Time and tide wait for no man; and neither does the opening night of To Begin With! The story continues….
After Jeffrey Hatcher (writer and director) returned to Minneapolis I had just under a week before I followed him. But as much as my mind was filled with the lines and the moves for To Begin With, I still had two performances of Great Expectations to give, one in Portsmouth and one in Somerset.
Both shows went very well and I was delighted with the response to my version of the novel. Somehow when I perform a piece like Great Expectations it is just as important to me that the adaptation is appreciated as much as the performance itself; and with that thought in my mind, I realised how important it was that I do Jeff’s script full justice.
On Friday 13th Liz and I packed up our house and prepared to fly to Minneapolis. We had checked our weather apps and had been told it would be chilly, so we packed extra fleeces and jumpers before heading to the airport.
The Heathrow experience was much more pleasant than usual, in that Liz was travelling with me, so there was no need for the prolonged and painful good bye at the security gate.
Our flight was delayed by an hour or so, as there was a mechanical fault with the plane which needed attending to. In such circumstances I am more than happy to wait!
On arrival in Minneapolis we stood for an age in the serpentine queue to clear immigration until finally we saw the smiling face and welcoming wave of my old friend, Dennis Babcock.
Dennis, of course, is the producer of To Begin With and our arrival marked the start of a week which will see the realisation of his dream.
As I will be staying in Minneapolis for a month Dennis had arranged a short term let of an apartment, in a building just one block from the theater. (For my English readers: I will be living in a flat very close to the theatre).
It had been a long day for us and after a quick bite to eat, we had a very early night.
Chilly? One look outside our apartment window told us all that we needed to know about the temperature. Chilly? Try -25C
Across the roofscape beneath our apartment every chimney and vent was steaming as the hot air emerged into bitter cold . Although there was not a blanket of heavy snow on the ground, there were remnants of previous falls, and enough to make the scene beautiful. Beautiful but oh, so cold.
We stood on the balcony of the apartment for about two minutes and redefined our understanding of the word ‘cold’.
My work on To Begin With was to start straight away and we left the apartment wrapped up like Eskimos for the one block walk to the Music Box Theatre. My first duty was to sit in a chair in the dressing room and let a girl called Tricia put a plastic bag over my head.
Tricia is in charge of my wig and for the next forty minutes or so, she applied lengths of clear tape to the bag, so as to create an exact mould to work from. Very kindly she cut a slit for my nose.
When she was finished, Tricia returned to The Guthrie Theater to create, strand by strand, a wig that would transform me into Charles Dickens.
Exit Tricia, enter Nayna. Nayna Ramey is our designer and she has created the set that will act as the backdrop for the multiple scenes in Jeff’s script. On this production Nayna is also responsible for costume and props, and she had sourced huge amounts of suits, capes, waistcoats, dressing gowns, smoking jackets, trousers and other paraphernalia for me to try on.
With Jeff looking on we worked our way through various combinations. From the very beginning a few garments leapt up at us and demanded to be used: a great linen suit would be perfect for Dickens spending his summer on the Isle of Wight, and a double breasted green waistcoat looked perfect with the it.
For the second act we decided to be more monochrome and Nayna produced a great black and white waistcoat, although we struggled, bizarrely, to find plain black trousers of the right style….and fit.
In the end we came up with a set of clothing that worked for all of the scenes in both of the acts.
Once all of the hair and costuming requirements had been completed it was upstairs into the lobby of the theatre to begin rehearsing.
The set had been marked out with chairs and I was ready to pick up where I had left off in Didcot. The team was building by this time and we were joined by Joelle, who works as a stage manager with Dennis’s company. Joelle would be sitting next to Jeff taking notes of everything that the stage management team may need to refer to during the coming days.
We did a run of the first act and I was very pleased with where it was. Jeff seemed pleased; Dennis seemed pleased. We were all pleased.
During the lunch break I had a brief interview with a local newspaper, which carried on a little longer than I had expected, so I never managed to get a sandwich. Oh well, I could do with losing a few pounds.
In the afternoon we rehearsed for a little longer until it was time to vacate the theatre, so that it could be prepared to welcome audiences for the incumbent show: Triple Espresso.
Liz had been walking to find the local grocery store and get the lay of the land. She returned like a block of ice.
We had a couple of hours in the apartment before going back to the theatre, this time as audience members. Denis had very kindly sorted out tickets for us to watch Triple Espresso: his hugely successful and long-running show.
We settled in the auditorium, ready to be highly entertained: which we were. Triple Espresso is a show about three small-time entertainers reuniting and reminiscing about their not-so-successful act. One is a pianist and singer, one is a physical comedian and the third is a magician. Of course the script showcases their individual talents, but it is so much more than that and by the end we were weeping with laughter. A brilliant show, and one I urge that you see if you ever have the opportunity.
