On Election Day…

As the UK goes through the ‘excitement’ of a general election I will be performing Doctor Marigold this evening, which contains the following – very apt – passage:

For look here! Say it’s election time. I am on the footboard of my cart in the market-place, on a Saturday night. I put up a general miscellaneous lot. I say: “Now here, my free and independent woters, I’m a going to give you such a chance as you never had in all your born days, nor yet the days preceding. Now I’ll show you what I am a going to do with you. Here’s a pair of razors that’ll shave you closer than the Board of Guardians; here’s a flat-iron worth its weight in gold; here’s a frying-pan artificially flavoured with essence of beefsteaks to that degree that you’ve only got for the rest of your lives to fry bread and dripping in it and there you are replete with animal food; here’s a genuine chronometer watch in such a solid silver case that you may knock at the door with it when you come home late from a social meeting, and rouse your wife and family, and save up your knocker for the postman; and here’s half-a- dozen dinner plates that you may play the cymbals with to charm baby when it’s fractious.

Stop! I’ll throw in another article, and I’ll give you that, and it’s a rolling-pin; and if the baby can only get it well into its mouth when its teeth is coming and rub the gums once with it, they’ll come through double, in a fit of laughter equal to being tickled. Stop again! I’ll throw you in another article, because I don’t like the looks of you, for you haven’t the appearance of buyers unless I lose by you, and because I’d rather lose than not take money to-night, and that’s a looking-glass in which you may see how ugly you look when you don’t bid. What do you say now?

Come! Do you say a pound? Not you, for you haven’t got it. Do you say ten shillings? Not you, for you owe more to the tallyman. Well then, I’ll tell you what I’ll do with you. I’ll heap ’em all on the footboard of the cart — there they are! razors, flat watch, dinner plates, rolling-pin, and away for four shillings, and I’ll give you sixpence for your trouble!” This is me, the Cheap Jack.

But on the Monday morning, in the same market-place, comes the Dear Jack on the hustings — HIS cart — and, what does HE say?

“Now my free and independent woters, I am a going to give you such a chance” (he begins just like me) “as you never had in all your born days, and that’s the chance of sending Myself to Parliament. Now I’ll tell you what I am a going to do for you. Here’s the interests of this magnificent town promoted above all the rest of the civilised and uncivilised earth. Here’s your railways carried, and your neighbours’ railways jockeyed. Here’s all your sons in the Post-office. Here’s Britannia smiling on you. Here’s the eyes of Europe on you. Here’s uniwersal prosperity for you, repletion of animal food, golden cornfields, gladsome homesteads, and rounds of applause from your own hearts, all in one lot, and that’s myself.

Will you take me as I stand? You won’t? Well, then, I’ll tell you what I’ll do with you. Come now! I’ll throw you in anything you ask for. There! Church-rates, abolition of more malt tax, no malt tax, universal education to the highest mark, or uniwersal ignorance to the lowest, total abolition of flogging in the army or a dozen for every private once a month all round, Wrongs of Men or Rights of Women — only say which it shall be, take ’em or leave ’em, and I’m of your opinion altogether, and the lot’s your own on your own terms. There! You won’t take it yet! Well, then, I’ll tell you what I’ll do with you. Come! You ARE such free and independent woters, and I am so proud of you — you ARE such a noble and enlightened constituency, and I AM so ambitious of the honour and dignity of being your member, which is by far the highest level to which the wings of the human mind can soar — that I’ll tell you what I’ll do with you. I’ll throw you in all the public-houses in your magnificent town for nothing. Will that content you? It won’t? You won’t take the lot yet? Well, then, before I put the horse in and drive away, and make the offer to the next most magnificent town that can be discovered, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Take the lot, and I’ll drop two thousand pound in the streets of your magnificent town for them to pick up that can. Not enough? Now look here. This is the very furthest that I’m a going to. I’ll make it two thousand five hundred. And still you won’t? Here, missis! Put the horse — no, stop half a moment, I shouldn’t like to turn my back upon you neither for a trifle, I’ll make it two thousand seven hundred and fifty pound. There! Take the lot on your own terms, and I’ll count out two thousand seven hundred and fifty pound on the foot- board of the cart, to be dropped in the streets of your magnificent town for them to pick up that can. What do you say? Come now! You won’t do better, and you may do worse. You take it? Hooray! Sold again, and got the seat!”

Nothing has changed since Dickens’ day!

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To Begin With: The End

I am now at home, and the 2017 run of To Begin With has come to an end.  This is the story of the final week, and my farewells:

After my two days off, driving around the Twin Cities it was back to the Wesley Center on Wednesday to prepare for my final few days of performing.  Our call was early on Wednesday as Dennis was keen to carry out a video and photo shoot, so as to give us some new promotional materials for future tours.

Kasey and Bob were on hand to get me into my wig, and I was soon ready to face the cameras.  The main point of the session was to film a series of very short video clips so that our UK producer, Paul Savidant, could start to work selling the show to a few British venues.

The video camera was set up with little delay (which is rare for video cameras), and we started filming little 20 second chunks from the beginning of the show all the way through the first scene.  Each section was filmed from straight on, then house left and finally house right.  It actually took a remarkably long time – I spent three hours under the hot lights, performing scenes and changing costumes back and forth, and listening as Dennis called out the next scene that he required.

Eventually we broke with little more than an hour to rest before having to prepare for the evening show.

It was a sad fact that our final week saw disappointing small audiences, which was illustrative of a major miscalculation on all our parts.

The play, as you know, is based on The Life of our Lord and deals with Dickens’ own faith and knowledge of the gospels.  Dennis had thought that the run up to Easter would be perfect timing and he could concentrate his marketing to the many large churches in the Twin Cities; he was convinced that this would be a fruitful source for our target audience.  But he was to be severely disappointed.

What Dennis had not expected was the rather un-Christian attitude taken by the Churches themselves to a production that they saw as a rival to their own activities.  None booked groups, none informed their membership, none announced the show during their Sunday services. In the week leading up to Easter the expected full houses never materialised and we ended up playing to 40 or 50 people, which was a huge shock and disappointment to us all.

However, if the audiences were small they were splendidly responsive and I had a great fun building a relationship with each group and hearing them laugh and responding to all of Jeffrey’s brilliant lines.

The most important day of my week was Thursday, as it was then that Liz arrived from England, so that she could be with me to the end of the run.  Throughout the day I tidied, dusted, cleaned and washed, wanting to make my home welcoming for her.  At 3.30 I joined Rosalie at the office and we drove to the airport, parked and made our way to international arrivals, where we waited in front of a large sign which read:  WAIT HERE IF YOU ARE MEETING OR GREETING PASSENGERS ON INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS.  Why ‘meeting’ and ‘greeting’?  Can you meet a passenger without greeting them, or can you greet them without meeting?

