Monday 9 March, 2015.  I am sitting in my apartment, with my suitcase almost packed.  I am looking out over the roofs of Minneapolis.  I am reflecting on a most remarkable month.

Yesterday the final performance in this run of ‘To Begin With’ took place ending a period of my life that I shall never forget.

I have already detailed the build up to the opening weekend of the play in previous posts, but let me try and give you some idea how life has been during the three weeks since then:

Minneapolis

My apartment block is located on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, which has a modern, exciting skyline.  The tall buildings are crowded together: a forest of steel and glass.  There are wonderful reflections which the architects must have considered carefully as they designed these wonders.

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On many occasions I have walked through the city, and the towering buildings give the impression of being in New York or Chicago, but without the people.  During my time here the temperature has rarely risen to anywhere near freezing, and most people use the skyways to get about: a network of walkways linking all of the major buildings.  The result being that at ground level the streets are deserted as if I were in the set of a cataclysmic disaster movie.

There are unexpected advantages to the freezing conditions:  As in any large city people go out and celebrate of an evening.  Some of these people may have over-imbibed and a portion of those may feel unwell and yet are not able to find sanctuary; they end up leaning on a building and regurgitating their evening’s intake.

Another scenario familiar to all city dwellers: dog walkers who are not vigilant in keeping the streets clear of mess.

In Oxford, or London the result of the aforementioned scenarios can be, at best, a terrible mess on the sole of a shoe, or at worst a slip and fall.

In Minneapolis in March there is none of that; for everything is frozen solid!

The city is laid out on a grid system and once you get your bearings, it is easy to navigate round.  The drivers are courteous and patient, quite happy to hesitate at a junction and wave the pedestrian through.

There is a natural friendliness and generosity here which is infectious and I have found myself striking up conversations with people in the street.  If I keep doing that when I get home I will get some very odd looks.  This isn’t the false, corporate ‘Have a nice day!’ America; this is a completely genuine ‘I really hope that you have a nice day, and I look forward to hearing about it next time we meet’ America.

Nestling among the skyscrapers are some wonderful older buildings, proving that this is a City with a great past.  There is the magnificent Citadel and the beautiful deco Foshay tower, which is now a very impressive hotel.

The Citadel

The Citadel

Foshay Tower

Foshay Tower

Many of walls have had murals painted onto them, including one that has been transformed into a sheet of music manuscript.  Apparently it is a famous piece (I will need Liz to verify it).  Dennis told me that a neighbour had decided to play it one day and discovered that one note was wrong.  He told the building’s owners and sure enough they sent a man up a ladder with a pot of white paint and a pot of black paint, to correct the error.

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Life in 1310

The LPM tower, in which my apartment is located, has been built in a  less developed neighbourhood on the edge of the downtown area, and stands proudly against the sky, like a beacon of expansion.  It’s futuristic curved designed prompted Jeffrey’s son Evan to suggest that I was living in Dubai!

Dubai

Dubai

My apartment is on the 13th floor and is modern, light and comfortable.

Because Liz was with me when I arrived, we both settled in and started putting our own stamp on it.  Nothing major, it was not as if we were hanging pictures and painting the walls; just things like choosing which cupboards the food would go in, when we would run the dishwasher, what temperature we wanted.

So when Liz left after the first week the apartment felt very empty.  After that, I fell into a daily routine that never varied much during my stay.

I would wake at around 6am, make coffee then check emails, and write to Liz with an account of the previous day’s adventures.

Next would be a trip to the sixth floor, where the gym and pool are situated.  In the beginning (that’s a good line….), I went into the gym and spent time on the treadmill and rowing machine, but in the final weeks I devoted my energies to the swimming pool instead.

Swim over, I spent a while in the steam room and then a quick blast in the Jacuzzi pool.

The health centre was usually completely deserted, which was great for me.

Back up to the 13th floor and breakfast.  For those of you that have followed my Christmas tours online, you will be surprised to know how healthy my breakfasts were: granola with raspberries, strawberries or blueberries; two glasses of orange juice and occasionally some toast.  It must have been an attempt to remain virtuous after my exercise.  There were notable exceptions to this healthy diet, but more of that later.

Next up, laundry:  Each night after the show I would bring my laundry bag back from the theatre, with my shirt, t shirt, socks and the sports bra.  Into the huge machine went this pitiful load, with anything that I could find around the apartment that needed washing; as a consequence I had the cleanest towels, pyjama bottoms and exercise gear that you have ever seen.

With the washing machine going it was morning walk time.  Often I needed to buy groceries or whatever, but sometimes it was just nice to walk for the sake of it.  For the greater part of my stay the temperature was at around -15, sometimes as low as -25, but a brisk walk really helped to energise me and get the blood pumping.

After my walk I may do a little work on the computer, or run some lines before lunch, which was usually a salad or soup.