Saturday done. Time moves on.
Sunday morning saw the first cut to my beard. I have been letting it grow long and shaggy so that I could trim and cut it to whatever shape Jeff decided was appropriate for the show. Hirsute topiary.
He had decided that I should start with just taking a short strip out on each side, leaving long side-burns and a bushy goatee.
Liz assisted in trimming the areas that were to go and I set to work with the razor. The result was certainly a strange look, but it was a start.
Back at the theatre we were meeting in an upstairs conference room, as a local Church takes over the stage on a Sunday.
There was Jeff, Joelle, Dennis and a new member of the team today: Dennis’s daughter Chelsea. Chelsea’s job was to generally assist Jeff, but most particularly to follow the script and to mark any line that I was getting wrong, or omitting. There she sat: script and pen in hand……
We rehearsed again and I was so aware of Chelsea’s pen, which never seemed to stop!
Towards the end of the session Joelle had to leave and she was replaced by a very important member of the team: Ben Netzley, who will be the production stage manager.
We carried on rehearsing, and I stumbled and bumbled my way through the lines.
We stopped at one, and spent some time discussing the script. Jeff decided to make some more changes.
Over our weeks of rehearsal the script had been constantly changing, and it was getting difficult for me to remember where the changes had been made. One scene in particular, which had been transported from act two into act one, was giving me a great deal of trouble.
I left the theatre slightly despondent and quite panic stricken. There was still a lot of work still to do. Under my arm was Chelsea’s script, which appeared to have pen markings under every line.
Liz was perfect. She had sat in on the rehearsal, so knew what was going on. Back at the apartment she suggested that we go for a walk in the clear cold air, and just let it all go for a brief few minutes, which was perfect. We walked through a nearby park and returned thoroughly energised. Or cold, as we say in England.
Liz cooked a roast dinner and we watched television. At 9.30 I had to call a local radio station, and spent ten minutes doing a live interview on The Center Stage programme, to promote the show.
By ten we were both exhausted, as the jet lag was beginning to catch up with us now. A good night’s sleep was what was needed.
I woke at four. Lines, lines lines. My head was spinning as I lay in bed trying to silently recite. It was no good: I got up and started to pace going over and over the script.
For two hours or so I worked and then Liz got up and we had some breakfast, before I trimmed more of the beard and got ready for the day ahead.
Today I was not due at the theatre until two pm, so I had the morning to work in the apartment. Liz was brilliant: she sat with the script and picked up every – and I mean every – slip. We worked over and over and over. Good old fashioned line bashing. It was tiring and frustrating but oh so necessary.
After lunch we turned up at the theatre, and over night the banners above the door had been changed: ‘Gerald Charles Dickens as Charles Dickens in To Begin With.’ Gulp!
In the auditorium the scene had been transformed. Triple Espresso had finished its run and the morning had been spent getting one set out and another one in.
The set for To Begin With is simple: consisting of three large windows, three rugs, a chaise, a chair, a table and an ottoman (which has turned into a circular pouf). There was great activity throughout the auditorium. Ben was in position behind a bank of computers with Michael Klaers (lighting designer) on one side, and John Markiewicz (sound) on the other. The three of them would not have looked out of place on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
For the next two days we would be plotting the show technically. I would be running the scenes and stopping at each technical cue, so that Ben could take Michael’s lighting plot and John’s sound plot, mix them together and tuck them away deep into his computer’s memory.
A technical exercise like this is a very long and slow process but absolutely necessary. Jeff had created a show with plenty of very subtle light changes to reflect certain moods, as well as a complicated soundscape (not just a sound effect every now and then, but a collection of layered effects to create an ambient noise).
Each element of sound and light had to be carefully coordinated. And as we went through some had to be changed: perhaps the light was in the wrong place, or an effect lasted too long. Tap tap tap went Ben’s laptop.
In between the effects editing I ran the scenes, and there in the front row was Chelsea, using a green pen, so that I could distinguish today’s mistakes from yesterday’s.
I was wearing as much of the costume as I could, so that we could discover how easy any quick changes would be. John announced that my microphone pack would be concealed within a sports bra, so as not to be dislodged during the changes. Did I know what size sports bra I took? I can honestly say that nobody has ever asked me that question before.
We worked until ten and almost reached the end of the first act. Tomorrow we would continue.
Tuesday morning was very exciting. Dennis had arranged a photo shoot so that the local press would have images to include with their stories, which meant full costume and, of course, full wig.
In the dressing room Nayna was bustling around having been working on the costumes all week: this one shortened, that one lengthened, those taken out and so on. Inappropriate buttons were removed and replaced with better ones. She produced piles of cravats to try, as well as packs of new t-shirts and socks for me to wear.
