accompanying his talk.

He has had to borrow the equipment so the whole process takes quite a while and there is a panicky moment when he can’t find the lecture’s power point file on his memory stick. Eventually we track it down and all is sorted out.

Many of the delegates are staying at The Hawthorne so they drift into the room in dribs and drabs. The bar is doing a good trade but I remain abstemious. I chat to some old friends and much of the talk is about a lecture given this morning about Dickens and his passion for conjuring.  The lecture was given by an English expert in magic and I spend quite a long time talking with him.

We all sit down and salads are served and cleared. I am aware that things are running a little late and the early mornings are beginning to catch up with me in the warm room.  Main courses go down and I eat a little but with a show fast approaching do not have a massive appetite.

Main courses cleared, and coffee served. Desserts.  I excuse myself, and change into my Doctor Marigold costume.  When I return John is setting up to give his lecture. And the group are re-charging their glasses.  At 8.30 John is introduced and he begins a fascinating, scholarly, beautifully prepared lecture about the relationship of the illustrations in David Copperfield to the text.

I am feeling so tired and the room is warm and I’m very glad that I hadn’t accepted one of the many offers of a glass of wine earlier for that would have finished me completely.

John winds up, and there follows a brief question and answer session before the stage is cleared and I am on.

As soon as I start with ‘I am a cheapjack….’ The energy floods back through me and the whole performance goes very well. The line learning and extra rehearsals have paid off and as I deliver the final lines I can hear sobs from the audience, which is always gratifying.

It is now 10.30 and the company dissolves gradually as people retire to their rooms for the night. I change out of Marigold back into Victorian gent, have a glass of wine in the Hawthorne’s bar before walking back to The Salem Inn and collapsing into bed, exhausted.

This is the BBC

It is an inevitable fact that for the first few days on this side of the Atlantic I will wake early in the morning. A dawn waking is even more inevitable today as I went to sleep so early last night.

So with 3.30 showing on the bedside clock I am awake.

The one saving grace is the Ryder Cup coverage, which I am able to have on in the background as I drop in and out of sleep.

As the morning progresses I can start thinking about the day ahead. I swap a few emails with Pam back at base about arrangements for this morning and discover that I will be picked up by Terry at 10.00 for the first event of my trip.

I make coffee. Annoyingly there isn’t a bedside table on my side of the bed and the bedside light doesn’t work on the other side.  A little wooden stand, presumably designed to put flower arrangements on, comes to the rescue and I am able to have my coffee close at hand.

The early hours pass and gradually a grey light starts to filter through the curtains as the sound of traffic intensifies, suggesting that the world outside is starting to wake too.

I write the blog and turn my attention to the events of the day. I have been working so hard on the line learning, that I have rather ignored the first commitment, which on the surface sounds as if it may be rather strange.  I have been booked to perform: ‘A costumed Informal story/reading for children aged 4-8’.  I admit that doesn’t sound strange in itself, until you see the location: ‘at The British Beer Company’

The reason that I have not prepared anything is not through neglect, but merely that it is so difficult to judge what will be required, therefore it is better to improvise when I find what my audience is like.

At 8.00 I go to breakfast in the basement before coming back to the room and getting my costume together. I need to iron a shirt but discover that the ironing board is one of those short stubby things that you are supposed to put on a table.  It has little folding legs that collapse as soon as you put any weight on them.

I am struggling to find a suitable surface to iron on. I take a sip of coffee and the answer comes to me: the little wooden stand is perfect to lay the short ironing board over.  This little wooden stand has become my new best friend!

The Little Wooden Stand

The Little Wooden Stand

Terry calls and suggests that I walk up to The Athenaeum Club, where the conference is being held, as parking outside my hotel is impossible and the club is only two blocks away.

It is a beautiful sunny day with a vivid blue sky and the trees (no doubt under contract to The New England Tourist Board) are beginning to change to their fall colours of rich reds and golds.

