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On Small Business Saturday (the day set aside to promote independent retailers after the huge corporate splurges of Black Friday and ahead of the online bean feast of Cyber Monday), I would be travelling to my old friends at Vaillancourt Folk Art, the true embodiment of a successful small business, to perform for the first time on the second leg of my tour. There can be few more welcoming venues in the USA, not only thanks to the very genuine friendship of Gary, Judi and Luke, but also thanks to the venue which is decorated in wonderful style. Old Ebenezer Scrooge’s gravestone is there, as is a replica of Charles Dickens’ reading desk, whilst a huge larger-than-life cut out of Mr and Mrs Fezziwig dancing hangs in the old warehouse where my dressing room is situated. The Vaillancourts ‘make Christmas’ and to be surrounded by so many seasonal icons means that one can hardly fail to put one’s best foot forward and do the best job possible.

The day didn’t get off to a promising start when I woke at around 1.45 am, but I dozed on and off for the next few hours before waking properly at around 5. I stayed in my room until around 7.30 at which point I went to have some breakfast in a deserted restaurant. It was a quiet morning, as I didn’t have to be in the small community of Sutton until 12. I spent the time catching up with some emails and admin for future venues on the trip (sending sound effects and stage plans etc), and generally lounging around in my room, even occasionally catching up on a few more winks here and there.

As the morning moved on, I made sure that I had everything that I would need for two shows, and at around 11.15 I loaded up my Rogue and set off through the streets of Worcester for the twenty-minute drive. The drizzle and snow of the evening before had cleared and it was a beautifully crisp bright winter’s day. If I had thought about it earlier, I would have stopped off for a brief walk in the spectacularly named Purgatory Chasm, which would have helped to blow the jet lag cobwebs away and energise me a little, but as it was, I had to speed by.

Vaillancourt Folk art is housed in an old warehouse building and features a large store selling the exquisitely produced hand painted Santa ornaments which Judi designs based on antique German chocolate moulds. To the right as you enter are the benches where artists carefully create the figures and beyond that a ramp which leads to the Blaxton Theater where I perform.

It was to the latter space that I made my way so that I could offload my costumes and bags and there I found Luke making preparations for the afternoon’s events. Luke is Gary and Judi’s son who over the last few years has become ever more involved in the company and is now starting to take over the tiller from his parents and to steer his own course.

As with all venues the Vaillancourts had to find a way of reducing audience numbers, to allow for a degree of social distancing, while still making the event profitable, and the solution that they came up with was to remover three rows of theatre seating and replacing it with a series of VIP tables each seating 2 people, which could be sold for a premium rate.

Luke has a background of hospitality and recently has been becoming more and more involved in the selling of fine wines, even commissioning a Vaillancourt wine, so the move towards a cabaret style event was a natural progression.

Luke and I chatted and I arranged the set as I wanted it, draping the red cloth over the chair and setting Bob Cratchit’s stool in the correct place, then I took my costumes into my dressing room at the back of the building.

We had plenty of time before the first show which was to be at 2pm, and having hung my costumes up I returned to the theatre where Luke introduced me to Curtis who was to be looking after all of the sound requirements for the two days. He produced a head mic which I always dread for they never stay hooked over my ears, but we did a good sound check and he roamed throughout the room to check the quality throughout. We then spent a little time discussing the various sound cues before we all went our separate ways to prepare.

In order to maximise the wine and glühwein sales Gary had asked for the two act version of my show this year, so I spent a while going over the extra lines in my dressing room. It was not, as I would point out later during the Q&A session, a question of remembering the lines per se, but remembering to actually say them: the one act version of the script is so grooved that it is easy just to skip over the spot where the extra passages should be.

Soon I could hear the audience gathering, so I started to get into costume and waited for the off. I paced around the warehouse unto Gary called to me ‘5 minutes!’ I stood at the door while he introduced me and then I made my slow way through the audience to the strains of The Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The afternoon audience were very obviously made up of hardened fans who were out to enjoy themselves, for they were coming in with lines a few seconds before I said them, as if two years had been too long to wait and they wanted to get to their favourite passages as soon as possible! When I performed Mr Fezziwig’s dance I even got a round of applause for my efforts.

I arrived at the interval and left the stage to applause, and spent the next 20 minutes pacing constantly to keep my energy levels up. As I walked to and fro, I noticed a huge crate in which my sound equipment had been transported in – ok not quite backstage at Live Aid, but it did look very impressive.

After twenty minutes Gary came to say that we were ready to get going again. The second act was dramatic and intense and went very well leading to a whooping standing ovation at the end.

As at all venues this year I was not doing a signing session, but instead took questions from the audience: one was an interesting variation of a common query – ‘which movie version would be Charles Dickens’ favourite?’ He probably wouldnt have liked the change to the ending of the Alastair Simm one, so the popular vote was out, maybe George C Scott, possibly, or even one of the animated versions (he would have been astounded by the modern technology which would be magic to him – a huge advance over the magic lantern shows which he enjoyed.)

