And so, just as my body clock was getting accustomed to Eastern Standard Time, I suddenly lose another three hours. My body thinks it is 7am, the clock thinks it is 4. Sadly the clock is correct.
I read, write and doze until I see 6 o’clock when I get up and shower. Breakfast is served from 6.30 at the Hyatt and I need to be there early, as I’m being picked up at 7.15.
After I have finished my breakfast I go to my room and change into costume before returning to the ground floor level.
I am joined in the lift by a lady who completely ignores the fact that I am in frock coat, fancy waistcoat and carrying a top hat. She is, however, completely enamoured with my cane. As we reach the lobby she says darkly: ‘I’d like a cane like that with a sword inside it……’
At precisely 7.15 I meet Dickens Festival board member Barbara Lara outside the hotel and we set off in her car. Barbara is to be my chauffeur during the next two days.
My first show in Riverside is at The Martin Luther King High School. I am due to perform A Christmas Carol to a group of students and that can be a very intimidating experience. High school students on their own territory tend to be a very honest audience: if they don’t like something they don’t hide the fact.
Barbara is a great student of Riverside history and enlivens the drive with anecdotes. She points out the old town whorehouse and explains how all of the oranges in the USA are descended from the four original orange trees grown here.
We get to the school in good time. At first I thought we were pulling into a shopping mall’s parking lot but no it is the school. There are students all over the place; it is a hive of activity.
We find a parking space and go to the main office to sign in. I am given a badge to stick onto my costume.
Everywhere on the walls are good, improving motivational quotes: ‘If a thing is worth doing it is worth doing best’ is one I like especially.
While the official details are being sorted out a girl runs into the office and says: ‘Are you Mr Dickens? Oh, I so wanted to come to your show today, but I have another class. I just really wanted to say hi!’ And then she is gone.
Suddenly I am beginning to feel a little more confident about the show.
Barbara and I try to navigate our way through the myriad buildings. Eventually we find the arts block but still don’t know where to go. There are two students sat in a corridor. Barbara asks for directions and one of the students jumps up and says, ‘Oh I’ll take you there, follow me.’ We hadn’t asked her to take us, she just naturally wanted to be helpful. The students we have seen are a great credit to the school.
After a short wait Kathy Wright, another festival board member, arrives in full costume and we meet up with the head of theatre at the school. She leads us to the stage which is full of timber, as the set for the next show is in the process of being built.
Fortunately there is plenty of space in front of the main curtains for me to perform, meaning that the work in progress can be hidden from the audience.
I poke around back stage: it is magical, as it always is in a busy theatre. There are workshops full of off-cuts of timber and plywood, there are pain stores with brushes hanging to dry, there are costume rails, lights, cables, props and furniture. I am like a child in a sweet shop.
The auditorium itself, with a capacity of three hundred and fifteen, is a nice size – so often school theatres are big, cavernous and lacking in atmosphere. The only issue in here is the height of the roof. Apparently in the original plans they were going to build a balcony, but budgets were slashed and when it comes to a choice between the arts and sports, the football field will always win through.
Two more students, Josh and Chris, turn up to look after the technicalities. We decide that I don’t need a microphone and we sort out how to light the stage. I always enjoy meeting and working with the tech guys in school theatres. Usually they are extremely committed and have an attitude that almost amounts to ownership of the space. Josh and Chris are no exception to this rule.
There is now an hour or so to wait before the show starts. We all sit in the auditorium chatting. Kathy used to be a school principal, as well as a schools superintendent and talks about the education system passionately. She mentions that the school is about ten years old, before adding wryly, that you can tell by the build up of gum on the sidewalks.
As 12 o’clock nears, the students begin to file in. There is noise and spirit and energy.
When everyone is in, Bruce Spieler (yes, you guessed it: from the festival board), introduces me and I take to the stage.
I have no idea how this will run, but all I can do is heed the advice hanging in the office: ‘If a thing is worth doing it is worth doing best’
At first there is silence from the audience: don’t panic, keep concentrating. Once the characters start making an appearance there is more response and by the time Mrs Cratchit fetches her Christmas pudding, there is loud laughter throughout the hall.
