At the end of my America tour last Christmas Liz and I left Minneapolis for home, and now I am back in the city to reprise the show I premiered here two years ago: To Begin With.
Over the next month I will be teaming up with producer Dennis Babcock, writer and director Jeffrey Hatcher, lighting designer Michael, stage manager Ben, Sound designer John and some new members of the team. The show has been slightly changed to allow it to be performed in a single act, so there will be new moves, costume changes and logistics to be learned. For the next four weeks I will be that rare species, a full time actor.
But first, I must travel. Saying goodbye never gets any easier, and this time seemed even harder than usual. Perhaps Liz and I have managed to move some way towards compartmentalising a Christmas parting, but a Spring one caught us both out.
My bus journey to Heathrow was easy, which considering the route involved the M40 and the M25 in rush hour, was remarkable. Equally remarkable was the efficiency check-in and security at Heathrow airport, and the result of all this ease and efficiency is that I found myself with over two hours to kill. I made my way to Bridge, a restaurant I know well, where I ordered some scrambled eggs, coffee and orange juice. The eggs arrive but of the drinks there was no sign. For a while I tried to catch the eye of the server, but then I thought ‘I’ve got two hours, what’s the rush?’ Sure enough my drinks eventually arrived, thus prolonging my dining experience and giving me less time to while aimlessly in the various shops.
Delta flight 11 was on board a Boeing 767, which is one of the smaller trans-Atlantic aircraft, and it was almost filled to capacity. I say almost because I was the lucky one on board with an empty seat next to me.
London to Minneapolis is a 3 movie flight and on this occasion I passed the time watching the new Ghostbusters (silly but fun with some lovely nods to the original), All the Way (a brilliant Bryan Cranston biopic about Lyndon B Johnson) and Denial (the astounding story of the court case in which Deborah Lipstadt had to prove that the holocaust actually took place. Rachel Wiess, Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson are all fabulous).
Five hours into the flight I pulled up the window shade and see ice fields stretching as far as the eye can see. A couple of hours later I repeated the exercise only to be greeted with the same view. If Aliens sent a space ship to observe planet Earth and they happened to break through our atmosphere over Labrador (or wherever), they would probably return home to report no signs of life and an inhospitable icy planet.
Into the last hour and after the ‘light snack’ I thought that it would be a good idea to complete my customs form. Unfortunately my fountain pen decided that 36,000 feet didn’t suit it and promptly ejaculated all over me, meaning that my khaki trousers now have permanent black ink blots all over them. So stylish.
There was low cloud as we approached Minneapolis – St Paul airport, but I was soon able to recognise a number of landmarks in a city that is beginning to be very familiar to me.
If Heathrow’s check-in and security was impressive, the immigration and customs at Minneapolis was quite extraordinary. The captain parked our plane at the door to the immigration hall, so there weren’t interminable walks down never-ending corridors to be endured. Most of the passengers were US citizens, and those that weren’t had ESTAS which these days can be checked at an automatic terminal; this means that us visa holders are in the minority and don’t get stuck in long queues. I was first in line, and my interview with the TSA officer was over and done within a few minutes. This was quite a surprise as I have been reading dire stories of artists and writers being denied entry under the new stricter immigration strictures, but for me it was easy as pie (oh, if only my interview had lasted for 3.14 minutes).
I collected my bag and was in the terminal building just 25 minutes after the plane first made contact with terra firma.
There to meet me was the show’s producer Dennis Babcock who has been a friend for many years. He drove me into the heart of downtown to the Old Wesley Centre, a red stone church dating back to the late 1800s, which is to be the home of To Begin With 2017.
As To Begin With is about Dickens’ relationship with the New Testament the new setting is perfect. The sanctuary is lined with dark wood panelling and the pews wrap around the stage, cosseting it. Dennis’ crew had already moved in and were beginning to meet challenges of rigging lighting and sound systems.
From the theatre to my apartment which was a walk of two minutes (it took so long because the cross/don’t cross light was not in our favour). Dennis had booked an apartment on a short lease in the block directly opposite the church and the longest part of the journey is the ride in the lift up to the 33rd floor. I wheeled my suit case into my temporary home, and had a quick shower before meeting up with Dennis once more. We walked a few blocks to Ruth’s Chris steakhouse, where we met up with the show’s author Jeffrey Hatcher. Our three-handed dinners have become a rather fun tradition over the last few years and Ruth’s has become our ‘local’
We talked too much about this and that and had a wonderful evening, but as far as my body is concerned today is already tomorrow and I am quite grateful when we eat the last piece of steak and finish the last of the wine. I walked back to the apartment block and almost as soon as I was in bed I was asleep.
The hard work is yet to come and I hope you will follow the whole progress from stumbling first rehearsal to the final curtain call – To Begin With begins here.