After a journey that spans many years, and in the short term just over a week, the morning of Tuesday 28 March dawned bright, clear and warm. We had arrived at our opening day.
Jeffrey has suggested that we meet at 3.30 to go through some notes from the dress rehearsal, and the inevitable tweaks to the blocking, sound and light, but I had most of the day to myself.
I spent the morning strolling through downtown Minneapolis, admiring the glass buildings that reflected the clear blue sky to such an extent that they seemed to disappear into it. Everywhere were shimmering and distorted images: Minneapolis is really a most beautiful city.
The main purpose of my visit was to buy thank you cards for everyone, and I was relieved to find that Barnes and Nobel was still open. Macy’s across the street had now closed its doors for good and the building looked forlorn and neglected. I found a box of notecards with a simple quill and ink stand design (actually, the same ones I used two years ago), which were perfect for my purpose.
Back at the apartment I started to write all of the cards. After a little bit of online research I found a letter that Charles Dickens had written to his wife on Julyl 16 1849, which read:
“I have taken a most delightful and beautiful house belonging to White, at Bonchurch -cool, airy, private bathing, everything delicious…..A waterfall on the grounds, which I have arranged with a carpenter to convert into a perpetual shower bath.”
This relates to so much that is in the play, and I set to copying this fragment into each card, followed by a personal note of thanks for Dennis, Jeffrey, Rosalie, Ben, Michael, Bob, Michael and Kasey: the team that has created this wonderful little piece of theatre.
My scribing was interrupted a few times by emails from the marketing guru at The Hennepin Trust, informing me of an ever-growing number of television and radio interviews in the coming days, which is great news for all of us. Although the show is produced by The Daniel Group (Dennis and Rosalie’s production company), it is being presented under the auspices of The Hennepin Theatre Trust which is a huge organisation promoting theatre in the Twin Cities. Having such a large and powerful group behind us is fantastic for our marketing, as we can reach the many thousands of social media followers as well as tap into the extensive media contacts. All of this should mean that the word will be getting around Minneapolis throughout the next week.
Come 3.30 I was at the theatre, and soon was pacing through a few of the scenes as Jeffrey very carefully placed me on the stage – ‘half a step downstage. A touch to your right. Do we have a tiny light change there?’ It is a lovely feeling to be concentrating on such minutiae just a few days after working out the much broader blocking: ‘walk all the way past the furniture to the right of the stage and say the line there’. Now, whether I was capable of remembering these tiny moves during the performance itself we would have to see.
As we finished our rehearsals Dennis came into the auditorium and gave us all opening night presents: Charles Dickens Action Figures, complete with removable top hat, and clasping a quill pen! Quite brilliant, and the funny thing is that the coat he is wearing is exactly the same shade as the smoking jacket I wear in scene two. What a great opening night gift.
I distributed my cards, and Dennis was completely shocked to see that the date of the letter was his birthday (not the 1849 part, of course, just the 16 July)
The afternoon wore on, and I ate my salad in the dressing room, before placing myself in Kasey’s hands for the application of the wig. Then into costume, and I was ready with twenty minutes to go.
Outside my dressing room I could hear the mumble and buzz of the audience arriving, and then the noise subsided as they made their way into the theatre itself. Pacing, whispering lines, striking poses. Wanting it all to begin.
With five minutes to go Ben gave me the nod and I made my long way to the back of the hall. This journey consists of leaving my dressing room, going upstairs, through the Daniel Group’s offices, across a landing, up a small flight of stairs, into the balcony, where I could look down on the audience and set. A quick ‘break a leg’ from Michael the Light, and then into another landing, down a long flight of stairs and into a small vestibule at the back of the sanctuary, where I waited.
There were a few stragglers, so the countdown was held for a few minutes. Still pacing, still whispering. I peered through a small clear pane in the elaborate stained glass door and could see my central aisle stretching down to the stage. The house lights went down, and the welcome announcement played.
Only seconds to go now.
And then a family sat near the back decided that as the show was about to start they could probably move further forward, so they all stood up and shuffled into the aisle – right in front of me, right where I was about to stride to the stage. My route was blocked!
Fortunately the very attentive front of house manager spotted the situation instantly and encouraged them to re-take their seats and they reluctantly shuffled back just as the first bell tolled and I could begin my journey un-hindered.
Oh, it felt good to be on stage. It felt good to hear the laughs and the reactions. It felt good to be in control and to know what I was doing. There were no horrible blanks of mind or fumblings around. There were no awful moments when I found myself in the wrong waistcoat, or jacket, or that a prop wasn’t where it should be. Everything ran as it should do. All of those mornings in my apartment with the coffee table, chairs and hanging rail, as well as all of those afternoons with Jeffrey and the team in the theatre itself, had paid off.
Charles Dickens engaged with the audience and they took him to their hearts.
Finally, after 90 minutes on stage, I said the last line of the play and the lights went out. When they came up again, the audience were on their feet clapping and cheering. Not a big audience for our opening night, but such an enthusiastic and appreciative one. I bowed gratefully and left the stage.
Back in my dressing room I quickly changed into a dry shirt, assisted by Bob, and then went into the huge meeting space, where a desk had been set up for me to sign autographs and meet members of the audience.
People were ecstatic about the show, and in one case moved to tears, and loved to talk about Charles Dickens and our portrayal of him and his family. Each person in line promised to tell friends, family and colleagues about the show and that is the best marketing we can get. Go forth, and spread the word!
When the last of the audience members had left I went back to the dressing room, where Kasey was waiting patiently for me, so that she could help me out of the wig, and return it to its block where it is carefully pinned so that it retains the correct shape.
I said good bye to the rest of the team, and Ben joked that the audience hadn’t enjoyed it, that was obvious because they all stood up as soon as it was finished!
And so, To Begin With has begun, but this is only the start of the story, for we have three weeks of performances to go yet, and no doubt there will be disasters and issues, and flagging energy levels, as well as fantastic electric performances where everything hits the mark: that is the wonder of live theatre, and that is why I love what I do.
I hope that you have enjoyed being alongside me as the production has come together over the past ten days. I will not be posting new blogs every day now, but be assured I shall keep you up to date with the progress of the show, up until our last night on Saturday 15 April.
And if you do know anyone in the Twin Cities – drop them a line!