Lazy time now.

TV:  Liz had discovered BBC America  as one of the channels available to us, so that’s where I inevitably ended up during the day.  I have to say that the programming isn’t desperately imaginative or varied.  At lunchtime and into mid afternoon there would be about four episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen nightmares, back to back.

If the programming is not imaginative and varied, the programme itself is even less so.  Never have I known such a formulaic TV show:

Lovely shots of a beautiful restaurant in a great setting.  Gordon walks in and is cheerfully (sometimes reverentially) greeted.  He chooses dishes from a huge menu, and the waitress tells him that they will be awful.

They are awful.  He spits something out and says ‘Unbelievable, this is the worst food I have ever tasted.’  One would have thought that after making so many programmes it would by now be quite believable and it can’t ALL have been the worst food he’s ever tasted.

He shakes his head and says ‘unbelievable’ again.  He meets the owner/manager/chef and confronts them with his opinions.  There are arguments, there is swearing.  Things are thrown.

Gordon watches a dinner service: ‘Unbelievable’

He confronts the owner/manager/chef and tells them exactly what is wrong.  They deny it.  He swears and threatens to leave.  They (and this is where any variety that there is comes in) either swear and shout and tell him that he should leave, or they burst into tears.

Next day they all come back.  Gordon has completely decorated the restaurant and every one puts their hands to their faces and gasps: ‘Oh, my God, oh Wow, Oh Wow.’  Gordon introduces a new menu, which is much smaller and incredibly tasty.

Re-launch night.  The restaurant is packed.  Service starts and goes well, everybody loves the food, but then there is a disaster in the kitchen.  No!  this is the worst thing that could happen on Re-launch night.  ‘Unbelievable!’ says Gordon.  But, the staff all pulls it round and the evening is a success.

‘We could never have done this without Chef Ramsey.  He has shown us what we need to do to succeed.  And, he has made our family complete again’ sob, sob, sob.

Gordon leaves saying to camera: ‘this was the most difficult challenge yet.…’

Oh well, it passes an hour or two.

If it was a performing night I would start preparing quite early, beginning with the ironing of my costume shirts and this was always an adventure.

Because the floors in the apartment are a stylish wood laminate, they are quite slippery.  As soon as I started to iron the board scooted across the floor.  In the end I developed a technique of ironing with my foot firmly planted on the leg of the ironing board.

1310 ironing technique

1310 ironing technique

An hour before I needed to be at the theatre, I shaved my cheeks (we couldn’t have CD with a 5 o’clock shadow), and had a nice cold shower to get buzzing again.

In the very cold weather, leaving the apartment was not the work of a moment, as it took ages to get loaded up with fleeces, scarves, gloves and hats.  By the time I’d walked to the lifts and towards the main door, I would be so hot!  That all changed as I revolved the revolving door and the icy blast hit.  In an instant my beard would freeze and when I eventually got back into warmth it would thaw again and I would gently drip on the floor.  Most attractive!

Dennis

Dennis Babcock has been my host here in Minneapolis.  My host, my friend and my boss.  He is a great source of inspiration and encouragement and is always generous in his praise.  The dream of ‘To Begin With’ has been with him for twenty years, so there was a huge amount riding on the success of these performances.

Not only is Dennis a producer, in the organisational and financial sense, he is also very much a theatre man, and throughout the run was always coming up with new suggestions as to how to play a certain line, or make a certain move. Each day he would subtly drop into conversation his notes from the previous evening:  maybe he wasn’t hearing a word clearly and could I be a little more careful; the best example of this was a line near to the end of the play: ‘So, you see.  Faith and Life, not so dark after all…’

‘Gerald, I’m not quite hearing ‘faith’.  It sounds a bit like ‘fate’, maybe you could just slow that whole line down, to make it clearer?’

I slowed and slowed and slowed it, until finally when I asked him if it had been clearer, he said: ‘Oh yes, much better.  I definitely heard it much more clearly.’  I joked with him that we had just added a minute to the running time.

Dennis is immensely busy, running three different shows (‘Triple Espresso’ which preceded ‘To Begin With’, and ‘That Wonder Boy’, which follows), but he always had time to call and chat and to offer to take me out somewhere.

Our first trip was to Saint Paul (the other of the Twin Cities – the slightly older Twin, I think). Jeffery had written a new script based on a locally-written Sherlock Holmes novel and there was a performed reading taking place to see how it worked.  We went through the same process with ‘To Begin With’ over two years ago.

Dennis and his wife Anne picked me up and we ate dinner before listening to the show.  It was great fun to be back on the other side, and to watch other actors revelling in Jeff’s brilliant language.

On another occasion, a Sunday night after our early show, Dennis took me back home, where Anne and her mother Betty cooked me the most delicious meal of salmon and rice.

