Tuesday November 17
At last I sleep through to a decent time, waking up at around 6am, which is a welcome change to my routine.
Another bonus is that the Holiday Inn Express boasts a Keurig coffee maker – the first I’ve come across this year. With a delicious cup of Columbian brew at my side I begin my daily writing, until the details of my travels from California are completed and sent into cyberspace.
I have a shower and reflect that the twin bottles of ‘Volumising Shampoo and Conditioner’ are probably going to struggle on my thinning locks: the volume switch was turned down many years ago.
After a nice breakfast I come back to my room and kill a bit of time, before calling a Virginia PBS radio station. On Thursday I will be performing at the Dickens Christmas Towne exhibit in Norfolk and this brief interview is to promote the event.
Dickens Christmas Towne is about to open for its second year, and I spent a little time in Norfolk last year helping to launch the inaugural season. I am very excited to be returning and to actually see it up and running.
The director of the organisation that runs Christmas Towne is also on the line, and we chat with Kathy, the presenter, for fifteen minutes. I’m sure that our enthusiasm for the event will be obvious to the listeners.
When the interview is over I go through all of the preparations for my day ahead, making sure that I have three shirts ironed, and pack all of the little bits and bobs that I will need for two shows.
As I leave the hotel a bright blue sky and warm sun greet me. I pack everything into my Mazda, before setting the satnav unit. I start the engine and notice that the car has a ‘SPORT’ button. That sounds exciting, so I set it.
The journey to Burlington, which is actually over the state line in New Jersey, takes about twenty minutes. The sport button doesn’t seem to make a huge difference to the car’s performance. When I switch it ‘on’ the transmission drops a gear and there is a slight increase in acceleration. Turn it ‘off’ and the gear shifts up again, and the engine revs drop accordingly. As far as I can tell he sport button allows you to either a) use more fuel, or b) use less.
Having conducted this experiment I am arriving in Burlington and am soon pulling up outside the familiar building, that is the Historic Broad Street United Methodist Church.
I have been coming here for six years or so and it is always a very happy stop on my tour. The team who organise the event are fun, and I treat them all as good friends. As I unload my car the front door of the Church is opened and I am greeted by Joe Jaskot, the husband of the event organiser, Laura. He helps me with my bags, and soon I am being hugged by Laura and her mother.
Unfortunately one member of the team is not here this year – Bob, who has expertly looked after the sound system over the years, has been through the rigours of heart surgery recently and is not recovered enough to be here. We will miss him, but at least I can dedicate a line from the show to him: No Bob!
The sound system has been set up in advance and we do a quick check of the microphone, which sounds excellent.
And now there is the issue of my new musical effect at the start of the show. Laura has brought a huge portable CD player in, which is set up behind the stage, a microphone that is wired into the main sound system, is ready to be held in front of the speaker. Joe has been given the task of looking after this Heath Robinson system, and is understandably nervous about the whole operation.
We find a microphone stand, and adjust it so that it is at the same level as the speakers. Joe can now concentrate on playing track 2 (which features five minutes of tolling bells), and listening for my opening lines, so that he can fade the sound away at the appropriate moment.
We run the beginning of the show a few times, and all seems well.
In the lobby of the church the first audience are beginning to arrive, so I go to my dressing room to get ready, and Laura goes to greet the guests. Joe looks at the CD player, and makes himself even more nervous!
At 1 o’clock Laura, Joe and I meet at the base of the stairs that lead to the stage. The team is in place and we are ready to go. Joe goes to his post, to man the CD player, I go to the back of church’s sanctuary to make my entrance through the audience, and Laura goes to the stage to make the introductory remarks.
Our rehearsals pay off and everything works perfectly. The music accompanies Ebenezer as he walks through the audience to stand at Marley’s graveside. The heavy bell starts to toll. Scrooge removes his hat, and stands, uncomfortably alone. The narrator takes over: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’. The sound effect fades gently to silence. Perfect!
The Broad Street United Methodist Church was built in 1847, and is a beautiful space to perform in. Bright sunlight shines through the simple stained glass windows and the lighting is augmented by subtle electric candles and overhead lights.
