The original plan this morning was to have an early breakfast and then get back to my room ready to do a radio interview over the phone before making an early start on the road.
However, by the time I’ve finished writing the blog, the 7.15 call time is getting close, so I reverse my plans.
I fill the few minutes with ironing my costume shorts for the day, and packing my small suitcase with all of the paraphernalia necessary for two performances in Winterthur, Delaware.
Exactly on time my American mobile rings and I answer it, but there then follows one of those: ‘Hello, Mr Dickens?’ ‘Hello, yes, great to chat to you.’ ‘Hello, Mr Dickens, are you there?’ ‘Hi, yes, how are you?’ ‘Hello Mr Dickens, you’re breaking up, can you hear me?’ ‘Yes, I can hear you. Shall I give you my hotel’s landline?’ ‘Mr Dickens, is there a landline I can call you on?’, conversations.
I give in and hang up. I am about to try and call him back, when the mobile rings again. This time we have a good enough connection for me to pass on the hotel’s number and a moment or two later we can speak clearly and in complete sentences.
Often on these occasions the interviewer, or producer, will say something along the lines of: ‘OK, Mr Dickens, we will be right with you….’ And you are then left hanging, listening to the end of a song, and then to a news broadcast, and then to a traffic report and then to an advertisement; but on this occasion the journalist (and In the confusion of our opening exchanges, I never did find out his name) comes straight to me.
The interview is to publicise the Byers Choice events this weekend and I happily talk about the huge theatre that is created on the factory floor, and the sheer thrill of performing to such a large and enthusiastic crowd.
With the interview finished, I continue my packing and haul of my bags to the car, before having a very quick bite of breakfast. I want to be on the road by 8am.
Deep breath and fingers crossed: I rig my mini speaker and my phone up and as I leave Lewisburg, heading east again, I finally get to listen to my Christmas playlist.
When I drove here yesterday the journey was dull: the weather was dull and the road was dull. How everything is different this morning! A beautiful sunrise fills the sky with a golden glow which reflects off the mighty Susquehanna River. Route 11/15 follows the river bank for some thirty miles and affords magnificent views all the way.
Last year I drove the same route and the the conditions were snowy and icy, whereas today it could almost be spring.
My Christmas tunes accompany me as far as Harrisburg, the state capital of Pennsylvania. Of course my playlist has all the old favourites on it, but there is a new tune that is fascinating me this year: The Trans Siberian Orchestra’s rock treatment of The Carol of the Bells. The more I listen to it, the more I think that the opening bars would make magnificent opening music for my theatre version of A Christmas Carol.
Once clear of Harrisburg I am into Amish country where the road is shared by horse drawn gigs going to and fro.
The drive is a good one and my SatNav is telling me that I will arrive at the Winterthur Estate forty minutes early. As my hotel (actually a lovely b&b) is on my route I decide to pop in on the off chance that my room may be ready for me. It is only 10.30, but it is worth a try.
I am lucky, and am soon established in an elegant room at the Fairville Inn, where I am able to wash the journey away in a nice hot shower, before continuing on to Winterthur, which is actually across the State line, in Delaware.
The Winterthur estate was the family seat of the DuPont family who started their hugely successful chemicals company in the Brandywine Valley. The house and gardens is now open to the public and thousands of visitors pass through the gates every year.
In my three years of performing here I have never actually seen the house itself, as my venue is in a lecture theatre at the visitor centre, but as I pull up in the car park, I suddenly realise that I have almost a completely free day tomorrow, and wonder if I may at last have an opportunity to explore.
I unload my case, grab my hat and cane and walk down the steep path to where the visitor centre nestles in a wooded valley. In the gift shop I find Ellen Taviano waiting for me. As with all of my events since Thanksgiving, the surroundings and colleagues here are familiar, which makes everything very relaxing.
Almost immediately Ellen proves that great minds think alike, by saying that she has noticed my schedule allows me some free time tomorrow and has managed to get me onto the 9.30 tour of the house. Excellent!
Having dropped all of my bags off, we go into the auditorium to undertake a sound check, which is actually very simple. The tech guy reminds me that we used a microphone in year one and it was not a good sound, so last year I performed to the 350-seat auditorium without electronic assistance. A quick burst of ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’ proves his point, as the acoustics in the hall are magnificent.
I make sure all of the furniture is in the correct place, before having a bite of lunch in the large cafeteria. Ellen has preparations to make for the show, so I sit on my own with my salad, and as I eat I am aware that the background Christmas music is once again the Trans Siberian Orchestra’s Carol of the Bells. The tune is starting to haunt me.
