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Friday 9 December 2022

It had only been a week since my last performance, which was at the Dana Center in Manchester, NH; 8 days since I first began to sniffle and snuffle and cough a little, but to me, a particularly restless person when not acting, it seemed to have been much longer.

On Friday morning I was in the Byer’s family cabin, and definitely felt ready to go. During the days previously I had been still suffering from an annoying cough, which would have made performing very difficult, but on Friday morning it had mostly cleared, and I very much wanted to get back onto the road. I didn’t actually need to leave until 11.30, so I spent the morning doing a few little pieces of laundry (well, I was back on the road, after all), playing myself at pool in the basement games room, and watching the 2nd and 3rd episodes of the Harry and Meghan documentary, purely because I was fairly certain that I will be asked about it in the coming days!

I packed my bags, said goodbye to the cabin, which had been a vast improvement over the four walls of the Hilton Garden Inn, and set off. It was a beautiful morning, with the Delaware River a deep peaty black with sparking-white ripples on the surface to my left. Soon I was skirting Philadelphia, crossing the bridge in Wilmington and heading towards Dover (one of those State capitals that is useful to know for trivia quizzes). As I drove, I discovered a feature of my Hyundai that I had not noticed previously, and that its somewhat annoying habit of taking control. When the Cruise Control function is selected it purrs along until it notices a car in front, going a little more slowly, and then it reduces the cruising speed. Now, it doesn’t just switch off the cruise control, it re-calibrates it so still the car carries on at exactly the same speed as the vehicle in front, with no influence from my right foot. If I gently turn the steering wheel to the left, thereby putting the car into an empty lane, the onboard brain comes to the conclusion that there is nothing ahead now, so lets the car accelerate back up to the previously set speed, again with no input from me. In a way this is a remarkable piece of tech, but in another it is incredibly dangerous, because you actually stop concentrating on the act of driving, putting complete faith in the car.

At one point I saw advertising signs for the Winterthur estate, and a feeling of great sadness came over me, feeling very guilty for disappointing all of those audience members who had been planning to attend the shows there this week. I am very aware that guilt is a ridiculous emotion, for I couldn’t have done anything else – at the time of the Winterthur shows I wasn’t out of the recommended quarantine period, and really wasn’t physically up to performing, but still as an actor I felt so sorry for everyone who was effected.

I stopped in Dover for lunch, and then finished my journey towards Lewes, Delaware, a very pretty coastal town, where I performed for the first time last year. I am booked by the Lewes Public Library and in 21 performed at the branch, and was very well received. On the back of that success it was decided that the library would seek a larger venue, and settled on the auditorium at a local high school.

Before driving to the venue, I had an hour or so to spend at my hotel, The Inn at Canal Square which sits at the water’s edge and is quite delightful.

The rooms are large, and comfortable and reassuringly traditional. I discovered that the room not only boasted a Keurig coffee maker, but an actual china cup too, and I think that this is my new gold-standard: a room with a real cup, not a plastic-wrapped paper one. In fact before I came down with Covid I was actually looking for a cup to come along with me on the road!

I spent the time at the hotel watching the end of the Argentina v Netherlands quarter final, which went to penalties and was very exciting. Thoughts now turn to England’s quarter final against the old rivals France, which will actually be played when I am on stage on Saturday afternoon!

At 5 o’clock I left the hotel and took the very short drive to The Cape Henlopen High School, where the various staff and volunteers from the library were waiting for me, prime among them David White, who is responsible for bringing me to the town. We walked into the auditorium, and it was huge! spread out before me, with a large stage at the bottom.

Apparently the library had received over 700 registrations (the show was free to patrons, so not all of those would show), and this room would soon be packed with excited theatre-goers. I had a moment of fear, what if I were not recovered enough to command a hall this big, what if I didn’t have enough energy, what if my voice didn’t hold out? Fortunately, David immediately passed me over to Gary, the technical head of the auditorium, and the nerves went away, for I was back into work mode, discussing sound effects and cues etc. Once we had finished the technical meeting, Gary showed me to my dressing room, which was filled with costumes in preparation for a performance of The Nutcracker, the next day – I suddenly had so much choice of what to wear…..hmmmm, what should it be?

