The routine for the morning is well set in The Joseph Ambler Inn now. Wake, get dressed, get coffee, get undressed, go back to bed, get up, shower, get dressed, have breakfast. The only change to the routine today is to drop a large bag of laundry at the front desk, to keep me going over the next few days.
Although I only have one show today (the last day of such luxury for a while), I do have quite a busy timetable although I’m not too sure what it is yet.
Last year a young theatre director, Michael Unger, came to see my show. He has been directing ‘A Christmas Carol’ in Princeton for the last 16 years. After my show 12 months ago he was very keen that I should see his adaptation and it so happens that today is the final dress rehearsal.
Bob and Michael made the arrangements between them but I have yet to hear the final details so am not sure what time I should be leaving the Inn, or how long I will be able to stay at the rehearsal. Through the morning a flurry of emails come in with the last minute arrangements: Princeton is only an hour or so away and I need to be there for 12.00. That gives me plenty of time to write and email.
Just before I leave Lisa calls with a final request for a local radio interview at 12.15. Again flurries of emails between me, Lisa, Bob and Michael and the arrangements are altered and settled. I will take the call on my Byers Choice mobile phone after I’ve arrived at the theatre.
The weather is still wet and rainy, with lots of spray on the freeways making visibility difficult. As the journey progresses so the rain gets heavier. Princeton University is famed for its rowing crews. They would feel very at home on these roads, I think.
I reach the outskirts of Princeton, following the instructions of my Sat Nav and park in front of a truly impressive modern University building. Plenty of time, 11.45 that’s good. I walk into the lobby, which does seem strangely sparse, clean and quiet for a University building, especially one housing a theatre. I ask the security guard where the McCarter Theater is (OK, that’s its name so I will use the US spelling, just this once). The guard has no idea but it is not here.
Fortunately in all of the earlier emails Michael had sent me his mobile phone number, so I ring him. After a very confusing few minutes we realise that I am about a mile and half from where I should be. I check the Sat Nav and I have put in the correct street address and Zip Code but it insists that this is where I should be.
Through Michael’s guidance and street signs I find my way eventually to the centre of Princeton and the theatre. It is now 12.12 and the interview is due at any moment so I wait in the car until the little cell phone rings. My job is to promote the shows at Byers Choice over the next 2 days and the presenter gives me plenty of opportunity to do that. We chat for almost half an hour.
As soon as the interview finishes I rush into the theatre and into the middle of a bustle that I miss.
Everything is being prepared for the major dress rehearsal, here is the Stage Manager preparing everything, here is the costume designer, the writer, the choreographer, the dialect coach the lighting guy, the sound guy. Stage hands setting props and checking scenery. The company photographer recording everything.
I am greeted by Michael who is a bundle of energy, he introduces me to various people. To the company. I have a very nostalgic feeling flood through me, it has been a long time since I have experienced this huge sense of camaraderie.
Michael takes me up to the balcony to watch the first act in the company of some of the cast’s parents.
The show is very good. Michael has kept the telling simple, letting the story do the work. There are lighting effects and stage effects but nothing outrageous, nothing to overpower the words. The set is amazing, a series of small scenes, built on movable trucks, are all slightly crooked and skewed giving the whole piece a sense on unreality, confusion and of the supernatural.
The cast play their parts well and the English accents are spot on, especially Scrooge’s which is utterly convincing.
In the interval I go to the stalls and chat to Michael and the writer, David Thompson. I tell them how impressed I am and how much I am enjoying it. The dialect coach, a crystal accented English lady, Gillian, joins the discussion. She is pleased with how her charges are performing, although she is worried about their lazy Rs as in ‘worrrld’ and the American pronunciation of Christmis, as opposed to Christmas. I tell how good they all are, especially Scrooge: there is a good reason for that: He is a Brit!
Just before the interval finishes Michael introduces me to some friends of his who have come to sit in on the rehearsal, the Wagner family, from Newtown, Connecticut. Newtown? The family are unusually close. 2 teenage sons never straying far from their parents. Newtown? There is a sense of pain, yet positivity in their demeanour. Newtown? Newtown: the scene of the Sandy Hook Elementary School gun massacre of a year ago. We chat for a while, but are called back to the theatre for the second half.
I sit in the stalls this time and spot Gillian, the dialect coach poised with pad in hand. I sidle into her row and say ‘Can I sit next to you for this half?’
She looks at me with a smile: ‘You MAY sit next to me, of course!’ AGH! I’ve failed my basic test of English grammar.
The second half is as impressive as the first and the power of the Cratchit’s mourning Tiny Tim is made even more powerful following my meeting with the Wagners.
The show finishes and there is generous applause from the scattered parents and crew throughout the theatre. I applaud loudly, it is lovely to be on the other side for once and I know how important it is for the cast, even at a rehearsal, to receive the approbation that they so richly deserve.
Michel takes me to the front of the theatre and introduces me to the cast and invites me to say a few words. I tell them how much I have enjoyed the show, how they have all captured the essence of the story, how they have brought forth the spirit of Dickens in his favourite setting: a theatre.
