On November 4 last year I began my 2016 A Christmas Carol Tour in Cambridge, Ohio, and now 2 months later it seems like a good time to look back over the trip and reflect on what went on.
This blog post is an important one, for I will look back at it next November to remind myself of the changes I made to the show during my 7 weeks away, so that I don’t have to go through the whole process again!
So, let’s start with the performance itself:
As far as the script was concerned I didn’t make any major changes this year, although I have added the line ‘Am I the man who lay upon that bed? As Scrooge is confronted by his grave; and to support that addition I also added ‘I see, sprit, I see. The case of this unhappy man, whoever he may be, might be my own. My life tends that way now’, after Ebenezer had witnessed the bare bedroom with the neglected corpse.
There are a few scenes which I have started thinking about changing, which I may look at as the year goes on: I would like to concentrate on the Cratchit’s Christmas dinner a little more, and show the ‘Mister Scrooge, the founder of the feast’ scene, although of course that means losing something else so as not to make the show any longer. Likewise, I would like to show nephew Fred’s friends making fun of Scrooge during their party games, but that might mean deleting the flirtatious Topper from the tale, and I am not sure that I am ready to do that!
The biggest change to my performance came very late in the tour, and was thanks to a promotional photo shoot at Williamsburg. Throughout the trip I was aware that something was not quite right this year. The performance felt heavy and clumsy and didn’t skip along quite as effortlessly than before. I put this down to advancing years, and tried to concentrate on my movements around the stage, making it more balletic. To a certain extent I succeed, and concentrating on the ‘blocking’ made the show tighter and more impressive, but somehow I still couldn’t find the magic key for which I searched.
The answer came in a comfortable armchair in the East Lounge at the beautiful Williamsburg Inn as a photographic crew moved around me taking pictures, moving lights, shifting props. It was suggested that I should just recite A Christmas Carol as they swarmed around the room, so I began at the beginning: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’. As I was in a small room, unable to move from my chair, the performance was not a full-blown theatrical affair, but more akin to a grandfather reading by the fireside.
And as I read I realised where the full show had gone wrong: on stage I had been trying to perform every line of narrative, giving every syllable strong emphasis, mostly accompanied by a gesture or movement: my website declares that I am ‘A Gifted Storyteller’ but I had lost the art of storytelling.
My next performance was a few hours later and I made a conscious effort to take all theatricality out of the narrative. Of course the dialogue remained unchanged, and the impact of the multiple characters was greater thanks to the more gentle narration. Over the next few shows I concentrated on the new style and magically the show came right back to where I wanted it. I had spent 4 weeks trying to change the movements, and all I had needed to do was concentrate on the text itself.
There were a few other practical changes too: it is wonderful that Liz joins me late on in the trip and besides the joy of being reunited after so long apart, she is excellent at seeing changes in the show that I may have missed. This year she observed that I was playing Scrooge in different ages – sometimes appearing very infirm and aged, whilst at other times much more sprightly. I have tried therefore to make him recognisably the same age throughout the show.
After a few near-misses in recent years due to delayed flights and lost luggage, Bob and Pam Byers made a real effort to construct the 2016 tour with as few flights as possible, and this meant a much gentler progression around the USA. I started in Ohio, before flying to Tennessee where I was able to use a rental car to get from Pigeon Forge to Nashville, from where I flew to California. After a few days in the west coast I was able to return to the Mid-West for an entire week, using another car to drive between Omaha and Liberty, Missouri. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving I flew to Boston and picked up another car that I would keep until the very last week of the trip. Each flight was on a day when I didn’t have a performance, so a delay would not be a disaster (of course, Sod’s law had it that there were no delays this year). Being able to drive around New England, before heading into Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia was a real treat, and much more relaxing than the constant packing and early mornings that flying demands. My costumes could hang in the car, and therefore were less creased as I arrived at each performance.
The only negative side at this time was the week when I was staying in a different hotel every night, which became very tiring and it was during this period that I caught a cold (I think from signing without changing costume at Marlborough), which would affect me for quite a while, most especially at Burlington and Langhorne.