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The Salem Inn and The Athenaeum are in an old area of Salem and all of the houses have little plaques such as:

‘Built For Priscilla Abbot, 1773. Widow.’ It would be fascinating to learn the stories behind the plaques.

As I get to The Athenaeum Terry is in a panic. She had accidentally left her car boot (translation for my American readership: trunk) open last night and the battery has drained.  She has left the car running for the past 40 minutes in the hope the battery will recharge itself.  It may of course run out of petrol (gas) instead!

Just before we leave, Deb Benvie, the event organiser, comes out and gives me a great big hug of welcome.

The drive to the community of Danvers takes about twenty minutes and we pull up outside the British Beer Company at about 10.15. It is a pub with a huge union jack incorporated into its sign.

This is the BBC

This is the BBC

The first thing you see as you walk in is a Triumph motorcycle, accompanied by a photograph of the Queen Mother sampling a pint of beer. All over the walls are pictures of various British icons: The Beetles, Sean Connery, David Bowie and many more.

I am shown to where I will be entertaining the children, in front of a fire place overlooked by a portrait of Winston Churchill. On the wall, just below the ceiling is his famous quote to Lady Astor in response to her telling him that he was drunk: ‘I may be drunk but you madam are ugly.  In the morning however I shall be sober!’ Sheer brilliance although maybe not entirely suitable for the 4-8 age range.

As it happens I needn’t have worried for not a child appears. Instead a steady stream of adults take their seats and at 10.30 I begin to chat about Dickens’s life, upbringing, reading tours, travels to America etc.  It is all very informal and chatty.  A few of the audience have seen me perform before and others are following the blog.  I make a point of mentioning the other events during the weekend in the hope that some people may like to attend one of the other shows.

I have been talking for about an hour and we are well into a question and answer session when I notice that Terry is making signals for me to wind up. It has been a lovely session.

Terry’s car is loaded with dishes of food, and this is why we had to stick to our timetable. The BBC (British Beer Company – see what they’ve done there? Clever), has provided lunch for all of the delegates back at the conference and we need to get back to The Athenaeum.  Fortunately the battery has charged sufficiently and the car starts.

As we arrive at the Club the morning lecture is just finishing and the group spills out onto the back lawn for their lunch. There are many familiar faces here from my previous visits to Salem but also friends from further afield.  Diana Archibald is from The University of Massachusetts, Lowell and is an expert on Dickens in America.  I have worked with Diana on a few occasions in the past and it is always lovely to see her again.

John Jordan is from The University of California, Santa Cruz and is the director of the amazing Dickens Project faculty. Each summer The Dickens Project stages The Dickens Universe a massive conference during which they study a single book.  I appeared at the Universe last year, which was an amazing experience and would love to go back sometime.

The group is very nice and we sit in the garden with the sun filtering through the trees. As we eat, some students perform a scene from Nicholas Nickleby which is fun.

In the garden at The Athenaeum

In the garden at The Athenaeum

This afternoon the delegates are taking a walking tour of Salem and I am going to go back to my room and try to catch up on some of the sleep I missed last night. I have promised myself that I will not manically learn lines today, I need a rest from that.

I doze a little and do nothing until I can’t bear it anymore and do a surreptitious run through of Doctor Marigold.

There is a conference reception at 6 o’clock and I have a shower to try and wake myself up a bit. Back into costume and walk to the Athenaeum again. Everyone is there including the State Congressman and the Mayor of Salem.  Speeches are made and toasts delivered.  I make a few remarks and the guests drift away back to their hotels or restaurants for dinner.

I have an hour now until I have to be at Salem Old Town Hall to perform Sikes and Nancy so I return to the hotel and go through the reading to myself.

The Salem Museum is housed in the Old Town Hall. The main hall is on the second floor and is an elegant room lit by brass chandeliers. There is a stage at one end where a screen, chair and small lectern have been placed. It is a beautiful setting to perform a Victorian reading in.  The only problem is that acoustically it is very ‘hot’ very echo-ey, which will not suit the violence of The Murder.