And then the moment arrived: sat in front of the mirror Islowly eased the wig on and there, looking back at me, was Charles Dickens. It was quite breathtaking: I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
The wig was amazing. Tricia had taken the plastic bag covered with tape, and over the last few days had hand-crafted Charles Dickens’s head of hair. Each strand was woven into a lace skull cap, carefully coiffure into CD’s rather wild style.
Nayna and I did our best to fix it, but both realised that we didn’t really know what we were doing. As the wig is one of the major expenses of the show we really wanted to have professional advice.
Nayna called Tricia, who promised to come to our rehearsal at around five to show us how to cope with the hairpiece. We were all mightily relieved.
When I was dressed and wigged, I strode into the auditorium with a renewed confidence: this all felt RIGHT!
The photographer spent forty minutes or so taking a collection of different pictures and when everyone was happy, we continued with the technical blocking.
We worked our way slowly through the second act and there was Chelsea in the front row: today’s colour was pink.
It went well and we got to the end of the show by 4.30.
Tricia arrived to fit my wig properly, watched by Nayna, Jeff and Dennis. John (sound) was also there to find the best place to conceal the microphone into the hairpiece.
Like the professional that she is Tricia made the whole thing look and sound ridiculously easy, but it seemed very complicated to us. When the show actually is running I won’t have Nayna to bustle around me: I will have to do this myself.
Dennis quickly took an executive decision and almost before she knew it, Tricia had agreed to come to the theatre before each performance to fix the hairpiece. Another member of the team had been added.
When my coiffure was completed and I was in costume, the team was ready to run the show, from beginning to end, with no breaks. This was such a relief after the last two days and was really our chance to discover where we had got to.
The audience gathered in the auditorium: Dennis and his wife Anne, along with her mother and sister. Liz was there too. Nayna was making costume notes, Jeff held fort at his desk in the middle of the auditorium.
In the command centre Ben was flanked by Michael and John.
Blackout. Sound effect. Enter.
It was so nice to just do the play. I was very tired from a combination of very early mornings and the busy rehearsal schedule but as the show went on I found more and more energy and was thoroughly enjoying myself until the moment that my mind went completely blank: one line – not even a line I have ever struggled with before – refused to come.
So annoying. Jeff filled the gap, and I picked up straight away, but it nagged away in my mind.
We ‘took fifteen’ for the interval, during which I changed costume and then we carried on.
Blackout. Sound effect. Enter.
The second act was strong and dramatic: it is more intense than the first and I was very pleased with the way it felt.
I knew that there was still plenty of work to be done over the next couple of days but there was one clear message from that run: we had a show!
When I had changed I went back into the auditorium. Everyone seemed happy with the way things had gone. Jeff sent suggested that we met the next day to go through notes, and I should go home and rest.
Liz took charge and eased my weary frame out of the theatre.
It was the first time that she had seen the show since our rehearsed readings in London last year, and she was amazed at how it had grown and come alive. Everyone was making the right noises.
Now I just needed a good night’s sleep.
I did it! I made it to six o’clock: a veritable lie-in.
Liz and I mooched during the morning and walked to the nearby shops, bracing the icy blast. We needed a few bits for the apartment, and wanted to buy good luck cards for the crew of the show. We went to Macy’s, Barnes and Noble and Target, before returning home.
Liz had booked a session in a local salon and I did some work on my lines before going to the theatre at two to meet with Jeff.
We sat in the dressing room and went through notes from the previous days run, most of which had to do with picking up the pace a little, as well as some corrections to the blocking.
Notes finished, we joined Ben, Michael and John in a strangely deserted auditorium to do a run of the first act.
It all went well (apart from my trying to exit in a blackout and walking straight into one of the window frames: I managed to find enough self-restraint not to utter an expletive which would be out of place in a show about the New Testament).
After the run we spent some time going over lighting cues, making sure that I was standing in exactly the correct spot to make the effect work: ‘One foot further forward…half a foot to your left. Back one. There! That’s where you need to be!’
We were treated to a slightly longer supper break than usual, as Jeff had to get over to the Guthrie Theater to be present at the opening night of another one of his plays. He is a busy and a talented man, and no mistake.
I went back to the apartment where we had a delicious dinner of steak and chips, and a nice rest before returning to The Music Box to run the second act.
As in the afternoon, we ran the scene before going over the minor and delicate tweaks to light, sound and blocking.
By 9.30 we were finished and I wrapped myself up in hat, scarf and gloves before making the icy walk home.
On Thursday it will be our preview night. Everything has been leading up to this moment………
Tickets for To Begin With are available from: