My few days between performances were spent in a wonderful wilderness, courtesy of Bob and Pam Byers, who let me have the run of their amazing cabin. Apart from the previously described trip to Watkins Glen, I explored, swam, cycled, played pool and generally relaxed, which was rather nice.
On one morning I drove to the Byers’ Choice headquarters and Visitor Center to record a few video clips that Byers’ can use in their marketing for this Christmas’ events. I was working with Jeff Byers and we had great fun for an hour or so improvising a series of 20 second segments.
Filming finished we all –Bob, Jeff and Joyce Byers and myself – gathered round a computer and studied the first drafts of a very exciting development. After twenty-three years of performing A Christmas Carol I am at last going to have a glossy, Broadway-style souvenir brochure on tour. Thanks to the work that my brother Ian has put in, what started as an idea is moving quickly towards reality.
If all goes to plan each venue will have stocks of the brochure which will not only have lots of photographs, but also articles about the history of A Christmas Carol, about my show and about Charles Dickens’ relationship with America – we are very excited at the prospect!
Thursday 4 August
And so Thursday arrived, and it was time to leave the cabin and head to familiar climes, as I was due to perform at the Winterthur estate, which has become a firm favourite on my Christmas tours.
The drive took about two hours, and the day was bright and sunny. Usually as I head to Winterthur – one of the many DuPont homes in the state of Delaware – there is snow on the fields, and the trees are bare, so it was lovely to see the countryside in all its glory.
Amazingly as I arrived at the Visitor Center, which is home when I appear here, all of the staff were outside and greeted me with smiles and hugs. I was terribly impressed by the reception, until they explained that there had been a fire alarm and nobody was allowed inside. Once we were given the all clear and we could all go back inside (or just inside, as far as I was concerned), it was as if I’d never been away. Last December Liz was here with me and everyone asked after her and whether she was with me again.
Ellen is the manager here and she co-ordinates everything to do with my show, and I class her as one of many very good friends on tour.
The summer performance is a new departure for Winterthur, but they have attracted huge audiences for A Christmas Carol and the director, David Roselle, was very keen to try another performance. I had been asked to perform ‘Mr Dickens is Coming’, which is a light-hearted look at Charles Dickens’ performing career, and ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ – the charming true story of a ten year old girl who met Charles Dickens on a train ride from Portland, Maine, to Boston.
Ellen had arranged for various pieces of furniture to be provided, which would variously represent Charles’ reading desk, a chair in his study, a sofa in the same room and a bench seat in a New England railway carriage.
For the reading desk there was a large lecture podium (the Copland Hall was originally built as a lecture theatre), and I had brought a red cloth to disguise it as the little red table that Dickens used. Really the podium was a little too big, so I looked around and found a few other props which may have worked. One was a very small wooden podium, but that was too small (this is beginning to sound like Goldilocks and the three bears). Next I found a blue plastic bin (a mini dumpster, I suppose would be the best American description), which was actually the correct size, but I couldn’t put anything on it (books, etc), without the fabric collapsing in and taking everything with it. So I returned to the original podium, which of course was absolutely fine.
The other slight issue was the order of the shows. I have always performed ‘Mr Dickens is Coming’ first, as it is not too taxing and is a good introduction, but Ellen was publicising ‘A Child’s Journey’ as the main piece and had put that as the first act in the programme. We discussed it for a while and decided that we would do it my way, with Mr Dickens first, and David would announce the switch when he made his introductory remarks.
Time was marching on and the audience was beginning to arrive – a decent audience too, probably between 150 and 200. Many of them, indeed most of them, had seen me perform A Christmas Carol and were excited to see the ‘new’ shows (new in inverted commas, in that I have been performing Mr Dickens is Coming since 1995)
The time came and David made his way to the stage, but unfortunately his microphone was not working. David is quietly spoken, but commands respect, but unfortunately on this occasion his remarks were greeted by ‘WE CANT HEAR YOU’, and ‘ITS NOT WORKING!’ As there didn’t seem to be a technical solution David resorted to speaking very slowly, enunciating well, and cutting the intro short.
In any other venue I would have been worried, but the Copland Hall is an extraordinary piece of theatrical architecture and has the most remarkable acoustics, so I never use a microphone here: it is old school at Winterthur.
Mr Dickens is Coming went well and everybody laughed at the right moments. It is not a ‘WOW, that was AWSOME!’ sort of a show and never has been, but it is fun and tells the story without being too serious. But the great success of the afternoon was ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’.
In 1912 Kate Douglas Wiggin gave a speech to the New York Branch of the Dickens Fellowship, in which she recounted the time that she had engaged her idol, Charles Dickens, in conversation. The story is a told in her voice, with flashbacks to the actual event, so there are in fact three characters – old Kate, young Kate and Charles.
I am 52, getting portlier by the year and am bearded, and yet here I am playing a 10 year old girl from Maine – but somehow, it works! People get completely wrapped up in the story and it is as if we are all travelling on the train.
