From Lewisburg I have a 3 hour drive to my next venue in Delaware and this means getting on the road fairly early. I want to leave by 8 and so get myself showered and packed in good time.
Breakfast is served either over in the country store itself, or there is a small buffet in the hotel. Last year I was lucky enough to have time to linger over the delights at the store but this year I do not have that luxury and indeed I don’t even need to avail myself of the hotel’s offerings. When I checked into my room yesterday morning there was a huge basket of goodies waiting for me, including cookies, cinnamon rolls, muffins and pastries. All a boy could ask for.
I grab a coffee from the hotel breakfast and get on the road munching as I go. The first part of my journey is retracing my route from yesterday, back along the Susquehanna. The road is lined by rocky cliff faces down which water cascades in warmer times. Now however they are completely covered with ice, every droplet frozen in a moment of time, petrified by the sudden drop in temperature last week. Since then I have performed 6 shows and covered many miles, but the water has not moved an inch.
It is a stunning sight
Back past Harrisburg and onto Lancaster. I find a Walmart near the route and stop off to buy some socks. Over the past few days I have been getting a painful rash on my feet after performing. I’ve realised that this is occurring only when I’ve been wearing some new black socks that I bought in England just before the tour so I need to replace those in the hope that things clear up.
After my shopping trip I get back on the road but away from the big freeways and across country now.
I am driving through Lancaster County and this is very definitely Amish country. There are signs for lots of good wholesome shops and businesses. Candle making, rug making, furniture, Custom Cupolas. The signs for knife shops relate to cutlery and carving, rather than to hunting. The doll shops are for children, not the more adult variety offered on route 11. The town names are so great too: Bird-in-Hand is particularly quaint.
There are horse drawn buggies everywhere on the road, not cute tourist rides, but people going about their business, taking a ride into town to fetch the provisions. The scenery is almost too idyllic, in the snow. I want to stop at every turn to take pictures but I am on a tight timescale today so have to keep pushing on.
I am slightly alarmed to see a sign advertising ‘Intercourse Pretzels’ and even more surprised when I pass through the town of Intercourse PA.
The route takes me on to the east of Pennsylvania, across the State line and into Delaware, where after 1 mile I turn into the stunning grounds of the Winterthur Estate. Winterthur is a museum of fine decorative arts founded, as was almost everything in Delaware, by Henry Francis DuPont.
My shows are in the visitor centre, where there is a fine auditorium, so I don’t manage to see the house itself or the landscaped gardens.
Even before I am out of the car a voice hails me from across the car park: ‘Mr Dickens! We are here to see you, it is so exciting, we can’t wait!’
In the visitor centre itself: ‘Ohhhh, Mr Dickens, how lovely to see you. You signed a book for me last year and I want to be the first to have you sign another, where will you be? I want a picture of you in costume, when will you be ready?’ Wow!
Finally I meet up with Ellen Taviano who will be looking after me, as she did last year. I drop my bags in the office which will be masquerading as a dressing room today and we go into the 300 seat auditorium.
Last year the microphone system proved problematic, it was too loud, even though it was turned right down. The acoustics in the hall are so good that they simply amplified the amplification. There is one very good solution to this problem: do it the old fashioned way! No microphone.
We do a quick sound check, in much the same way as Charles Dickens and his tour manager George Dolby used to do: I stand on stage and talk, while Ellen and the technical guy (I never got his name, I’m ashamed to say), move around the room and listen. The consensus is that it is great and I wasn’t really projecting or straining at all.
The audience is already mustering so I retreat to my office and change. I can hear the crowd just outside the door, so keep myself hidden away for a while. As I have discovered, they are a talkative bunch here.
When the hum seems to have died down a bit I peek out, just as Dave Roselle arrives. Dave is the Director of Winterthur and used to be the President of The University of Delaware which, coincidentally, used to occupy the building next to the Dickens House Museum in London.
Dave is kindly and quiet in that confident academic way. We chat for a while and he goes to take his seat at the front of the auditorium. Ellen and I stand at the back and watch the audience. It is an interesting thing that the closer to Christmas we get, the redder the audience becomes. Christmas sweaters are worn with pride and as I scan the audience well over 50% are in scarlet.
The audience is filling and filling and filling. 170 seats had been sold but we are way above that, and heading towards 300. 300 bodies, each with coats, shawls, scarves, sweaters all of which soak up sound. The idea of being mic-naked suddenly seems foolhardy.
When Dave gets up to make the announcement my hand automatically goes to my back pocket to switch the microphone on. It feels so strange not to have that little pack there.
I get up onto the stage and look at the large crowd and open my mouth to begin.
Straight away I know everything is fine. The hall is resonant still. I can see pretty well to the back of the auditorium and try to judge if the people in the final seats are reacting to the show and they seem to be.
The show works well here and I add a few extras in from the 2 act version. Not much, just a few ‘atmosphere’ lines, such as the description of Scrooge. The line about blind men’s dogs recognising him and pulling their masters into doorways gets an unexpected laugh.
