For the first time in a few days there will not be much driving today. I have 2 shows at Byers Choice.
After the usual morning routine I leave the hotel at 11. The car parks at Byers are already filling up and I have a momentary panic that my show was supposed to be at 11, rather than 1. However this is just a usual busy weekend at the Visitor Centre.
Everyone is hovering around, Lisa is here, Bob is here, Jeff is here and David is here.
I make sure that my set is ready for the show, with the top hat, scarf, cane and stool all in the right places, then have a coffee before getting into costume.
In the board room/dressing room the ‘Dickens Law of Available Space’ is being proven once more. I have managed to spread my costume and paraphernalia across the whole length of the commodious room. There is a bag, here is waistcoat airing, there is a script. At the other end of the table is my camera bag, in the middle the micropore tape and sticking plaster. This room could be an exhibit of my tour. I can imagine the tour guides talking in hushed tones: ‘And this is the actual Band Aid that Mr Dickens bought during the ‘Bethlehem’ day of his blog. Of course, as you know, he never actually used it in a show. Now moving on and here is the famous Waterman Fountain Pen that he uses for his signing sessions.’
I’m rather ashamed and tidy up a little.
Time is pressing on and I need to have a chat with Dave about the microphone issue. We agree to use the little lapel microphone, clipped onto my shirt front. The disadvantage of this system is the variation of the volume as I turn or tilt my head. The advantage is that I am completely unaware of it. We do a quick sound check and it sounds fantastic.
While I am here I give Dave my camera so that he can take a few shots during the show.
The audience start to arrive and they are a lively bunch. Many of them come to me for sneaky autographs and photographs. Many faces I know from previous years. Today’s audiences are larger than last night. I would say we are headed towards 600 this afternoon. There is a buzz of excitement and anticipation in the room.
To entertain the crowd whilst they are waiting Bob always arranges for a High School choir to sing. Unfortunately today there was a slight misunderstanding and the choir thought they were supposed to arrive at 1, which is actually when the show is due to start.
Bob decides that as they are here they should perform and he suggests that they sing for 10 minutes. The audience applaud them enthusiastically after each carol and everyone is in a thoroughly festive mood as Bob gets onto the stage to make the introductions.
The show is everything I would have expected from such a good audience. They are what I call an ‘Ohhhhh’ audience. Everytime Scrooge does or says something awful, such as suggesting to the Charity Collector that the poor should die and ‘decrease the surplus population’, there is an audible ‘Ohhhh!’ When Scrooge berates Bob Cratchit for wanting Christmas Day off to spend with his family: another ‘Ohhhhh’. And when, at the end, Scrooge goes to Church there is a huge ‘OHHHHH’, a ‘MY’ and even a ‘Wow!’
It is an interesting performance for me. Coming back from the 2 act version I must first remember what to leave out. However, coming to it anew, so to speak, enables me to try a few different things: not wholesale changes to the text but different ways of phrasing a line, placing the emphasis in a different place. Some things work superbly (some get an ‘Ohhhhhh’) and I must remember what I did when.
Performance finished I rush back to the dressing room, fling the old costume off (Dickens Law of Available Space again), get freshened up and head for the Nativity Room. The queue is right back into the Visitor Centre but Pam is there chatting to everyone, keeping them happy.
Almost 600 in the audience produces a lot of autographing but head down and start. Everyone loved the show and has comments and memories to share. It is not a case of scribbling Gerald Charles Dickens on a piece of paper, it is also about listening and caring. This book is for a special Aunt who loves to read. This CD is going to a teacher who has been teaching Dickens for 20 years. These programmes will go to a sister who wanted to come but couldn’t. This caroller is part of a collection that spans 30 years and so it continues.
And all of the time the queue weaves around my desk. Bob is on hand to make sure that audience members from the 2nd show do not join the end of the line, as has occasionally happened in the past. The down time between the two shows is very limited and I need some time when I’m not talking and smiling. Actually the strain on my voice comes just as much from a long signing session as it does from the show itself.
The last family have their caroller signed and pose for a photograph and then it is back to relax for just under an hour.
In the board room I think about the phrase that I changed, that worked so well. Can I think of what it was, or where it was?
No. Oh well, maybe it will come back to me soon.
There is a plate of sandwiches waiting and various staff members are sat in the canteen where I join them. Wendy, who has been working in the store (and incidentally is an avid follower of the blog), says that the reviews from the audience have been superb. One lady loved the changes I’d made to the show. She had seen it at least 5 times and loved this version. She had told Wendy with glee that ‘He didn’t do the apron thing this year: it worked so well!’ None of us can think what on earth ‘the apron thing’ was but apparently the show works better without it.
In no time we are all back on. Wendy returns to the store, Jeff Byers and Jeff Wilson (and his daughter), take up their positions to marshal the audience to their seats. Lisa and Tish take up their places at the merchandise table, I get changed.
Even as the audience come in you can tell they are a completely different bunch. So quiet, so reserved. No sneaky autographs or photos, just straight to their seats. This evenings choir is superb. Under the directorship of Joseph Ohrt they have again and again proved themselves to be one of the top High School choirs in the country. They sing regularly at the Whitehouse and have won many competitions. Yet every beautifully harmonised carol is greeted by silence. I am chatting with Joseph at the back of the hall and we decide that the audience need some encouragement, so he goes to one side of the hall, I go to the other. We pressgang Bob’s son Sam to help us and after the next song we start a ripple of applause that spreads through the audience. That’s all it took, after that the audience is much more willing to clap.
The Saturday evening audience at Byers has always been quiet in this way so I know from long experience that it is nothing to be worried about, it is just how it is. In the past I have tried too hard to make things happen to the overall detriment of the show. Now I know just to let Charles Dickens do the work.
As the story progresses so the audience warm up and by the end they are as noisy, as enthusiastic and as ebullient as this afternoon’s bunch. That is a very satisfying feeling.
Back to the Nativity Room and another long session but eventually the room quietens down and the 2013 adventure at Byers Choice is at an end. One last picture with Bob and Pam and it is off to change.
When I re emerge, Byers Choice is already being put back to a manufacturing facility. The stage has gone and the work benches are being put back into place. I say good bye to everyone I can find and leave the building tugging my suit carrier behind me, rather like Linus and his blanket.
It is a strangely sad moment, actually and I feel quite melancholy. They are a great bunch of people.
Back at the Ambler Inn and I have a delicious dinner of Sea Bass on Crab risotto followed by apple cheesecake. A real ‘end of show’ dinner.
However it is NOT the end. Tomorrow I am off to Hershey and 2 more shows.
This chapter may be at an end but the story continues apace.