Friday November 20
As my only commitment today is a meet and greet session with students in the afternoon, I can take the opportunity of having one of my costumes dry cleaned.
It is with a sense of trepidation that I hand it over, for if by any chance it is not returned today, I am in trouble. I am sure that it is good hands, but as the green frock coat, along with trousers and waistcoat, disappear from my sight I send vibes of good fortune with them.
The breakfast room is actually very quiet, as the orchestra members, dressed in ill-fitting tuxedos, and long black dresses are obviously ready for an early performance. The noise level in the lobby rises as more musicians arrive, and it is as if they are tuning up before the conductor raises his baton to bring silence.
Good luck folks, have a great performance
I return to my room and write the blog, before spending time doing some research on a small legal matter that has arisen (no, it has nothing to do with running the red light in LA, or even for driving through the PA Turnpike toll booth without an EZ-Pass).
My administrative efforts are interrupted by taking the elevator to the 5th floor to do the mundane laundry that is necessary for the next few days.
When I have all of the information that I need, and have sent the relevant emails; as well as retrieving my socks and shirts, I put my remaining costume onto a hanger ready to walk to Nauticus.
I have a little time before the meet and greet starts, so I am going to spend an hour or so in the museum itself. The walk is only ten minutes, and before entering the building I pause and look up at the huge prow of The Wisconsin.
Angela is waiting to greet me, and makes sure I have the correct sticker before letting me loose within Nauticus. The museum is superb and naturally focuses on the Naval History of the area (The Chesapeake Bay being a strategically important delta). I learn how the US Navy was in disarray until Theodore Roosevelt commissioned the Great White Fleet and sent the ships on a circumnavigation of the globe, to spread goodwill, friendship – as well as proof that the USA should now be counted on as a naval powerhouse.
I am particularly amazed at the stories of the Confederate ironclad ships used in the American Civil War. Ships such as the CSS Virginia were used to ram the opposition, and what is extraordinary to me is how modern they looked – almost like the stealth craft of today’s navy. I can’t say that for sure, because I have never seen a stealth craft, which obviously proves how effective they are.
Being from a family steeped in naval history I find the whole place wonderful.
All too soon my hour is up, and I take the lift up to Angela’s office, where I change into my costume for the afternoon’s visit to Christmas Towne itself. Angela is already emailing Pam at Byers Choice to try and get dates for next year sorted as soon as possible.
Angela and I take the short walk from Nauticus to The Half Moone Cruise Terminal where the Christmas Towne exhibit is situated. Stephen is waiting to great us, and as we walk through the doors we pass from the warmth of a sunny Norfolk day, into the chill of a London street.
The set is remarkable with streets winding up and down the building, all lined with 2-story buildings. There is the Old Curiosity Shop, there is a poulterer, there is a book store. Stephen is obviously immensely proud with what has been achieved, and as we walk he is checking the minutest of details, making sure everything is perfect.
He is an old romantic at heart, as one of the buildings represents the pub that he and his wife Sarah Jane visited on the night of their engagement, whilst one of the streets is named after his mother-in-law.
One of the main concerns Stephen has is to preserve the literary background of the experience, and not let it become a Disneyfied scene, so he has created huge curled pages displaying text and illustrations from the original 1843 edition of the book, and hung them from the walls.
There is a pub, serving proper pub food, there is an old time photography booth, there are huge Victorian Christmas Cards for people to stand behind and be photographed.
There are Union Flags (the correct name for the Union Jack), hanging…..oh dear. Last night as Stephen drove me back to the hotel there was a folded up Union Jack on the front seat of his car. ‘Make sure you hang it the right way up!’ I said. Stephen, having an English wife replied by saying his life wouldn’t be worth living if he got it wrong. And now, here today in Christmas Towne the Union Flags are hanging upside down.
Poor Stephen is distraught, but I know he’d rather be aware of it now, rather than when the crowds are pouring through the doors tomorrow.
We reach the far end of the scene and there is a small circular wooden stage, where I will be performing for the students in about thirty minutes. Actually the stage, set as it is in a market square, would be a superb venue to do Doctor Marigold in, and maybe that is something to think about in the future.