I try something new with Marley, too. I have been aware that he has been a bit too much, how shall I put it? Well, alive! Charles goes to great lengths to repeatedly tell us that Marley was dead, so I try to give him a dead look. I try to slacken my jaw slightly, and to give my eyes a dead, flat, stare. I don’t know if it works but it feels right.
The audience are great and really respond to the comedic moments on the story and so I respond to their wishes. There is a lot of laughter and a great ‘WOW’ moment (see the blog relating to my shows at Byers Choice for a description of an ‘Ohhhhhhh audience’), when Scrooge kneels at Church.
It is a wonderful show, very satisfying.
I head back to my office and change before going to sign. Last year my signing table was right in front of the main door, and a chilly blast of air hit me every time anyone came or went, which didn’t do any good to an already fragile voice. This year, however, I am tucked away in the cafeteria area, nice and warm and the signing is lovely.
When I am finished I change and get in the car to check in at my B&B. This means driving across the State line back into Pennsylvania, a distance of a whole mile.
I am staying at the Fairville Inn owned and run by Laura and Rick. When I arrive I am shown to my Coach House room which is stunningly decorated with another working fireplace, beautiful furniture and plenty of space.
As I unload the car I am greeted by Ozzie the black Labrador who is very friendly. Actually he is most interested in the remaining contents of my hamper from The Country Cupboard, than saying hello to me.
I have an hour or so in my room before driving back to Winterthur for the evening show. As before the audience have beaten me to it and various people collar me, chat, have pictures taken etc. I grab a salad from the cafeteria and a tea with honey.
I am rather aware that for the past couple of days I have struggled vocally during my second show and that this may be more of a problem today given that I had not used a microphone this afternoon. Tea and honey just lubricates the throat and opens it all up. Fingers crossed.
I get back into my costume and notice a dime laying on the desk. I’m not sure why, but I pick it up and slip it into my waistcoat pocket. I make my way to the auditorium and as before greet Dave. He says that he thinks the show this afternoon had more humour than he’d remembered from last year, which he enjoyed. ‘And,’ he continued, ‘Your humour is funny. That is not the case with everyone!’
Once again it is a good sized audience. Dave gets up to his podium and says ‘Good evening’. Silence. ‘Let’s try that again. Good evening’ this time there is a response. He continues: ‘Good day, or good morning is important throughout our academic lives. At Elementary school a teacher comes into a room and says good morning and the whole class sings good morning in reply. At High School a teacher says good morning and the response is Nyaaahhhh.’ The audience laughs. ‘At University a lecturer comes into the hall and says good morning and all of the students write it down and then ask if it will come up in their final exams.’ It’s a great line and the audience love it.
He continues by warning them that if their cell phones ring they will be arrested and locked into the catacombs beneath the main house. What a warm up act!
I start my show and straight away start having doubts about my voice and almost as quickly realise that the problem is actually purely a mental one. It is fine and I let the show flow. Again the audience is very good, this time relating to the dark, dramatic side of the story, although loving the fun bits too.
There is a young girl, maybe 5 or 6 sitting in the front row and when Scrooge throws his ‘sixpence’ to the boy in the street, so I toss the dime from the dressing room directly to her. The cost to me? 10 cents. The look on her face is priceless.
It has been a very successful evening and I have got through it with no problems at all. In the signing line an older gentleman, whom I had met in the cafeteria is almost in tears. He shakes my hand and says: ‘I want you to have this, what you do is so special’ and there in my palm is $30. It is so generous; I thank him and promise to pass it on to a charity of my choice.
Right at the end of the queue is an ebullient family. The dad is dressed in a kilt (that IS brave in the current weather). It turns out that he is a member of the Philadelphia Pickwick Club. The family invite me to join them for dinner at a local Pizza restaurant an invitation I am happy to accept, as I haven’t really eaten properly all day. They head off and I will join them when I am changed and ready.
I say goodbye to Ellen and all of the staff in the Winterthur shop and set my Sat Nav system for Elizabeth’s Pizza. However when I get there, I can’t find it. There is another restaurant, a tavern, but no Elizabeth’s and I wonder if the SatNav has got them mixed up somewhere deep in its software.
After a while searching I turn round and head back towards my B&B. Just before it there is a bar and grill where I stop to have something to eat. It is very busy but I get a table and sit down. I am making notes on my phone of things that have happened during the evening to include in my blog. I order my meal and a glass of wine and continue to relive my day. The waitress appears again and the whispers: ‘the couple at the table opposite have bought your drink for you’. I look up and see a young couple who had been in the audience tonight. How very very generous and kind (this one I am NOT donating to charity).
They have just finished their meal and are on the point of leaving but we chat for a while and I tell them about the blog. So, if you are reading this, thank you so much. It is moments like that which make touring very special indeed.
I have a lovely juicy burger and then drive back to Fairville. I make sure that all of my costumes are airing. I turn on the fire (which is on a timer), get into bed, turn the lights out and fall asleep before the flickering flames.