Eventually the passengers coming through the door began to boast English accents and in no time Liz appeared and I was at last able to meet and greet her.

Of course she was jet lagged, and rather struggled through the Thursday night show, nodding a dozing nod a few times.

On Friday we hired two of the bikes and cycled up to the Minnesota Institute of Art and spent a wonderful morning admiring the fabulous collections of American and European paintings and being amazed that we are standing as close to a Van Gough canvas as Vincent himself was when he painted it.

Friday night’s performance (Good Friday) came and went and the Crucifixion scene was passion-filled – unsurprisingly.

Saturday dawned wet and miserable so we spent most of the day in the apartment, before going to the theatre for the final two performances.  There was a strange atmosphere in the dressing room.  Bob was so upset that our run was coming to an end, and gave me a carefully wrapped gift with instructions not to open it until we got home.

It being a Saturday night, the set had to be removed entirely, ready for the following day’s Easter Sunday services, and everyone was ready for a late night.  I gave cards to everyone that was there, along with special To Begin With pens, that I had ordered for the whole team, but many were not present: Jeffery was away, Kasey and Callista had gone home for Easter, Michaels light and sound had not been around since the start of the run.  Even the audience seemed to have deserted us and our final night had an awful sense of anti-climax to it.

At the end of the show rather than have a celebration in the dressing room, everyone was busy striking the set and even the cake we had brought remained un-eaten in the green room.

Bob helped me remove the wig, I got changed, we said our goodbyes and walked away into the night.

It was a strange way to end what had been an amazing run.  The show had developed over the course of the month and we have brought it to a stronger place than two years ago.  It deserves an audience, it deserves more and I have no doubt that we will reprise it in some way over the coming few months – either in America again or hopefully in England – maybe even Ireland.

Liz and I made our way to Brits Pub and partook of their fine fish and chips before returning to the apartment for our last night in Minneapolis.

On Sunday morning my first action was to start trimming my beard right back, gradually turning myself from Charles Dickens back to Gerald. 

 

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Half and Half

 

Having cleared up as many of the hair trimmings as I could, we left the apartment and walked through the city to enjoy a wonderful lunch courtesy of our good friends David and Teresa who had flown from Baltimore to see the show two weeks previously, and had generously given us a gift card for one of the downtown restaurants.  We toasted our Easter celebrations with Prosecco and were delighted when Jeffery popped in to say good bye and give me his closing night gift – a brilliant model of the set with a cut-out me (probably so that I can practice my moves ready for the next performances).

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We spent the afternoon cleaning the apartment before Dennis arrived to drive us to the airport.  Outside Terminal One we hugged and thanked the man that has made all of this possible; a man who twenty years ago had a dream, and who through his persistence, diligence and faith has brought it to reality.

We did what you do in an airport, killing time until finally we were able to board our 767 and take off into the night sky.  When next we saw land it was British and as we broke through the clouds we did so right over the top of Eton College, which features in the script and which I have been referencing for the last month

And now we are back home, learning how to live real life again.  It is spring in England and the garden is burgeoning and colourful. 

True to my word I hadn’t opened Bob’s gift until I got home, and when I carefully peeled back the diligently wrapped folder I found the most beautiful costume designer’s rendering of Charles Dickens in his linen suit and green waistcoat – a perfect reminder of every night at 7.30 when I strode to the stage, turned to face the audience and said:

‘Disagreeable evening!  Lost an argument with Swinburne about the meaning of Christ and the existence of God!’

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Thank You Twin Cities

My time in Minneapolis has seemed to pass by so quickly, and this week I had my final two free days before the last week of performances, which culminate on Saturday.

This week I wanted to go a little further afield, so I arranged to hire a car from the local downtown Avis office and on Monday morning I became the temporary owner of a bright blue Hyundai which would be my trusty steed for a couple of days.

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Monday

Sadly the weather had taken a slight downward turn and although not actually raining it was very overcast and rather cloudy as I set out onto the streets of Minneapolis.  With all of my walking this time I have become quite familiar with the road system and could navigate my way towards the I35 without any problems.  My first port of call was the town of Stillwater (I know every American conurbation calls itself a city, but that is just too a large a term for some).

Dennis had suggested that a visit to Stillwater would be a nice thing to do, as it is a pretty riverside town.  The drive didn’t take long and soon I was parking on the main street which was lined with beautiful old warehouse buildings from the Victorian era.  The town is built on the banks of St Croix River and boasts to be the birthplace of Minnesota, as it was here that the Territorial convention was signed that led to the creating of first the Territory and later the State.

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The main industry here was originally lumber and the town seems inappropriately named for the river seemed to be flowing very fast, with eddies and currents across its width.  On the far bank is the State of Wisconsin, where the football supporters wear cheese on their heads, and people indulge in the ancient past-time of cow-tipping – maybe I will save all that for another trip!

I spent a lovely hour in Stillwater, before getting back on the car and exploring.  I had noticed on the map ‘White Bear Lake’ which looked and sounded interesting, so I headed there.  As I neared my second destination never had my point about the town/city status been more clearly proven, for I drove past a sign to the ‘City of Gem Lake.  Population 393’!  Now, that can NOT be a city!

Actually there was not a huge amount to see at White Bear Lake, and no beautiful walking trails around its perimeter, for the land was fully occupied by very large, sprawling and expensive-looking houses.  I circumnavigated the lake as best I could and then headed back towards Minneapolis, passing on the way a rather distressingly named business:

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I hope they have a very big workshop!

Before returning to the apartment I had one final stop and that is the Minnehaha Falls located on the outskirts of Minneapolis.  Apparently Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was inspired by the name of the falls when he came to write The Song of Hiawatha:

‘At the door on summer evenings, sat the little Hiawatha; Heard the whispering of the Pine-trees, heard the lapping of the water, Sounds of music, words of wonder; “Minne-wawa!” said the pine-trees, “Mudway-aushka! said the water.’

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The falls became a popular attraction in the Victorian era and part of a Minnesota grand tour.  Tourists would arrive in St Paul by Mississippi steamers and then visit Fort Snelling (the first area to be settled by non-indigenous folk), St Anthony’s Falls and Minnehaha park.

The waterfall is not a high one, but certainly cascades with a great deal of force and creates some wonderful photo opportunities, including the inevitable cliché of the slow exposure, giving the misty ghostly look.  I know I am not the first person to have done that!

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The falls and the river are set in a lovely spacious park, although the ravine itself was disappointingly covered in graffiti and litter.

As I walked back to the car I passed an inconsequential little white structure, which proved to be the first building on the west river bank in Minnesota (originally near the St Anthony’s Falls, but moved here a few years ago).  The house was used as a ferryman’s cottage, and was built in 1850, which is three years after our play is set: such are the vagaries of history.