As 8 o’clock nears, the delegates start to arrive and take their seats. Also there are two couples who were at the event this morning, which is really nice to see: it’s like welcoming old friends to the show.

The Murder was one of Charles Dickens’s most notorious readings, although he only performed it for a single season before the mental and physical strains took their toll and he was forced to retire from the stage. It is a short reading but, oh so intense and details the events leading up to the death of poor Nancy at the hands of Bill Sikes and his ultimate demise on the end of a rope.  It was so shocking in its day that Charles judged the success of a performance by the amount of ladies who fainted.

I start by talking about Dickens’s reading tours and the murder specifically before launching into the reading itself. I am right about the room and try to control the power and pace of my speech to allow for the booming acoustics but don’t always succeed.  However the passion behind the words works well and the audience is stunned as the final horror is delivered.

The applause at the show’s end is amazing and I am very pleased with the way the whole evening has gone. I chat a little and then make my way back to my new local, The Tavern in the Square where I sit in Victorian costume and eat chicken tenders and fries.  It is a busy loud Saturday night and the bar is full of couples and groups.

All you need to know about Salem is encapsulated in the fact that nobody gives a second look to a Victorian gent sitting in the corner.

I get back to the hotel at 10 and once in bed fall straight to sleep.

Changes, Witches and Floorboards

Changes

For the last twenty years or so the end of my year has traditionally been taken up with touring America with my one man version of A Christmas Carol. The usual routine is to fly out during November, perform a few shows before Thanksgiving Day and then plunge into the hectic part of the trip before returning home just before Christmas.

Over the years I have met a great many people and performed in some beautiful venues. Occasionally some of those people organise events at other times of the year and invite me to perform for them then too.

One such group is The North of Boston branch of the Dickens Fellowship, based in Salem Massachusetts. For the last 2 years I have visited Deb Benvie and her team during November but this year they have bigger plans.

2014 marks the branch’s first bi-annual Dickens conference and they have collected a fine group of speakers and performers to stimulate and entertain their delegates.

As long ago as last year Deb contacted Lisa Porter, my ‘fixer’ at Byers Choice, to see if I would be available on the last weekend in September to attend the three days of the conference. Plans were laid, timetables studied and events planned until we arrived here: the beginning of September.

There have been a few changes since the first plans were discussed, however. Lisa announced during the year that she would be leaving Byers Choice, after working with them for many years, to pursue  new professional challenges. Ever since I returned to touring some five years ago and began working with Bob Byers as my agent in America, Lisa has looked after all of the details of my tours.  She has sorted out transportation and accommodation.  She has liaised with journalists to ensure that they know when to call, so as to fit in with my commitments on any given day.  She has provided event organisers with complete details of what is required from my shows:  what size space I need to perform in, what props I need, how much time for sound checks, the exact location of my signing tables, what I like to eat before and after a show, and so on.

Even when an event is done it was Lisa who followed up after me and asked the organisers to send on my pen/watch/cufflinks/memory stick/camera and so forth. Lisa certainly made my life easier.

So, it was with great sadness that I learned of her departure and I would like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you Lisa, for all that you have done for me professionally over the years and for your friendship.

There was also a practical concern of Lisa’s departure: who could possibly take on the role? Who would Bob chose and could we ever develop a similar rapport?  I certainly had someone in mind who I knew could do the job but I was not sure if Bob’s choice would match mine.

Actually Bob moved very quickly and appointed the exact person I had thought of: I therefore ask you all to welcome Pam Byers who will no doubt be a central part of these adventures over the next two months

Pam is Bob’s wife and has worked closely on my performances at Byers Choice over the years and has also become a great friend. She will be a great ally to have on tour.

Although we could never have realised it at the time, this short mini tour is a perfect opportunity for Pam and me to get used to working together whilst I’m on the road.

Wednesday

On 24th September Liz drove me to Heathrow airport and the goodbyes never get any easier.  Although this trip is only ten days or so, it marks the beginning of the time of the year when Liz is left alone at home as I gallivant across America.

