It seems strange to be leaving the Beechwood Hotel, as it has been my base since I returned to the USA before Thanksgiving. I am well settled in here, which roughly translates as I’m bound to leave something behind.
I wake very early, then go back to sleep. I re wake later than I’d wanted to, meaning that things will be a bit of a rush this morning. The priority, of course is to write the blog.
I have a very quick breakfast before starting to pack. I need to iron 2 shirts for today’s shows so I squeeze myself into my little slot between the bed and the cupboard again.
I pack all of my bags and am ashamed by the haphazard way in which my clothes are thrown into my case. I am usually a very neat packer and this effort offends me. Having checked and re-checked the room I go downstairs to check out. The girl on the desk warns me about the weather and the road, it is icy out there today and there have been lots of wrecks on the Interstate. Pah! I have a 4 wheel drive car. I will be fine.
I load the Jeep through the side door, as I haven’t been able to open the hatchback since the first day. Something is jammed or broken, which is very frustrating. Yesterday Luke and I had spent a fruitless 15 minutes prodding, pushing, levering and kicking the dammed thing but still it refuses to open.
Fully loaded, I climb in, engage drive and put my foot down. All 4 wheels spin uselessly together and I go nowhere. Very gentle on the accelerator pedal and I start to creep forward. Out of the hotel and onto the street which is downhill to a red traffic light. Apply brakes and suddenly I am riding in a large, black, heavy sled. I manage to get some steering lock on and guide the car toward the curb so I can get stopped before sliding serenely into the path of the traffic. The antilock braking system and some intuitive cadence braking in my part get the car stopped before disaster but the lesson has been learned!
I tippy-toe the car around every corner and give myself a huge amount of distance to the vehicles in front of me. For the most part the other drivers are being just as sensible and cautious. At the turn off to the Interstate I discover the road is closed completely. Here is the problem of exclusively using a sat nav system with no map. I am headed to Connecticut this morning and I have no idea which direction I am supposed to be driving in. The satnav system helpfully tries to get me back to the Interstate and is constantly foiled in her efforts. At one point I drive past a pound with the wrecks of 6 cars in it and as I watch another arrives on the back of a truck. It is obviously a very dangerous morning to be driving.
Eventually I get my bearings and find a side street that seems to follow the path of the main road. There is also a long queue of traffic on it, but a moving one, so I assume that this is a good alternative route and sure enough, after a couple of miles, there is an entrance to the Interstate well clear of the blockage. I am on my way to Connecticut.
The driving conditions are still awful and it requires a great deal of concentration to stop the wheels sliding. It is a Sunday morning and there isn’t too much traffic on the roads: I dread to think how it would have been in rush hour traffic.
Eventually the road improves, although there are still patches of ice to catch the unwary. I hook up my iphone and select the Christmas Song Playlist. The first tune that shuffles up is one of the great classic Christmas songs of all time, little known in Britain funnily enough. Ladies and gentleman, I give you: ‘I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas’. I know that my American readers are now shaking their heads in disbelief and shame, but I stand by my assertion: any song that contains such carefully crafted lyrics as:
‘I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
I don’t think Santa Claus will mind, do you?
He won’t have to use our dirty chimney flue
Just bring him through the front door, that’s the easy thing to do
…is worthy of its place among the greats. Genius. I urge my British readers to rush to itunes right now.
The miles are rolling past now and I pass along the George Ross Dingwall Highway which brings a happy smile to my face. The town of Dingwall is in the county of Ross and Cromarty in the Highlands of Scotland. My mother’s family hailed from Dingwall and her ashes are buried nearby.
To celebrate my recent 50th birthday, Liz and I rented a cottage in the small coastal town of Cromarty and my brother Ian, his wife Ann and my sister Nicky from Ireland joined us to have the best birthday celebration I could have wished for. So, the simple passing of a road sign makes my heart glow. Very happy memories for me on a freeway in Connecticut.
Whenever I pass towns it is obvious that this is the first weekend after Thanksgiving: many of the cars have Christmas trees tethered to their roofs and I can imagine all of the houses being decorated with care and sense of tradition.
The Clune Center for the Arts
I arrive at my venue for the day almost exactly on time, which after the panics in Worcester this morning is amazing. I am to perform at the Clune Center for the Arts, a huge high school auditorium. My sponsors for the day’s events are Gary and Jennifer Bean, who own a Christmas Shop nearby. The store itself is in a beautiful historic house, but there is no room for a performance space and the High School has such an amazing facility that it makes sense to utilise it.
Gary is already there setting up and takes me to my dressing room and the stage. This is a big stage! The school produce huge musical productions every year and indeed there are newspaper clippings on a notice board about productions of’ Edwin Drood’ and ‘Oliver!’ among others.
My set – a chair, table, stool and hatstand – looks rather lost in the acres of space but the lighting will focus the audience’s attention to where it matters most. I am introduced to Lou who is looking after my technical requirements today. Lou is more of a sound guy but will be running lights too.
He has the same microphone system that I have been travelling with but his head piece just goes over one ear rather than my full head set. I decide to give that a try and see if that system is worth considering. Being the pro that he is he also suggests I have a second mic, a good old clip-on lapel mic, as back up.
