A Christmas Carol film, Charles Dickens, Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biogrpahy of a Rail Crash, Dickens Fellowship, Mark Twain, Old Sturbridge Village, The Signalman
Although my Friday alarm was set for 5.45 I woke before it and so it was easy to get ready and leave my room by 6.30. I had a three hour drive ahead of me and I was keen to get to Massachusetts by about 10am, therefore I decided to forego a hotel breakfast (as regulars know, this was a painful thing to do) and just grab something on the road. The traffic heading towards New York City was very heavy, even at that early hour, so it was as well that I left when I did.
I crawled and edged and trundled and inched and lumbered and crept, in fact I went so slowly that I would have had time to read a thesaurus if I’d had one to hand. Eventually I was passed New York and the heavy traffic was now filling the opposite carriageway and I could speed up and head towards New England. This is a journey I have done on many occasions, in one direction or the other, and it always brings to mind Charles Dickens’ American Notes, as I pass many of the cities that he visited and commented on.
After a while I pulled in at a service station and had a Panera Bread breakfast of oatmeal and fruit and a pastry, washed down with orange juice and coffee, before getting back into the Rogue and continuing north.
My destination was Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum near Worcester. I have heard a lot about it over the years but have never had the opportunity to visit, and on Friday I was to perform there. I made good time and pulled into the large car park a little after 10. My contact at Sturbridge was Ellen Taviano, with whom I have worked for many years at Winterthur House and Gardens in Delaware. Thanks to staff layoffs and changes during the pandemic, Ellen left Winterthur and took up a position at Sturbridge, heading up the retail operation. Having enjoyed such a close and successful relationship in the past she was keen to get me to to the museum to perform and the September tour proved to be the perfect opportunity. When I arrived, I left a voicemail on Ellen’s phone and made my way to the visitor centre, where the staff welcomed me and showed me into the empty auditorium where I was to perform. I say ‘I was to perform’, but actually I should say ‘where we were to perform’ for today I would be sharing the stage with fellow actor Jennifer Emerson, and this is the day I have been working towards and, yes, sometimes fretting over throughout the tour.
I took a look at the stage and saw that Ellen had placed a few articles of furniture for our set, but some were not quite right, so I took a look back stage and was delighted to find all sorts of bits and pieces that I could chose from Firstly, I pulled a few bits out, and brought them to the stage and as I did a lady dressed in an elegant Victorian gown entered the theatre, and this was Jennifer.
Jennifer has a long history in working at museums, interpreting characters and performing a series of her own one-person shows (including her version of A Christmas Carol). She has worked in costume and has directed and taught and is generally a very talented and committed go getter, and is also a member of the Dickens Fellowship.
When Ellen had chosen the shows for my visit she had asked for The Signalman (as she ordered plenty of my books), and A Child’s Journey With Dickens, which she had seen me perform at Winterthur. As soon as I saw that on the schedule I got in touch with Bob and suggested that we ask Jennifer to be involved. The performance is based around a speech made in 1912 by Kate Douglas Wiggin recounting the day that she met Charles Dickens on a train bound for Boston. The speech was made when Kate was 55, but the train journey had taken place in 1868, when she had been only 11, and the show features her at both ages. Now, I have performed it, with a degree of success in the past, but really? A balding, bearded Englishman trying to convince a New England audience that he is an 11 year girl from Maine is pushing it somewhat. Back in 2021 the Dickens Fellowship had asked me if I could give a Zoom performance, and I had suggested A Child’s Journey performed on the anniversary of the meeting on the train. One of the positives of the Covid pandemic was that it shrank the world, and people were suddenly communicating in ways that they had never realised possible. This extended to performance, and Id contacted Jennifer to ask her if she would like to work with me on the project. We developed a script together using purely archive material – letters, newspaper articles, memoirs, and of course Kate’s speech itself. As the story involved Dickens’ reading tour, we also featured a scathing review of one of his performances written by Mark Twain. Again the shrinking world had enabled me to ask yet another performer, Mark Dawidziak (who ‘does’ Twain), to record the piece for us – this was going to be a show performed by three actors each of whom specialised in performing on their own! The Zoom performance had been a great success and at the time I had said to Jennifer if there was ever a chance to actually perform it live, then we should grab it. Old Sturbridge Village was that chance.
We didn’t change the script very much, but had to think about how we would actually stage it. The idea was to have a lectern at one side of the stage where Jennifer would give the speech, as if addressing the guests at Delmonico’s restaurant in 1912, and on the other side would be a desk where I would sit as Dickens, writing letters about the tour, which were slipped into Kate’s dialogue at suitable moments. For example at one time Kate recalled praying fervently that Dickens didn’t suffer the pangs of seasickness as he sailed to America, and on that line I would recite two letters that he wrote from the SS Cuba as he sailed across the Atlantic detailing rough weather and sickness throughout the ship. The writing desk was angled away from where Kate stood, meaning that there was absolutely no connection between the two characters, until the key moment when the child Kate saw Dickens on the train, at which point we both sat next to one another on a small bench at centre stage, representing a seat in the railroad car.