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Tuesday

If the weather had been overcast on Monday it was with amazement that I woke to snow on Tuesday.  You can never fully trust the weather in Minnesota.

My Tuesday travels wouldn’t take me so far afield, as I planned to visit the ‘other twin’, St Paul, which is only about fifteen minutes away, which was just as well for when I arrived I discovered that I’d left my wallet back in the apartment, so had to drive back to collect it!

In my early years of touring I performed in the beautiful historic St Paul Hotel, and one of my annual treats was to visit the impressive Science Museum of Minnesota, where they have some amazing exhibits, including a remarkable collection of dinosaur skeletons, which roamed the continent before mankind came along with his freeways and baseball parks.

As I walked in, the first thing I saw was a huge stuffed Polar Bear – maybe that is what they do at White Bear Taxidermy in White Bear Lake.

The museum was packed with children on their Spring break (I assume they are not allowed to call it the Easter holidays here), and there was so much fun and laughter as they all ran from one interactive exhibit to another.  To be truthful it was a little too children-oriented for me, and I would have liked some more permanent displays to dully study like adults are supposed to do.

After an hour or so I walked through the city and up to the amazing Cathedral of St Paul (as opposed to the visually similar St Paul’s Cathedral in London), which sits high on a hill overlooking the city.  Walking up to it was rather like clambering up Montmartre towards the basilica of Sacre-Coeur in Paris.

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The Cathedral was almost empty and dressed ready for the Easter services throughout the week, with every cross humbly shrouded.  It was a silent and moving experience.

Outside, at the top of the cathedral steps I looked over the old city of St Paul and had a wonderful view of the State Capitol building, which heighted the Parisian theme, for it is built from white marble.

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I walked back into town, and passed my old stomping ground at the St Paul Hotel, before returning to the museum to watch an IMAX film.  Again this was a habit from the old days: I just love the scale of the films and it doesn’t really matter what is playing.  I settled myself into my seat and looked up at the dome above me, and waited for the fun to start. Not only is the scale impressive, but I rather like the fact that it is on film, rather than digital, and every now and then a piece of dust would get caught in the gate and flicker across the gigantic screen, which gave me a warm nostalgic feel.

The film itself?  Oh, it was about  a raft trip along the entire length of the Nile, but that is not important at all.

And so my two days of play had come to an end.  I dropped the car back to Avis and walked to the apartment, where I did a little housework and laundry ready for the last remaining days of the show.

I have really enjoyed being in Minneapolis in good weather and have greatly appreciated the opportunity of exploring more than I have ever been able to do before.  It is a great city (no, they are great cities, for Minneapolis and St Paul are joined at the hip by the mighty Mississippi) and they have welcomed me and taken me in.

Thank you!

 

Week Two

Needless to say the second week of the show was less interesting than week one, which in turn was less interesting than the rehearsal period; by which I mean we are all getting to a point where the show runs smoothly and there are no great innovations to be made.  But each audience and each show is different so here is the run down of week two of ‘To Begin With’:

After three days off we all gathered back at the Wesley Center for a Thursday matinee which will in likelihood be the largest audience of the run.  Over two hundred seats had been booked by a Christian Academy and as 1.30 approached so yellow buses disgorged students ranging from the age of 11 to 17.

When Ben gave me my five-minute call I made my way from the dressing room, up the stairs, through the Daniel Group office and into the balcony from where I could look down on a full house below me: an excellent view!  From the balcony it was down another flight of stairs and into my little room at the back of the hall, where I waited for the opening music to begin.  On a regular performance I have been slipping through the door as the first bars ring through the hall, and then have surprised the audience by striding noisily from the back, but on this occasion the students somehow seemed to have a sixth sense and all 200 and whatever turned round and stared at me as I waited to begin – how did they know I was there?  How did they know that?  A few individuals at the back, maybe – but ALL of them?!

At the end of the performance we were due to have a brief talkback session on stage, which Dennis would moderate along with the school principal, but the latter couldn’t make it to the stage as he had to sort out an issue with the busses, so two teachers were delegated to take his place and made their way up to the stage completely unprepared.  Dennis talked a little bit about the creation of the show, and then left the two gentlemen to it, who looked like rabbits caught in headlights as they desperately tried to think of things to ask me.  I felt so sorry for them, and tried to make my answers as long as possible, so as to protect them from further struggles.  Eventually their time in purgatory was brought to end when the principal returned and announced that the busses were ready.

A welcome addition to Thursday evening’s performance was the return of Jeffery, who had popped back to the Twin Cities from his other project in Arizona.  After the show he drove me to a wonderful restaurant in the warehouse district of town where we ate dessert and talked literary James Bond – a shared passion.

On Friday and Saturday the audiences became more and more responsive and the play really began to work as I was able to react to both the laughter and the intense concentration of the audiences:  the show is a fabulous one, and when everything really clicks it becomes something very special indeed.

On Sunday 9 April we entered the last week of our run, and more especially the Easter week.  From here on in every day is referenced in the script and the lines began to have even more import and resonance.  For instance as Dickens checks his ‘cheat cards’ he picks up one that says ‘Jerusalem’.  As part of the rehearsal of his own play he says ‘Huge crowds gathered round him, crying: “Hosanna!”’  That of course refers to Palm Sunday – the day of our performance on Sunday.  When we get to Friday the passages describing the Crucifixion will certainly be packed with even more emotion than usual.

But that is all to come.  I am currently on a couple of day’s break before returning to the stage on Wednesday for an afternoon of photo and video shoots, before the last few days of our run commence.  On Thursday Liz will arrive from England to share in the last couple of days, and I can’t wait – I have missed her so much during the past three weeks, and it will be wonderful to see her again.

 

Finally

Whilst some of the lines become more meaningful thanks to the time of the year, others seem to impinge on everyday life too.  I shall share one in parting:  “But suddenly I recalled that part of the New Testament having to do with Christ’s forty days and nights in the wilderness.  Also known as the Temptation…”

Every evening as I leave the apartment to go to the theatre there is a little trolley set up in the lobby with complimentary champagne for the residents, and every evening I have resisted temptation!

 

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Temptation….!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Relax, Recharge and Play

From Monday to Wednesday I had three days to myself, in which to relax, recharge and play – this is what I got up to:

After a run of seventeen straight days of either rehearsing or performing I was completely shattered by Sunday night.  After the show I met with my good friends David Keltz and his wife Teresa who had flown in from Baltimore just to see the show, which was incredibly supportive and generous of them.  We naturally made our way to Brits Pub and coincidentally sat at the same table where my interview had been filmed two days before.

We talked about the show and ate a hearty dinner, but I was fading slowly and returned to the apartment a little before 9, where I went straight to bed and into the soundest sleep.

 

A Floppy Day

On Monday I had said that I would join David and Teresa for a bit of sightseeing, so I got out of bed, went to the gym to run, came back, had breakfast, and then could do nothing!  I was having what Liz and I call ‘a floppy day’, when body and mind cry ‘ENOUGH!’