We do the sound check and try the lighting. Unfortunately Lou doesn’t know the system at the school that well and we get plenty of light from the stage itself, above and from the wings but none from the front of house bars, which rather limits the performing space and means I will be unable to come very far downstage thereby cutting me off from the audience a bit. Lou is putting calls in to the technical manager of the theatre, who is recovering from a hip replacement, for advice.
I go to my dressing room and start to get prepared. I tape the ear mic on and tie my cravat over it to help tether it when I’m leaping around. Then I sit down on the sofa and play some backgammon on my phone. The dressing room is a long way from the stage and therefore has no atmosphere of anticipation or excitement so I go and pace around in the wings listening to the audience arrive.
The buzz, the hum. It is such a great sound. Quiet at first but then building. A group of people who could be doing anything with their lives today but have made the decision to come and sit in this auditorium and watch me do what I love doing. The heart beats faster and the adrenaline pumps.
It is a good sized audience, which is important in such a vast space. Gary and Jennifer have made sure that everyone is grouped in the front central section, so as not to be dotted here and there throughout the auditorium.
Jennifer makes the welcoming announcement and I walk to the centre of the stage and begin.
It is an interesting performance from a practical point of view. I’m aware of the space around me on stage but have to make sure that the performance is contained within the confines of the lighted area. As an actor moving about you can tell when you are ‘hot’ (ie when a light is fully on you) and it is important to be constantly aware of that. Sometimes I use the fringes of the light for some of the darker moments in the story.
The audience are very good and during Mrs Cratchit’s panics about her Christmas pudding, there are cackles of childish laughter from the front row.
The ovation is a good old whoopin’, hollerin’ and cheerin’ all-American reception. It is very gratifying to get such a good response as this auditorium has such a different feel to it than the previous day’s venues.
When I get to the theatre lobby for the signing session, the line winds around like Marley’s chains: it is going to be a long one. One family come to the table and the young daughter is giggling all the time. Her mother explains: throughout the show she thought I kept talking about Scrooge being visited by Spinach. The Spinach of Christmas Past. ‘Spinach, show me no more, torment me no longer!’ When her mother explained that the word was actually spirit, the little girl started giggling and probably still is.
Between shows Gary and Jennifer take me to a great diner, Orems, where I order Spaghetti and Meatballs. When the dish arrives they have forgotten to give me meatballs they appeared to have substituted them with basketballs…they are huge! I make my way through one of them and am defeated.
It is a lovely downtime, chatting. Gary and Jennifer and so keen to get the shows right. Last year we did one show on a weekday evening, this year 2 on a Sunday. They are thinking maybe one show (maybe my new 2 act one) is the way to go next year. They have sold more tickets this year than last but of course that is spread out over 2 showings. We talk about the pros and cons of each idea. Then we talk about Ireland, Cape Cod, Holiday homes, my 50 celebrations and all kinds of other stuff.
After dinner we drive back to the auditorium, where I sit on stage in Scrooge’s chair again. I feel tired but nothing like the fatigue of yesterday. Soon the first audience members start to arrive and I head to my dressing room to change again.
Lou has managed to track down the tech manager and we now have full lighting which means that I will be able to use much more of the space and not feel so cut off from the audience.
The issues tonight are with the microphone. Early on the ear mic pulls away from the tape that is holding it place and jumps off my ear, It is flapping around all over the place, and banging against my costume. In one gesture I manage to pull it and get it hanging down my back, but it is still live so rustles and scrapes as I sit in the chair. At the point when Scrooge falls asleep for the second time I manage to slip my hand into my back pocket, fumble around, find the power button and switch it off. Thank Heavens that Lou had insisted on the back up lapel mic. That’s why he is a pro, of course.
The evening audience are not so lively as this afternoon’s. Responses are muted and reserved but I don’t panic. It is very easy in such circumstances to try too hard at which point the show becomes laboured and strained. Just concentrate on the basics. Enunciate properly. Make the gestures clear. Tell the story.
I am rewarded by another amazing response at the end: a real humdinger of an ovation.
Quick change and discard the errant microphone (We won’t be using that system next year, then) and out into the lobby again.
Another long signing line. Lots of smiling and posing for photographs, lots of answering questions. It is easy to get blasé as people congratulate me on the show but every now and then I am brought back to earth. One man places a programme and a photograph on the desk ‘That and that’ is the entire conversation.
At the very end of the queue is a friend from New York, Laurie Strickland: actress and all round impresario. She is currently rehearsing her own full cast production of A Christmas Carol which opens in New York City on December 20th. She has come with a couple of members of the cast and we have a lovely chat about the show, adaptations and theatre in general.
By now Gary and Jennifer have cleared the stage and are loading up their car, so I go and get changed quickly and they help me get my bags and props into my car through the passenger doors. Gary is now back to thinking of two shows rather than one big one next year. His justification is that if we fill the auditorium (which must hold about 1500 I would think), imagine trying to deal with the signing lines afterwards. it is a very valid point.
I drive to my hotel check in and have a slice of apple pie and a glass of wine as I wind down.
Once in my room I put the TV on sleep timer and slide happily away to dream.