For the last twenty years or so the end of my year has traditionally been taken up with touring America with my one man version of A Christmas Carol. The usual routine is to fly out during November, perform a few shows before Thanksgiving Day and then plunge into the hectic part of the trip before returning home just before Christmas.
Over the years I have met a great many people and performed in some beautiful venues. Occasionally some of those people organise events at other times of the year and invite me to perform for them then too.
One such group is The North of Boston branch of the Dickens Fellowship, based in Salem Massachusetts. For the last 2 years I have visited Deb Benvie and her team during November but this year they have bigger plans.
2014 marks the branch’s first bi-annual Dickens conference and they have collected a fine group of speakers and performers to stimulate and entertain their delegates.
As long ago as last year Deb contacted Lisa Porter, my ‘fixer’ at Byers Choice, to see if I would be available on the last weekend in September to attend the three days of the conference. Plans were laid, timetables studied and events planned until we arrived here: the beginning of September.
There have been a few changes since the first plans were discussed, however. Lisa announced during the year that she would be leaving Byers Choice, after working with them for many years, to pursue new professional challenges. Ever since I returned to touring some five years ago and began working with Bob Byers as my agent in America, Lisa has looked after all of the details of my tours. She has sorted out transportation and accommodation. She has liaised with journalists to ensure that they know when to call, so as to fit in with my commitments on any given day. She has provided event organisers with complete details of what is required from my shows: what size space I need to perform in, what props I need, how much time for sound checks, the exact location of my signing tables, what I like to eat before and after a show, and so on.
Even when an event is done it was Lisa who followed up after me and asked the organisers to send on my pen/watch/cufflinks/memory stick/camera and so forth. Lisa certainly made my life easier.
So, it was with great sadness that I learned of her departure and I would like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you Lisa, for all that you have done for me professionally over the years and for your friendship.
There was also a practical concern of Lisa’s departure: who could possibly take on the role? Who would Bob chose and could we ever develop a similar rapport? I certainly had someone in mind who I knew could do the job but I was not sure if Bob’s choice would match mine.
Actually Bob moved very quickly and appointed the exact person I had thought of: I therefore ask you all to welcome Pam Byers who will no doubt be a central part of these adventures over the next two months
Pam is Bob’s wife and has worked closely on my performances at Byers Choice over the years and has also become a great friend. She will be a great ally to have on tour.
Although we could never have realised it at the time, this short mini tour is a perfect opportunity for Pam and me to get used to working together whilst I’m on the road.
On 24th September Liz drove me to Heathrow airport and the goodbyes never get any easier. Although this trip is only ten days or so, it marks the beginning of the time of the year when Liz is left alone at home as I gallivant across America.
We hug and don’t want to let go. We both know, however, that I need to go and eventually I take my cases into the terminal and she drives back to Abingdon. You would think we could have got used to it by now but it is always a horrible empty feeling.
Actually there is another emotion today: fear. With the awful events in Syria at the moment I am well aware that the possibility of a terrorist attack against the west is extremely high. No doubt the security checks are huge at the moment, but still there is a horrible niggling, nagging fear at the back of my mind.
The airport experience is harmless and it strikes me how far the industry has come during my years of travelling. The whole process of checking-in online and dropping bags has marked the end of long lines of hot, impatient people. Even the security screening is quick and unproblematic. Actually, considering my irrational fears, perhaps I would have preferred the security screening to be a little slower and more difficult.
The plane is packed full but I have an aisle seat so am able to stretch my legs a bit. Although our booking is with Delta Airlines the flight is actually operated by Virgin Atlantic. The flight attendants are friendly, the plane is modern and the entertainment system is comprehensive.
A few rows in front of me are sat a very elderly couple. He is dressed in an anorak and a flat cap which both stay on during the whole flight. At fairly regular intervals he and his wife get up and slowly, oh so slowly, shuffle their way along the aisle towards the lavatory at the rear of the plane. Each time the flight attendants are trying to roll a drinks or food cart to the front of the cabin but they never get impatient with the old couple, they never see the mechanics of their job as being more important than looking after their customers
Three films and two meals later we are touching down at Boston’s Logan Airport where, once again, the transition through the various official channels is quick and easy. In no time I am climbing into my rental car and setting the Sat Nav system for The Salem Inn.