I sent a message to my friends, knowing that they would fully understand (David is an actor who also performs one man shows), and spent the rest of the day in the apartment doing not very much, and letting my body slowly recharge.

In the evening I was due to meet with a gentleman whom my brother had met in London at a meeting of The Pickwick Club. Ian made the introductions and after a bit of emailing back and forth we found a time that we were both available to meet for a drink.  Jeff owns a café and restaurant in downtown Minneapolis and I decided to book a cab to visit him.  No, not a cab – Uber.   I have lived a sheltered life and tend to come to new ideas late in the day, and this was my first experience of the revolution in the taxi industry.  I was enthralled as I booked my car using the app and then watched the little icon navigate the streets of Minneapolis as it drove to pick me up at the door of the apartment.  It was rather like playing a live version of Pacman!

Jeff’s café is in the St Anthony’s district of town, right next to the rapids and falls in the Mississippi River around which the city grew.  He is a cool dude (not your usual Pickwickian), and reminded me rather of the actor Ted Danson.  We had a nice time, and he showed me his venues, including a function room overlooking the river in which he would like to stage some theatrical events.  I know my Christmas tour is almost booked for 2017 now, but I will put him in touch with the Byers and maybe something will grow from it.

Unfortunately Jeff had a business meeting so our visit was only a short one, however that suited me as I was ready for another early night.

 

On Yer Bike!

On Tuesday I was feeling a lot more with it, so contacted David and Teresa and invited them to breakfast at my favourite diner.  We spent a very happy hour or so talking about the show and where it might go from here.  They were very enthusiastic about the prospects of To Begin With, which was exciting to hear:  as a team you tend to get so wrapped up in a project and it is reassuring to know that an outsider’s perception is as positive as our own.

After breakfast they had to get back to the hotel to pack and check out, and I set off to explore my surrogate home town further.

Minneapolis has a system of rental bikes, as most large cities do these days, and after the long cold Minnesotan winter, the scheme had just been re-launched for the summer of 2017.

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I signed up for a day’s pass, and hopped on the first bike and rode towards the Target Field Baseball stadium, where I purchased a Minnesota Twins Baseball cap, to keep the sun of my exposed forehead.

Each bike rental is for thirty minutes and if you go over that time you have to pay a penalty fee – even though I had paid for twenty four hours – so I had to make sure that I switched bikes often.  At the stadium I returned my first bike to the rack and took another one before cycling back down to St Anthony’s, where I spent longer walking along the trails by the riverside, and admiring the old mill buildings, which are being restored and turned into luxury studio apartments.  I walked across the famous stone arch bridge (so called because….well you can guess)

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On the south bank of the river there is a partially demolished mill, onto the back of which has been built a modern glass and steel building: it is a very impressive structure, and houses a museum of mill life in the city.

Before I took another bike from the nearby stand, I returned to the Guthrie Theatre where I had seen King Lear two weeks ago, and explored right up to the 9th floor, where there is an amber box giving an extraordinary view on all sides (including down, as it has a glass floor).

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Time was moving on now, and I had to get back to the apartment ready for a live radio interview, so I took another bike and cycled through the heart of downtown Minneapolis and dropped my transport off right outside the Historic Wesley Center – what a fun day.

The interview was taking place at The Daniel Group’s offices in the Wesley Center, and Rosalie was there to let me in.  Actually it wasn’t an arduous task, for the presenter spent most of the thirty minutes telling his listeners how he had seen the show two years ago and how great it was, and how they couldn’t miss it, and how they must see it.  Really we got a thirty minute drive-time commercial for free, which was excellent.

At 4.30 it was time to move on again, and I was in for a wonderful relaxing, gentle evening in the company of our production designer Bob and his wife Mary, who had invited me to dinner.  They live a fair distance away, so Bob came to pick me up, and we drove through the rush hour traffic towards the beautifully-named Apple Valley suburb.

On the doorstep I met Mary and the third member of the household,  Buddy an energetic little ball of fur – a Chinese Shih Tzu.

Bob had been anxious that the evening should be relaxing, away from the city, away from work, away from restaurants and diners, and he succeeded on all counts.  It was such a fun, gentle, friendly time, and a great way to relax.  Between them Bob and Mary had prepared a salad and a delicious beef stew, followed by a homemade cherry pie with ice cream.  Time seemed to slip by unnoticed as we chatted about all sorts of things, and Buddy curled up next to me on the couch and nestled against me as he slept.  I felt very welcomed and very at home.  A lovely end to a lovely day.

 

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Buddy

 

 

Take me to the Ball Game!

On the third and last of my free days I had discovered that the Minnesota Twins would be playing the Kansas City Royals at Target Field, so I had bought a ticket to go to my first ever ball game.

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I arrived early, but the crowds were not big for a midweek, lunchtime fixture.  Various people had also told me that the Twins had had an awful season last summer, so the ticket sales were down.

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I checked into the stadium and got my first glimpse of the field, which was smaller than I had imagined.  I walked all around the gallery behind the actual seating on my level and took in the ever-present smell of bratwurst and beer.  As the noon-day start time approached I took my seat: section 133, row 3, seat 12, and found myself surrounded by…nobody.  I had purposefully booked a seat next to others, so that I could play the foolish Englishman and ask about the game as it unfolded, but section 133 was deserted!  Maybe the other seats were taken by season ticket holders, who had elected not to come today.  Anyway, I settled in to take in as much as I could on my own.

 

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Looking back at section 133.  My seat is in the middle of the wooden seats!

 

The game started with the raising of the American flag by a military veteran who got all of the admiration and respect that he deserved.  The anthem was played by a high school marching band who perkily marched onto the field and then perkily marched off again!

And the game started.  With the assistance of Google (made possible by free wifi throughout the stadium) and my own observations I began to understand more and more of the game.  Oft heard phrases such as ‘top of the fourth’, and  ‘bases are loaded’ began to make sense, and I got more involved with slow progression through the 9 innings.

I had assumed that American sport would be action-packed and with constant scoring (as basketball or ice hockey is), but actually the scoring opportunities in baseball are few and far between, and by the fifth inning the score was 3-0 to the Twins.  A game of twenty-twenty cricket would be much more exciting to watch, which is an extraordinary thought.

As the game moved on I went to buy a healthy lunch of bratwurst smeared with mustard and ketchup, a mug of beer and a bag of peanuts in their shells (Dennis had told me that this was the required dining option at the ball game)

For the second half of the game I walked around the balcony so that I could watch from different angles, and chatted with people similarly huddled under the heated lamps.  I learned a little more about the sport, one guy telling me: ‘only one thing you need to know about baseball – the New York Yankees suck!  I love watching them get beat as much as I loved watching the Twins win!’  Many people feel the same about the top rich teams in English Premiership football.

