Thursday 12 November

At the beginning of a tour there are always certain landmark days, which herald a first. Today, for example, will be the first time this year that I perform A Christmas Carol twice in a day, and how my energy levels hold up will be an indication as to how the rest of the trip will pan out.  My first week has actually been fairly easy going and there is a much tougher schedule ahead of me, so I hope that I come through today’s events without any problems.

My sleep patterns are still a bit haywire, and I am able to sit in bed for a couple of hours catching up with emails and writing my blog, before getting up and ready for Breakfast.

I am not entirely sure how the day is going to work out, so I pack everything I need for two shows, just in case I don’t get back to the hotel between times. I iron four shirts and carefully pack two waistcoats, trousers, frock coats and two sets of braces; as well as my watch and cufflinks.

9am seems to be very early to leave the hotel for a 1’oclock show, but David promised to give me a tour of the arboretum today, and we have arranged to meet at 9.30.

The drive from the hotel is a short one and I am soon turning into a long curving driveway, and pulling up at a security checkpoint, where a lady asks my name, which I tell her.

‘Oh! Yeah! I was told to look out for you and see if you look like Charles Dickens, but I don’t know what Charles Dickens looks like, so I was worried I wouldn’t recognise you!’

I put on my top hat for her: ‘does this help?’

‘Oh! Yes, now THAT is good! Have a great day, a great show’ and so I get my first experience of the anticipation and excitement here.

David is waiting for me in the vast wooden atrium of the visitor centre and takes me through to see my performing space, which is a small, elegant room with a barrel roof. A stage has been erected at the far end and it is well dressed and decorated.  There is lots of spruce, giving off that gorgeous smell of pine forest, and the deep green is offset by poinsettias of red and white.  The team here have done an amazing job.

There are about a hundred chairs laid out in immaculate straight rows. With nobody sitting in them they look stark, rather disconcertingly like a KKK meeting.

I am introduced to various members of staff and everyone is excited about the day ahead. The two performances are to be private events for the patrons and donors to the arboretum, so the team are anxious to impress.

Our tour of the centre continues and David takes me to the library, where there is a truly impressive archive of books documenting the scientific discovery of various plantlife throughout the ages.  The oldest book in the collection dates back to the 1500s.

The librarian pulls a huge volume out from a rack and opens it carefully to show me the most amazing watercolour illustrations of Parakeets. The colours are as vivid as the day they were painted.

‘Do you recognise the painter?’ I’m afraid that my knowledge of Victorian bird illustrators is limited, but I look at the small signature anyway, to be polite: Edward Lear!  Long before he became famous for his nonsense poems, Lear was a jobbing illustrator, and had been commissioned to contribute to this major work, detailing previously undiscovered birdlife in Africa.

And this seems a sensible time to break away from my tour, and to pay tribute to Edward Lear’s literary efforts:

There was a Young Lady whose chin, Resembled the point of a pin; So she had it made sharp, And purchased a harp, And played several tunes with her chin.

There was a Young Lady of Portugal, Whose ideas were excessively nautical: She climbed up a tree, To examine the sea, But declared she would never leave Portugal.

There was a Young Lady whose eyes, Were unique as to colour and size; When she opened them wide, People all turned aside, And started away in surprise.

And with that, let us resume.

The next part of our tour is outside and David leads the way to his Jeep. We are going to drive around the park on Three Mile Drive.  As we turn off the main route and into the trees, it feels as if we are in a new Jurassic Park film – a sensation heightened by the giant turkeys that stand in the road impeding our progress.

Even in the winter the Arboretum is an impressive site. The sinuous road passes various areas given over to specific species, and it has been cleverly landscaped with lakes and statuary to complement the planting.

We wind our way back to the beginning of the route and disembark at the visitor centre. It has been a great tour, and has given me a sense as to the scale of the arboretum and what it means to the people who work here.

And now, it is back to work. We do a sound check for my microphone (which I probably don’t really need), and for my opening sound effect, which is run from an iphone : ah, the modern world.

The lighting in the room is not brilliant, but David is already talking about getting theatre spots installed for next year to correct that. Seeing how he works I have no doubt that they will be here when I return.

