Today marks the beginning of the tour. For 2 days I have enjoyed the peace and beauty of Cape Cod, a part of the country that I have never visited before but now it is time to do what I came here to do.
Although I am all too ready to start performing, my brief holiday hasn’t been enough for my sleep patterns and I wake at 1, 2.30, 3 then properly from 4am. Most frustrating.
I have a 3 hour drive ahead of me, across Massachusetts so I need to be on the road by 7.30, thus missing the delicious breakfast part of the Ashley Manor’s B&B. The owners have very kindly put out a brown bag with a muffin and orange juice to keep me going on route.
The drive is spectacular, it is a glorious bright, sunny morning and the colours are so vivid: bright blue sky, dark inky lakes, shining white wooden houses and the most glorious fall foliage. Although most of the leaves are down now there are still enough to make the canvas improbably bright.
The drive is a typical American drive. Long freeways stretching out in front with cars sitting resolutely in lane. There are huge Kennilworth and Peterbilt trucks rumbling along at seemingly impossible speeds, belching out black diesel exhaust. There are pickup trucks driven by guys with baseball caps of uncertain vintage planted back on their heads, one hand laconically at the top of the steering wheel. There are family saloons driven by busy business folk sipping coffee whilst trying to talk on the phone.
I myself look as if I’m from the FBI. When I picked up my rental car from Logan Airport in Boston the company didn’t have any ‘standard SUVs’ (I always try to get 4wd in case of snow during my travels although to be honest that doesn’t look very likely this year), so instead they gave me a Black Chevy Surburban. It is huge! It has a big gas guzzling V8 and I’m sat so high that more vulnerable folk would have nose bleeds. However it is very comfortable and other cars seem to dart out of my way as I come through. I have to stop myself waving to the Highway cops on the roadside: ‘Dont worry, the Feds are here, I’ll take over now!’
After a couple of hours I pull into a McDs for a coffee and a stretch of the legs. Whilst I’m stationary I take the opportunity of calling Lisa Porter to sort out a few details of the coming days.
Now is a good time to introduce you to some of the cast of characters who will play leading roles over the next few weeks.
My USA tour is managed and booked by the Byers Choice Company which is based in Pennsylvania. Byers Choice was formed in 1986 when Joyce Byers began to make ‘Caroller’ figurines as Christmas ornaments. Each figure was hand crafted and dressed, and soon they became incredibly popular and collectable. Today the company is run by Joyce’s sons Bob and Jeff.
I began performing for the Byers many years ago and their venue soon became one of my regular stops. Now Bob not only runs his own company but also spends 10 months of the year sourcing venues, booking dates and generally creating my tour. He is ably assisted in these efforts by Lisa Porter who deals direct with the sponsors and looks after all the logistics of the trip, not to mention putting up with my calls. They are an amazing team!
Back on the road and making good time. As the road signs flash it is like being back in the UK: Worcester, Plymouth, Shrewsbury, Barnstable, Truro, Ludlow etc. It is very much New England here.
I arrive at Westfield at 10.20 and fortunately the hotel has a room available. I’m beginning to feel the effects of the 1,2.30, 3 wake ups and need to be pepped up before my first show of the trip. I have a shower and follow the principles of my literary hero James Bond: nice hot shower first then an icy cold one after. I bet Bond didn’t whimper like a puppy that had been left out in the snow!
Then at 11.30 I head off to my first venue. The Westfield Vocational Technical High School. I have performed in Westfield on 3 previous occasions as part of the Westfield on Weekends programme of events (WoW). Westfield on Weekends is an organisation that provides entertainment throughout the city with ghost tours, pub days, theatre shows etc. For the past 10 years they have been organising Dickens Days on the run up to Christmas, which is where I came in.
This year I am appearing in town earlier than usual and will be performing at the WCTHS instead of in one of the local Churches as in previous years (actually it has been a different Church each time, maybe they’re trying to tell me something….)
I remember that in past years I’ve found it impossible to navigate through Westfield and sure enough I end up in the wrong lane, heading the wrong way. One day I’ll get it right.
At the main entrance to the school I am greeted by Barbara, a stalwart of WoW, and we make our way to the auditorium where the driving force of the organisation, Bob Plasse is busying himself making my performance space look cosy, Bob is very much a theatre man and loves to put on a great show.
The WVTHS, as the name suggests, is purely a vocational education centre so the students here are studying car mechanics, cooking, nursing. They spend a number of days working in their workshops and the rest in classes.
Between us Bob, Barbara and I get the stage (actually a space on floor level) as we want it and we are ready to go.
I’m very nervous about this first show: high school kids…..I get more nervous behind the curtain when listening to Bob’s introduction: ‘OK, whose heard of Charles Dickens?’ Silence. ‘he wrote A Christmas Carol’. Silence. ‘OK, well we have his great great grandson……’. oh boy!
Of course my fears were unfounded. Rather than doing one of my scripted shows, I have decided to talk about Dickens’s childhood and life, focussing on his single mindedness, his driven nature, his entrepreneurial spirit and his dedication. I try to introduce a living breathing being, rather than a dusty name from history. The students respond very well and there is a very nice round of applause at the end, which was a relief!
After the show is finished and I’m changed, I go back to the hotel for a rest and try to re charge a bit. Having got in the wrong lane and headed in the wrong direction, I get to my room and collapse onto the bed and have a glorious hour or so of sleep. At 5.30 I get up, do the Bond shower thing again before heading back to the school (via the wrong lane) for the evening’s performance.
Tonight I am performing my biographical show: Mr Dickens is Coming! It’s a light hearted look at Charles Dickens’s theatrical career and has proved very popular over the years. Tonight is no exception; the audience love all of the characters, especially Uriah Heep and laugh in all the right places. From a purely personal point of view I’m delighted to have got started and my voice, which often struggles at the beginning of a tour, has held up well.
After the show there is a presentation to be made. Last year in Westfield I attended and spoke at a benefit dinner launching The Charles Dickens Scholarship. A $750 award is made each year to a student who particularly deserves a helping hand. This year’s award was judged on the strength of a 500 word essay and was won by a young girl by the name of Julie Sottile. Her essay was on the theme of ‘What A Christmas Carol Means to Me’. After much smiling and handshaking, Bob asks me if I’d read the essay. I’ve not seen the text before but I’m happy to do so.
I will post the entire text soon, but it is an amazing, powerful piece of writing, this is an extract:
‘Growing up in a family of six in a tiny house, swallowed by debt, there was a lot to be worried about, even during the Holiday season. Unlike most children, I dreaded getting Christmas presents because I knew my parents could not afford them. I could only think of what they were sacrificing. To this day, I still struggle with the guilt brought on by receiving gifts, a side effect of my upbringing.’
Wow, indeed. And Julia is standing next to me so calm and collected. Her mother watching proudly, tears in her eyes. The audience listening rapt, tears in their eyes. It is a privilege to read her words and to meet her.
The evening comes to an end and I change from my costume as the WoW team clean up the hall. We make our way to the Tavern, the favoured watering hole of the group (via the wrong lane), and have a dinner of fish and chips. A rowdy, noisy table, winding down. A tired but happy me looking forward to all of the adventures yet to come.