If yesterday was spent entertaining the senior population of Omaha, then today is towards the other end of the scale as I am due to perform to two High School groups.
I wake at a fairly decent hour and make myself a coffee. This is an exciting process this morning, thanks to a very generous present from Susie. When I arrived here 2 days ago there was a gift bag waiting for me and in it was a packet of rich strong coffee. Apparently in one of the emails between them Susie had asked Liz what I like, the reply being a proper coffee (sometimes the American coffee from hotel machines can be a bit watery for my taste). A pack of coffee is no use, however, unless there is something to make it in, and here is the great gift: a plastic travelling coffee mug, in the form of a cafetiere . I put a scoop of coffee grounds in, then run plain water through the coffee machine so that it is hot, add it to the cup, wait and…ahhhhh, so good!
I am being picked up at 7.40 this morning, so I have a quick and light breakfast, before collecting everything I need for two shows, and going down to the lobby.
The drive to Burke High School takes about half an hour and soon we are waiting at the security desk in the foyer. There is a notice on the wall, which may be a portent of things to come, it says: ‘Today is an Odd Day. 1,3,5,7’
We are shown to a set of double doors and enter the auditorium at the very top of a steep rake down to the stage – I have a wave of vertigo come over me!
The preparations for my show are a bit confused, as most of the theatre department are away at a competition. Rylee, from the Historical Society, is trying to co-ordinate things for the microphone check, and getting the sound effect to work, which seems very complicated – does no one have a CD deck anymore? Eventually, via a USB stick, a laptop and a school i-pad, my 50 seconds of music finds itself in a suitable place to be broadcast.
I change in a nearby restroom and return to the stage where I meet Dr Walters, a deputy Principal of the school, who will be looking after the entire event, and running my sound from the box way up in the heavens.
The students arrive, and unfortunately it is quite a small group, which becomes lost in the vastness of the theatre. They haven’t been told what they are coming to see, so it is a moot point as to whether they will be interested or not.
As show time approaches I stand behind the curtains on the stage feeling that wonderful sense of anticipation that is the lifeblood of an actor and one that never fades. Maybe the day it doesn’t excite me will be the day to stop, but thankfully that day is not today.
I have quite a while to feel the anticipation, because two classes have not yet arrived, and our start time of 9.15 comes and goes. It is not until 9.37 that Dr Walker starts to welcome his pupils. He begins by telling them about Charles Dickens, and then about me and my tour. When he has finished explaining what they are going to see he reminds the audience that they are representing not only the school, but the city of Omaha, the State of Nebraska and the country of America too: no pressure then!
Dr Walters leaves the stage and my opening music blares out, although it comes in half way through the effect, meaning I don’t have much time to get to my starting point.
It is a tricky show – the audience are very subdued, and the microphone pops and crackles and fades in and out throughout the entire performance. It’s the sort of issue that a sound expert would have sorted out easily, adjusting levels to suit my voice, but with the lack of trained theatre staff the problem remains unsolved.
It is a hot show beneath the stage lights, and although not a lively crowd, they certainly seem to be following the story and concentrating (except the two guys to my left who are slumped over the chairs in front of them, fast asleep!)
As I get towards the end I am aware of a movement and can see Dr Walters walking through the aisle towards the stage, and then crouching down chatting to someone, before standing again. I am worried that he is going to stop the show before the end, so I quicken my pace, running each scene into the next so as not to make a natural break.
I race to the end: God Bless Us, Every One! And leave the stage. When I come back there is a nice round of applause, and I take my bows before leaving again. Almost instantly Dr Walters is dismissing the audience to lunch (‘The catering staff know you are going to be late, they are expecting you. Those of you who have lessons, your teachers know you will be late too’). That 17-minute delay is playing havoc with the school day.
I change back stage, rather than in the rest room, and by the time I emerge onto the stage the theatre is devoid of anyone from the Burke High School. Rylee, Lee, Susie and Kathy are all there packing away the props, but no one else.
We leave the school without being able to say good bye or thank you to anyone. As the sign said, it has been an odd morning, for sure.
