And so the ‘To Begin With’ team reached our preview night:
When I say ‘night’ my day’s work actually started with a 1.30 call at the theatre to go through the second act, which is made up of a single, long scene.
On arrival at the theatre and putting my bag in the dressing room I found two huge bunches of flowers awaiting me. One was from my friends in Lincoln Nebraska, wishing me luck; and the second was from all at Byers Choice – my agents in the USA.
Over the last few weeks it has been the second half that has been least rehearsed, so Jeff was keen to go through some of the lighting and sound cues and make sure that I was in the correct area of the stage.
I realised just how precise we were getting when Michael started debating whether a cross-fade of the lights should be timed at a half second or a quarter second!
When our skip through the act 2 cues was finished we had a brief break, during which Liz arrived. During our walk to Macy’s on the previous day we had found a counter that sells and decorates cakes, so while I was at the theatre Liz went back and had one decorated to wish everyone involved with the project ‘good luck’!
When the break was over we started a complete run of the show, which boded well for the evening’s performance.
As well as bringing a cake, Liz had also brought a salad for me, very carefully selected so as not to include any dairy products, which tend to tighten the throat and affect my ability to project properly on stage.
As afternoon turned to early evening (although in my basement dressing room I only had the watch to confirm that fact), Tricia arrived to fix the wig.
It is always amazing to see an expert at work, in any field. Everything looked so simple and easy; and in no time the wig was placed, firmly fixed and looking completely like my own hair (from what I can remember).
And then something very strange happened: little by little the dressing room emptied. I had been used to having Jeff, Nayna, Ben, Dennis, Tricia, Chelsea and Liz all buzzing in and out. But with an actual show approaching, everybody had places to be and I was left alone with my thoughts.
I was running a few of my lines, just to firmly cement them when Dennis appeared and we spoke for a few minutes. He said a prayer for us and for the success of the show and left.
Jeff popped into the dressing a room with a few notes from the afternoon’s run: be careful of that, remember this, don’t worry if so and so happens.
My only contact with the outside world was now Ben, who popped his head around the door to announce ‘Thirty minutes!’, then ‘fifteen’ and finally ‘five’.
The five minute call was the moment that I had to start the long walk to the stage, which took me through a long subterranean corridor running beneath the auditorium, then up a flight of stone stairs towards the wings.
As Ben ‘calls’ the show from the back of the auditorium, I will be alone backstage.
I stood in the wings listening to the hum of a preview night audience. But I’m not very good at standing still when I am waiting to go onto stage, so I walked around a bit, into the crosswalk from stage right to stage left, which doubles as a prop and technical storage area.
I was only gone for a few seconds but when I returned to the stage right wing I could hear the audience giggling nervously….as if the play had started and no actor had appeared.
My cue to start the show is a clock bell tolling six, and on the third ring I walk out into the black out so as to be ready to deliver the opening line ‘Disagreeable evening!’
I was beginning to panic: had I missed the bell tolling while I walked in the crosswalk? Had the show started? How would I know? Would I hear a rush of feet hurtling towards the stage? Should I walk on now?
And then the lights dimmed and in the dark came the tolling of the bell that I would have heard quite clearly wherever I had been. Phew! Deep breath and on:
‘Disagreeable evening! Lost an argument with Swinburne over the meaning of Christ and the existence of God. When I say Swinburne, I do not mean Captain Swinburne, the good and respected gentleman who lives next door: I refer to his son. The Ill-tempered, foul smelling spawn. The mad, fire-topped Swinburne. Swinburne the younger. Who is twelve!’
A big laugh!
It was so nice to actually be able to perform the piece to an audience and discover where the responses and reactions came.
As the show proceeded so, I became more confident and was able to do what I love to do: perform a one-man show and build a relationship with the audience.
I got to the end of the first scene and the lights faded to black. At this point I have to make my way to a window box (in the dark), take off one coat, put on a smoking jacket, deposit the first coat in the box, pick up a pile of books and then close the lid with enough of a bang to alert Ben that I am ready, at which point he will bring up the lights for scene two.
During the preview run my instincts to remain silent in the black-out kicked in and I carefully eased the box lid down, before realising that Ben would not have heard his cue, so had to re-open the box, and drop the lid more forcefully, at which the lights magically came up! Another lesson learned.