Gary nicely asked me about my researching of The Staplehurst book which enabled me to promote it: He had ordered thirty copies for my performances and all had already sold, so he was busily taking orders for new stock.

After a few more questions Gary wrapped proceedings up and the audience made their way home while I changed back into my regular clothes. A between-show supper had been laid on and I joined Gary, Judi, Luke and other staff members to eat sandwiches, soup and salad, followed by the most delicious apple pie. The banter between the workforce was great and showed what a close-knit team the Vaillancourts have put together.

There was plenty of time before the next show so I excused myself and returned to my little dressing room where I curled up on a sofa and fell asleep. When I woke I looked at my phone, 5.45, plenty of time to get ready and dressed for the 7pm start (I usually get into costume with thirty minutes to go). Just as I was getting up and stretching Judi appeared asking me to sign an ornament for an audience member, goodness they arrive early here…and then Gary called, ‘5 minutes Mr Dickens!’

Somewhere our communication had broken down and the show was actually due to begin at 6! Any thought of leisurely building up towards the show was gone and I got into costume as quickly as I could, as Gary stood on the stage regaling the audience with whatever he could think of to say, until he saw me appear in the doorway (about 15 minutes after the scheduled show time), at which point, he said to the crowd, ‘So how do we welcome Mr Dickens to the stage?’ and everyone joined in, ‘Herrrrrrrresssss Gerrrallllddddd’

This performance was not destined to be one of my easiest! As I started to walk through the audience, I discovered that there was no route to the stage (the folk sitting at tables understandably having pushed their chairs back to watch the currently non-existent show), I took one turn and then another but still no path opened up to me and I had to rely on the generosity of those at the front to shuffle out of my way, which wasn’t very Scrooge like.

Unsurprisingly and completely understandably the audience were a little ‘terse’ with me, during the opening salvos without the joyous atmosphere of the earlier show, but I didn’t panic or try too hard, I just kept on doing what I knew works, and slowly everything settled down (although I didn’t get a round of applause for my dancing skills this time!) By the time that I left the stage for the interval there was plenty of applause and the damage was repaired. But I was SO annoyed with myself.

The second act went very smoothly and the audience had relaxed appreciatively (thanks in part to a second round of glühwein) and I once again took a standing ovation which had perhaps seemed unlikely 90 minutes previously…..

Once again, we opened the floor to questions and once again Gary gave me the opportunity to plug the book, telling the tale of how I nearly drowned (ok, maybe a slight exaggeration, but it makes for a good story) when I visited the site of the crash.

It was soon time to finish and Gary called an end to proceedings and I took the final applause and left the stage, still mentally kicking myself for my earlier mistake.

When the audience had left, I returned to The Beechwood Hotel where Gary, Judi and Luke joined me. Although I have another day with the Vaillancourts, this was sort of a goodbye to Gary and Judi as they are due to fly off to Germany to tour the Christmas markets with a group. Unfortunately for them Covid is starting to rear its head in mainland Europe again, and a large percentage of their tour group has cancelled, but they have a commitment and are flying on Sunday. We toasted our friendsip and the success of the day, and then I went to my room and they returned home to pack.

Dawn Hagan Byers

Dawn Byers

When I came off stage at the end of the evening show any petty thoughts about my day’s performances became meaningless. When I switched on my phone, I received the desperately sad news that Dawn Byers had passed away quietly, surrounded by her family.

Dawn, Bob and Pam’s sister-in-law, was one of the strongest, most strong willed, most courageous people you could ever have hoped to meet. Married to Bob’s brother, Jeff, Dawn was diagnosed with cancer over two years ago and has fought the fight with her typical energy and spirit.

When I perform at Byers Choice the most difficult aspect of the event is getting almost 800 people into the room and seated, and on these occasions all of the family and a lot of the staff are called in to assist. Dawn was in her element during these times, as she sat folks as if it were a military operation, collecting them at the door and conducting them to empty chairs before they even knew they had been helped. Nobody ever quibbled about where they had been sat, or asked to change, for Dawn, although short of stature, had ruled and you didn’t answer back. But this strength and authority was delivered with a smile, a laugh and great good humour. I always enjoyed watching her in action!

Dawn tackled her cancer with the same tough, yet cheerful spirit and over the last two years has posted a series of completely inspiring video diaries – being honest enough to tell us when she was scared or weak, but always looking forward with great positivity to the next course of treatment, the next trial, the next stage of her life.

It is typical that in lieu of flowers, donations are being invited for The Kid’s Castle community playground In Doylestown PA – a cause that Dawn had supported and championed for a long time. Future generations will therefore benefit from her legacy which is exactly as it should be.

I send my deepest condolences to Jeff, Ashlyn, Jake and the rest of the Byers Family.