We hug and don’t want to let go. We both know, however, that I need to go and eventually I take my cases into the terminal and she drives back to Abingdon.  You would think we could have got used to it by now but it is always a horrible empty feeling.

Actually there is another emotion today: fear. With the awful events in Syria at the moment I am well aware that the possibility of a terrorist attack against the west is extremely high.  No doubt the security checks are huge at the moment, but still there is a horrible niggling, nagging fear at the back of my mind.

The airport experience is harmless and it strikes me how far the industry has come during my years of travelling. The whole process of checking-in online and dropping bags has marked the end of long lines of hot, impatient people.  Even the security screening is quick and unproblematic.  Actually, considering my irrational fears, perhaps I would have preferred the security screening to be a little slower and more difficult.

The plane is packed full but I have an aisle seat so am able to stretch my legs a bit. Although our booking is with Delta Airlines the flight is actually operated by Virgin Atlantic.  The flight attendants are friendly, the plane is modern and the entertainment system is comprehensive.

A few rows in front of me are sat a very elderly couple. He is dressed in an anorak and a flat cap which both stay on during the whole flight.  At fairly regular intervals he and his wife get up and slowly, oh so slowly, shuffle their way along the aisle towards the lavatory at the rear of the plane.  Each time the flight attendants are trying to roll a drinks or food cart to the front of the cabin but they never get impatient with the old couple, they never see the mechanics of their job as being more important than looking after their customers

Three films and two meals later we are touching down at Boston’s Logan Airport where, once again, the transition through the various official channels is quick and easy. In no time I am climbing into my rental car and setting the Sat Nav system for The Salem Inn.

I arrive at the hotel at around 10pm and get checked in. the Inn is actually more of a B&B in a lovely historic house and has no restaurant but it is in within easy walking distance of the city centre, so after lifting my cases up to my room, I stroll for ten minutes before I happen over The Tavern in the Square, where I sit at the bar and enjoy a lovely shepherd’s pie.

Back to the Inn I check out the TV and discover to my delight that the channels include The Golf Channel. This weekend Europe takes on America for The Ryder Cup in Scotland and hopefully I will be able to keep up with some of the events each morning.

Thursday

Despite a late night (and on UK time a VERY late night), I still wake early in the morning. In a half-wakeful state I find myself going over lines from the Complete Works of Dickens show in my head. After half an hour or so I give in and get up to make coffee.

I realise that I was probably in rather less than a half-wakeful state when I consider that the lines I was repeating in my mind do not actually exist!

I put the television on and watch the build-up to The Ryder Cup, which is being hyped up here just as much as at home. There is a sense of drama surrounding the contest as the two teams seem to be closely matched this year.

Time passes slowly until it is time to get showered and ready for Breakfast, which is served in a basement room.

Back to the room and after a telephone interview with a local journalist about the weekend’s events, it is time to pick up where I left off at home: yes, it is time to line-learn once more.

Over the next three days I am due to perform Mr Dickens is Coming and Nicholas Nickleby both of which I know inside out and back to front; Sikes and Nancy which is a reading; Doctor Marigold which I’m comfortable with and a couple of impromptu, improvised appearances.

But on Sunday morning I am performing The Complete Works of Charles Dickens to the delegates of the conference, all of whom know their Dickens well. It has to be precise and tight.  Once more the pacing commences.  Fortunately my hotel room is a proper town house room, with high ceilings and plenty of floor space to roam in.

Of course being a historic house the floorboards creak and I hope that there is nobody in the room below.

Most of the lines are coming back very easily, as are the transitions between novels, but I am struggling with a few passages, particularly the short section from Bleak House which for some reason will not stick. Edwin Drood is proving annoyingly reluctant as well.

I spend over two hours going over and over and over the script. I work at individual sections and do a couple of complete runs.  It is going fine, but needs more work yet.  However my little brain has had enough, so I do what Dickens used to do: I go for a walk.

As I mentioned earlier downtown Salem is very close and I decide just to follow my nose, with no particular plan.

