Although it is still early when I wake, it is not quite so early as on previous days. My body clock is slowly catching up, although today it is slightly caught unawares by the physical clocks retreating by an hour.
I write the blog and drink coffee before heading to the breakfast room. I forego the trays of bacon, sausage, eggs and grits and settle for a bowl of granola piled high with fresh fruit. I take my food into the dining room which is packed with tables and is harshly lit. It is a normal breakfast scene that is being repeated in hotels across the nation, but this particular room will become a theatre in a few hours, and I will stride across the stage taking the audience back to 1843. It is a strange thought.
As I make to leave I am approached by a young man, who introduces himself as Anthony. He firmly shakes my hand and tells me how much he is looking forward to seeing my show tomorrow evening. He asks lots of questions about Charles Dickens and my own career; he obviously has an inquiring mind and a passion for knowledge. Anthony is a very polite and likeable fellow and it is a pleasure to chat with him.
This morning is free, with no commitments until 1pm, but I have a little housekeeping work to do. I need to buy a few things in Wal-Mart so at 9am I get into my Jeep and drive the mile or so to the vast shopping temple.
I remember my first ever visit to a Wal-Mart, when I was quite overawed by the sheer scale of the store and had to take a trolley because it had a map on it: I had only needed a pair of shoelaces, and they looked rather forlorn, alone in the bottom of the cart.
Today’s shopping list is just as mundane: I need a sewing kit (one of the seams and a button are loose on one of the frock coats), some writable CDs to burn the sound effects on to and a pack of Fisherman’s Friends throat sweets (my throat is fine at the moment, but they are useful to have in stock).
I make my way around the shop like a seasoned pro and make my purchases. It is still early so on a whim I decide to treat myself to The Titanic Exhibition which I have done before but was fun.
The whole attraction is housed within a massive recreation of the ship’s hull and leads the visitor from the original design and construction of the mighty vessel, to various rooms designed to represent third and second class accommodations, before leading to a life-size set of the grand staircase, complete with its linoleum floor covering.
Although 80% of the tour is fake, (there are a few original artefacts and documents to give the exhibition a sense of veritas), the story is well told and gives a vivid sense of the personalities on board. Much attention is given to Wallace Hartley, the band leader who famously adjured his musicians to play on as the ship foundered and sunk, and Margaret ‘Molly’ Brown, who was portrayed so memorably by Kathy Bate’s in James Cameron’s epic movie. Each of these characters have their own galleries.
Tour done I head back to the hotel where I settle down to some good ol’ fashioned sewing. I’m rather pleased with my efforts and hope they will prove up to the mark when they are tested on stage.
At 1 o’clock I need to meet Kristy Elder and her team in the theatre to run through the logistics of the days ahead. As I walk into the former dining room I am astounded to find that stage is against the opposite wall to that where it has been for the last six years. I am completely disorientated and pretend to throw an artistic tantrum: ‘I ONLY perform facing North – I can’t POSSIBLY perform facing this way, I am LEAVING!’ Everybody laughs, but underneath it does feel very odd.
The reason for the change is to fit as many seats as possible in for, as I mentioned yesterday, the three public performances of A Christmas Carol have completely sold out. In the last year part of the room has been lost to create a storage space and Kristy has had a major headache making everything fit.
The first show is to be a small tea event, during which I will perform the charming ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’, while ladies and children delicately bite their cucumber sandwiches and chew on their fancies.
Kristie and her colleague Debbie are beavering around and we chat in the newly-created storage room, where there is a rather macabre torso of a headless Nutcracker figure: I think I am in some sort of nightmare later.
Next it is to the offices where Steve Meyers (replete in a bright orange Tennessee sports top), helps me burn the sound effect files to two of the newly-purchased CDs. As is always the way with anything electronic we stand around the screen hopefully prodding, peering and dragging until something whirrrrs deep within the machine and our efforts are successful.
I go back to my room and eat the remains of my salad from last night and then get ready for the performance. I decide to give the green waistcoat another outing, assuming that I won’t get too hot for the show. I carefully unpack my first edition copy of ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ and return to the basement for the show.
Tea tables have been laid with proper bone china cups and saucers, as well as with the delicious looking plates of food. The event is billed as ‘You and Me Tea’ and is an homage to the British fascination for afternoon tea. I am introduced to Stephanie, who is the mother of Anthony, the young man who introduced himself at breakfast. Stephanie is a member of the Jane Austen Society and will be giving a small talk to the children (and adults) in the audience about the correct etiquette of taking tea.
My old friend Dwight McCarter comes in and we talk about the introductions for the various shows. The Inn at Christmas Place has invested in plenty of the Souvenir Programmes and are keen for them to sell well. I know that Dwight will do a fine job promoting them from the stage.