I felt much more part of the crowd standing among the hot dog stands, and cheered lustily with the rest of the ground at the bottom of the seventh when the Twins suddenly added 6 runs to their score.

 

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The Twins batter, and a very brave umpire

 

That flurry of scores settled the match, as the Royals had only managed a single run, and the crowd were in a happy mood as the 9th inning began.

With KC up first they had to score a further 8 runs to make the Twins bat again, and they showed no signs of getting close.  1 batter out, and two, and the third with two strokes against him, and now the crowd all stood and it was like being in the Coliseum as the Emperor gave the thumbs down sign.  Sure enough the poor batter struck out and a roar rose from the crowd.

I really enjoyed my day at the game and would love to come back, and although I am sorry for all my friends in Kansas City, I was delighted that the Twins were triumphant.

I walked back through the busy streets of the city and back to the apartment. My days of rest were at an end and on Thursday I will be back on stage as Charles Dickens once more, but Minneapolis had cosseted me and looked after me and entertained me.

Thank you!

 

Review

Whilst at Target Field I received an email alert with a link to the first online review of the show.  Here it is:

http://compendiummpls.blogspot.com/2017/03/to-begin-with-goes-back-to-beginning.html?camefrom=EMCL_1576274_61334871

 

 

 

Week One Complete

When last I left you, we had finished the first preview performance of To Begin With, to a standing ovation.  That was on Tuesday evening, and I have had  performances on every day since then.  Here are a few reflections on week one:

 

Promotion

Although our Tuesday audience was enthusiastic they were not large in number, and one of the most important things for us to do was to promote the show as hard as we could.  Of course Dennis and his team have been working on that over the last few weeks, with TV ads, press ads, lots of fliers and brochures, posters at the venue and the like.  However, now we were up and running we had to engage with the population of Minneapolis and shout ‘WE ARE HERE.  NOW!  COME AND SEE THE SHOW!’

As soon as we opened I spent a lot of time following as many Minneapolis businesses and organisations on Twitter as I could think of, sending messages including links to the box office.  I posted updates on Facebook, tagging Dennis, so that his network would get a new perspective on the show too.  Social media is a strange way of marketing, in that you have no idea how and where your efforts are being received, you just send them out there – into the ether: and it will ether work, or it won’t.

On a more a more substantial level the Hennepin Theatre Trust was organising a series of media events for Dennis and I to attend the first of which took place in my favourite haunt, Brits Pub.  The local CBS affiliate in the Twin Cities is WCCO, and their offices are situated just across the street from Brits.  The Saturday morning show has an occasional feature called ‘Out to Lunch’ in which the show’s hosts chat to a personality (usually an actor), over lunch in one of the city’s many restaurants.

At 11am Dennis and I turned up, and were introduced to the two presenters Mike and Susan-Elizabeth.  I had expected the interview to be quite staged and false, but nothing could have been further from the truth: we just chatted about me, the play and Charles Dickens while the camera man took shots from lots of different angles.  Lunch was served (good British fayre – fish and chips for Dennis and me, steak and ale pie for Mike and soup for Susan-Elizabeth), and we chatted on.

It was a very relaxed interview, much nicer than the studio-bound 45-second sound-bite filled affairs that TV usually likes so much.

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On the same day we also visited the WCCO radio station and did a live interview on the highly popular afternoon show, so hopefully a large percentage of Minneapolis folk would now be aware of To Begin With.

It remains to be seen if the work has paid off, but hopefully the box office will begin to see more and more phone calls and online hits, and I will begin to see less and less empty seats as I stride through the auditorium at the start of the show.

 

The Routine

As the show got into its run, so my days fell into a steady routine, all leading to the 7.30 start time.  After the preview nights were finished our team began to disperse: Jeffrey flew back to Arizona to continue work on his Sherlock Holmes project, whilst both Michaels – light and sound – had other work that demanded their time and attention.  But now new members of the team arrived, led by Millie who is our front of house manager.  Each night she is responsible for organising the large team of volunteers supplied by the Hennepin Theatre trust, who act as ushers.  No, that’s not fair, they do  not act AS ushers, they ARE ushers!

I usually spend the morning walking in the city, catching up on shopping, maybe doing some work in the apartment, before having a light lunch, probably a salad.  Then I relax for a while, until I start to get ready about an hour before I am due at the theatre.  The first thing is to shave, which is quite a novelty for me, I can’t really remember the last time I had to shave daily (apart from 2 years ago, obviously, when I was performing To Begin With in Minneapolis); with my beard in full Dickens mode I have to make sure that there is no hint of 5’o clock shadow on my cheeks, so I shave just before each performance.  Next I have a brisk, cold shower to wake me up and energise me a bit, before gathering the things I need for the evening and making the long walk to the theatre, which takes all of 90 seconds, if the lift arrives quickly.

Once in the church I will say hello to everyone, before going to the dressing room where Bob will be preparing my costume and props.  Although his official title is ‘Production Designer’ he has taken on the role of dresser, and looks after me diligently and protectively.  Every night my shirts are ironed and starched, as are the two linen handkerchiefs that have to be hidden up my sleeves ready for Charles Dickens to produce with a flourish.  Bob is a godsend, and if anything hasn’t worked, or is difficult, he will think of a way to make it better and easier.

Whilst Bob irons and starches, so my wig is being primped by either Kasey or Callista who are sharing wig-mistress duties between them. An hour before show-time I sit in front of the mirror, and the process of becoming Dickens begins:  firstly a netted bandage (I believe medical in origin), which has been stained dark brown to match the wig, is stretched across my head, and then a million hair clips and pins are pushed through it into what there is of my own hair, to hold it tightly in place.  When the bandage is held firm, the wig itself is positioned on top, and then a million more pins and clips are pushed through it, the bandage and my hair.  I have so much metal in my curly locks, that I would never make it through airport security without setting off every alarm imaginable.  With the wig fully pinned in place, the front edge of the lace, to which the hairs are attached, is gummed onto my forehead, to hold it flat. Once everything is secure the styling takes place to create the slightly flyaway, wild hair that Dickens senior favoured, which is then incongruously held in place with a  good spray of hair lacquer.

The wig work is usually completed on the 30-minute call, and then I can get into the rest of my costume before pacing around the dressing room, muttering lines and anxious to begin.  Ben pops his head in at 20, 15, and finally at 5 minutes, when I walk to my position at the rear of the hall ready to begin.  This is when I get my first glimpse of the audience, who are all blissfully unaware that they are being spied on through a stained-glass panel.

More pacing, until Ben calls down the stairwell ‘are you ready?’ to which I reply ‘yes’ and the show starts: music, bells, walk through the audience, turn and ‘Disagreeable evening!’