The audience are starting to line up as I go back to my ‘dressing room’, which is actually the admin offices for the visitor centre.
It is always interesting to be in someone else’s office space. I am fascinated by the notes and memos, which obviously mean a great deal to the full-time occupants, but could be Egyptian hieroglyphics to me. For instance: ‘Deposit slips only have 3 pieces rather than 4. No more blue, so send Jenn the PINK copy’
I change into my costume and then mingle with the crowd as they arrive. It is an amazing audience and as I watch the auditorium fills up almost to capacity, I begin to doubt my vocal prowess to make myself heard at the very back. I must have faith not only in myself, but in the hall as well.
A few minutes before start time David Roselle arrives. David is the director at Winterthur and has always introduced me. He is a University professor and has a delightful dry wit. He uses a microphone and instantly commands the respect of the audience, who fall into a reverential silence as he speaks.
As I walk onto the stage the words of two influential men in my family are in my head: one is my father: ‘speak clearly, slowly. Don’t start one word until you have finished the previous one’; the other is Charles Dickens himself, giving advice to his son Henry before a speech to the Cambridge Union: ‘Take any amount of pains about it ; open your mouth well and roundly; speak to the last person visible, and give yourself time’
I look for the last visible person right at the back of the hall and begin.
I needn’t have worried: the show goes very well indeed and the hall does a better job than any microphone could ever do. What did architects know then, that they don’t know now, I wonder?
The applause at the end is great. To get back to my dressing room I have to walk through the auditorium, and people are shaking my hand and high-fiving me all the way up the aisle.
I change as quickly as I can, before finding my signing table in the cafeteria. The line is long and a lot of people have brought their own books along to be signed. There are a few old copies of The Life of our Lord, dating back to the 1930’s, which are lovely to see.
Among all of the folk from Delaware and Pennsylvania are a friendly couple from Yorkshire who just happen to be visiting the area and we have a nice chat about their beautiful county.
When all of the signing is finished, I have plenty of time to return to the B&B and relax. I put my thick sweater on, that I can button right up to protect my throat from the cold, and drive the few miles back into Pennsylvania and to the Fairville inn.
I relax on the bed and watch tv for a while. I may even drop off to sleep briefly, I’m not sure.
At 4.30 I shower again, to wake myself up, and drive back to Winterthur
The audience is smaller this evening, so I shouldn’t have to project so much, which is good as I can feel the effects of the first performance in my throat and lungs. Before Ellen lets the audience in I stand on the stage and do a few vocal and breathing exercises to get back into the swing of things, after which I fetch a piping hot tea, laced with honey, from the café.
I chat to a few audience members before getting into costume, and at 6 o’clock David is back at the podium warning the audience that anyone whose phone goes off will be removed to the catacombs where they will be ‘treated badly’. It is a stark warning, but one that seems effective.
I struggle a little bit with my voice at the start of the show, but it is more of a mental thing, than any physical problem. As the evening progresses I relax and my voice comes back to me with no problems.
I have inserted a few extra lines from the 2 act version of the play, and the script is working very well. By losing some of the time-consuming business (flinging the coat into the audience, and prevaricating over paying the turkey boy his sixpence), I have gained myself time to use the extra passages from the book, which, after all, is what it is all about.
The show is again very well received and the hand shaking exit of the auditorium is repeated.
Because of the smaller audience the signing line is slightly shorter but there are still plenty of people to talk to and pose with.
At the very end of the line is a family that I met last year. After the show they had very kindly asked me out to dinner, and gave me to directions to a restaurant nearby. Unfortunately I never found them, so unwittingly stood them up. Apparently I had driven to the wrong shopping centre,
Tonight they are back for more, and kindly invite me out again but I make my excuses. After two days of three hour drives, followed by two performances on each, I am completely drained, and don’t really feel up to socialising. Ellen and some of the staff also invite me out to dine, but a quiet and quick dinner alone is what is called for.
About half way between Winterthur and The Fairville Inn lies Buckley’s Tavern, where I have a delicious basket of fish and chips. The bar tender, Paul, asks me if the food is good and when I reply in the affirmative, he says: ‘judging by your accent, you should know a thing or two about fish and chips!’
Buckley’s has happy memories for me. Three years ago Liz came out to join me at the end of my tour and after a day’s flying joined me at Winterthur. When my shows were over, we came here and sat on a plain Amish wooden bench near the door and drank wine. As I look towards the door, the bench is still there, and it is empty, as if it is waiting for us to be there together on it again.
I raise my glass to Liz, back in England.
When I have finished, I drive back to the hotel and the cumulative effects of the last couple of days send me into an instant sleep.