When last I left you, we had finished the first preview performance of To Begin With, to a standing ovation. That was on Tuesday evening, and I have had performances on every day since then. Here are a few reflections on week one:
Although our Tuesday audience was enthusiastic they were not large in number, and one of the most important things for us to do was to promote the show as hard as we could. Of course Dennis and his team have been working on that over the last few weeks, with TV ads, press ads, lots of fliers and brochures, posters at the venue and the like. However, now we were up and running we had to engage with the population of Minneapolis and shout ‘WE ARE HERE. NOW! COME AND SEE THE SHOW!’
As soon as we opened I spent a lot of time following as many Minneapolis businesses and organisations on Twitter as I could think of, sending messages including links to the box office. I posted updates on Facebook, tagging Dennis, so that his network would get a new perspective on the show too. Social media is a strange way of marketing, in that you have no idea how and where your efforts are being received, you just send them out there – into the ether: and it will ether work, or it won’t.
On a more a more substantial level the Hennepin Theatre Trust was organising a series of media events for Dennis and I to attend the first of which took place in my favourite haunt, Brits Pub. The local CBS affiliate in the Twin Cities is WCCO, and their offices are situated just across the street from Brits. The Saturday morning show has an occasional feature called ‘Out to Lunch’ in which the show’s hosts chat to a personality (usually an actor), over lunch in one of the city’s many restaurants.
At 11am Dennis and I turned up, and were introduced to the two presenters Mike and Susan-Elizabeth. I had expected the interview to be quite staged and false, but nothing could have been further from the truth: we just chatted about me, the play and Charles Dickens while the camera man took shots from lots of different angles. Lunch was served (good British fayre – fish and chips for Dennis and me, steak and ale pie for Mike and soup for Susan-Elizabeth), and we chatted on.
It was a very relaxed interview, much nicer than the studio-bound 45-second sound-bite filled affairs that TV usually likes so much.
On the same day we also visited the WCCO radio station and did a live interview on the highly popular afternoon show, so hopefully a large percentage of Minneapolis folk would now be aware of To Begin With.
It remains to be seen if the work has paid off, but hopefully the box office will begin to see more and more phone calls and online hits, and I will begin to see less and less empty seats as I stride through the auditorium at the start of the show.
As the show got into its run, so my days fell into a steady routine, all leading to the 7.30 start time. After the preview nights were finished our team began to disperse: Jeffrey flew back to Arizona to continue work on his Sherlock Holmes project, whilst both Michaels – light and sound – had other work that demanded their time and attention. But now new members of the team arrived, led by Millie who is our front of house manager. Each night she is responsible for organising the large team of volunteers supplied by the Hennepin Theatre trust, who act as ushers. No, that’s not fair, they do not act AS ushers, they ARE ushers!
I usually spend the morning walking in the city, catching up on shopping, maybe doing some work in the apartment, before having a light lunch, probably a salad. Then I relax for a while, until I start to get ready about an hour before I am due at the theatre. The first thing is to shave, which is quite a novelty for me, I can’t really remember the last time I had to shave daily (apart from 2 years ago, obviously, when I was performing To Begin With in Minneapolis); with my beard in full Dickens mode I have to make sure that there is no hint of 5’o clock shadow on my cheeks, so I shave just before each performance. Next I have a brisk, cold shower to wake me up and energise me a bit, before gathering the things I need for the evening and making the long walk to the theatre, which takes all of 90 seconds, if the lift arrives quickly.
Once in the church I will say hello to everyone, before going to the dressing room where Bob will be preparing my costume and props. Although his official title is ‘Production Designer’ he has taken on the role of dresser, and looks after me diligently and protectively. Every night my shirts are ironed and starched, as are the two linen handkerchiefs that have to be hidden up my sleeves ready for Charles Dickens to produce with a flourish. Bob is a godsend, and if anything hasn’t worked, or is difficult, he will think of a way to make it better and easier.
Whilst Bob irons and starches, so my wig is being primped by either Kasey or Callista who are sharing wig-mistress duties between them. An hour before show-time I sit in front of the mirror, and the process of becoming Dickens begins: firstly a netted bandage (I believe medical in origin), which has been stained dark brown to match the wig, is stretched across my head, and then a million hair clips and pins are pushed through it into what there is of my own hair, to hold it tightly in place. When the bandage is held firm, the wig itself is positioned on top, and then a million more pins and clips are pushed through it, the bandage and my hair. I have so much metal in my curly locks, that I would never make it through airport security without setting off every alarm imaginable. With the wig fully pinned in place, the front edge of the lace, to which the hairs are attached, is gummed onto my forehead, to hold it flat. Once everything is secure the styling takes place to create the slightly flyaway, wild hair that Dickens senior favoured, which is then incongruously held in place with a good spray of hair lacquer.
The wig work is usually completed on the 30-minute call, and then I can get into the rest of my costume before pacing around the dressing room, muttering lines and anxious to begin. Ben pops his head in at 20, 15, and finally at 5 minutes, when I walk to my position at the rear of the hall ready to begin. This is when I get my first glimpse of the audience, who are all blissfully unaware that they are being spied on through a stained-glass panel.
More pacing, until Ben calls down the stairwell ‘are you ready?’ to which I reply ‘yes’ and the show starts: music, bells, walk through the audience, turn and ‘Disagreeable evening!’
The run so far
The show has been going well throughout the week, although the audiences have been frustratingly small – between 50 and 90, I suppose. However, as we got to the end of the week, suddenly the numbers swelled and our Sunday house was much better, which hopefully means that the PR from earlier in the week is beginning to pay off.
The audiences, and therefore the performances themselves, have varied through the week. Some crowds have laughed at every line, some have sat listening quietly and taking in the import of the words. All have clapped enthusiastically, some have stood, some have not, but everyone has enjoyed the show.
We made one change during the week that has improved the scene in which Dickens is explaining Jesus’s miracles to his children. The script calls for a flashy magic effect as Dickens says ‘the miracles Jesus performs are NOT magic tricks’. In the past we have used a little device called a Funkenring, which nestles in my hand and on the required line emits a shower of sparks. It is a clockwork mechanical device that has to be wound before the show, and although it worked OK it was never terribly impressive, and looked rather as if a more complictaed trick had gone wrong. So frustrated did Ben become that he went to a magic shop and purchased a new effect that works like a little cigarette lighter. The performer conceals the ring, and on the cue flicks the abrasive wheel, which sends sparks, which in turn ignites a wad of ‘explosive’ cotton, sending a tongue of fire into the air: much more effective and it certainly drew gasps from the audience, although I was careful to keep my lacquered wig away from it…..now there is a way of getting some extra publicity……
As Sunday’s performance came to an end, so it signalled a few days off for the first time since my arrival on March 16th. It has been a long and tiring eighteen days and I am looking forward to three days to myself, but I am sure I will soon start craving the stage again, and will be like a caged lion come Thursday morning.
In the meantime I intend to play tourist – more of which anon.