I am now at home, and the 2017 run of To Begin With has come to an end. This is the story of the final week, and my farewells:
After my two days off, driving around the Twin Cities it was back to the Wesley Center on Wednesday to prepare for my final few days of performing. Our call was early on Wednesday as Dennis was keen to carry out a video and photo shoot, so as to give us some new promotional materials for future tours.
Kasey and Bob were on hand to get me into my wig, and I was soon ready to face the cameras. The main point of the session was to film a series of very short video clips so that our UK producer, Paul Savidant, could start to work selling the show to a few British venues.
The video camera was set up with little delay (which is rare for video cameras), and we started filming little 20 second chunks from the beginning of the show all the way through the first scene. Each section was filmed from straight on, then house left and finally house right. It actually took a remarkably long time – I spent three hours under the hot lights, performing scenes and changing costumes back and forth, and listening as Dennis called out the next scene that he required.
Eventually we broke with little more than an hour to rest before having to prepare for the evening show.
It was a sad fact that our final week saw disappointing small audiences, which was illustrative of a major miscalculation on all our parts.
The play, as you know, is based on The Life of our Lord and deals with Dickens’ own faith and knowledge of the gospels. Dennis had thought that the run up to Easter would be perfect timing and he could concentrate his marketing to the many large churches in the Twin Cities; he was convinced that this would be a fruitful source for our target audience. But he was to be severely disappointed.
What Dennis had not expected was the rather un-Christian attitude taken by the Churches themselves to a production that they saw as a rival to their own activities. None booked groups, none informed their membership, none announced the show during their Sunday services. In the week leading up to Easter the expected full houses never materialised and we ended up playing to 40 or 50 people, which was a huge shock and disappointment to us all.
However, if the audiences were small they were splendidly responsive and I had a great fun building a relationship with each group and hearing them laugh and responding to all of Jeffrey’s brilliant lines.
The most important day of my week was Thursday, as it was then that Liz arrived from England, so that she could be with me to the end of the run. Throughout the day I tidied, dusted, cleaned and washed, wanting to make my home welcoming for her. At 3.30 I joined Rosalie at the office and we drove to the airport, parked and made our way to international arrivals, where we waited in front of a large sign which read: WAIT HERE IF YOU ARE MEETING OR GREETING PASSENGERS ON INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS. Why ‘meeting’ and ‘greeting’? Can you meet a passenger without greeting them, or can you greet them without meeting?
Eventually the passengers coming through the door began to boast English accents and in no time Liz appeared and I was at last able to meet and greet her.
Of course she was jet lagged, and rather struggled through the Thursday night show, nodding a dozing nod a few times.
On Friday we hired two of the bikes and cycled up to the Minnesota Institute of Art and spent a wonderful morning admiring the fabulous collections of American and European paintings and being amazed that we are standing as close to a Van Gough canvas as Vincent himself was when he painted it.
Friday night’s performance (Good Friday) came and went and the Crucifixion scene was passion-filled – unsurprisingly.
Saturday dawned wet and miserable so we spent most of the day in the apartment, before going to the theatre for the final two performances. There was a strange atmosphere in the dressing room. Bob was so upset that our run was coming to an end, and gave me a carefully wrapped gift with instructions not to open it until we got home.
It being a Saturday night, the set had to be removed entirely, ready for the following day’s Easter Sunday services, and everyone was ready for a late night. I gave cards to everyone that was there, along with special To Begin With pens, that I had ordered for the whole team, but many were not present: Jeffery was away, Kasey and Callista had gone home for Easter, Michaels light and sound had not been around since the start of the run. Even the audience seemed to have deserted us and our final night had an awful sense of anti-climax to it.
At the end of the show rather than have a celebration in the dressing room, everyone was busy striking the set and even the cake we had brought remained un-eaten in the green room.
Bob helped me remove the wig, I got changed, we said our goodbyes and walked away into the night.
It was a strange way to end what had been an amazing run. The show had developed over the course of the month and we have brought it to a stronger place than two years ago. It deserves an audience, it deserves more and I have no doubt that we will reprise it in some way over the coming few months – either in America again or hopefully in England – maybe even Ireland.
Liz and I made our way to Brits Pub and partook of their fine fish and chips before returning to the apartment for our last night in Minneapolis.
On Sunday morning my first action was to start trimming my beard right back, gradually turning myself from Charles Dickens back to Gerald.
Having cleared up as many of the hair trimmings as I could, we left the apartment and walked through the city to enjoy a wonderful lunch courtesy of our good friends David and Teresa who had flown from Baltimore to see the show two weeks previously, and had generously given us a gift card for one of the downtown restaurants. We toasted our Easter celebrations with Prosecco and were delighted when Jeffery popped in to say good bye and give me his closing night gift – a brilliant model of the set with a cut-out me (probably so that I can practice my moves ready for the next performances).
We spent the afternoon cleaning the apartment before Dennis arrived to drive us to the airport. Outside Terminal One we hugged and thanked the man that has made all of this possible; a man who twenty years ago had a dream, and who through his persistence, diligence and faith has brought it to reality.
We did what you do in an airport, killing time until finally we were able to board our 767 and take off into the night sky. When next we saw land it was British and as we broke through the clouds we did so right over the top of Eton College, which features in the script and which I have been referencing for the last month
And now we are back home, learning how to live real life again. It is spring in England and the garden is burgeoning and colourful.
True to my word I hadn’t opened Bob’s gift until I got home, and when I carefully peeled back the diligently wrapped folder I found the most beautiful costume designer’s rendering of Charles Dickens in his linen suit and green waistcoat – a perfect reminder of every night at 7.30 when I strode to the stage, turned to face the audience and said:
‘Disagreeable evening! Lost an argument with Swinburne about the meaning of Christ and the existence of God!’