We do not have very much time now, so Lee and Susie have a quick conversation about the best place for some lunch. They chose a little café nearby and we all have some good soup, before getting back into the car and driving to the Millard North High School.
Millard North is a much bigger campus, more like a university, with a huge entrance hall, alive with the business of education.
We are shown into the office, and then are fetched and taken into another impressive auditorium. The scene here couldn’t be more different from this morning, as the theatre’s technical department is at full strength. Unfortunately, while the personnel are working well, the sound system isn’t: the whole system has gone down and a temporary one is rapidly being prepared.
When I say the theatre technical staff is at full strength, I am referring to a junior student, Matt, who controls the whole theatre with immense knowledge: it was the same when I visited last year. He is like a whirlwind around the auditorium, plugging leads in, twiddling knobs, checking connections. The two drama teachers just stand helplessly by, waiting to be given instructions.
Soon the system is in place, and we can carry out a mic check. I start performing a few lines, and stop. Matt’s voice barks out from the darkness: ‘Keep going, More!’ I continue as he runs to each part of the hall, back to his desk and then on again. My recitation is suddenly brought to an end with ‘Sound check done, thank you!’ Brutal, efficient, but, oh so professional. It is a pleasure to work with people like Matt.
He then moves onto sorting the sound effect out, which involves a laptop plugged into the new system, and which will have to be operated by one of the teachers in the wings.
I go to my dressing room, surrounded by costumes for a forthcoming production of The Taming of the Shrew and as I get changed, remember that I haven’t sewed the button back on to my waistcoat. I have my sewing kit in my bag, so pass the time effecting the repair.
The audience here is much larger, maybe around 400, and the noise from the auditorium is terrific as I wait to start. The announcement is made, the hall falls silent, the sound effect works correctly and I begin one of the most intense and energetic shows of the tour so far. The reaction is great, and I am giving everything. When I reach the end, and come back to take my bows the whole audience is standing – in a High School! Amazing.
We have time for a few questions from the students. Now, I am fairly confident that I can anticipate most questions after so many years: ‘what is it like to be related to Charles Dickens’, ‘how long did it take you to learn the show’, ‘what got you into acting’ etc. However, I am not prepared for ‘Do you use shampoo or soap on your hair?’ I pause, before giving the only sensible answer available to me: ‘Polish!’
The questions come to an end, but lots of students want pictures taken, and autographs, so it is quite a while before I am able to get changed. As I leave the theatre there is a drama class in action, and all of the students shout out good byes, whilst the teacher thanks me. Definitely a tale of two high schools!
Before Lee drops me back to my hotel we drive by the e-creamery ice cream parlour, who have made a special ice cream called ‘Dickens Delight’, in honour of my visit. I have never had an ice cream named for me before, it is rather exciting! I pose with the staff and sample the chocolate flavoured concoction, which is delicious.
I don’t have long at the hotel, an hour at most, before it is time to get into costume once more. This evening’s event is a small, very exclusive dinner at which I am one of 16 guests. There is no show involved, although I am there to chat and tell stories and entertain to a certain extent. As it isn’t a full-bloodied performance, I can use my green waistcoat tonight. Susie has been very keen to see it, having read of my adventures earlier in the trip.
Dinner is superb, beautifully catered by the local super-star chef Mario, who is one of only 3 Executive Chefs in the state. Each course bursts with flavour, and is elegantly presented. The conversation around the table is excellent and friendly (we all know each other from years passed). After we have finished out dessert (of course featuring Dickens Delight ice cream), it is time to pull our Christmas crackers, and I instruct the guests on the correct way to do this – all crossing arms and pulling the cracker of the person next to you, so that we are linked in a chain around the table: 1, 2, 3 CRACK! Out fall the little presents, the jokes and mottoes, as well as the paper crowns, which everybody dutifully dons.
It is a relaxing and fun evening but I am feeling the strain of a busy day, and after a few pictures and autographs it is time to depart. Lee takes me back to the hotel, where I remember to give him my black shoes, which he will take to Andy’s in the morning. I put my brown boots on to go into the hotel, and they look very strange with my formal costume.
I get to my room, hang my costumes up, and in no time, am in bed and ready for sleep.