Thursday, December 3
Although today is a busy one, all of the action is packed into the afternoon, so I actually have a leisurely few hours ahead of me when I wake.
I do some exercises and finally get round to folding shirts, thereby clearing the mountain of clean laundry that has taken over the sofa.
With the daily blog completed and breakfast eaten I sit at the computer and get on with a little work. Firstly I have to respond to a journalist in the UK, who is writing a feature to promote my show in Market Drayton on December 20th. The questions are fairly standard, as are my answers – although I try to write as conversationally as I can, so that the ‘interview’ won’t appear too stilted.
Once I have sent the email to the reporter I move onto the next set of questions from Professor Malcolm Andrews, who is one of the world’s leading Dickensian scholars, and who is writing a feature for The Dickensian Magazine about performing Dickens.
His question relates to becoming ‘lost’ within a character as I perform, and I mention the scene in my show when Bob Cratchit mourns for Tiny Tim. Many times real tears and emotion have overwhelmed me, making it difficult to continue the narrative. In my answer to Malcolm I mention that both Bob and I have to ‘pull ourselves together’ before being able to go on. Almost immediately I get a Professorial reply pointing out that instead of pulling ourselves together what, in fact, I should be doing is pulling myself apart from Bob, which of course is true. I always feel very nervous writing for Professor Andrews!
I spend the rest of my free time doing some research on my family line, as tomorrow I am talking about that subject at a tea show. The main part of the programme will be an article that my father wrote in 1993, remembering his childhood Christmas memories in the company of Henry Fielding Dickens, the son of Charles Dickens. It is a beautifully written piece but is rather too short for a performance, so I need to spend some time telling the audience about the family connections from Charles to me.
Having jotted down a few dates and selected a few quotes, I shut the computer down and get myself ready for the events ahead.
Lee picks me up at 11.15, and drives us to the west of Omaha and the Millard North High School, where I am to perform for the students there. We arrive early, so sit in the car park for a little while. Parked outside the entrance is the obligatory police car – such a sad indictment of modern life; although with the news of yet another mass shooting all over the news papers this morning , the need for constant vigilance is obvious.
At the school we are shown to the auditorium, and met by head of performing arts Debbie Martinez, who is kind and helpful. Her role has only recently expanded to include responsibility for the auditorium, so she is not all together certain of how the sound and light system works. A call is put out for Matthew who, although a student, runs the technical desk as if he owned it. Soon Matthew is flicking switches, twiddling knobs, sliding faders: all the time teaching his teacher. It is a fascinating piece of role reversal and, to her great credit, Debbie watches intently, occasionally asking questions, and trying to take it all in.
As we work, the school Principal Brian Begley comes to greet me. Although Brian doesn’t have the huge personality of Gene Hayes, he is passionate about his school, and excited about today’s event. Brian used to be an English teacher, and he has arranged for lots of English and drama classes to attend the performance.
With all of the sound checks completed to Matthew’s satisfaction (although he continues to play the sound effect again and again at differing volumes), Debbie shows me to the male dressing rooms where, rather disconcertingly, some glittery white strappy dresses are hung on a rail.
I make myself at home, and settle down. I have an email from my brother Ian, and I am in the process of replying to it when I hear, through the stage monitor system, the show music playing, followed by someone talking. I have a panic attack that I have got the times wrong in my mind, and that Mr Begley is at this moment making his introductory remarks, and any moment I will hear a welcoming round of applause.
I throw my day clothes off and throw my costume on, hopping round the dressing room with one leg in the trousers, trying to grab the cravat. The buttons on the waistcoat won’t match up and the socks are all twisted, so that the heel is on the top of my foot. The button holes on my French cuffs do not line up properly and I am fumbling to get the cufflinks through them.
I am getting more and more panicky and hot. CALM DOWN! OK, you will look a bit silly when you eventually appear on the stage but you still have to do a show. Eventually two things occur to me – 1: why would the music have been playing before Mr Begley introduced me and, 2: the voice is still talking and unless Brian is making the world’s longest introductory speech, what I am hearing is not coming from the stage.
With my costume properly in place I walk, nay, saunter to the stage, where the auditorium is still empty and all is calm. Nobody will ever know: unless they read the blog, of course.
Lee is sat in the back of the auditorium and I make a point of asking him to remind me to fetch my scarf from the stage when I finish – I don’t want to lose it for a third time and if two of us are thinking about it the chances of remembering it are vastly increased (doubled, I suppose).
I return to the dressing room and drink plenty of water, and try to compose my racing pulse. A few deep breathing exercises and a few vocal warm ups and I am soon in a much better frame of mind for the performance ahead.
In the wings of the stage the students are gathering and they sound like a good crowd. Mr Begley is on stage conducting the arrival process until everyone is seated.
The show is due to begin at 1.30 and on the dot the Principal welcomes the audience. Somewhat worryingly there is a lot of chat and noise even as he speaks, and I worry that this could be a difficult show. The music plays and I walk out onto the stage.
The house lights remain up here, so I have a clear view into the audience. If there is boredom and restlessness, I am going to see it. Deep breath and let’s go.
The students are much more responsive during the show than the corresponding audience at Omaha North yesterday – they laugh, they respond, and they listen. As the show progresses the students become more involved. One or two leave, and a few are slumped in their chairs – but this is a group of three hundred high school students, you wouldn’t expect anything else.