Anne and Betty have been most gracious, wonderful and enthusiastic supporters of this production.  They sat through interminably dull tech rehearsals, as well as through a huge number of the performances.  And each time, they came up grinning from ear to ear,  telling me how amazing I was and hugging me.  I liked them being at the shows very much!  Dennis is fortunate to have such a family around him.  He knows it and is truly thankful for it.

Jeffrey

Jeff also made sure I was looked after.  He offered to take me to lunch on one of my days off, to The Saint Paul Hotel, where I used to perform A Christmas Carol as part of my Christmas tours.

It had snowed heavily that Tuesday morning, but of course that does not deter a Minnesotan, and by the time he came to pick me up, the roads had been cleared and home owners were clearing the sidewalks outside their properties with snow blowers.

The Saint Paul Hotel is a charming historical hotel and as I walked through the doors the memories came flooding back.

Saint Paul Hotel Lobby

Saint Paul Hotel Lobby

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We ate in the Saint Paul Grill, and I had cup of Rice Soup and Battered Walleye (a type of fish caught locally.)  It was a true Minnesota lunch.

When we had finished lunch I thought that I might ask at the front desk to see if any of the team I used to work with were still at the hotel, and within minutes I was surrounded by old friends and we were hugging and laughing and reliving old times.  It was as if no time had passed at all.

Jeff is excellent company and is so well read.  His knowledge of, well, everything, is astounding.  He is a generous man, both with his hospitality and his praise.

In a way he embodies Charles Dickens, for his work rate is unbelievable.  During my stay alone he was busy attending performances of one of his plays that was ending a run at the Guthrie Theatre, directing me, working on his Holmes script, and preparing a movie script based on a battle during The First World War, involving a resurgent Knights Templar; and those are just the ones I know about.  I have no doubt there are many more irons in Jeff’s fireplace.  It has been an honour and a privilege to work with him.

Ian

After Liz left I was feeling a bit lonely, but I was to have a very pleasant surprise visitor.  My brother Ian is a marketing consultant and after I’d posted some early production pictures on Facebook, he commented that the whole project was an amazing story and could be ‘PR gold dust’.  Knowing that Dennis was keen to promote the show in the UK, I thought it might be a good idea for him and Ian to talk about the marketing possibilities.

I certainly wasn’t expecting what came next, any more than Ian was.  On a Tuesday afternoon Dennis called Ian to chat.  On Friday Ian was on a plane from London to Minneapolis, to see the show, discuss things with Dennis and then return home on Sunday.

When he arrived at the theatre I was in the middle of a photo shoot.  It was quite a time before I could greet him with a big brotherly hug.  It was great fun having Ian around, and he quickly became immersed in the production.

When the Friday night performance was done we headed to Brit’s Pub, even though it was about 4am as far as he was concerned.  We chatted and laughed, neither of us quite believing that we were both here in Minneapolis.  The temperature outside was about -19;  the following week Ian would be in the Caribbean to crew a yacht in a regatta: life is the most wonderful thing, isn’t it?

On Saturday morning we met at his hotel and chatted about the show some more, before doing one of my walks around downtown Minneapolis.  Dennis had offered to pick us up for lunch and a ‘Pickwickian Adventure’.  Neither of the Dickens brothers quite knew what to expect, until Dennis turned left off a quiet road, down a slipway and into Medicine Lake.  When I say ‘in’, I am taking liberties.  We were in Minnesota, so Dennis’ Jeep Grand Cherokee drove across Medicine Lake.

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Ian was in the front and calmly asked questions such as ‘How thick is the ice?’, how deep is the lake?’ and ‘how late in the year can you drive across it?’  As we became accustomed to the fact that the ice was perfectly safe, we both began to imagine what fun it would be to have a high powered, rear wheel drive car out here.  ‘The Top Gear Boys would love this’ muttered Ian.

At the centre of the lake we stopped, and Dennis, cutting a rather incongruous figure in his smart knee-length coat, knocked at the door of a shack.  He wanted to show us inside an ‘ice hut’ and was asking the owners of a red structure, if we could come and visit.  This was Minnesota – of course we could!

We spent about twenty minutes with three generations of the same family in their little home on the ice.  They build the structure when the winter blast hits in November and it remains there until March.  In each corner there was a hole cut for the fishing lines to dangle through and a high tech piece of sonar equipment which showed where the fish were and where the line was.  By watching this multi-coloured readout the fisherman could agitate his bait to tempt the fish.

The hut was well warmed by a heater, and extra heat would have been delivered by the huge number of  Bloody Marys that would be consumed, judging by the large stocks of Vodka and Tomato juice.

We spent about twenty minutes with the family, before leaving them to their fishing.  We continued across the lake, tracking parallel to a man riding the ice whist attached to a large kite.  Quite an amazing treat, all in all.