At the end of the recital I tell the story about how I purchased a first edition of the book a few years ago, and when it arrived I discovered it that Kate had inscribed it. I always feel it is rather lovely that I now own her signature, for it is as if the two families have become reunited. On stage I usually just say something like ‘and when I opened the book I discovered that Kate had signed the book…..’ But on this performance a new idea came to me and I said:
‘I opened the book and there, inscribed in a strong, confident hand the words…’ and for the final line I reverted to Kate’s voice as if she was on stage addressing the audience: ‘….I was the child, Kate Douglas Wiggin’. That drew a gasp, followed by a standing ovation, it was an excellent way to finish the show.
After a short signing session, I got changed and drove the short distance to the Fairville Inn, the bed and breakfast where I always stay, and checked in. I managed to get about an hour of rest before returning for the evening show which was due to start at 6.
The audience was slightly smaller, but there were some notable members of it, including Pam who brought same friends to watch, and my old friends David Keltz who performs Edgar Allen Poe, and his wife Teresa.
The reaction to each act was similar to the afternoon, and with the same gasp at the very end. With less people in the audience, the signing was correspondingly shorter. One family gathered for a picture and the young son asked ‘do you have any techniques for learning all those lines?’ I told him that is was just sheer repetition, going over and over and over, then starting again and discovering where you falter, and going over and over and over that part until it just comes naturally, by which time there will be another barrier which needs attention. David Keltz was watching and nodded in agreement. He told me later that the boy had looked crestfallen as if he’d been hoping for some magic tip that would make it easy. I added that I have to be on the move when I learn lines – I have to pace up and down, and his sister nodded and said she did the same. Obviously a theatrical family.
When everything was packed up David, Teresa and I drove to Buckley’s Tavern and enjoyed supper as we chatted and caught up on our respective news. At Christmas Buckley’s is usually very crowded and noisy, but on this occasion it was quite quiet which made conversation a great deal easier.
After an hour or so it was time to go our separate ways – me just five minutes further along the Kennet Pike to the Fairville Inn, and them a longer drive to their hotel.
It was a very happy day, in beautiful surroundings, with good friends.
Friday 5 August
On Friday I was to fly home, but as my flight was not until 8.15pm, I had all day to kill. I woke early and packed all of my things (making sure that I hadn’t left anything in the car or the room), before walking to the main house for breakfast and chatting to the owners Laura and Rick.
Although I didn’t have to be at JFK until 6pm Laura warned me that Friday night traffic around New York City could easily turn a three-hour drive into a five hour one, so I had better leave plenty of time. I decided to visit nearby Longwood Gardens in the morning before getting on the road at lunchtime.
Back in my room I did one final sweep (I have an awful habit of leaving things scattered around the country in my wake), and then made the ten-minute journey to Longwood.
Longwood Gardens is an amazing garden on a huge scale. I was among the small group of visitors waiting for the doors to open at 9. Most of the others were there for exercise, there seemed to be a group of committed walkers who pound the paths each morning, and I would come across them repeatedly during my visit, sharing a cheery ‘hello!’ each time.
What a beautiful place, and how sad that Liz wasn’t with me, as she is the horticulturist in our household and would have adored the scale and variety of the planting.
There was a magnificent conservatory and palm house, there were lily ponds that would have had Monet needing to buy extra paint. Woodland walks gave way to huge wild meadows which shimmered and trembled with butterflies and bees.
More formal gardens planted in strict colour themes: whites, yellows, reds and blues all bled into one another and each one seemed to have its own gardener assiduously working the beds – what a huge staff Longwood must have.
I spent almost three hours strolling through this masterpiece tucked away in the Pennsylvanian countryside and it was a perfect way to spend my final morning in the USA.
Having sent a few pictures to Liz, in an effort to share my experience, I got into the car, set the SatNav system for JFK and off I went.
The journey ran smoothly until I neared New York City where, as predicted, the delays started to mount up, but I had so much time in hand that it really didn’t matter. One slow snake of traffic made its way onto Statten Island and past the Snug Harbor Arts Center, where I performed for many years.
I drove on and was delighted to see that we were approaching the Verrazano Bridge which is a magnificent towering structure – a New York Golden Gate Bridge (except it isn’t gold). The views across to Manhattan were breath-taking, The new World Trade Center dominates, but there was the dear old Empire State building still looking mightily impressive. In the foreground Lady Liberty stood proudly holding her torch like the Ghost of Christmas Present.
On we drove, past the Coney Island fun fairs, and on towards the airport. When I arrived I was two hours early. I returned my little Nissan to Thrifty and took the monorail to Terminal Seven, where I checked in with all the other Business Class clientele.
One of the privileges of flying business is that you get to use the comfortable lounge and I was able to have a bite of supper in the restaurant there, before eventually boarding the plane, climbing the stairs and settling into seat 64A for the overnight flight home to Liz.
It has been a remarkably varied trip, which has been thoroughly enjoyable. From the passionate collectors of Golden Glow, the ghosts of Watkins Glen to the joyful familiarity and friendship of Winterthur, I have had a wonderful time.
When I return in November it will be for the long six week haul of my annual Christmas tour and there will be many more adventures to write about, which I will enjoy sharing with you as they unfold.