Friday 15 November
Friday morning was another early one as Lee was due to pick me up at 7am to take me to my first performance of the day which was due to commence at the ungodly hour of 8.30.
Whereas Thursday had been retirement centre day, Friday was high school day and our first appointment was at South High, Omaha. The morning was a beautiful one with the moon high in the sky to the west and the sun low in the sky to the east which coloured the wisps of cloud as if they were fine golden thread.
It wasn’t a long drive to South High School and students were already arriving as we found a parking space outside the theatre entrance. Lee and I collected my costume, hat, scarf and roller bag and together went in, we obviously looked rather lost for a member of staff asked us where we were going and when we mentioned the theatre she showed us to a set of doors that led onto the stage.
I doubted that I had in fact woken up and wondered if I was still in bed at the Element dreaming, for on the stage was a huge stone fireplace with some little bells attached to it, a tiny chain leading through the wall, ready to be pulled by a stage hand. Next to the fire was a little chair, table and candlestick, on the other side of the stage was a huge bed, complete with curtains.
In the wings was a clerk’s desk with a high stool, a ledger lay open on it and a quill pen was ready to be used. Further investigation led to a discovery of a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come which must have been at least twelve feet tall and inside was a mechanism to operate his arms, I also found a grave stone engraved with the name Ebenezer Scrooge.
Call me brilliant but I deducted that the school may have been doing a production of A Christmas Carol, although the set and props did seem incredibly well made and sophisticated for a school. I was very impressed.
Lee had disappeared to find a teacher and I took the opportunity of being alone to work out how best to adapt my show to the set – the bed was on the wrong side for my blocking, but I could easily remedy that and I wondered if someone could operate the bells to presage the arrival of Jacob Marley? I had also noticed a large sound desk in the auditorium so I would be able to have my full range of effects for this performance, I was going to have a lot of fun!
As I was pacing around the set Lee returned with our contact at South, Becky Noble and in a single moment my dreams were shattered: ‘Actually, we cant use the stage – the school has rented the space to the Omaha Playhouse to rehearse their touring production (hence the sophistication of the set). Unfortunately they will be working in here later, so we have had to put you elsewhere, let me show you.’
We left the stage, and descended a dark staircase until we arrived at a classroom. Any adrenaline that had been in my veins as I had imaged a huge performance of A Christmas Carol was well and truly gone now as I surveyed the harshly lit room with a white board behind me. To be fair the room was a music classroom and there were a few curved tiers of seating with a performance space at the bottom, so it was perfectly fine for what I do, it was just not what I had been visualising a few minutes before.
There was due to be a guitar class in the room before I was to perform, so Lee and I went to the theatre green room where we were surrounded by costumes and wigs from the touring production. In a few minutes Kathy joined us as well and we all sat talking about this and that until we could return to the room at 8.20.
Gradually the class arrived, about 40 of them, to take their seats and a little after 8.30 Becky introduced Kathy and Kathy introduced me.
The show was fine. But in the bright light it was difficult to build any sense of atmosphere, the students didn’t react to the show AT ALL, no laughs, or titters, nothing. To be fair to them they were perfectly behaved and were not fiddling with phones, or shuffling around, they just weren’t reacting, which made ploughing on very difficult.
Obviously I removed all of the audience participation sections, which would have fallen dead on the floor, and just concentrated on telling the story which I did perfectly acceptably . I did give the Fezziwig scene a little extra, however, for Becky had played Mrs F in the Omaha playhouse production many years before.
The show came to an end and the students clapped. Kathy and Becky took the stage and asked if there were any questions? Any? None? Anyone? No.
And with that my time at South, which had promised so much two hours earlier, petered out.
Lee and I collected my things from the green room and I didn’t bother to change. As we drove away we looked at the clock and it was only just passed 10 am!
Back at the hotel I purchased some laundry detergent from the pantry behind reception and went up to my room to collate the final laundry load for this leg of the tour. The laundry room at The Element is on the third floor and I made my way down with two bulging bags to be washed, but the door wouldn’t open, even though the green light flashed when I presented my key card. I went down to reception to report the fault and soon two maintenance guys were in the corridor with me peering at the door. One of them had a huge mallet and a crow bar, but after a few little taps he decided against brute force. He assured me that repairing the door was his challenge for the day and he hoped it would be ready later. I took my clothes back up to the 7th floor.
I had quite a while to rest before the second show of the day and I was able to pop into the grocery store and deli next to the hotel to buy some lunch.
At 12.15 I went back to the lobby to meet Lee and Susie once more ready to drive to our second high school, Omaha Central. We couldn’t immediately find a parking space so Lee dropped Susie and me at the front door and we went in where an incredibly unhelpful security guard signed us in and then ignored us, instead chatting to a rather young and attractive teacher. Susie manoeuvred herself brilliantly between the couple and asked him to tell us where to go. ‘Why are you here?’ was his answer. Susie patiently explained and he radioed the office who thought we should be in the Black Box theatre space, and they would send a student to take us there.
We walked, and walked and walked through old corridors and then new corridors, for Black Box was in a newly built wing of the school beneath an impressive library. The Black Box was locked. Our student thought for a while and wondered if maybe we were in the auditorium? Was there any way of finding out? He wasn’t sure. How about going up to the library and seeing if they could find out, so up we went. The library staff looked at the school schedule on the computer and announced we were definitely in the Black Box, but outside we met another student who saw the top hat and gushed ‘are you the guy doing the show? I’m coming to that, I cant wait!!’ We asked her where she was going to watch me and she said The Auditorum…oh dear.
