The extraordinary year that is 2020 continues to play tricks and confuse. In Britain we are entering a new period of lockdown whilst in America it is not only the pandemic that is occupying the thoughts and passions of a nation. Nothing seems settled or ordered.
My smart phone and various social media sites delight in telling me what I was doing on this day last year, two years, five years, seven years ago, and I have been reminded that I would normally have been in America by now, performing in those beautiful venues filled with happy folk celebrating the holiday season.
So I thought that it would be an enjoyable exercise to allow my phone to set the agenda and to remind me of years past:
Today, images from Pigeon Forge popped up and I realised that I would usually be in that extraordinary resort at the foot of the Smoky Mountains. On the garish strip where the Titanic crashes into its iceberg just across the street from King Kong clambering up the Empire State Building, and where food outlets jostle with dinner theatre joints, the Inn at Christmas Place stately reposes like a respectable Alpine hotel looking upon the neon sprawl around it with an air of elderly resignation (the hotel is not old, I should point out, but it has the demeanour of a respectful yet indulgent aunt presiding over the unseemly bustle of Pigeon Forge).
The atmosphere within the Inn has always been friendly as most of the audience members are also residents and many have become close friends over the years. For example a couple of years ago one regular audience member Gary took me up into the mountains and let me drive his magnificent ‘Batmobile’ Corvette and as a self-confirmed petrolhead I was in Heaven!
The Inn has a season-long series of events and many is the time I have bumped into Father Christmas and posed for photographs with him in front of the great Glockenspiel that dominates the lounge at the base of the staircase.
Time spent in Pigeon Forge has always been a happy one, and on days off there is the single road that leads out of town towards Gatlinburg and from there up into the sheer natural splendour and beauty of The Smoky Mountains. My visit is usually at the beginning of November and sometimes the sun has been brightly shining giving spectacular displays of fall colours, whereas in other years the cloud has hung low and the mountain road has been impassable due to snow and ice.
As Pigeon Forge often came at the very start of my annual tour it was always a venue where the show began to develop for another year. The way my one man performance of A Christmas Carol has grown and morphed over the decades is fascinating, and is based purely on a natural progression rather than on any specific or conscious decisions on my part. Occasionally I have decided to introduce a new passage or phrase (there is so much of the novel that I am unable to bring to the stage – so much rich material that it pains me to leave in the wings that occasionally I slip in a favourite sentence or scene), but on the whole changes to the performance arise out of audience reaction or just a sense that comes to me during the telling of the story. In fact the whole look of the play arose out of an improvisation in 1996 when I found myself in a library in Alabama about to give a reading (that is how I performed in the first couple of years) only to discover that I had left my book in the previous venue!
Once I had got over the sense of helpless panic that enveloped me and realised to my surprise that I knew the words by heart and did not actually need the book, I started to move around the space available to me. I grabbed a chair that could represent not only the chair in Scrooge’s office but which also doubled and tripled up as that at his fireside and even his bed. A stool that had been left in the room was commandeered for Bob Cratchit to sit at and when it had been moved during the Fezziwig scene (‘Clear away? There was nothing they wouldn’t have cleared away, or couldn’t have cleared away with old Fezziwig looking on!’) it sat at the back of the stage until I realised I could use it to represent poor Tiny Tim later in the show. In fact very little has changed with the general blocking, the shape, of the show since that empathetic day in Alabama.
But every year the performance takes on its own feeling or flavour, sometimes it is more comedic and sometimes it is darker, more sombre. Over recent years the narrative has become less dramatic and more conversational, which has improved it beyond measure.
And so it was that each year in Pigeon Forge the small audience of 80 or so would get to see that particular year’s version show for the first time and being regulars and friends would feel not only able to pass comment, but expected to, and over the following five weeks or so the show would grow and develop and change some more until it arrived back at The Inn at Christmas Place, ready to begin another cycle.
This year of course the show takes on a new format all together as for the first time it will be available to watch on film and hopefully all of my old friends in Pigeon Forge will be watching, as will those in every other venue that I have visited over the last 25 years or so. But there will new audiences too, those who have been brought to the film by word of mouth and rigorous marketing. It is an exciting time, but at the very heart of whatever develops are people like the 80 in Pigeon Forge who have been part of creating my one man show.
The official trailer for the film will be released very soon, along with details of how to access and rent it: watch this space!