I do a quick sound check, and grab a few pieces of furniture, and then wait until the audience arrives.
At 2.15 the small group of theatre students from the Governor’s School for the Arts arrive and sit themselves around the stage.
Originally I was going to try and pare down A Christmas Carol to 45 minutes, but it was proving difficult to retain a sense of the main performance, so instead Angela, Pam and I decided that it would be better if I did the ‘behind the scenes’ of A Christmas Carol, and explain how the show works, and how it developed.
I begin with Dickens’s preface to the novel and then tell all of my old stories: Cockerel, RSC Nicholas Nickleby, first reading performance in 1993, losing the script and improvising for the first time. The students are very attentive and engaged.
For the second half of the session I talk about some of the techniques for transitioning between characters and maintaining their respective positions on stage – I hope that being theatre students they may appreciate these technical details.
When I have finished my talk, I throw it open to questions. At first no one is willing to make the first move, until the group’s teacher chimes in – after that the flood gates open and we spend a fun time chatting back and forth. They are a great bunch and a real credit to the school, asking intelligent and pertinent answers.
My 45 minute time slot comes to an end and they give me a big round of applause. The teacher thanks me and asks if I could actually give a performance at the school sometime, which may be something to think about in future years; I’d love them to see the full show, and then have a discussion about it afterwards.
My formal duties for Dickens Christmas Towne are now finished, and it is with great sadness that I leave the wonderful scene for the last time. At least this year I have seen it in its finished state, whereas when I was here twelve months ago to promote the inaugural season, it was still a construction site as I left.
Angela takes me back to the office to pick up my 21st Century clothes, and then back to the main entrance of Nauticus, where we say goodbye for another year.
I walk back to the hotel in costume, and no heads turn in surprise. It is a lovely warm day, and the sun is beginning to set.
When I get back to my room I realise that the dark load of laundry didn’t dry properly earlier, so I go back to the first floor and change a dollar bill for quarters. While I am at the counter I realise that I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast, so purchase a little microwavable can of ravioli, which I take back to my room (stopping at the fifth floor laundry to start the drier going). Once in the room I realise that there is no microwave (that was the previous hotel), so go all the way down to the lobby again to use the one in the pantry.
I read the instructions on the can: ‘remove metal lid by ring-pull.’ I peel it back, but it gets stuck at the last bit, so I tug a little harder and still it doesn’t come away. A little more effort…..
OK: a tight lid suddenly giving way; a can filled with red tomato sauce; a man wearing a white shirt. What do you think the result is? A CSI team could investigate me for spatter patterns – I look as if I should be strapped to a stretcher and taken to A&E straight away.
Back up to floor 8, and I take my shirt off and soap all of the red marks, before hanging it up to dry. By the time I get to the ravioli it is cold anyway.
Because I haven’t had a big show today I don’t need to let my costume air before packing it, so I spend time organising my cases (not forgetting the load in the drier.) My dry cleaning is returned intact, and everything is ready for the morning.
At 6.50 Stephen comes to the hotel to take me out to dinner. I’d assumed we would be driving, so didn’t put a coat on, but actually we are walking a few blocks to a fish restaurant. The temperature is still warm, and it is a very pleasant stroll.
We sit at the bar and order some wine while we wait for Sarah Jane to join us. Stephen is tired, as the whole project has been a massive effort, but tomorrow his dreams will be realised and Dickens Christmas Towne will be open to the public.
Sarah Jane arrives and we have a great evening, with lots of laughter and good conversation. I have a grilled salmon with crab and it is superb.
After a couple of hours of convivial company, and with promises to do it all again next year, we walk through the streets of Norfolk back to my hotel, where we say goodbye.
It will be sad to fly away tomorrow and leave Christmas Towne behind me. Stephen’s passion and vision, allied to the professionalism of Angela and the whole team, makes the whole project very welcoming; I have felt as if I am a major part of it from the first moment Stephen greeted me last year.
Good luck Dickens Christmas Towne: have a great season.