I was reminded of the passage in Jerome K Jerome’s s brilliant comic novel Three Men in a Boat when two of the characters arrive at Waterloo railway station and cant find the train:
We got to Waterloo at eleven, and asked where the eleven-five started from. Of course nobody knew; nobody at Waterloo ever does know where a train is going to start from, or where a train when it does start is going to, or anything about it. The porter who took our things thought it would go from number two platform, while another porter, with whom he discussed the question, had heard a rumour that it would go from number one. The station-master, on the other hand, was convinced it would start from the local.
To put an end to the matter, we went upstairs, and asked the traffic superintendent, and he told us that he had just met a man, who said he had seen it at number three platform. We went to number three platform, but the authorities there said that they rather thought that train was the Southampton express, or else the Windsor loop. But they were sure it wasn’t the Kingston train, though why they were sure it wasn’t they couldn’t say.
Then our porter said he thought that must be it on the high-level platform; said he thought he knew the train. So we went to the high-level platform, and saw the engine-driver, and asked him if he was going to Kingston. He said he couldn’t say for certain of course, but that he rather thought he was. Anyhow, if he wasn’t the 11.5 for Kingston, he said he was pretty confident he was the 9.32 for Virginia Water, or the 10 a.m. express for the Isle of Wight, or somewhere in that direction, and we should all know when we got there. We slipped half-a-crown into his hand, and begged him to be the 11.5 for Kingston.
“Nobody will ever know, on this line,” we said, “what you are, or where you’re going. You know the way, you slip off quietly and go to Kingston.”
“Well, I don’t know, gents,” replied the noble fellow, “but I suppose some train’s got to go to Kingston; and I’ll do it. Gimme the half-crown.”
Thus we got to Kingston by the London and South–Western Railway.
Back in Central High we met a member of staff outside the Black Box who said asked his head of department who said that he thought the show was due to be in the auditorium, although the schedule definitely said Black Box. Eventually Susie and I took the initiative and asked our student to take us to the auditorium, and half way there we found Lee who was leading a search party for us!
At last we entered the huge and impressive theatre where my show was indeed due to be held. The stage was massive and my furniture stood ready to be arranged, which I quickly did.
When I was finished on stage I was introduced to Oliver, who would be looking after the technical side of the afternoon. Instantly I knew I was I good hands, for Oliver was one of those people who is utterly at home behind his mixing board, who knows what every switch, knob and dial does and how to combine them to produce a perfect result. Every theatre needs an Oliver.
We spent some time going over the various sound cues and when we were both satisfied we knew what the other was doing, I went to change.
And then the audience arrived, and kept arriving, there seemed to be hundred’s piling into the hall (and this is why the show had been moved, so many students had signed up that the Black Box wouldn’t have been able to hold them all, unfortunately nobody had thought to change the details on the computer system).
At 1.30 it was time to start and Kathy once more introduced me and there was a huge round of applause as I stepped out onto the stage.
It was a lovely show, with so much space to work with and of course Oliver brought each of the sound cues in perfectly (in fact he even started following the lighting cues as well, which I hadn’t bothered to discuss with him).
This was an actor’s stage and I enjoyed every second of the 80 minutes I performed. I could hear some chat and fidgeting from the auditorium, but on the whole the students listened and reacted maturely, generously and enthusiastically and when I reached the end they whooped and stamped and shouted and cheered! (A rather different response to that earlier in the day)
Kathy came onto the stage and announced that we would take a few questions which we did, but soon it was time for everyone to leave and the auditorium became quiet once more.
I thanked Oliver for all his help and then changed back into my normal clothes and Lee took me back to the hotel again. As we pulled up we met the maintenance man who had earlier wielded the crowbar and he assured me that the door to the laundry was working properly now, and so it was that my afternoon down time was spent travelling to the third floor to wash and dry.
I had one more engagement on Friday and that was our annual dinner at the old Crook House. This event has become a wonderful tradition at which 12 of us enjoy a 5 course dinner lovingly prepared and presented by Chef Mario. Kathy had decorated the table so imaginatively using antique books as her theme, the napkin rings were folded paper taken from a copy of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Stories, and the table runner was also made from pages, there were antique reading spectacles and old printers woodblocks to enhance the overall effect.
The menu was amazing, with an amuse bouche, soup, salad, mac n cheese with lobster tail, an amazing piece of Omaha steak, and all finished off with a chocolate mousse cake. My waistcoat was in grave danger of bursting open.
The banter and conversation was loud and the room filled with laughter, I tried to explain cricket and Yorkshire Puddings to my fellow guests, and by the end of the evening plans were being hatched to stage an England vs Omaha cricket match! I suggested it should be a doubled header contest, with one game of cricket and one of baseball on successive days, with food to match – a genteel English cricket tea one day and beer and hot dogs the next.
Soon our dinner was over and after a few photographs we all drifted back into the night.
Saturday marks my final day on this leg of the tour before returning to England for a week. Two more performances to come, one of A Christmas Carol and one of Sikes and Nancy: The Murder!
AFTERWORD: Past or Present?
Regular blog readers will have noticed that during this week I have written my blog in the past tense, rather than the present tense that I have used in previous years. I would love to know what you think and which you prefer. Let’s hold a Twitter poll @DickensShows #PastOrPresent