The show runs through its most dramatic phase and on to the joy of Christmas morning before finishing with ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’
I mentioned before that a high school audience will let you know if they don’t like a show; well, they also will let you know if they do like a show and boy, do they like it.
After the applause has died away I am invited to the stage to take questions: a forest of hands go up straight away, and I spend a very enjoyable thirty minutes answering a wide variety of queries.
Some ask about the show, some ask about the acting profession, some ask for advice, some just pass comment on the show: all are bright, intelligent and perceptive. On the evidence of this morning the future in Riverside is in good hands.
After the Q&A I sign programmes and pose for photographs until all of the students leave for their lunch and I get back into Barbara’s car for the ride back to the hotel.
I buy a sandwich and crisps (chips) from the foyer and go to my room. I hang all of my costume up to air and eat my lunch before considering what to do next. I should do a run through of Top Hole, but the early start is catching up with me, so I decide to rest instead.
After a welcome lie down I shower, get back into costume and meet Barbara once more for the ride to the evening show.
Babs is now in full Victorian costume and her crinoline has been forced into the driving seat. At least if we have a crash she has her own personal airbag system to keep her safe.
Tonight I am performing at the Evergreen Masonic Center where Kathy and the rest are already setting up as we arrive.
The performance is to be a recreation of one of Charles Dickens’ most notorious readings: Sikes and Nancy. The show uses Dickens’ own script and tells the story of the events leading up to and including the brutal murder of Nancy. It is a powerful piece of work and one that I get immense amount satisfaction from performing.
I am shown the room where I will be doing the show, it is very atmospheric, with a single light shining down on the lectern where I will be stationed. Once more I will not need a microphone in what is a small room.
I look at my watch and realise that when I first arrived in California I had set it an hour fast. I go to change the time but the shaft that moves the hands has broken. I am very sad as this watch holds sentimental value for me and I have travelled with it for many years. I am sure that I can get it repaired when I get home, but it is an upsetting moment.
The time passes slowly and I seem to be stationary in the middle of a whirl of activity. Books are laid out ready for sale, a desert and cheese buffet is set up as is the reservations table for people to collect up their tickets from.
The sales table is decorated with beautiful arrangements of fir and Union Jacks. Unfortunately the company, presumably somewhere in the far east, that makes the flags, doesn’t know which way up they should be: always a major bugbear of mine.
As the start time draws nearer the guests begin to arrive and there are some dear friends among them, in particular Carolyn Grant who founded this festival way back when, and who was responsible for first bringing me here. Her son Doug is on the board now and we all three have a very nice time conversing.
As the 7o’clock start time approaches, the audience are shown into the room. I take a seat by the door and we all rise as Queen Victoria is announced and processes, with Albert, to her seat.
Bruce makes my introductory announcement and I am ready to start. I begin with a bit of background to Dickens’s reading tours and specifically his decision to adapt Sikes and Nancy. He was unsure if it would be accepted by the audiences on the day, so he staged a small private reading for his friends and family. That try-out was on November 14, 1868 and now, exactly 146 years later, to the very day, I am performing the same words.
Once I get into the reading itself the passion and violence of the piece take over. I am sweating profusely and the page of the reading script is spattered with drops of perspiration, making the ink run. The shock of the audience as the very final line is delivered is palpable and, as is so often the way with Sikes and Nancy, there is a stunned moment of silence before the applause starts.
When we are all finished we adjourn to the hall where the food has been laid out and every one sits at tables chatting. The show has left a powerful impression on the audience. The other great topic of conversation is Top Hole tomorrow night. People are really very excited about it, so I hope that all of the line learning pays off.
I sign a few books and programmes, shake a few hands, respond to the nice compliments of the guests and generally mingle. Gradually the hall empties and Barbara is soon at hand to take me back to the hotel.
I sit in the lobby for a while writing up the day’s notes, having a slice of cheesecake and a glass of wine, before returning to my room and climbing, aching and exhausted, into bed.