We have a large company photograph that I am generously invited to be part of and then the cast drift away to change and the stage hands take over to reset for the second dress rehearsal later on.
Michael and David give me a tour of the set and we discuss the adaptation of the original, what to leave in, what to leave out.
And then the Wagners are there once more: would I mind being photographed with a duck? At the site of the shooting mountains of gifts, candles, messages, cards and toys were left. Among these were some little toy rubber ducks and these have become the symbol of remembrance for Newtown. The family carry a duck everywhere they go and this particular one has also been photographed with the President.
We are able to chat for much longer this time. Darren Wagner has a background in law enforcement having been a canine handler in Ohio. His family moved to Newtown in search of a perfect town and community: they discovered it.
The shooting on December 14 last year ripped the community apart and the wounds are still raw. The family now campaign for tighter gun controls but also just to tell the world that this little town is still there, is rebuilding, is positive and needs all the love it can get.
Michael had taken a huge variety show to the area last year as a fundraiser but more just to bring some laughter and entertainment to the town. Darren described a wonderful moment during the rehearsals for that show, when Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster was seen helping to wipe a tear away with his big blue Muppet paw.
Darren and his family are very open about how they feel and how things affect them which makes it very easy to talk to them. I ask how they felt during the Tiny Tim scene and they said yes it was difficult, it was hard, but also the whole message of hope within the story was immensely important to them.
I wish I hadn’t had to meet such a family in such circumstances, by which I mean I wish that circumstances hadn’t brought them to be here. However I feel honoured and privileged to have met such strong and noble people who represent their community with such dignity.
Back to Byers
Time is ticking on and I need to get back to Pennsylvania and my own show. I say my goodbyes and give my thanks and get back on the road. The drive takes just over an hour in the Friday night traffic so I don’t go back to the hotel but straight to the Byers Choice headquarters in Chalfont.
The manufacturing floor has now been transformed, the stage is there set with furniture, the seats are laid out, the lights are focussed and David is keen to go over the script for the 2 act version.
We set things up, check the sound, set the props, get the show ready, just as the crew were this afternoon. Bob comes in, as does Jeff Byers, Dave is tweaking the sound system and I realise that it may be a one man show but there is always a group of people involved, it is always a team effort.
Now Bob senior arrives carrying a bag of hot sandwiches, and so does Jeff Wilson, the product development expert whom I met the other night. Wherever I look there are Bobs and Jeffs!
We all sit in a little kitchen and eat (I never had lunch today, so am very hungry). Jeff’s wife Dawn arrives as does their son Jake. Bob’s wife Pam arrives. A feature of the Byers Choice events is that everyone gets involved. Jake will be directing traffic, Dawn and Pam helping to seat.
I go and get changed and tape the head mic on as well as I can. When I’m ready I go and stand with Dave at the back of the hall and watch the huge audience pour in. Pour is an apt word as it is teeming down with rain. The car park is a little way from the main building so a little trolley bus shuttles the audience members to and fro. Well, just to. If they are fro-ing already we are in trouble.
The whole team are at work. Joyce Byers herself is serving fruit punch and cookies . When some of the drink is accidentally spilled does she summon someone to come and clean it up? No, she gets down on her knees on the factory floor to mop at it with napkins.
An audience of about 450 takes a fair amount of moving so it is not surprising that we go up about 10 minutes late. For a huge expanse of manufacturing facility the Byers Choice Theatre is surprisingly intimate, thanks in no small part to Dave’s lighting and the way the seats gently arc around the stage. I have had some of my most memorable shows on this stage over the years and tonight is no different. The audience are involved from the very beginning. Lots of clapping, lots of laughing and lots of interaction.
The only problem is that the head microphone keeps getting caught behind my cravat, causing lots of scratches, pops and bangs. When the first half has finished I re-tie the cravat in a more traditional manner, straight down like a tie and hopefully that will solve the problem.
The second half goes as well as the first. The cravat issue has gone away but now the tape is peeling off and the headset starts to shift. Maybe we will try a lapel microphone tomorrow.
As soon as the applause is over I quickly get back to my dressing room (actually the company board room and certainly the most lavishly appointed dressing room I use), to change.
The signing is in the heart of the visitor centre, in a large room surrounded by Nativity scenes collected from all over the world. The queue starts at the desk, winds around the room, behind the desk, back to the front of the room on the other side of the desk and out into the next room. It means that throughout the signing session I am surrounded on all sides. There is a fun chatty atmosphere in the room with lots of banter. Pam is controlling the line and taking photographs for people. She keeps it moving through with great charm and efficiency.
At last the queue dwindles and the last pictures are taken, the last signatures scrawled into the last books. I get changed, say goodbye to Bob and drive back to The Joseph Ambler Inn.
It has been quite an extraordinary day for so many reasons.
A treat to watch a wonderful play. A treat to perform in a wonderful theatre created and run by a wonderful team of people.
And a sorrowful treat to meet an inspirational family.