Although today is a busy day, with two performances of A Christmas Carol, I don’t have to be anywhere until 12.30, so I have a nice long relaxing morning in store.
I start working on my blog, and on checking the stats notice that hits from the UK are down this morning, and there is a good reason for that: my niece Isobel is getting married in Leicester today and clan Dickens are gathering to send her away on her new life. So, have a wonderful day Isobel and I wish I were there to help you celebrate!
Another event is also taking place in faraway Abu Dhabi, and that is qualifying for the final Formula One Grand Prix of the year. Tomorrow one of two drivers will be crowned World Champion, and I enjoy watching the opening salvos in their battle for supremacy: Lewis Hamilton comes out on top and will start tomorrow’s race from pole position.
The morning drifts on, and I do some rehearsing The Signalman for tomorrow’s performance, and watch the latest antics of Messrs Clarkson, Hammond and May on The Grand Tour.
At last it is time to get ready, so I gather everything that I will need for two days of performing and carry it all to my little Quebecois VW.
The drive to Manchaug Mills, where the Vaillancourts store is located, is a twenty-minute drive and I know the route well l as this is my 9th year performing for them. The roads are relatively quiet (maybe everybody is resting after their Black Friday adventures) and I arrive at the empty car park at around 12.00.
Gary is there to meet me, and we take all of my things directly to the theatre. Vaillancourt Folk Art is based in a Victorian mill building and for one weekend each year one of the rooms is turned into an auditorium. 160 seats are arranged around a wide stage which is well lit with theatre lighting.
Luke and Anna appear, along with little Nate, who takes to the stage like a natural. He parades left to right, forward and back; and has even perfected the Ghost of Christmas yet to Come point!
As we all chat (and applaud Nate), Randy the sound engineer arrives. He is probably the best engineer I work with on tour, and spends so much time making sure that the levels are absolutely perfect. The greatest compliment I can pay to Randy is to say that it doesn’t sound as if I am using a microphone here.
With all of the checks done I go into the store, which is a true wonderland. The Vaillancourts make plaster Santa figures, cast from historic chocolate moulds. The decoration of each piece is originally designed and painted by Judi, and then re-created by her small team of painters. They are beautiful pieces and I am fortunate to own my own collection.
There are two hours to go before the show starts, and the first members of the audience are already beginning to arrive, so I retire to my dressing room to relax.
By 1.45 I can hear the audience being admitted and I have a little peek to watch them filing in. It is a strange thing that actors always need to see the audience arrive. I remember as a young boy crouching behind curtains and trying to peek into the auditorium. It isn’t just me either: in Nicholas Nickleby our hero has been engaged by the theatre troupe run by Mr Crummles, and the cast is preparing for their opening night:
Behind the scenes, the same unwonted excitement prevailed. Miss Snevellicci was in such a perspiration that the paint would scarcely stay on her face. Mrs Crummles was so nervous that she could hardly remember her part. Miss Bravassa’s ringlets came out of curl with the heat and anxiety; even Mr Crummles himself kept peeping through the hole in the curtain, and running back, every now and then, to announce that another man had come into the pit.
Soon the hall is filled to capacity, and I am delighted to see that many in the audiences are clutching the programme. Here we have given Anna’s mother Karen the sole job of selling programmes to the audience as they arrive, and I am convinced that this is the best strategy.
Gary makes his way through the crowds and welcomes his guests, many of whom are old friends who have attended every event. He talks about the history of the mills, the history of the Vaillancourt company, and about our 9-year relationship. He plugs the programme, holding a copy up for everyone to see and then announces that, in the spirit of Christmas, four lucky guests have been selected to receive a free gift from the store. Red tickets have been attached to the underside of four seats, and when Gary says ‘so look under your seats’ the whole audience seems to fold flat before my eyes! Everyone bends forward and then, unable to believe that they haven’t got a ticket, people start kneeling, then picking their chairs up, before resignedly sitting down again. Eventually the four prize-winners are found and everything returns to order again.
Gary finishes his introduction, and welcomes me to the stage.
Because the room is quite small because the ceiling is quite low, because there are full-fledged theatre lights very close, this is one of the hottest shows I do on tour (I concede that 90F in California probably scoops it!), and it is a real workout. The audience are superb, very involved and vocal. The whole show is great fun and the ovation at the end is amazing. I leave the stage and walk through the audience (I feel rather like a boxer after a particularly hard fight). Luke is waiting for me at the door with a bottle of water, and as soon as I get back to my dressing room I gulp it straight down.
I take quite a long time to change and calm down, before walking through the store, ready to meet the audience. The line is long (Karen has done a great job with the programmes, as almost everybody has one), and it takes quite a while to sign and pose for everyone, but I don’t mind it all as many have come to multiple shows and are almost friends.
When the signing finishes I go back to my dressing room and change back into regular clothes, wrapping a scarf around my throat to make sure that it doesn’t become affected by the chill air-conditioning in the mill.
The time between shows is relaxed and I chat to Gary, Judi, Luke, Karen and Bob about the first show and the audience’s reaction to it. Bob (Anna’s father), has become somewhat a student of my audiences, watching them carefully during the show and seeing what they respond to.
It is traditional for us to all have dinner together and soon a table is laid in the office and a magnificent spread of soups, sandwiches and pies are produced, into which all of the staff delve.
These moments are wonderfully relaxing and friendly, but we are here for a reason and soon it is time to get ready again. Luke and Bob take up their positions at the door to collect tickets, Karen arms herself with programmes, Gary works the crowd and I disappear to my dressing room.
The evening show is another sell-out and once again 163 people file their way into ‘Blaxton Hall’, ready to be transported into the past, present and future. We get off to rather a clumsy start, as there is some confusion over seating (one couple has arrived a day early, whilst others have duplicate tickets and people are sat in their seats). Luke is so busy trying to sort that out, that he is not able to switch the theatre lighting on when I make my entry; not only that, but Gary has left the souvenir programme on Bob Cratchit’s stool on stage: all a bit awkward. Neither issue is a real problem however, as Luke makes it to the switches quickly, and I can surreptitiously move the programme to a table, without breaking the narrative.
Once again it is a physically exhausting show and once again the audience is amazing (more intense than this afternoon), and give me a rousing ovation.
The aftermath of the show is a repeat of the afternoon, and I gulp an entire bottle of water down before slowly changing ready to sign.
The queue is shorter than this afternoon, and sales have been less (50% less across all products), which is interesting, but there are still plenty of pictures to be posed for and names to be scrawled.
When everyone has left, I go back to the dressing room, hang up my costumes ready for tomorrow and get ready to drive back into Worcester. Gary, Judi and Luke drive into town too and we all meet up in the Beechwood’s bar, where we have a very relaxing time chatting about this and that, until the strains of the day take their toll. I am lucky as I only have to walk as far as the lift; the others have to drive home through the night.
It is not long before I am in bed, and not much longer before I am asleep.
But the day belongs to Izzy and her new husband Dan: please join me in sending them both every happiness for their future life together.