 

The run so far

The show has been going well throughout the week, although the audiences have been frustratingly small – between 50 and 90, I suppose.  However, as we got to the end of the week, suddenly the numbers swelled and our Sunday house was much better, which hopefully means that the PR from earlier in the week is beginning to pay off.

The audiences, and therefore the performances themselves, have varied through the week.  Some crowds have laughed at every line, some have sat listening quietly and taking in the import of the words.  All have clapped enthusiastically, some have stood, some have not, but everyone has enjoyed the show.

We made one change during the week that has improved the scene in which Dickens is explaining Jesus’s miracles to his children.  The script calls for a flashy magic effect as Dickens says ‘the miracles Jesus performs are NOT magic tricks’.  In the past we have used a little device called a Funkenring, which nestles in my hand and on the required line emits a shower of sparks.  It is a clockwork mechanical device that has to be wound before the show, and although it worked OK it was never terribly impressive, and looked rather as if a more complictaed trick had gone wrong.  So frustrated did Ben become that he went to a magic shop and purchased a new effect that works like a little cigarette lighter.  The performer conceals the ring, and on the cue flicks the abrasive wheel, which sends sparks, which in turn ignites a wad of ‘explosive’ cotton, sending a tongue of fire into the air: much more effective and it certainly drew gasps from the audience, although I was careful to keep my lacquered wig away from it…..now there is a way of getting some extra publicity……

flame

As Sunday’s performance came to an end, so it signalled a few days off for the first time since my arrival on March 16th.  It has been a long and tiring eighteen days and I am looking forward to three days to myself, but I am sure I will soon start craving the stage again, and will be like a caged lion come Thursday morning.

In the meantime I intend to play tourist – more of which anon.

 

 

 

 

 

Opening Night!

After a journey that spans many years, and in the short term just over a week, the morning of Tuesday 28 March dawned bright, clear and warm.  We had arrived at our opening day. 

Jeffrey has suggested that we meet at 3.30 to go through some notes from the dress rehearsal, and the inevitable tweaks to the blocking, sound and light, but I had most of the day to myself.

I spent the morning strolling through downtown Minneapolis, admiring the glass buildings that reflected the clear blue sky to such an extent that they seemed to disappear into it.  Everywhere were shimmering and distorted images:  Minneapolis is really a most beautiful city.

 

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The main purpose of my visit was to buy thank you cards for everyone, and I was relieved to find that Barnes and Nobel was still open.  Macy’s across the street had now closed its doors for good and the building looked forlorn and neglected.  I found a box of notecards with a simple quill and ink stand design (actually, the same ones I used two years ago), which were perfect for my purpose.

Back at the apartment I started to write all of the cards.  After a little bit of online research I found a letter that Charles Dickens had written to his wife on Julyl 16 1849, which read:

“I have taken a most delightful and beautiful house belonging to White, at Bonchurch -cool, airy, private bathing, everything delicious…..A waterfall on the grounds, which I have arranged with a carpenter to convert into a perpetual shower bath.” 

This relates to so much that is in the play, and I set to copying this fragment into each card, followed by a personal note of thanks for Dennis, Jeffrey, Rosalie, Ben, Michael, Bob, Michael and Kasey: the team that has created this wonderful little piece of theatre.

My scribing was interrupted a few times by emails from the marketing guru at The Hennepin Trust, informing me of an ever-growing number of television and radio interviews in the coming days, which is great news for all of us.  Although the show is produced by The Daniel Group (Dennis and Rosalie’s production company), it is being presented under the auspices of The Hennepin Theatre Trust which is a huge organisation promoting theatre in the Twin Cities.  Having such a large and powerful group behind us is fantastic for our marketing, as we can reach the many thousands of social media followers as well as tap into the extensive media contacts.  All of this should mean that the word will be getting around Minneapolis throughout the next week.

Come 3.30 I was at the theatre, and soon was pacing through a few of the scenes as Jeffrey very carefully placed me on the stage – ‘half a step downstage.  A touch to your right.  Do we have a tiny light change there?’  It is a lovely feeling to be concentrating on such minutiae just a few days after working out the much broader blocking: ‘walk all the way past the furniture to the right of the stage and say the line there’.  Now, whether I was capable of remembering these tiny moves during the performance itself we would have to see.

As we finished our rehearsals Dennis came into the auditorium and gave us all opening night presents: Charles Dickens Action Figures, complete with removable top hat, and clasping a quill pen!  Quite brilliant, and the funny thing is that the coat he is wearing is exactly the same shade as the smoking jacket I wear in scene two.  What a great opening night gift.

action figure

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I distributed my cards, and Dennis was completely shocked to see that the date of the letter was his birthday (not the 1849 part, of course, just the 16 July)

The afternoon wore on, and I ate my salad in the dressing room, before placing myself in Kasey’s hands for the application of the wig. Then into costume, and I was ready with twenty minutes to go.

Outside my dressing room I could hear the mumble and buzz of the audience arriving, and then the noise subsided as they made their way into the theatre itself.  Pacing, whispering lines, striking poses.  Wanting it all to begin.

With five minutes to go Ben gave me the nod and I made my long way to the back of the hall.  This journey consists of leaving my dressing room, going upstairs, through the Daniel Group’s offices, across a landing, up a small flight of stairs, into the balcony, where I could look down on the audience and set.  A quick ‘break a leg’ from Michael the Light, and then into another landing, down a long flight of stairs and into a small vestibule at the back of the sanctuary, where I waited.

There were a few stragglers, so the countdown was held for a few minutes.  Still pacing, still whispering.  I peered through a small clear pane in the elaborate stained glass door and could see my central aisle stretching down to the stage. The house lights went down, and the welcome announcement played.

Only seconds to go now.

And then a family sat near the back decided that as the show was about to start they could probably move further forward, so they all stood up and shuffled into the aisle – right in front of me, right where I was about to stride to the stage.  My route was blocked!

Fortunately the very attentive front of house manager spotted the situation instantly and encouraged them to re-take their seats and they reluctantly shuffled back just as the first bell tolled and I could begin my journey un-hindered.

Oh, it felt good to be on stage.  It felt good to hear the laughs and the reactions.  It felt good to be in control and to know what I was doing.  There were no horrible blanks of mind or fumblings around.  There were no awful moments when I found myself in the wrong waistcoat, or jacket, or that a prop wasn’t where it should be.  Everything ran as it should do.  All of those mornings in my apartment with the coffee table, chairs and hanging rail, as well as all of those afternoons with Jeffrey and the team in the theatre itself, had paid off.

Charles Dickens engaged with the audience and they took him to their hearts.

Finally, after 90 minutes on stage, I said the last line of the play and the lights went out.  When they came up again, the audience were on their feet clapping and cheering.  Not a big audience for our opening night, but such an enthusiastic and appreciative one.  I bowed gratefully and left the stage.