Back at college when I was doing a Theatre Studies course, one of our set texts was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible which is his fictitious account of the Salem witch trials of 1692. Salem has taken witchcraft to its heart and most of the shops are starting to prepare for Halloween during which time the city becomes overrun.

Cobwebs, spiders and ghoulish latex masks abound as do broomsticks, pointed hats and black cats. Posters advertising Salem Ghost Walks are much in evidence and there are museums to witchcraft and piracy.  There is even a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery playing Samantha Stephens from Bewitched.

I walk through the tourist zone and get to the wharfs and docks which is where Salem’s prosperity as a city was really built. There are some lovely buildings at the water’s edge including the old Custom House (the equivalent to Logan airport’s immigration hall), and a beautifully restored sail loft.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My walk takes me into some antiques stores, which have amazing and eclectic collections and back into the centre of town where I go into a restaurant for a delicious spiced chicken salad. After that it is back to the room, back to the creaky floorboards, back to the lines.

The Complete Works is coming together nicely now, although Drood is still being annoying. After another two run-throughs I decide to give it a rest and pick up the reading script for Sikes and Nancy that I will be performing tomorrow night.

I start running through it and realise I know it so well that why don’t I commit that to memory right now. An hour later I have chapter one fully learned!  This is ridiculous; this line learning is becoming obsessive.  There is only one thing for it: get back to The Complete Works.

After some more work ,night is falling so I finally pack my scripts away and return to the Tavern in the Square where I have a thick juicy burger before settling in for the night. It is relatively early and I know I will wake at some silly time in the morning but, there will always be the Ryder Cup!

The Trench

For the last three weeks or so my head has literally been exploding. All right, I know that is one of the most incorrectly used pieces of grammar, so let me put it another way:  It feels as if for the last three weeks my head has been on the point of exploding from an excess of literary content.

There are occasional times of the year during which nothing much seems to happen. There are no shows to prepare for and a dwindling bank account to watch.  During such times I am apt to say ‘Yes!’ to any offer that comes in, even if it means preparing a new show or re learning something that I haven’t performed for a year or so.

Then there are the times during which all of the ‘yes’s align in a perfect storm of bookings.

The period from Friday 12th September to Saturday 4 October is a case in point.  Suddenly I have six different shows piling up to be performed.  Each and every one of them seemed as if ‘it was a good idea at the time’ but now they just climb onto one another, their words fighting for space in my head.

The only way to get through a time such as this is to work methodically through the different scripts, making sure I am prepared for the next one up.

The first job was to relearn my PG Wodehouse golfing show Top Hole! I had first performed the script back in April at my home golf club in Oxford and had been very pleased with the way it had been received.  I had then marketed it to various other clubs around the country and now the first results of that exercise are coming to fruition.

I had been contacted by The Faversham Golf Club in Kent to perform for them on the evening of Friday 12 September. After returning from our trip to Ireland and Wales, I got straight back down to working my way, line by line, scene by scene, through the script.

Some of the words just fall easily back into place, which is reassuring, but the order of them was a struggle. That isn’t quite as daft as it sounds:  Top Hole! Is a show featuring four different short stories, and I have written it in such a way that the narrator gets mixed up with his telling of them, meaning he is forever hopping from one tale to another in a very random manner.  That was a clever idea of mine, then, wasn’t it?

Top Hole! Is performed in two acts and lasts for a little under two hours. There is no other way than to just go over and over and over it again and again and again.

‘On the broad terrace, outside his Palace, overlooking the fair expanse of the royal gardens, King Merolchazzar of Oom stood leaning on the low parapet, his head in his hands and a frown upon his noble face…..’

As Friday night approaches the lines are getting better and by the time I pull up to the impressive clubhouse, nestling in a wooded valley, I am fairly confident that things will go well.

Faversham Golf Club

Faversham Golf Club

The audience is made up of members of the club and the show is well received. I am very pleased not only with the way that I perform, but also how the script performs, for when you adapt something it is the programme itself that is on show, not just the performer.