On the show went to a successful conclusion.
During the interval Ben had suggested that I should be in the foyer as the audience left, especially as one group had brought along an old copy of ‘The Life Of Our Lord’ that they wanted signed.
As soon as I came off stage I ran down the stairs, along the long corridor, briefly into my dressing room to collect my fountain pen, then back up the other stairs, into the lobby and met the audience as they emerged from the auditorium.
And this would be the first time that we actually knew what an audience would think about the show.
The worst case scenario would be for the audience members to see me (still in costume and wig, of course), then dip their eyes and make for the exit, leaving the team standing alone pondering the future.
As it was there was soon a crowd around me, asking for programmes to be signed, another around Jeff and another around Dennis. Although the crowd had not been a big one, they remained chatting for a long time which proved to us that we had a show that people enjoyed.
Eventually I went back down to the dressing room to begin the gentle process of teasing the wig off and changing back into Gerald Dickens.
By the time I re emerged to ground level the team was already gathered in the theatre discussing technical changes: Dennis, Jeff, Nayna, Ben, Michael, John, Rosalie and Chelsea were in the middle of a major post mortem and it seemed as if the sound effects were the issue.
Liz and I said our goodbyes and walked back to our apartment, where we talked over the evening’s events and slowly wound down.
Opening Night. Friday
Friday dawned and the weather had warmed up to such an extent that it was actually snowing. As I looked down from the balcony I could see that the roads were white and yet there were cars making their way quite happily along them.
Whenever we have a similar fall of snow in England the country falls to its knees. Schools are closed, flights back up at the airports, and cars slither and slide into each other. Even on roads that have been cleared drivers feel the need to crawl along at ten miles per hour. We don’t ‘do’ winter in the UK.
If Minnesotans had the same attitudes, the state would shut down completely for half a year, so guess what? They just get on with it
Liz and I had a very lazy morning in the apartment, watching BBC America: ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Star Trek, the Next Generation’ punctuated by endless car insurance ads.
We walked to the nearby grocery store, Lunds (which is fabulous and very dangerous on the wallet) and stocked up with lunches and dinners for the next couple of days.
I had a call at the theatre in the afternoon to go through a few more of the sound cues (a result of last night’s discussions) and a ‘half measures’ run of the second act.
Back at the apartment Liz cooked a delicious and healthy meal of salmon and pasta and while we ate he decided that it would be a nice idea to invite a few people back to the apartment after the show, so I went to the liquor store nearby to buy a couple of bottle of wine.
The show was at eight, and I left the apartment at around six o’clock. It was getting dark and snow was falling again. Minneapolis doesn’t believe in taking Christmas decorations down (it was probably too cold on twelfth night), so strings of white lights in the trees moved as the slight wind stirred the branches, and the the flurries fell. I felt like Jimmy Stewart running through Bedford Falls.
At the theatre there was a great sense of excitement and anticipation. It was opening night! I struggled slightly with that concept, as I had performed last night to a paying audience making that, in my mind, the opening night. However, that’s the way things are done in the theatre.
In my dressing room the flower content had risen, with a fabulous bunch from Dennis and his team at The Daniel Group. The scent in the dressing room was beautiful and it was just as well that I do not suffer from Hay Fever.
But, in amongst all of this excitement and anticipation there was a show to be done, and that meant one thing: I must get into my sports bra, loaded with the mic pack. Once I had struggled into that, I put myself in Tricia’s hands for the ceremony of the wig.
When Tricia had finished I started getting into costume, and the process was punctuated by various people stopping by to say ‘have a good one!’
The last to leave was Liz, with a good luck kiss, and I was alone in the dressing room. Strangely I was much more nervous for ‘opening night’ than I had been for ‘preview night’.
I made sure I did some good vocal warm up exercises in the green room, and at seven fifty-five Ben called ‘five!’
Along the dark corridor I walked and into the wings. I made sure that I stayed there, listening intently for my clock chimes.
The audience was much bigger than Thursday, which befitted an official opening night, and again they loved the play and responded perfectly.
At the end I took my four bows (one centre, one each to left and right and a final one to the centre), and exited.
After my rat run through the basement of the Music Box, I made my way into the lobby, where there was much noise and congratulation.
