Welcome back to all of those who have been following my adventures from the start and welcome to those who are just discovering the blog for the first time. I am now back in America following my week long sojourn home and today is the day I get back to performing once more.
Return to Massachusetts
I am back in Massachusetts, where the first part of my tour also began and the first performances of this section have a great deal of meaning to me. Specifically I am based in the City of Worcester for the next few days. I arrived on Tuesday night and picked up my car for the next 3 weeks (a black Jeep). The nice thing about driving everywhere, rather than flying, is that I can leave things like my walking cane, top hat etc in the back seat all of the time. I don’t have to worry about packing, re packing and having my bags searched every other day.
Wednesday is a completely empty, lazy day and I just stay in the hotel and do nothing until 6.00 when I drive the 20 minutes to join my hosts for the next few days, Gary and Judi Vaiilancourt, for dinner.
When I began to tour again a few years ago, under the management of Byers Choice, a number of my event sponsors were organisations who ‘do’ Christmas in one form or another. Many are in the retail sector but one, Vaillancourt Folk Art, produce Christmas figures: specifically chalkware Santa Claus, each one hand made and painted. You may suppose that the company would be in direct competition to Byers Choice but that is not the case and they have chosen to co operate, pool their skills and help each other out in a very competitive sector.
I first performed at the Vaillancourts’ headquarters 5 years ago and they have been a major supporter of my trips since then. Not only that but they have become good friends.
Dinner on Wednesday is relaxed and quite, with just the three of us and I get back to the hotel at a reasonable time.
Thursday is Thanksgiving.
In England we have nothing equivalent to Thanksgiving. We have Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th, at which we celebrate the defeat of a potential terrorist attack in 1605 by burning effigies on huge bonfires. However it is not a public holiday.
Thanksgiving is SUCH a good holiday and I always feel very privileged to be here for it.
I spend the morning watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (Miracle on 34th St for those of you who love your Christmas films). This is America doing what it does so well: The Big Parade. Marching bands, cheerleaders, batons twirling high into the sky, extravagant floats, stars of stage and screen miming to their hits and of course the huge tethered balloons. And it all moves along at such an amazingly rapid pace. There is cheering and applauding and waving and everyone is in good spirits. We saw it to a small extent last year with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations on the Thames but somehow the Americans are just so, well, American!
As the parade ends I get in my Jeep to drive to Gary and Judi’s house to be taken to Bob and Karen’s house (Bob and Karen being the parents of Gary and Judi’s daughter in law, Anna, who is married to Luke, Gary and Judi’s son. Keeping up so far? Good).
I think what I love about Thanksgiving more than anything else is that it is such a gentle, non commercialised, family oriented day. At our meal there are 3 generations of family around the table, and there is laughter, poignancy, love, memories and aspirations. Next door I’m sure there is the same and in the next block and the next City and the next State. A whole nation united by a simple love of the family. And here, in Sutton Massachusetts, I have been included. It is a very very precious feeling.
I will not describe the celebration in detail – it seems too personal to publish but it was everything you’d expect. I ate far too much of course. Too much turkey and stuffing and mashed potato and corn bread and biscuits (sorry, they are NOT biscuits. Biscuits are cookies, these are scones!), and gravy and all of the rest.
At the end of the afternoon the family indulges in that other great Thanksgiving tradition: football. Dallas Cowboys vs Baltimore Ravens and I am lost. Completely, wholly and utterly lost.
The party breaks up slowly and Gary drives me back to my car and I head back to Worcester. The traffic is heavy so I guess that I was correct in my supposition that the same things were happening at the same time in every house, including the farewells.
Bob and Karen. Thank you.
Back at the hotel and very full indeed; I lie on the bed and fall asleep to Die Another Day.
Friday is Black Friday. There is nothing sinister in this (well, I suppose that depends on your point of view), Black Friday is when the stores in America go ballistic! Remember how I said that Thanksgiving is so un-commercialised? Well, Christmas starts here. The pictures on the TV news are of pandemonium as the shops open their doors as early as possible, offering amazing discounts and offers to get the punters in.
I think another day inside is called for.