All of the lines stay in their correct place and I remember to say ‘Rather a quick tempered fellow, this Holmes!’, after ‘…and that is why this brave young woman hit you with her Niblick.  She took what she considered to be the necessary actions.’ Which has always been my stumbling block.

As soon – and I mean AS SOON – as I finish Top Hole! I start work on The Signalman. Although I performed this eerie little ghost story at Kytelers Inn, in Ireland, it had been a reading there and now I had grandly decided to perform it as part of a Dickens Double Bill in my home town of Abingdon.  I have precisely seven days to learn it.

In the car driving back from Faversham I am going over the bits of the script I know but the really hard work starts in the back garden when I get back.

I learn lines by pacing; I seem to have to be continually on the move otherwise they just do not stick. I take my script and start to go through the lines, as I walk around a sort of kidney-shaped circuit on the grass.

Six days to go and it is a struggle. I just don’t seem to be making any progress.  Walk. Repeat. Check script. Walk. Repeat. Check script.

Two or three hours pass and my head is bursting with ‘deep cutting’, ‘strange attitude’, ‘Below there!’ ‘…ghastly nods.’

I stop for a coffee and a rest but still find myself trying to link apparently unconnected sentences and working on the language of complicated phrases.

Out into the garden again: more pacing, more repeating.

Five days to go and there is a semblance of shape to the narrative, although Charles Dickens may not recognise it as his own work.

Liz despairs as my kidney-shaped circuit is very visible in the grass now, a trampled down track. And still it goes on.

Actually Liz And I are in a similar state as she has a concert at the weekend too, playing at a Church near Ipswich with the Lyric Piano Trio.  Rehearsals for her are very stressful  and the atmosphere in the house is tense as we each concentrate on our particular pieces.  At times like this it is good that we each understand the pressures of performing.

I am waking early in the morning and find that the hour between six and seven o’clock is a very profitable learning time. When I eventually get out into the garden later in the morning, the morning muttering has paid off.

Four days. I think it is going to be OK.

Three days and the trampled track is close to becoming a furrow.

Two days. I need a rest!  My little brain cannot take any more.  I decide to have a day off on Wednesday and play golf instead.  But even as I’m walking between shots there is a little voice in my head: ‘….quickly changing to a violent pulsation and oncoming rush causing me to step back as though it had power to draw me down….’

Then, suddenly out of the blue I start mixing The Signalman with Top Hole! Every time I start with: ‘Halloa! Below there!  When he first heard a voice thus calling to him he was standing at the door of his box, a flag, furled round its short pole in his hand…..’  I find myself continuing the sentence with: ‘….leaning on the low parapet, his head in his hand, a frown upon his noble face’, which is Wodehouse not Dickens.  Oh dear.

Thursday, a day to go and the lines seem to be sticking and I’m at last confident that The Signalman will be fine but the show is a Double Bill and that means a whole second half, which is to be Doctor Marigold. Last time I performed it, in Llandrindod Wells the lines were not perfect and I got myself rather lost during it, so I wearily set off around my circuit (now a trench) and start working on the cheapjack’s story.

When I have finished that, I go back to The Signalman, just in case the effort of working on something else has driven the newly-learned words away, but no, they are still there, albeit a bit reluctant to show themselves.

Friday. The day of the show.  The Dickens Double Bill is my own show: I am producing it, which means that everything is my responsibility.  Friday morning is spent picking up the printed programmes, collecting ticket stubs and cash from Mostly Books in Abingdon who have acted as a box office for me, and buying large amounts of wine, water and fruit juice for the interval drinks.

I make sure I have a good sized lunch, as I know I won’t want to eat later and then go into the garden for a final descent into the line-learning canyon.

The show is to be in the Unicorn Theatre which is a converted grain store dating back to the 14th Century when Abingdon was dominated by a huge Abbey and was one of the most important towns in the area.  That all changed when Henry VIII had his spat with Rome and destroyed all of the Abbeys and Monasteries in the country, so that he could create his own religion.  Fortunately Mr The VIII’s cronies left some of the outbuildings in Abingdon untouched, so here we are.