The large audience was now being admitted, and I stood behind the curtain listening to them gather. I love being backstage alone, looking at all of the mechanics of the space. This particular auditorium was blessed with fly space, in other words it is tall enough to lower various back drops down to change scenes (or ‘fly’ them in). All of the different bars which the scenery can be attached to are controlled by ropes, situated stage left and they look less like stage equipment, more like rigging on some great battleship. There is good reason for that, for many theatres, especially those in port cities, were staffed by sailors, who knew how ropes and pullies could be used.

This is also the reason why it is unlucky to whistle in a theatre, for sailors used whistles to communicate on deck, and used the same language in the theatres. If you should happen to stroll onto a stage, absent-mindedly whistling a merry tune, you may inadvertently be sending a message to open a trap-door, or drop a huge canvas backdrop. Safest not to whistle!

I was very pumped up and excited behind the scenes, running through tongue twisters, breathing exercises, running, jumping, stretching, pumping myself up. This was all of the pent up energy from a week of inactivity. I roamed the empty corridors of the school, which must echo with so much noise during the days, and eventually found myself at the door to the auditorium, from where I could look at the audience, as they waited for the show to begin. It was a packed hall, and I suddenly had a realisation, and had another wave of nerves – I had no evidence that I could make it through an entire performance in a hall this large. I felt good, I felt impatient and as I looked at the crowd, I felt excited. I was certain that I could do it.

Having returned to the stage I waited for David to arrive to make his announcement, and then for the music cue, and then I walked on.

Everything was as normal, everything was in place. The narrator’s voice and Scrooge’s voice were powerful, and the laughs came in the right places. I could relax, this was all going to be fine, and so it was, until Marley arrived. It was a strange thing, but all of the big, gravelly voices (the ones which you may imagine to be hard work,) were fine, while the gentle, slightly ethereal Marley caused me all sorts of trouble – I couldn’t get to the end of a sentence on a single breath and I was worried that this early in the show this may turn into a march larger problem. In the short term I could use the situation to my advantage, for surely a ghost’s voice would be somewhat breathless? I used the helplessness of not being able complete whole phrases to suggest that this being was in a very temporary state, and it worked well. Actually the problem didn’t grow too much, I struggled a little as the show went on, and had to take a few surreptitious coughs here and there, but on the whole the performance was strong, powerful and successful. The audience were amazing, and they were standing and shouting and whooping before I’d even left the stage.

The ovation when I returned to the stage was amazing, and I soaked it all up, very pleased that I had proved to myself that I could perform the entire show, and ecstatic to be back where I belonged. David had asked if we could have a question and answer session from the stage afterwards, and because it was such a large audience, the library had taken questions in advance. I talked about the various film versions, and also about some of the techniques used in the show to differentiate between characters, which,m as my interviewer pointed out, turned into a bit of a masterclass! The truth was that, having been off the stage for so long, I didn’t really want to leave it now!

When I returned to my dressing room I was excited and elated and very happy, but I also knew that this had been a major physical effort and had taken a lot out of me. I slowly changed, and collected up all of my things, before returning to the auditorium where David and his team were packing up. Everyone said how well the show had gone, and how much they had enjoyed it, while David, with a background in theatre, quietly asked if my voice was ok, as he had been aware that I’d been struggling a little at times.

I said my goodbyes to everyone and drove the short distance back to the hotel. The restaurants in Lewes were mostly closed, so I ordered another UberEats delivery which arrived within 30 minutes, and I ate it watching Back to the Future 2. It had been a long, and emotional day and soon I was ready to sleep.

But, I was back!