There was only one new venue this year, and almost all of the others have become firm regulars for me. It was wonderful to meet with so many old friends, and to know what I was doing. The best feeling is driving to a venue and not needing to use the SatNav device! Driving from Joseph Ambler Inn to Byers’ Choice is a familiar journey for me now, as is the drive from Worcester to the Vaillancourts in Sutton, Mass.
The Souvenir Programme
The greatest innovation this year was the introduction of our Souvenir Programme. It was such fun to work with my brother Ian on this project and I am sure that anyone who bought a copy will agree that we created a most impressive and comprehensive volume. We are so proud of it.
The sales of the programme varied widely, depending on how it was sold. At some venues it just was left on a display table among other merchandise, with nobody mentioning it – at such times sales were very disappointing, but other venues embraced the theatrical nature of the product and actively sold it to audiences as they arrived and again at the show’s end, and then the figures were much more impressive.
Our biggest challenge for next year’s brochure will be to ensure that every venue knows exactly what the product is, and the most effective way to market it to a larger percentage of the audience. One thing I noticed that whilst the majority of people waiting in a signing line had copies of the programmes, we were missing those that didn’t want to wait afterwards, so maybe stocks of pre-signed programmes is another way to go.
We certainly learned a great deal during the trip and all of this information will be used when we get together to discuss next year’s edition, not to mention other merchandising ideas. So many audience members return year after year to my shows, and it is great for them to have a souvenir specifically linked to the performance itself.
Ideas for the 2017 programme are already forming in my mind, indeed as the tour progressed I found myself in the middle of a show thinking ‘this will be a good pose for a photo next year!’ I will be meeting with Ian very soon to start planning for November.
Finally, in signing off, may I say a huge thank you to everyone who makes my tours so successful and so enjoyable: to everyone who invests in me and publicises my shows so well, and gets such enthusiastic audiences to attend; to every hotel clerk and restaurant waiter; to every rental car and airline employee; to those people who I meet who have no idea that they have touched my life, but leave a lasting impression on me (I am specifically thinking of the little girl that Liz and I met on the steps of the Hotel Bethlehem who had just been told that she was going to have a carriage ride. Her face was so excited and, as I put in the blog for that day, ‘truly aglow’: every wonderful thing about Christmas was encapsulated in that moment.)
Thank you of course to my audiences, and especially those loyal friends who come back year after year and make a point of talking to me after the show. You are all unbelievably generous not only in the time you spend, but also in the gifts you give me along the way.
Thank you to Bob and Pam Byers for creating this tour and for your friendship over the many years during which we have worked together. You do the most remarkable job in finding all of the venues and making sure that everything is in place: I can’t imagine the logistical nightmares that you must encounter, but every year things run so smoothly. And the show you put on in Chalfont is always one of the high points of the year, with three such huge audiences cheering and standing.
Thank you to Ian, who has always been so incredibly supportive of what I do, and this year has become such a central part of my travels. It has been great to work closely with you, and to witness your professionalism and artistic flair at first hand: ‘next year Rodney…..’
And finally, of course, to Liz. None of this would be possible without the love and support of Mrs Dickens! For almost two months each year I am away from home, on the road, doing what I love to do. I write home about wonderful audiences and lavish hotels, and all of the time Liz is alone, going to work, paying bills, feeding the cat, living a lonely life and yet she is behind me 100% Liz, you are a remarkable person and I owe you everything.
And now 2017 begins, and it will bring new adventures. In March I will be returning to Minneapolis to revive To Begin With, which was premiered two years ago, and as the year goes on I will be visiting many venues, old and new to me, performing the works of the world’s greatest scriptwriter, Charles John Huffam Dickens. I look forward to writing about my various adventures and to sharing my ‘Life on the Road’ with you again.
Copies of the first edition programme are still available and can be purchased either from Byers Choice, or in the UK directly from me. Don’t miss this opportunity to begin your collection!