The Double Bill is to be my first show at the venue and I’m hoping to make regular appearances there over the next few years.

On arrival I am introduced to John, who is going to look after the lighting for me. I have decided to have a few simple effects during The Signalman, including a representation of the much-mentioned red danger light.  I go through the script with him and he sets the lights up until we are both happy.

Liz arrives and starts to set up the front of house area. I am getting nervous now and am rather snippy and short, which is unfair of me.  I decide it is probably best to take myself to the dressing room and leave Liz to run front of house.  She is to be assisted by her colleague Penny Durant and her husband Jon.  Penny is an avid follower of this blog, so I now have the opportunity to say a huge thank you for all of your help last Friday.

Start time is drawing closer and I get changed muttering the lines over and over (shows are so much more relaxing when I am very familiar with a script).

As 7.30 approaches I make my way backstage and make contact with John through the intercom system. We are ready to go.

I step into the light, make my introduction, take a deep breath and begin:

‘Halloa! Below there….’

The Signalman goes very well and the atmosphere builds all the way through. There is one slight hiccup over lines which, frustratingly occurs around one of the lighting cues.  Fortunately I am aware of exactly what I’ve done and realise that John is about to plunge me into a blackout, so I quickly double back, without any hint of a pause and John takes the hint, finds where I am in the script and we are back on track.  It’s always nice to work with someone who understands theatre.

The Signalman finishes, hopefully leaving hairs standing on end throughout the audience, and I go back to the dressing room to get ready for Marigold.

After 20 minutes or so the audience file back in, having availed themselves of the wine, water and juice; settle back into their seats and Doctor Marigold takes over.

The evening is a great success I think. The audience isn’t big, as  we booked the theatre only a month or so ago, but they all seem to enjoy the show and hopefully when I return with A Christmas Carol in December there will be more.

So: phew! That is the end of the line learning and at last my head can relax.  It can let all of those words seep out like a sort or cerebral flatulence.

Oh, no: Still I have to learn.

Saturday is Liz’s concert and we set off for the three hour drive to Ipswich at around 11 o clock. Despite some traffic delays we arrive at the beautiful church in Rushmere St Andrews at the same time as the other two members of the trio, Beth Reed (violin) and Coral Lancaster (cello).

The Lyric Piano Trio rehearsing

The Lyric Piano Trio rehearsing

After a little while spent getting the performing area set up so that everyone can see everyone else and so that the piano does not drown out the two stringed instruments, Liz, Beth and Coral get down to their rehearsals and as they do that I…..learn lines.

Next Wednesday I am travelling to America to perform Mr Dickens is Coming, Nicholas Nickleby, Doctor Marigold, The Signalman and…..The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, which I have not performed for over a year.

While in the nave of St Andrew’s, the music of Ravel, Boulanger and Ireland drifts into the high vaulted expanse; in the vestry a muttering can be heard: ‘There was a deal table before the fire, on it a candle stuck in a ginger beer bottle, two or three pewter pots, some bread, butter and a plate….’

The Complete Works uses passage from every Dickens novel in chronological order, each linked to the next in such a way that the audience cannot ‘see the join’.  It seemed like a good idea when I wrote it.

Liz, Beth and Coral rehearse for almost three hours, which is exhausting for them, especially with a performance later, and I mutter my way through The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and so on all the way to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Before the concert we are all treated to a high tea of sandwiches, pork pies, quiches and cake until the volunteers begin to arrive.   With them comes the vicar, a cheery jolly man, although he rather dampens the atmosphere by announcing that it is a miserable evening outside and Doctor Who is on, so we probably won’t have much of an audience.

Those hardy souls who own raincoats and who are not desperate to follow the latest incarnation of The Doctor, make their appearances and The Lyric Piano Trio disappear to change and collect their individual and collective thoughts.