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On Sunday morning I took Ian to the Nicollet Diner, where Liz and I had eaten breakfast seven days before.

The Nicollet Diner

The Nicollet Diner

It was here on each Sunday of my stay, that my healthy breakfast diet took a nose-dive.  Bacon, eggs, pancakes and French toast all featured, I am ashamed to say.

When Ian and I visited, we were shown to our booth and fussed over by our waitress who christened us her ‘English Muffins’, after we both chose them from the menu.

And that afternoon, he was gone.  Like Liz the previous week, he watched the first half of the show, came to the dressing room, gave me a big hug and then drove to the airport with Dennis.

It was lovely to see him, and for him to be part of the team.  I hope that he will become a major part of the show in the future.

The Show

To begin with has grown, developed and become something quite amazing over the weeks.  It started off well and has moved on from there.

My show routine never changed.  It is not that I am superstitious, indeed quite the opposite, it is just that if everything happens in the same order each night, you can be sure that everything is in proper place and prepared.

I arrived at the theatre ninety minutes before curtain up.  Tricia would be in the dressing room primping and preparing my wig.  I put the freshly charged mic pack into its little pouch attached to the sports bra, and then pulled the thing over my head and arms.

For the next twenty minutes or so Tricia would do her thing, adjusting, pinning and gluing until I had my flamboyant head of hair firmly attached.  On ‘special’ nights she would take extra time: these nights included the opening night, the photo shoot and the night she watched the show: ‘I couldn’t bear to watch if the wig wasn’t right!’

When Tricia left I changed into my costume trousers, tied my cravat and put on the double breasted waistcoat.  With forty five minutes to go I walked up to the stage, just to check that all of the props were where they should have been and maybe just to run a scene that needed changing as a result of notes from the previous performance.

Contemplating the next two hours

Contemplating the next two hours

Back in the dressing room I drank lots of water, and ran through the first scene, just to become comfortable delivering the lines as Charles Dickens.

With thirty minutes to go Ben would pop his head into the dressing room and announce ‘we are at thirty’.  He would take my black fountain pen up to Millie, the Front of House manager.  I would carry on with the scene one run through and water drinking.

‘We are at fifteen’.  Now I sat down and relaxed briefly until Ben appeared once more to say ‘Five’, which was my cue to make my way to the wings and await the start of the show.

There was a slight gap in the black screening curtains, so I could get some idea as to where the audience were sitting.  I could work out if I needed to direct the performance to the edges of the auditorium or just to the centre where the majority sat.

Then I waited until the lights slowly faded to black and the bell sound effect started.  I walked through the darkness, took my opening position on stage, waited for the lights to come up and….

The interval was only fifteen minutes, and by the time I had changed costume (including socks, from the beige that matched the linen suit, to black for the second act), and hidden lace handkerchiefs up my sleeves, Ben was calling ‘five’ again.

Back in the wings I had more to do in the second act, as I had to enter wearing a dressing gown, carrying a cape over my arm, with a white silk scarf around my neck, three different canes and a top hat balanced on the end of them.  On top of it all was a velvet smoking cap with a gold tassel, which hung down my cheek and kept making me think that my wig had become detached.

The music that hailed the beginning of Act two started, the lights dimmed to black and once more I made my way through the dark to take my opening position on stage.  The lights came up and….

At the end of the show I took my bows before making my way to the lobby where a table was set up, with my fountain pen on it and a cold bottle of water.

It was my pleasure to meet members of the audience and sign their programmes, or copies of The Life of Our Lord.  I really enjoy doing this and it is a lovely way to finish the evening.

Meeting the audience

Meeting the audience

When the lobby emptied I went back to the dressing room, carefully peeled off the wig, and attached it to the ‘head’ clamped to the desk.  I changed into my own clothes, gathered up tomorrow’s laundry, said my goodbyes to whoever was left in the theatre and then walked the short walk to ‘Dubai’.

The End of the Beginning of To Begin With

And so, here I am.  Last night Dennis took Jeff and me out to dinner. We were to be joined by two of Dennis’ investors (both called John), but before they arrived I was able to give these two amazing, creative, colleagues a gift to say thank you.  In the show Dickens encounters the 12 year old Algernon Swinburne and the two have a testy relationship.

In reality Swinburne grew up to be an accomplished poet, and in 1913 wrote a book entitled Charles Dickens, laying forth the argument that Dickens was the world’s greatest author.  Liz and I had managed to track down three first editions of this book.  We now have one at home, while Dennis and Jeff have a copy each.

With the arrival of the two Johns we began a delicious and relaxing meal.  Everyone was so excited about what has been achieved with the play and questions were being asked about the next step: what now?

All I know is that we have come too far to let this project drop.  To Begin With has a long future in front of it, I am sure of that.

This is only the beginning.

 

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