I have often found that I discover new ways of doing things in Burlington: maybe it is the shape of the stage, or the different levels, or the proximity and friendliness of the audience, but the space seems to encourage creativity.
There are a few moments in the show that I am keen to tweak during this year’s trip and I try a few today. Many of the audience have seen the show on multiple occasions, and know what is coming. Today I have great trouble keeping a straight face as Mrs Cratchit, for the giggles start long before she leaves to fetch her Christmas pudding.
It is a fun show – that’s definitely the right word! There is a huge sense of friendship and support, and the ovation at the end feels as if it is a declaration of thanks, as well as congratulation. (That is actually an interesting thought – what emotion is being displayed by an audience at the end of any performance?)
I leave the stage and return to my basement dressing room, where I peel off my costume, towel down, and change into my fresh clothes ready for the signing reception, which is held in a large meeting room, where tea and cookies are served.
That sense of family and friendship continues as I sign and pose for those dedicated followers who return every year. Many wear their dedication like a badge of honour: ‘this is our seventh year to see you!’
When every smile has been smiled for every camera (or phone), and every signature signed, I go back to my dressing room and change into my normal clothes, ready for a spot of dinner.
Laura has booked a table (as has become a tradition) and fourteen of us make our way from the church to Francesco’s restaurant just around the corner.
Many of the volunteers follow my blog avidly, so there are many congratulations for Liz and my Wedding. Everyone wants details and stories and when I tell them about our honeymoon most ask: ‘Why Zanzibar?!’
Dinner is delicious, and I have veal, simply cooked in a lemon sauce, with no cheese, and a salad dressed with balsamic vinaigrette.
When we return to the church there is still over an hour to go before the second show, so I lay on the sofa in my room listening to music, playing backgammon, and reading – all thanks to the wonders of modern technology.
The heating has been turned on to warm the church and the ancient water pipes are groaning and rattling as if Jacob Marley himself is haunting us all.
With forty five minutes to go I get up from my couch, have a hot cup of tea and start to stretch and breathe properly, in readiness for the evenings events.
I put my costume on, fix the microphone to my shirt, clip the braces to my trousers (suspenders to my pants), tie my cravat and wait for Laura to give me the cue.
This evening’s audience is slightly larger, and has the same mix of old friends spread through the pews.
As the Ghost of Christmas Past is doing his/her stuff I become aware that my little microphone has come unclipped and is dangling down. As I ‘fall asleep’ in the chair, I turn away from the audience so that I can clip it back, but almost immediately it falls out again. I decide to leave it hanging, and rely on the room’s excellent acoustics to see me through.
Rather annoyingly I mix some of my lines up: as Christmas Present morphs into Yet To Come, I say: ‘Scrooge looked all about him for the Ghost of Christmas Present…’ then, instead of continuing ‘but saw him not’, I leap forward to ‘but he saw no likeness of himself among the multitude’, which should come in a few minutes, when Scrooge is taken into the city.
I now have the job of getting back to where I should be and adlibbing in such a way so as not to repeat myself. It is a clumsy and awkward moment and I am angry with myself for such a silly mistake.
Apart from that the show is another great success, and the audience are vocal in their thanks.
In the signing session I pose for a photograph with a family, who are regular attendees. Apparently my picture is on their wall at home more often than some of their closest relatives! However this is a poignant year for them, as their father (and grandfather), has recently passed away. He read A Christmas Carol to them each year and loved bringing his family to my show every year. As we talk about him there are tears and trembling lips. It must be so difficult for them to be here, where there are so many happy memories, but they were determined to come and celebrate as he would have wished.
I am sure that he was there with us, watching, laughing, listening. In fact, he is probably chatting to Charles Dickens right now, asking why Marley’s face looked like ‘a bad lobster in a dark cellar!’
I am feeling very tired as the last of the audience leave. I pack up my bags, and say good bye to Laura and Joe and the rest of them for another year.
As I drive back to my hotel, the moon, with a tinge of bronze to it, lays lazily on its back, and looks like a huge smile in the sky.
I smile back and reflect on a very happy day.
Broad Street United Methodist Church: http://broadstumc.org/