I, of course, cannot rehearse during the concert so I just settle back and listen. I love watching and hearing Liz perform – she is so talented and makes the piano ‘sing’ in a way that few pianists do.

The concert is called ‘In Remembrance’ and is made up of music composed during the years of the First World War. The programme is well received by the audience and the applause goes on and on and on.  It is an extraordinary ovation from a small audience and fills me with an immense sense of pride.

It is only after the audience have left that Liz tells me that during the last piece of music she had begun to feel faint and dizzy, and could hardly concentrate. It is a testament to her professionalism and natural talent that I had no idea until now.

We pack up and get on the road. Fortunately we are not driving all the way home, but only as far as my brother’s house where the kitchen table is laid with cheese, pickles, relishes and wine.  We spend 30 minutes or so gently winding down before going to bed.

On Sunday we spend we spend a very happy and relaxing next day with my brother Ian and his wife Anne. After a delicious breakfast of grapefruit, bacon and scrambled eggs, Ian Liz and I go for a short walk.

Ian drives us to the small village of Tempsford and its nearby airfield. During the war this is where the men and woman operating for the Special Operations  Executive and the Secret Service (spies) flew from.  In the middle of the airfield is a simple brick barn, filled with bird droppings, from where these bravest of the brave collected their supplies from.

The barn has become a simple shrine to their memory and is filled with letters, postcards and accounts of the activities of various individuals whose very role in the war means they are unsung heroes. It is an extraordinarily moving place.

Having returned to Ian’s house we have a splendidly relaxing lunch in the garden, all thoughts of line learning and music as far away as they can be.

But, on Monday it is back to the garden. The circuit/track/furrow/trench/canyon is in danger of becoming a subterranean city as I begin once more. The Complete Works is re-acquainting itself with me well, but there is much more to be done.  More pacing, more muttering.  I will pace and mutter at the airport and in my hotel.  I will probably mutter in the immigration line at Logan airport and be refused entry on the grounds of insanity.

The question, of course, is: Did it all pay off?

I will update you from Salem, Ma

A Dickens Double Bill

For those of you who have become used to long, detailed blog entries which take you through every waking minute of my day, you will find this one a little more brief.

This one is a shameless piece of self-promotion.

On Friday evening at the Unicorn Theatre in my home town of Abingdon, I will be performing A Dickens Double Bill. The show features two of my favourite short stories written by Charles Dickens in the mid 1860s.

The Signalman is a spine chilling, eerie ghost story which takes place in a lonely signal box in a deep, damp railway cutting.  The narrator tells the tale of his chance encounter with the signalman under whose charge that stretch of line was.

What starts as an idle conversation to pass an hour or two soon becomes something much darker and more terrifying.

The fact that Dickens wrote The Signalman a year after he had been involved in a terrible railway accident lends an awful realism to the piece.

Regular readers of my blog will know all about Doctor Marigold.  Written in 1865 this charming monologue is a piece of Dickens little known today but one which delights audiences whenever they hear it.

Marigold featured heavily in Charles Dickens’ highly successful public reading tours and differs from most of his repertoire in that it is delivered in the first person. Almost reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s amazing ‘Talking Head’ sketches which were so popular in the 1980s, the audience really begins to feel as if they know the gentle man who shares his life’s struggles, tragedies and joys with them.

The two shows contrast beautifully and I am thoroughly looking forward to presenting them as a double bill for the first time on Friday.

So, now with my producer’s hat on: tickets are still available and can be ordered directly from me (use the email link on my website: http://www.geralddickens.com) or, if you are local, they can be purchased at Mostly Books in Stert Street, in the centre of Abingdon itself.

I look forward to seeing as many as possible on Friday and to writing a complete account of the show next week.

Remember:

Friday, 19 September, Unicorn Theatre, Abbey Buildings, Abingdon.

marigold poster white jpg

Links:

http://www.geralddickens.com

http://www.abingdonabbey-unicorntheatre.org.uk/

http://www.mostly-books.co.uk/

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