With an hour to go before the audience arrives I go to my green room, which is a terribly impressive second floor space, with views across the landscape outside. I get into my costume and then sit checking my phone and have the lovely experience of seeing Liz’s name pop up on my Facebook page.  We chat back and forth for a little while, until we both have to sign off – her to eat supper and me to get ready to meet and greet.

The Green Room

The Green Room

As this is an exclusive event the staff have laid on an hour-long cocktail reception before the show. I go and cruise the various rooms, chatting randomly to anyone I can find.  Eventually, and without apparent instruction, the crowd starts to move into the theatre and before I know it, we are all ready for the off.

I have to be honest: it is not an easy show. Something just doesn’t seem to ‘click’ and it seems to be a struggle to engage the audience.  It feels alright to me, I don’t feel wanting for energy, and the words are all there.  I can’t put my finger on it.

Maybe it is the more formal nature of the event, or the lighting, or the temperature, but what it comes down to really, is that I just do not get the job done to my satisfaction, which is annoying.

The audience clap loudly, and there are lots of encouraging comments and handshaking as they leave, but it all feels slightly hollow.

Damn, that is frustrating!

I go back to my dressing room to change. Downstairs all of the staff are delighted by the response.  As the shuttle busses took people back to the car park, everyone was talking in glowing terms about the show, so maybe the problem is in my mind only.  Anyway, I need to re-set a little, so decide to go back to the hotel for a couple of hours.

Once there I have a short nap, before waking with the alarm, having a cold, energising shower, and getting ready to go again.

Back at the arboretum there is still a buzz from earlier and I feel a little more positive. I chat with Peggy and David and various other members of the team, before going back to my room to change again.

The main bar for the reception is in the room beneath me and as the audience starts to gather I can tell that they are a much livelier crowd, as the noise levels are much higher than this afternoon. Good: now I must do my part.

I go downstairs to meet and greet and the first person I see is my friend Dennis Babcock, the producer of To Begin With, which we premiered in Minneapolis back in February. We greet each other with a large hug.

I move around the room chatting with various folk, some of whom I have met during the day, others who have only just arrived for the show. Once again the almost imperceptible drift begins in the bar and the river of the audience flows towards their seats.

This evening I nail it. I wish I could tell you what is different, but the energy level is high, the timing is precise and the audience very responsive.  At the end they stand to applaud and I take my bows very, very gratefully.

I stand outside the hall and everyone comes up, offering congratulations and shaking my hand. Autographs are requested and superlatives shared.  This is much more like it.

As the happy crowd leaves, a member of staff whispers to me ‘there was probably $50,000,000 worth of investment in that room tonight.’ I’m glad that I didn’t know that beforehand!

I have arranged to have dinner with Dennis, so go back to my room to change and pack, desperately trying not to leave anything there. When I come down again I say goodbye to David and Peggy and all of the team, thanking them so much for all of their hospitality and generosity.  It has been an amazing day, and I am greatly looking forward to returning to The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum next year.

Dennis and I decide to go to the restaurant near my hotel, where David and Peggy took me yesterday and he says he will follow me. I get off to a good start by turning the wrong way in the car park.  Dennis dutifully follows and patiently matches my u-turn and away we go on the correct route.

The restaurant is almost empty, but we order some appetisers and catch up on our news. Of course Dennis is keen to know about the wedding and honeymoon to Zanzibar.

After a while we discuss the ongoing situation of To Begin With – or not ongoing situation, as it is at the moment. Having got the show to the stage with great critical acclaim, Dennis now needs a major investment to move it on to the next level.  At the moment, frustratingly, there are no investors coming forward, although there are plenty of irons in the fire and plenty of tentative interest.  Just one of those contacts needs to take the plunge.  It is a waiting game.  I just hope we don’t have to wait for too long!

It is 10.30 when we say goodbye and I return to my hotel.

It has been a fascinating day, both from a personal and professional point of view.  I have been introduced to a remarkable team in a remarkable setting, and I hope that today is just the beginning of a long association together.

Professionally I had a challenging day, but believe that I met that challenge and overcame it.  That is a nice positive thought to fall asleep with.

Link: http://www.arboretum.umn.edu/

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