I chatted and signed and shook hands and hugged: all very theatrical and luvvie! But people were genuinely impressed by the play and we encouraged them all to get on Facebook and Twitter to spread the word among their contacts, so that we can really build a head of steam up during our run in The Twin Cities.
Among the audience were Bob and Pam Byers, who had travelled from Pennsylvania to be at the opening night, which was so generous of them.
Liz and I asked a few people back (aware that our apartment is not that big and we didn’t have that much wine in!). Dennis, Anne and Chelsea all took a rain check as they were very tired. Jeff and his wife Lisa accepted, as did Bob, Pam and their friends Sam and Dan.
I changed and we all made our way back to the apartment, where we had a very pleasant wind-down, first-night party.
The opening night was not the culmination of all of our efforts. It was just the beginning.
This fact was hammered home by a Saturday that featured two shows, very close together at five and eight.
The advantage of having the ‘matinee’ in the early evening was that it gave Liz and I the whole day to explore some of Minneapolis together, as this would be her last full day in America, before returning to England.
As the weather was still slightly warmer (-5 instead of -25), we decided to walk for twenty minutes to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where we spent a wonderful morning admiring American folk art, Frank Lloyd Wright furniture; European paintings, including Van Goughs, Rembrandts, Monets, Gauguins and many more. There was a fabulous display of photography and a gallery of Chinese art. All of this housed on the top floor of three, we didn’t have time to do the rest!
When we got back to the apartment we had some meatloaf for lunch and I got ready to go to the theatre again. Liz had bought me a salad to eat in the dressing room between performances, so as to keep my energy up and sent me off with that, a banana and instructions to drink lots of water.
Liz was not going to be coming with me to the theatre as she was having a very special evening: Rosalie was taking her to see Garrison Keillor perform his weekly radio show: The Prairie Home Companion, in St Paul. We have both been fans of Keillor’s Lake Wobegon monologues for many years, and the opportunity to actually see him live was too good to miss.
Back at The Music Box everything followed a routine that is becoming well set, with one exception: Because Tricia only came onto the team quite late in the day, she was not able to attend Sunday performances, meaning that on Saturday night she needed to give Chelsea and Ben and quick wig fitting tutorial.
Chelsea was taking pictures of my head, so that she could remember where the various hairpins were situated, and Ben took more of an overview of the whole exercise. Between us, I was certain we could get the wig properly fixed when we had to.
The first Saturday show went so well: the best yet. It had energy and humour and an audience who responded well.
After the opening night Dennis had suggested that I come back onto stage for a second bow, as he felt the audience had been on the verge of a standing ovation. So, On Saturday I did as he had advised and, as in everything, he was right.
The other advice Dennis had offered was not to greet the audience after the matinee, as there was only one hour before the next show started. Even so Ben came into the dressing room clutching three copies of The Life of our Lord that people wanted signed.
I got out of my costume, even just for an hour and ate my salad and re gummed the front of my wig, which was feeling ever so slightly precarious.
Before I knew it Ben was calling thirty and the house was open: back on duty!
I could feel the entire week catching up with me a bit, so I drank lots of water and went through my vocal exercises as well as a few lines that were still proving occasionally elusive.
The first act was, in all honesty, a bit tired. The audience was smaller and not as responsive, but that is never an excuse: It is not the audience’s job to respond, it is my job to entertain them.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a perfectly good performance and if I had done this three days ago we’d have been delighted; but I know how the show can feel, so I expect more from myself.
During the interval I re gummed the wig again and looked at myself in the mirror. Buck up.
The second act was much better and by the time I reached the curtain call the applause was generous, as were the comments in the lobby afterwards.
Liz had arrived at the theatre from her evening out and back at the apartment she told me all about her night in the company of Garrison Keillor. As we talked we tried not to think about Sunday.
Sunday really marked the end of the first hectic week in Minneapolis. I would be performing for the last time before having two days off. But the much more graphic indication of the passing of time would be Liz’s departure back to the UK in the evening.
We decided to treat ourselves to breakfast at the Nicolett Diner, which is situated very near the theatre. The diner was perfect, with its chrome bar stools and vinyl-covered booth seats. We ordered, and had served up to us, two delicious plates of pancakes, bacon and eggs. It was the perfect treat.