I arrive at the hotel at around 10pm and get checked in. the Inn is actually more of a B&B in a lovely historic house and has no restaurant but it is in within easy walking distance of the city centre, so after lifting my cases up to my room, I stroll for ten minutes before I happen over The Tavern in the Square, where I sit at the bar and enjoy a lovely shepherd’s pie.
Back to the Inn I check out the TV and discover to my delight that the channels include The Golf Channel. This weekend Europe takes on America for The Ryder Cup in Scotland and hopefully I will be able to keep up with some of the events each morning.
Despite a late night (and on UK time a VERY late night), I still wake early in the morning. In a half-wakeful state I find myself going over lines from the Complete Works of Dickens show in my head. After half an hour or so I give in and get up to make coffee.
I realise that I was probably in rather less than a half-wakeful state when I consider that the lines I was repeating in my mind do not actually exist!
I put the television on and watch the build-up to The Ryder Cup, which is being hyped up here just as much as at home. There is a sense of drama surrounding the contest as the two teams seem to be closely matched this year.
Time passes slowly until it is time to get showered and ready for Breakfast, which is served in a basement room.
Back to the room and after a telephone interview with a local journalist about the weekend’s events, it is time to pick up where I left off at home: yes, it is time to line-learn once more.
Over the next three days I am due to perform Mr Dickens is Coming and Nicholas Nickleby both of which I know inside out and back to front; Sikes and Nancy which is a reading; Doctor Marigold which I’m comfortable with and a couple of impromptu, improvised appearances.
But on Sunday morning I am performing The Complete Works of Charles Dickens to the delegates of the conference, all of whom know their Dickens well. It has to be precise and tight. Once more the pacing commences. Fortunately my hotel room is a proper town house room, with high ceilings and plenty of floor space to roam in.
Of course being a historic house the floorboards creak and I hope that there is nobody in the room below.
Most of the lines are coming back very easily, as are the transitions between novels, but I am struggling with a few passages, particularly the short section from Bleak House which for some reason will not stick. Edwin Drood is proving annoyingly reluctant as well.
I spend over two hours going over and over and over the script. I work at individual sections and do a couple of complete runs. It is going fine, but needs more work yet. However my little brain has had enough, so I do what Dickens used to do: I go for a walk.
As I mentioned earlier downtown Salem is very close and I decide just to follow my nose, with no particular plan.
Back at college when I was doing a Theatre Studies course, one of our set texts was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible which is his fictitious account of the Salem witch trials of 1692. Salem has taken witchcraft to its heart and most of the shops are starting to prepare for Halloween during which time the city becomes overrun.
Cobwebs, spiders and ghoulish latex masks abound as do broomsticks, pointed hats and black cats. Posters advertising Salem Ghost Walks are much in evidence and there are museums to witchcraft and piracy. There is even a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery playing Samantha Stephens from Bewitched.
I walk through the tourist zone and get to the wharfs and docks which is where Salem’s prosperity as a city was really built. There are some lovely buildings at the water’s edge including the old Custom House (the equivalent to Logan airport’s immigration hall), and a beautifully restored sail loft.
My walk takes me into some antiques stores, which have amazing and eclectic collections and back into the centre of town where I go into a restaurant for a delicious spiced chicken salad. After that it is back to the room, back to the creaky floorboards, back to the lines.
The Complete Works is coming together nicely now, although Drood is still being annoying. After another two run-throughs I decide to give it a rest and pick up the reading script for Sikes and Nancy that I will be performing tomorrow night.
I start running through it and realise I know it so well that why don’t I commit that to memory right now. An hour later I have chapter one fully learned! This is ridiculous; this line learning is becoming obsessive. There is only one thing for it: get back to The Complete Works.
After some more work ,night is falling so I finally pack my scripts away and return to the Tavern in the Square where I have a thick juicy burger before settling in for the night. It is relatively early and I know I will wake at some silly time in the morning but, there will always be the Ryder Cup!