By lunchtime I’ve had enough of the easy life. I want to get on with it and be on stage again which is fortunate because tonight I will be performing the 2 act version of A Christmas Carol that I tried out back in England last week. I spend large chunks of the day making sure the new lines slide as seamlessly into the old script as possible and checking and rechecking the exact text that Dickens used.
Lunch in the room, watch some fantastic archive motorsports footage on You Tube and eventually it is time to prepare. Costume x 2. Check. Pairs of socks x 2. Check. Cufflinks and watch. Check. Braces/suspenders. Check. Scripts x 2. Check.
My hotel is just on the outskirts of Worcester and it is a 5 minute drive to The Mechanics Hall but it is a drive that takes me back in time to 1868.
Charles Dickens performed in The Mechanics Hall, at that time only a few years old, as part of his USA tour and he would certainly recognise it still (although if he had come by in the 80s when it was the venue for a roller disco and wrestling matches, he may have struggled). The restoration has been superbly achieved and as you stand in the main hall you can almost see the ghosts in their top hats, their crinolines. You can almost hear the excited buzz as the crowd poured in to watch ‘The Inimitable’ read.
Actually his show here was memorable for all of the wrong reasons: the main hall is on the 3rd floor and beneath it there is a smaller hall, which on March 23 1868, was hosting a poultry sale. When Dickens’s travelling gas man lit the stage lights the glare was so bright that it shone through the floorboards convincing all of the cockerels below that morning had come. Dickens’s entire reading was accompanied by cocks crowing and chickens clucking. As Gary would later phrase it in his introduction to my show: ‘There was roostering!’
All of the Vaillancourt team are present, as well as the staff from the hall itself and there is a great bustle everywhere as the bar is stocked, the merchandise table is laid out and all of the little details are seen to.
The acoustics are so good here that it is very tempting to do the show with no microphone system at all but the tech guy suggests that it is worth using just to get to all corners of the balcony. Certainly as we do the sound check I can tell that he has it at a very low level, just enough to enhance my voice, without over amplifying it.
A very nice surprise is the presence of Bob Byers and his wife Pam who have driven up from Pennsylvania to see the show (for those of you who have not followed my travels from the start: a) shame on you; b) my tour is managed by Byers Choice and Bob is a very good friend and a treat to work with). We all sit round and chat until it is time for me to get into costume and run through the new lines again in the haven of my dressing room.
7.25, Gary is there and we go up to the main hall. He makes his introduction and the applause of 400 people welcome me to the stage where Charles Dickens once stood. Not a hint of any roostering from the room below.
It is a lovely stage to perform on, with lots of different levels to use. Looking down on from the back wall are 2 portraits, one of Abraham Lincoln and one of George Washington. I use all of my usual gestures and blocking on the stage with the result that Abe becomes Mr Fezziwig, and George the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Who would have thought it?
Early on in the show a button pings off my waistcoat and lays in the middle of the stage and for the rest of the evening I am desperately trying not to step on it and crush it, as I have no spares (note to self for next year….)
The new script works very well again and the extra passages slip easily in. It does make the tone of the first half much darker and more sinister, which is a good thing.
I break for the interval, change costume and hang my shirt to dry ready to change into it for signing later. Replacement waistcoat with full complement of buttons and I’m ready to get back to it. The second act has more interaction with the audience and they really come alive, rather like old Ebenezer himself!
The show finishes and there is a rousing standing ovation and lots of bows. But the work isn’t done yet and I rush back to the dressing room, change back into costume number 1 and get to the signing table at the back of the hall. There is a healthy queue of people wanting books, ornaments and programmes signed, as well as pictures taken. There is an atmosphere and a buzz in the hall that is very exciting.
When the last of the audience has drifted away I go and get changed and pack up all of my belongings, scripts, cufflinks, watch, microphone and the rest of it. Wrap my scarf around my neck and head off with Gary to join the rest of the group for a late dinner. It is a perfect way to wind down.
The chat around the table is about everything and anything which is fun but one very rewarding comment made by both Bob and Gary is that, despite having watched my show over and over again, they couldn’t really tell where the new bits of the script were. That means it works well and I am very satisfied.
Towards 11.30 it is time to go our separate ways and I point the Jeep towards the Beechwood Hotel, get to my room and am asleep in an instant.
With Thanksgiving past, the Christmas season is now in full swing and I am always Thankful for that.