Back at the apartment we began the long and awful business of preparing for Liz’s departure. I had to be at the theatre by one, to allow Chelsea extra time to fit the wig. Liz would be packing while I was getting ready and then would bring her case to the theatre, watch the first act, after which Dennis would drive her to the airport.
It had been so good to have Liz here during the first week. My rehearsal and performance schedule had been so hectic, that we hadn’t actually spent that much time together, but through it all she had been an absolute tower of support.
She knew exactly when to bully me with line revision, and when to say ‘you’re tired, let’s have a break, let’s go for a walk.’
Being an extremely talented performer in her own right, Liz fully understands the pressures of performing and always says or does the right thing.
She will hate this: but I love her deeply and know I couldn’t do what I do without her.
I walked to the theatre, wrapped up in my scarf, woollen hat and gloves, bracing the icy blast that had returned. I arrived on the dot of one, but found myself in the middle of yet another technical debate between Dennis, Jeff and Ben.
Dennis was still not happy with how some of the sound effects fitted into the scenes and we all spent about twenty minutes discussing them, changing them and re-blocking as necessary.
Chelsea was hovering nearby getting progressively more worried about the amount of time we had to fix the wig, so when the last cue was fixed we went down to the dressing room and began the operation.
Between us we remembered most of what Tricia had said, and after thirty minutes or so, the wig seemed to be sitting pretty well and tight. Well done Chelsea!
Liz arrived and wished me good luck and went to take her seat for the first act and I waited for Ben to give me the ‘five’.
The first act was really strong and pacey again, one of the best of the week I would say and the reactions from the audience were superb.
However as the act progressed I could feel the wig shifting at the back slightly. The front remained gummed to my forehead, but I was conscious of the possibility of things coming unstuck. As I went through the lines, I was trying to think of some Samson and Delilah adlib that I could use if necessary.
At the interval I hurried back to the dressing room and there was Liz. We hugged and said our goodbyes and she went away to the airport and I went to my chair and tried to refix the wig.
Chelsea came down to help and stuck a few more pins in and we hoped for the best.
While Chelsea worked I stuck the two ‘secret’ hankies up my sleeve for an effect during one of the scenes, when I produce them with the flourish of Dickens the amateur conjurer.
Before I knew it, Ben was there and it was time to carry on.
Act two continued in the same vein as the first. The only problem being that in my haste I had stuffed the two hankies too far up my sleeve so I couldn’t reach them for the great reveal.
The applause at the end was wonderful and I took my bows (including Dennis’s extra ones) happily and gratefully.
After meeting and chatting with the audience I went to the dressing room and packed everything away for two days and as I left, my wig looked rather forlorn and lonely.
I said good bye to everyone and left the theatre. The apartment was empty: not good. Although there was a lovely card from Liz saying goodbye.
The balcony looks out towards the airport so I waved at a plane that seemed to be leaving shortly after six. I hope it was hers, but I may have sent my love to Des Moines, or somewhere.
I didn’t feel like staying in the apartment, so I decided to walk the few blocks to Brit’s Pub, which is, as its name suggests, a bar celebrating all things British. It even has a bowling green on the roof.
I took my table and gazed at the memorabilia on the walls: signs for Guinness (ok, not strictly British I know), Whitbread, Boddingtons and Shepherd Neame’s Spitfire ale.
There were pictures of members of the Royal Family and charts showing the lines of succession.
There were football shirts representing Liverpool, Manchester United, West Ham and Manchester City (when I say ‘football’, I mean the game we play in the UK, when the players kick the ball with their feet…..).
The menu featured such English dishes as Shepherd’s Pie, Bangers and Mash, Cornish Pastie, Fish and Chips and that most English of dishes: Chicken Tikka Masala.
The music play list included: ‘Up the Junction’ by Squeeze, ‘This Charming Man’ by The Smiths, ‘Changes’ by David Bowie and ‘Happy Birthday’ by Altered Images.
Home from home.
After eating I returned home to the apartment and watched the Oscar ceremony. I got about as far as ‘Best soundtrack for an animated short factual documentary’ before I fell asleep.
The first week of ‘To Begin With’ was at an end.
On Tuesday morning our review was published in The Star Tribune:
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