After the historical and grand scenes at the Mechanics Hall last night, today’s shows are in a much more intimate setting.
20 minutes outside Worcester is the small village of Sutton, which is the location of Vaillancourt Folk Art. The company is housed in an old mill building where the Santa figures are cast, hand painted, finished and sold in a shop spectacularly decorated. Behind it all is Judi’s artistic flare, Gary’s bold salesmanship and Luke’s quiet business sense. It is a formidable combination.
In the morning I meet with Bob and Pam Byers for a very relaxed breakfast, as they are staying in the same hotel. We talk about the tour and the shows and the future and their sons and all sorts of things.
Back in my room I iron 2 costume shirts for the day ahead and am frustrated by one of my biggest hotel bugbears: the lack of electrical sockets in anyway useful to iron from. There are plenty hidden behind bedside tables and TV cabinets but none in the open! In the end I discover that the clock radio unit has an outlet built in so I squeeze myself between the bed and the wardrobe to iron. Maybe that should be a prima donna rider to my contracts next year. It is a shame because I enjoy ironing. No, really, I do…..
At 12 I set out from the hotel and drive towards Manchaug Mills in Sutton.
During the afternoon of Thanksgiving we had driven through Sutton itself to see a new house that Luke and Anna are building and it struck me then that Sutton now is how Dickens must have viewed Worcester itself, when he visited in 1842:
These towns and cities of New England (many of which would be villages in Old England), are as favourable specimens of rural America, as their people are of rural Americans. The well-trimmed lawns and green meadows of home are not there; and the grass, compared with our ornamental plots and pastures, is rank, and rough, and wild: but delicate slopes of land, gently-swelling hills, wooded valleys, and slender streams, abound.
Every little colony of houses has its church and school-house peeping from among the white roofs and shady trees; every house is the whitest of the white; every Venetian blind the greenest of the green; every fine day’s sky the bluest of the blue. A sharp dry wind and a slight frost had so hardened the roads when we alighted at Worcester, that their furrowed tracks were like ridges of granite. There was the usual aspect of newness on every object, of course.
All the buildings looked as if they had been built and painted that morning, and could be taken down on Monday with very little trouble.
It is a very beautiful part of America and being New England the town names are familiar: Oxford and Shrewsbury not to mention Worcester and Sutton themselves. But alongside old England are other spectacular names such as ‘Purgatory Chasm’
On the main road there is a derelict drive in movie screen, an icon of a different age again.
At the store audience members are gathering already and spending plenty of time in the shop. In a room at the back of the mill a theatre (grandly named ‘Blaxton’s Hall’), is created and Judi waves her magic wand over the stage and creates a remarkably successful and intimate performing space. The chairs are packed in, so even if you have a seat in at the end of the back row, in the corner, you are not more than 20 feet from the stage. When it is full it is an amazing room and today both of the performances are sold out.
Everything is familiar from 5 previous visits. The sound guy is excellent and really knows his stuff. We decide to use my own microphone system again and we do a quick sound check.
I loiter around the store for a bit, say a few hellos, have a coffee followed by water and then go into a room behind the shipping department to get changed. The room is little more than a store room, but there is plenty of space there and there is a clothes rail I can hang all of my costumes on and a little table to put all of my paraphernalia on.
As usual, the family is put to work. Anna and her father Bob are manning the door and seating people and now there is a steady flow. People remark that it feels cold in the theatre. Just you wait!
I stand at the door and many members of the audience greet me as an old friend with warm handshakes and hugs, which is so nice. Soon Blaxton’s Hall is full. Luke switches the florescent tubes off and the 6 stage lights on. Gary makes a quick introduction and welcomes me to the stage.
After a few remarks about this being my 20th anniversary of performing A Christmas Carol, which gets a round of applause (always nice to get applauded BEFORE you’ve done anything…), I start.
The show is intense and the audience oh so responsive. The proximity of those 6 stage lights, no more than 10 feet from me make the stage a sauna and even before Marley has appeared I can feel the sweat dripping off my face. This one will be a workout.
‘God Bless Us, Every One!’ Huge applause, stamping, whooping, cheering. Everyone in the theatre has been part of this performance, we have all created Ebenezer Scrooge’s world together in a way that is quite impossible in a larger venue. There is something very special about that little room.
Luke is waiting at the door for me with a bottle of water from the freezer which I gulp down rapidly in an effort to re-hydrate myself. I go to my dressing room, strip off, towel down, drink more water and then change into the 2nd costume before re –emerging into the store for a signing session. The line winds through all of the Christmas decorations and displays but everyone is in good humour. After all, it is now officially the Christmas season!
When the queue dwindles down, I am able to change back into my civvies and relax. There isn’t really time to return to the hotel, so I just flop into a sofa, part of one of the displays. I am whacked. I have no energy left in me at all.
Lunch/dinner (it’s around 4, so I’m not sure which) is served and I have a lovely salad and chicken sandwiches, followed by a slice of blueberry pie. I very carefully avoid anything with dairy in it, as I know when I am this tired my throat would snap up tightly shut and make this evening’s performance almost impossible.
After lunch I seek a spot away from the store. Away from the shoppers, the staff. Away from Gary, Judi and Luke. Away from everyone. Where do I find? Scrooge’s chair on the set! And there I fall asleep.
I awake as the audience are starting to arrive, I can hear the bustle increasing and realise that I have another show to do but doubt if I will have the energy to pull it off. To be honest I feel like an empty shell, but there are another 200 people who want to start their Christmas season. I drag myself to the changing room to get back into costume. That starts to feel a little better. I stand at the door with Bob and, as in the afternoon, my hand is shaken, I am hugged. People tell me how much they love the show and this year they have brought their husband, neighbour, friend, dental hygienist and oh, they are going to love it so much! That starts to feel better still.
The little hall takes on an electric quality once again: an hour before it had been a quite dusty mill room and I had been slumped in it. Well, if the room can re energise, then so can I!
Despite my misgivings the second show is as powerful as the first,. The audience just as enthusiastic and exciting. I feed off the energy and once again the droplets of sweat are flying like a heavy weight boxer taking a right hook to the jaw. I do feel sorry for those in the front row.
At the end Luke is there with the water and I’m soon out in the shop back in costume 1, for the signing.
When I can, I change for the last time and pack my things away. Have I got everything? Yes. Microphone packed up? Yes.
The store is empty now, apart from the loyal staff cashing up and shutting the place down. I say my goodbyes and drive back to the hotel, where I hang my costumes up so they don’t stay packed and damp overnight.
Gary, Judi and Luke come to the bar and we have a bite to eat, a couple of glasses of wine. We are all tired; it has been a major day for all of us.
There is a great sense of achievement. A job well done but it is not over yet: from here I travel on to other venues and other audiences and they have they continue to celebrate their busiest time of their year: Christmas.