The first female characters elicit titters and Mrs Cratchit gets loud laughter, as does the flirtatious Topper. As Bob breaks down over Tiny Tim there is absolute silence in the hall, and I think back to Professor Andrews’ remarks this morning.
The story reaches its final moments and as I leave the stage the applause is thunderous, raucous, vocal and prolonged. What a fantastic audience they are! Whereas yesterday’s students were respectful and quiet, today’s group have allowed themselves to get wrapped up in the story to a much greater extent.
When I return to the stage to take a bow suddenly they are all standing and cheering. It is a response the like of which I have never had from a student audience.
We have time for questions and Mr Begley moves around the hall with a microphone. The questions are intelligent and thoughtful; one girl (presumably a theatre student) asks me if I have any set warm-up routine prior to performing. My mind is suddenly filled with the vision of me hopping round the dressing room, one trouser leg on, the other tripping me up, cuffs flapping, cravat not tied, socks twisted: ‘I try to remain calm and do a few breathing exercises’ I tell her.
With the Q&A finished I go back to the dressing room (having remembered to fetch my scarf from the hat stand), and change into my second costume, not because I have a signing session, but because I have another commitment straight away. When I return to the stage I am amazed to find a long line of students desperate to have pictures taken and books signed. What an enthusiastic group they are.
Lee is waiting patiently and when the students filter away to join their classes, we walk through the wide corridors of the school and into the parking lot. Even outside people are shaking my hand and saying ‘awesome job!’
My next commitment is a television interview for a station broadcasting from the University of Nebraska, Omaha campus. The show is hosted by Cathy Wyatt who greets us at the door and leads us to the technical booth where I shake hands with the programme’s team. Almost immediately I am led to the studio where we sit in chairs and prepare to start. The interview is due to last for thirty minutes and will be taped as live, meaning that there will be no editing. The show is called Consider This and will air across the state in a week’s time.
Cathy runs through the format of the interview with me: it will open with a clip of George C Scott as Scrooge, before she will ask me to talk about Charles Dickens and my own career. At one point graphics of book covers will be shown and she asks if I would discuss each book and its significance briefly. There is also a video clip of me performing at Byers Choice a few years ago for me to comment on.
When everything is ready the studio goes quiet and the opening clip rolls. As I watch George C Scott I remember how much I love his portrayal of Scrooge, and think that I must re-watch it soon. The interview itself starts and Cathy asks her questions and then listens carefully to my answers (that is definitely not always the case). The thirty minute time slot means that we can discuss the topics properly, rather than just spout short sound bites. I talk about David Copperfield (‘autobiographical’), Great Expectations (‘my favourite’), A Tale of Two Cities (‘very modern, almost like a movie screenplay’) and Nicholas Nickleby (‘the book that first stirred my interest in the works of Charles Dickens’), before moving on to A Christmas Carol and my performance.
We watch the clip of me and Cathy asks what I think when I’m seeing it: that’s a tricky one to answer, because what I see is a gap between my waistcoat and the top of my trousers, with the white shirt untidily showing; what I think is ‘thank heavens I wear braces now to hold the trousers in the right place’. Not exactly Frost/Nixon material!
The thirty minutes passes far too quickly and in no time Cathy is winding things up. It has been a lovely session and I have enjoyed it immensely.
Having once again shaken hands with everyone in the booth Lee takes me back to the hotel where I have about forty minutes to relax before we are on the go again.
I realise that in our packed afternoon schedule I have not eaten anything since breakfast, so I make the most of the bag of nuts and dried fruit that Susie had placed in my room. I have a coffee and try to re-set a little.
Tonight I am returning to the General Cook House, where we had the banquet last night, to perform Mr Dickens is Coming!
There is a cocktail hour from 6 till 7, during which all of the guests mingle and chat. Due to the size of the house it is only a small audience, and there is a great sense of friendliness and family. Charles Dickens used to perform private readings and magic shows for his family and friends and I’m sure that the setting would have been just like this.
One of the guests is a young artist called Jeremy Caniglia who illustrated an edition of A Christmas Carol. He introduces himself and presents me with a wonderful pencil sketch of Charles Dickens. We chat for a while and his passion for Dickens is immediately apparent. Hopefully we may be able to work together in future years.
Chef Mario has laid on a sumptuous buffet (including the avocado cream and pomegranate seeds that I enjoyed so much last night). I try not to eat before a show these days, to protect my throat, but he promises to keep some back for me.
At 7 I begin the show on the little stage and as it is a very conversational script, it works extremely well in this intimate setting. Uriah Heep has them squirming, and Sean Connery has them laughing. The sheer energy of Dickens comes through and hopefully they feel as if they know a little bit more about ‘The Inimitable’.
After the show we all gather around the dining table where Kathy reads my ‘Gerald Dickens Week’ proclamation once more and Susie makes a toast to me and to Charles. I sign a few books and chat to the audience and it is a very pleasant evening indeed.
I end up in the kitchen where Mario has set aside a tub of avocado cream, a paper cup filled with pomegranate seeds and a sealable bag filled with beef tenderloin. I balance it all precariously and Lee takes me back to the hotel, where I put on the Millard North sports shirt that I was presented with earlier, and relax on the sofa to enjoy my second meal of the day.
It was been a very busy day, but a very enjoyable one.
I will sleep well.
Millard North High School: http://mps.mnhs.schoolfusion.us/
Caniglia Art: http://www.caniglia-art.com/index.html