Back in my dressing room I quickly changed into a dry shirt, assisted by Bob, and then went into the huge meeting space, where a desk had been set up for me to sign autographs and meet members of the audience.

People were ecstatic about the show, and in one case moved to tears, and loved to talk about Charles Dickens and our portrayal of him and his family.  Each person in line promised to tell friends, family and colleagues about the show and that is the best marketing we can get.  Go forth, and spread the word!

When the last of the audience members had left I went back to the dressing room, where Kasey was waiting patiently for me, so that she could help me out of the wig, and return it to its block where it is carefully pinned so that it retains the correct shape.

I said good bye to the rest of the team, and Ben joked that the audience hadn’t enjoyed it, that was obvious because they all stood up as soon as it was finished!

And so, To Begin With has begun, but this is only the start of the story, for we have three weeks of performances to go yet, and no doubt there will be disasters and issues, and flagging energy levels, as well as fantastic electric performances where everything hits the mark:  that is the wonder of live theatre, and that is why I love what I do.

I hope that you have enjoyed being alongside me as the production has come together over the past ten days.  I will not be posting new blogs every day now, but be assured I shall keep you up to date with the progress of the show, up until our last night on Saturday 15 April.

And if you do know anyone in the Twin Cities – drop them a line!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dress Rehearsal

And here we are: the day of the dress rehearsal – to all intents and purposes the first night, but there were still things to be done: 

The day started with a radio interview for FAITH radio, and that meant being over in Dennis’ office (also in the Old Wesley Center) by 8.30.  It was strange to be the only person in the building, and I sat for a few minutes in the darkened auditorium just soaking up the remarkable atmosphere.  There is something quite magical about an empty theatre, and I love just sitting and almost connecting to the building itself.  I know, that’s all a bit new age and fanciful, but it feels nice!

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Up in the office, surrounded by pictures of myself, the phone call came in at exactly 8.45, and soon I was chatting to the show’s host Bill Arnold.  As well as his radio work Bill is a comedian and magician and is one of scriptwriters and original cast members of the brilliant show Triple Espresso, which is also produced by Dennis and the Daniel Group, so we had a great deal in common to begin with.

We chatted for around twenty minutes, and I talked about Charles Dickens’ childhood, The Life of Our Lord, Dickens’ beliefs and faith, my tours and of course the show itself.  It was a very nice interview, very conversational and not too scripted.

 

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Hardly posed, at all!

 

Back in the apartment I did my morning run of the play, and when it was finished made a huge decision: I decided that I no longer needed the set to be laid out, and so the pieces of furniture were returned to their correct places, and the wooden hanging rail to its cupboard.  I will still run the lines each day, but I am confident of the moves now.

After the rehearsal it was down to the gym, as it was a running day, and this time my efforts were accompanied by Liz’s CD.  My run was a syncopated one, as The Entertainer, The Maple Leaf Rag, The Magnetic Rag and Solace took me through my workout.

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Our rehearsal was called at 2.30, and there was a tangible sense of anticipation in the theatre as everyone worked on their particular area of the show.  Jeffrey and I went over a few minor points of blocking and movement, and then worked with Ben and Michael on tweaking the timings of some sound cues, but all in all it wasn’t too arduous.

At 4.30 we broke for ‘dinner’ (a salad in my case), and then started to build up to the performance itself.

The first thing to be done was to get the wig fitted, as my costume shirts go over my head, and today I had three sets of hands fussing over me.  So that there is always someone on hand who knows what they are doing Tricia (the lady who made the wig) trained Bob and Kasey, to fit it and in turn they are tonight training Callista who did hair and make-up (as well as danced and sang) in the production of Mary Poppins I saw last week.

The wig was tight and secure when they had finished, and it felt good to be Dickens again.

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I was actually ready with an hour to go, as we had left plenty of time in case of any emergencies, so I paced around, did some lines, played some backgammon, chatted with various members of the team.  I checked the set, and made sure that all of the props and costumes were in the right place, and then waited.

Being a dress rehearsal it was treated as a full performance and the members of the crew (Jeffrey, Michael, Ben, Michael, Bob, Dennis, Rosalie, Kasey, Callista ) spread themselves out in the auditorium.  Dennis’ wife Anne and her mother and sister also came along to watch, so there was a nice smattering of audience throughout the house.

It was a good, powerful, run, with no major upsets:  a real positive end to our rehearsal period.  From my point of view it was great to have an audience, and to hear the laughter and feel the emotion.  Suddenly long-forgotten pieces of timing came back to me, and I could really engage with the people listening to the story.

Costume changes worked, props ended up in the right place, sound effects and music hit their marks: all in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable 90 minutes!

When I came off stage Jeffrey said ‘Congratulations, great job. Get changed, go home, get drunk!’  We will go through his notes tomorrow, but all in all there was a very positive mood in the Old Wesley Center. 

Kasey helped me off with the wig, removing the many thousands of pins and grips, until the top of my head could breathe once more.  Once released from Mr Dickens senior I changed, listened into a few of the technical notes that Jeffrey was giving and then slipped away back to my apartment for a plate of ravioli before bed.

There is an old adage in the theatre which says: ‘a bad dress rehearsal means a good opening night’.  Well, that is usually bandied about to boost the flagging morale of a company that has just suffered a nightmare of a rehearsal, when everything has gone wrong.  I prefer my own adage: ‘a good dress rehearsal means that you are ready for a great run’.

Bring it on!

 

The Final Stages

Sunday, 26 March.  D day minus 2.

 

We are very definitely in the final stages of preparation for the performance itself now.  From here on in there will be no major changes (although there have been very few big alterations to the show since we started rehearsing just over a week ago), and we must fettle the performance to as near perfection as we can collectively manage.

Sunday, as regular readers will know, is a difficult day for us, as the Wesley center reverts to its natural use during the day, meaning that Ben and Bob and Michael had to clear the entire set on Saturday night.  We all had to wait until 2pm before we could do any meaningful work (although I had done my customary morning run through in my apartment).

As soon as the morning service had ended operation To Begin With swung into action and the three large picture windows, a leather chair, a table, a chaise longue, a pouffe, and various canes, coats, robes, hats and waistcoats were carefully moved into their correct places.  Once more had the Old Wesley Centre been transformed into Winterbourne House, Bonchurch, Isle of White, Hampshire, England: the summer residence of Mr Chas. Dickens Esq.

In the meantime I was getting into costume, which included a few last minutes tweaks thanks to Bob’s assiduity.  At one point in the script I am required to pull two handkerchiefs from my shirt cuffs with a flourish (as a magician might do), and that requires them being carefully hidden in my sleeves for the majority of the play.  Unfortunately the shirt cuffs are a little loose, so the hankies have been slipping out long before they were needed.  Bob, therefore, had made a couple of elastic bands that fit tightly round my wrists in which the linen can be gripped until the required moment.