The audience arrives and there are many old friends and familiar faces among them. I have quite the following here in Pigeon Forge. Dwight welcomes everyone and, as I suspected purrs, in that gorgeous Tennessee accent, over the benefits of programme. He welcomes Stephanie to the stage who demurely instructs everyone to eat with mouths closed, and to listen attentively to what is being said to them and to look interested. Her lecture is usually concerned about conversation over the tea table but I am very grateful to have the audience thus instructed for my show.
I take to the stage and go through the history of A Child’s Journey: Dickens’ reading tour of ‘67/’68, the criticism from Mark Twain (‘Dickens is a BAD reader in one sense….’), the performance in Portland and the local reaction to it, the background of the young girl Kate who would find herself in conversation with the great author and provide such a wonderful story.
All of the preamble is a bit forced, and doesn’t really work today. The guests are busy with their tea, and I don’t quite capture the group. But when Kate herself takes over – ‘When I was a little girl…..’ the rooms falls silent.
It is a lovely story and a perfect one for this setting, and when I reach the end and bring out the signed first edition of A Child’s Journey With Dickens and read the dedication ‘I was the child. Kate Douglas Wiggin’ there is a gasp of astonishment. Somehow the presence of the book, complete with her handwriting, makes the whole event very real.
I leave the room as Kirsty takes to the stage to draw the door prizes, and I chat with Janet who is responsible for the product sales at my events. Janet and I seem to have one long conversation over the years, picked up in twelve month intervals. It has ever been thus and is lovely. This year we discuss the world situation, both in America and Europe; her solution is for a giant meteorite to hit the earth. That seems a little excessive but highlights the exasperation and forced indecision felt in the USA at the moment.
The audience come out into the foyer and I take my place at the signing table, chatting, shaking hands and signing. I have laid the first edition out so that people can study it and because the event is such an intimate one there is plenty of time to talk at length to individuals. I have a pile of the programmes on the table next to me and when people ask about my tour it is useful to refer them to the page containing all of the dates and venues. They sell well to this audience.
With the tea successfully wrapped up I go up to my room on the 4th floor, draw the curtains, turn the lights off and lay down for a brief nap before surfacing again ready to perform A Christmas Carol.
The evening show is in theatre-style, rather than the tea setting, and Kristy has succeeded in squeezing 90 seats into the restricted space. A table is laid out with some gorgeous looking cookies and some very cheerful gingerbread men.
We check the sound system and make sure that everyone knows their queues, before letting the audience in. It is a big crowd and a nice mix of returnees and first time visitors. Dwight always makes a point of asking for a show of hands to see who are newbies and there are quite a few tonight, which is exciting.
Over the years here we have developed a routine for getting the show going. In the centre of the stage Bob Cratchit’s stool is placed propping up a sign reminding the audience that photography and recording are prohibited during the show. When Dwight has finished his silky-smooth introduction, he takes the sign and moves the stool to the correct place and leaves the stage. Kristy then starts the music and I make my entrance. Unfortunately, we are a bit out of practice; Kristy can’t really hear Dwight from the plant room where the CD player is housed and starts the music a little early, cutting him off in his prime. Dwight improvises and leaves the stage taking the sign and the stool with him. I get onto stage and suddenly realise that one of my most important props (I don’t have many!) isn’t there and as I recite the opening passages my mind is whirring – re-blocking the show, working out how I can represent Tiny Tim’s death in an hour’s time successfully. I look around the room, trying to see if the stool is close at hand and if I can grab it under the cover of dialogue, but it is not to be seen.
Fortunately, Kristy and Debbie know the show well enough and realise what has happened. Debbie surreptitiously brings the vital piece of furniture to the edge of the stage at the precise moment that I first refer to it and all is back on track again.
I am very happy with the performance and the audience respond enthusiastically to it.
After gratefully taking my bows and receiving the applause I leave the stage to go and change while Kristy looks after the door prize draw again. Because it is a larger audience I have plenty of time to get ready, and am able to be at my table before the first people emerge. The signing is more intense than this afternoon thanks to the numbers, but I still have plenty of time to discuss the show and the tour.
It is ten o’clock when I scrawl the final Gerald Charles Dickens 2016, and collect all of my belongings to take back to my room.
I hang all of the costumes in the bathroom to air, and change before heading to my traditional post-show bolt hole: The Mellow Mushroom, where I have a delicious ‘Mighty Meaty’ pizza. As I sit at the bar two members of the audience come in to order a take away pizza and we sit together chatting about, of all people, Elton John. It is a nice relaxing way to wind down and bring the day, that began in the chilly seas of the North Atlantic, to an end.