When Jennifer arrived we continued foraging for the perfect furniture and when we were satisfied we started a rehearsal, our very first run through together. It went well, we both fumbled a few lines, but the the basic setting and idea seemed to work perfectly and we retired to the green room behind the stage in a state of great excitement
At 1 o’clock Ellen came to check that we were ready and then went to the stage and introduced us both and we emerged to applause. I welcomed everyone and made a very brief introduction to the show, and then introduced Kate as if I were chairing the meeting of the New York Dickens Fellowship in 1912. And so the show started. Oh, it went well, Jennifer had adopted two very different personas – the 55 year old Kate who had spent a life in education especially in the field of the Kindergarten movement, had a a teacher’s voice and demeanour, direct, factual but kindly, but as soon as she was on the train she became the 11 year old, excited fidgety, crossing and uncrossing her ankles, and gazing at her idol, Charles Dickens. I knew that all of this working superbly, although I could not see her performance as I was turned away, thanks to the laughter and joy coming from the audience. When it came to the moment that she precociously sat next to Dickens and he first saw her there was an instant connection between the two character. The audience responded wonderfully and laughed at all of the appropriate places (including during the Twain voiceover, saying of Dickens ‘His pictures are hardly handsome, and he, like everybody else, is less handsome than his pictures!’ Ouch.
Laughter turned to tears as Dickens asked Kate if she had wanted to go to his reading very much, and she had sobbed, ‘yes more than tongue can tell’ causing Dickens to cry also. Both Jennifer and I had tears in our eyes and we could see members of the audience wiping theirs too.
The applause at the end was wonderful and we knew that we had created a very special show which had worked just as we’d imagined it.
With all of the concentration and nerves that had surrounded the first act, it would have been easy to forget that I had The Signalman to perform in the second half and it required quite a mental re-set to get myself prepared for that. Actually I gave a very good performance of it, I think. It was dramatic and tight and the lines flowed well. The audience were hooked and applauded loudly when I had finished. During the applause I gestured to Jennifer (who had taken a seat in the auditorium to watch) and the clapping increased again as we both took more bows.
What a wonderful success.
After the show Ellen took me to the gift store for a signing session and it was wonderful to see many people who had come to see me in shows at other venues over the years. One man showed me a picture of me posing with his sons and said ‘Yes. that was seven years ago: look how young you look!’ Thanks!
When the signing was over I went to find my accommodation for the night. Sturbridge had built a small collection of cabins which were originally to be hotel accommodation for visitors to the museum, but Covid closed them and now they are used for staff, professors and visiting entertainers. My room was large and very comfortable and I slumped onto the bed and dozed a little for an hour or so, before it was time to return to the theatre and get changed ready for the second performance. After a while Jennifer appeared (she had stayed in costume, so hadn’t needed to arrive as early as I), and we chatted about the first show and how it had been received.
Soon Ellen appeared once more to check that all was well, and the evening show was under way. It was a larger audience than the afternoon, and once again they followed the story with rapt attention. I would say that at both performances it took a little while before everyone accepted the premise behind our performance, but it didn’t take long until they were fully involved and were laughing and crying. Once again our closing bows were met with a standing ovation.
The Signalman was also superbly received, and my most unsubtle plugging of the book was greeted with loud laughter, even applause. What a wonderful, and exciting day, and what a superb way to end what has been a difficult tour, not because of the schedule, or the venues, or the shows, but because I had wanted to be at home in England. I had wanted to file past the Queen’s coffin in Westminster Hall with Liz so that we could pay our respects to the only Monarch we have ever known; to be part of the national mourning. My home-made black arm band had been a token of my respect, but I had so wanted to do more.
After another signing session where many friends came to say hello, including Gary and Judi Vaillancourt, I returned to the theatre, got changed and collected all of my props, with the exception of the danger light, which would be collected by someone, sometime. Ellen had booked a restaurant for her, Jennifer, myself and her colleague Jacqui who had been helping with the lights and changing the set between shows. We had a lovely dinner, although conversation was awkward due to a singer who was performing throughout the evening. He was very good and had a wonderful set of songs, but with my tinitus it made hearing conversation extremely problematic.
The restaurant was emptying as we finished our dinner and it was clear that they wanted to close, so we said our goodbyes and headed back to our respective homes and lodges.
On Saturday I would be flying home, but the morning was taken up to roaming around Old Sturbridge Village, and what an amazing place it is. The attraction was opened in 1946 and featured various historical New England buildings that had been dismantled and moved to the site. Now it covers 200 acres and features 59 properties. There is a blacksmith, a pottery, a cooper and various mills, all working. There are farms with cattle, sheep and pigs, there are demonstrations of 19th century cooking and crafting, and all in all it is a fascinating place to spend a day. On Saturday the sun shone, and I not only visited all of the properties, but also took the trails into woods and across pasture – I even ran a little.
After lunch it was time to head to the Logan Airport in Boston and board a 777 to fly home to a different England to the one I left 10 days before.