Once fully attired (to tie my cravat I have to use the mirror in a small restroom, and the movement of my arms always sets off the automatic paper towel dispenser!), I made my way to the theatre where everyone was ready for our 2.30 start.  This really felt like a full dress rehearsal: no stops, no hesitating, no re-working sound cues – it was do it, or bust.

I felt a great surge sense of nervous anticipation and energy as I waited at the back of the hall, which increased a step as the opening music began.  I waited for the chiming bells, and marched down the central aisle, up the steps (didn’t trip up them) and found myself in blazing light ready to begin.

It was a very good run.  Oh, it was hot under the full glare of the lights, and I could feel the moisture on my brow, which I hope wont effect the security of my wig during the actual shows.

I was very pleased with the performance, which ran incredibly smoothly from all departments – sound cues were perfect, lighting was subtle and atmospheric, costume changes went smoothly and the lines were about as good as I have ever got them.

It was so nice to do a full 90-minute run, without breaking for notes in the middle, and to get a real sense of the flow.  We have a really really good show on our hands, there is no doubt about that.

As soon as we had finished, it was time to convert Winterbourne back into a church again, for the evening service so as Ben and Michael and Bob heaved furniture around, I got changed before heading upstairs to Dennis’ office where we went through all of the notes.

Of course what an actor (and I presume a sound and lighting engineer) wants to hear more than anything is: ‘perfect, nothing to say, keep it like that!’  but naturally that never happens, there is always something that can be improved and tweaked. 

We sat and listened as Jeffrey ran through scene by scene, and we took our own notes (I will sit and study mine over breakfast).  Dennis chimed in with his observations and comments and we made some slight revisions to the script so as to reflect the true meaning of the gospels rather than the simplified version that Dickens provided for his children (for example, in The Life Of Our Lord Dickens announced that King Herod ordered all the children under the age of two years in his dominions to be killed, whereas in fact he ordered all the male children in Bethlehem to be killed – one extra word in the script and we have corrected a historical inaccuracy).

With the notes finished we all went our separate ways – mine took me to the nearby Brits Pub for dinner where I had, what else? but Bangers and Mash!

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Technical Matters

Saturday was a quiet day in To Begin With land, as Jeffrey once more was away in Arizona, so there was never going to be a large rehearsal.  However our lighting designer Michael Klaers had just returned from his few days in Los Angeles so our job would be to let him get all of his cues sorted out.

As my call was not until 2pm I could spend the morning following what has become a well-grooved routine: I had breakfast, did a complete mini performance of the show in my apartment and the went to the gym for my every-other-day-run-and-swim.  As I pounded the treadmill I was listening to the greatest hits of Paul Simon, but the television in front of me was showing an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine with subtitles, so I was able to enjoy the adventures from the Isle of Sodor accompanied by Me and Juilo.  I don’t know if there is an America narrator for Thomas here, but in my mind it was dear old Ringo Starr doing the voices.

The rehearsal itself was a good session, and even though it was very much a technical run of the show, with lots of stops and re-tweakings of effects, it didn’t seem nearly as frustrating as previous days.  I suppose that this was always slated to be a technical rehearsal, so it was in that frame of mind that I went into it.

There are not that many lighting effects for Michael to use in this version of the show, in that there are not many lights!  The Old Wesley Center is short on electricity, so we are confined to 4 LED lanterns in the balcony and 4 strips of footlights on the stage itself.  The balcony lights are of the sort than can be swung around and controlled remotely, and as Michael was setting them it was as if we were in London during the blitz, with searchlights sweeping across the skies.

The whole technical process is so amazing now.  In my day (I may as well say ‘in the old days’), the lighting designer would be sat behind a huge desk of sliding dimmers, each one controlling one light, or maybe a preset collection of lights.  Some would have lamps would have had coloured gels in to create different atmospheres on stage – steel for cold and eerie, amber or rose for warmth.  Some very flashy theatres may have had lights with auto change gels, so the colour could be changed from the desk.  The lighting man would have a script and at the correct cue he would trigger the light changes.

Next to the lighting man would be the sound effects guy, with his own large desk filled with what seemed to be an impossible number of little knobs to twiddle.  He too would have a script and make sure that the effects were triggered at the right moment.  Hopefully light and sound would get on well together, and present a unified technical operation for the audiences.

Nowadays all of the cues (light and sound) are built into a single computer programme created specifically for the show.  Over the past few days Ben and Michael Croswell (our composer) have been building up the soundscape, which has proved to be an incredibly complicated but impressive operation.  Each effect is made up of many layers of recording, any one of which can be enhanced or softened in relation to all of the others, until the mix is exactly what is required.  Some effects are purely ambient sound, for instance the washing of the waves on the shore, or a busy ferry port, whilst others are much more specific to the action – a door knock or a donkey bray maybe.  The programme allows for the former to be playing under the spoken words whilst the latter can be triggered on the exact vocal cue, which has the happy result that I don’t have to be a robot.

 

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A series of sound effects from scene 4:  all of this for about three lines of dialogue!

 

Now Michael The Light went through the show and carefully programmed all of his cues too.  The great advantage of the LED lights is that can be automatically changed to any colour we need, without the complicated and fiddly changing of gels: warm glow – hit a button and it is there.  Cold, chilly night exterior – click, and we are shivering. As Michael created each scene he was able to link them precisely into Ben and Michael’s master programme.  All of this means that when the show is actually being performed everything can be controlled by Ben from his MacBook.

The original idea was just to hop from cue to cue, so I didn’t bother to get into costume (although I did use the various waistcoats and jackets for some of the quick changes), however as it turned out we practically did a complete run through, as between sound and light there are very few moments in the show that nothing is happening.  We stopped a few times and went back over some complicated moments, but it actually felt a very useful and productive session.

Bob, our production designer was also there, and as I was getting ready to leave he very kindly gave me a bag of choc-chip cookies made by his wife Mary so that I would have something homely and comforting in my apartment, which was incredibly generous and thoughtful of them both.  Bob has been a great asset to the show, he sits quietly watching and when any issue with props or costume comes up he quietly solves it, or suggests a way in which it might be solved. 

One example of Bob’s attention to detail was the case of the shoulder-pads: during one scene I have to change into a new waistcoat and jacket, the latter of which had shoulder pads sewn in.  On a couple of occasions as I tried to slide my arm in, whilst continuing with the lines, my hand got caught in the pads meaning I was fighting with the garment.  No fuss.  No great hoo-hah.  In yesterday’s rehearsal I came to the change and discovered that the pads had been removed, and that it was easy to slip the coat on.  Bob is a true pro and, as with all of the others involved in this project, is a complete pleasure to work with.

And now we are in the final stages of our rehearsals: we open on Tuesday evening, so we just have Sunday and Monday left to bring it to perfection.  It is very very exciting!