A Child's Journey With Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Hilton Garden Inn, Mid Continent Public Library, Office Max
The first performance day of the tour inevitably started in darkness as my brain, still on UK time, decided it was time to wake, even though the clock by my bedside stated that it was only 1am. I managed to return to sleep briefly, only to repeat the exercise at 3-O-something, and again at 4ish. I finally gave in and made for the coffee maker at around 5.
I mooched around and wrote my blog post and completed the day’s Wordle challenge in 4 rows (yes, I have been caught in the net of the 5-letter word game, as have so many others), before making my way to the lobby for breakfast, which had a wonderful air of familiarity about it – the porridge (complete with a sprinkle of brown sugar and some cranberries) was thick and delicious, and the waffles were up to their usual standard.
My first show wasn’t until 2pm, so I had the morning to myself, most of which was given over to rehearsing A Child’s Journey With Dickens. I paced about my room, going through the lines over and over again. It was strange going through the entire script again, having carefully learned what not to say, what to leave out, back in September when I performed it at Old Sturbridge Village with Jennifer Emerson taking the role of Kate Douglas Wiggin. At that time, she had stood at a lectern giving Kate’s speech, whilst I had sat at a small writing desk chipping in occasionally with letters written by Charles Dickens himself – the split stage idea had worked well, until the two characters came together on a bench which represented the railroad car in which they actually met. With just me doing the show, I had to find ways of transitioning from Kate to Charles and back again, so I spent much of my rehearsal time going over those moves.
I also decided that it would be a nice idea to give Kate a sheaf of papers to hold, as if she were clutching the text of her speech (originally given in New York City in 1912), and for Dickens’s table to strewn with notepaper as he fired off his correspondence. Across the parking lot from the hotel is an Office Max store, and I planned to drive over there and purchase some suitable paper. Wait, drive? I could see the store! I abandoned my plan and set out to walk the great distance, which meant crossing a road which was not designed to be crossed, as is so often the way in America. I waited patiently until a suitable gap in the traffic appeared and made my move, remembering to look the ‘wrong’ way for cars and trucks.
Once in the store I found some nice ivory-coloured paper, which wouldn’t look too garishly modern on stage, made my purchase and returned to the hotel.
I was due to be picked up to be driven to the first venue at 12.15, so I made sure that I had all of the costumes and props that I needed and then headed down to the lobby to wait. I mentioned in yesterday’s post that there had been some changes at The Mid-Continent Public Library this year, and that my visit would be a very different one to that of years past, but actually things had a very familiar feel to them as Kimberly Howard, my long-time colleague and good friend pulled up outside the hotel to collect me. I first met Kimberly in, I think 1995 when she was a branch librarian at the Blue Springs branch of the library service, and I performed there during my very first tour. Over the years she rose through the ranks of MCPL to head up the programming side of the operation and thus became the person who booked and administered my visits. It was Kimberly who transported me all around the Kansas City region, who took me to lunch and dinner, who oversaw the growth of my audience numbers into the much larger auditoria that I now perform in here. But this year Kimberly took the decision to retire and move on, although she put in a special request to her former employers, asking if she could still be my chauffeur! So, although at an administrative level it was all change this year, for me the day had a wonderful feeling of reassurance about it.
We drove for about 45 minutes to the Midwest Genealogy Center, where my first performance would be held. It is a venue I have performed at in the past and in no time I was on the stage moving furniture around and getting things set just as I wanted them. In charge of all things technical was Sara Peterson-Davis, which was good news for we have battled recalcitrant microphones together in the past, so I knew I was in good hands. The whole of my visit this year is being coordinated by Beth Loecke, who welcomed me and made sure I had everything I needed. The stage already had a lectern and a large bench in place, but we still needed a small writing table for Charles to use, and after a bit of searching Beth mentioned that the props for A Christmas Carol had been delivered during the day and that there was a wooden table among them, and so my set was complete.
Soon the time for the audience to be let in arrived and I retreated to my dressing room until curtain up.
I had slightly changed my introductory remarks this year, bringing them a little more up to date, and had included the great revelation that I now perform regularly at ‘Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton Abbey’. I thought that this would go down well with an American audience, and so it proved as I could hear a gasp and murmur when those words were read.
Soon I was on stage and launching into the script, which flowed very well, the movements from stage right to left and back were OK, especially the one following Kate’s line ‘I prayed fervently that…the pangs of seasickness may be spared so precious a personage’, after which I reeled and stumbled across the stage, grabbing the bench and chair for support, as if I were on the deck of a heaving and pitching steamer.
There was one rather extraordinary error in my show, which hadn’t showed itself in rehearsals, and that was a matter of accent: I give Kate’s lines in a rather flawed New England accent, making sure that the ‘ah’ sounds such as in barn and farm were elongated into bahn and fahm, and that was ok, but the problem came after I had delivered George Dolby’s account of how he and Dickens prepared for an evening show. Dolby was Dickens’s tour manager and travelled with him throughout his final reading tours, making sure that every detail from ticket sales to the set up in the various halls was properly looked after. Dolby was a Scot, and so I naturally give him a gentle Edinburgh burr, which adds a little variety to the duologue of Kate and Charles. The problem was, when I came back to being Kate again, I couldn’t lose the Scottish accent! It just wouldn’t leave and for a while Kate Douglas Wiggin, born in Philadelphia, raised in Maine, seemed to have emigrated from the Scottish borders – very odd.
The scenes in the railroad car when the 10-year-old Kate chatted excitedly to her hero, telling him that she skipped the dull parts of his books, went very well and were wonderfully received by the audience, and the whole show came to a lovely conclusion. Beth had decided to have a Q&A session after the show and audience members were encouraged to write questions on small pieces of card, so that we wouldn’t need to have staff running around the auditorium with microphones. As usual when the request for questions went out everyone was rather shy and coy, not wanting to be the first, but eventually a small girl in the front row handed her card up – in fact it wasn’t a question, but she had sketched the stage with me preforming on it – what an amazing souvenir, and one that I will cherish! It had been signed on the back by the artist – Lily, aged 9. Thank you, Lily.
When the show was finished, I changed and packed up and Kimberley drove me back to Liberty where we had a late lunch in the local Penera Bread outlet – I had a Baja Bowl, which featured chicken, avocado, pulses, tomatoes and a spicy salsa dressing – it was perfect. There was not a huge amount of time before the second show of the day, which was to be held at the Woodneath Library branch, another venue that I am very familiar with, although this year I would be performing in the brand-new auditorium space, which had been constructed since my last visit. On walking into the lobby, the visitor is faced with a huge living wall of moss, giving the building an ecologically sound feeling. Once in the auditorium the fresh feel is continued as the seats are all various shades of green too.
Sara was at her place in the sound booth, Captain Kirk-like (I mean in charge of the great ship, not that she has any resemblance to William Shatner), and we did sound checks on an empty stage, for there was one slight concern: there was no furniture. Somewhere along the way the crew who was supposed to transfer the set from one venue to another hadn’t turned up (either had forgotten to do it, or had thought the collection was for the following day, depending on who one spoke to), so there was a slightly fraught period during which there was the possibility that we would have to source other furniture that would look very modern – and probably green.
Beth was onto the issue, however, and with a little over 30 minutes to go before the show was due to start the furniture appeared and all calmness arrived at Woodneath, just before the audience.
During lunch Kimberly and I had reminisced about the days when the library service had provided a portable microphone system that had a stubborn mind of its own and often refused to work, and it was Sara who coaxed life out of it, making her our official microphone whisperer. Thank heavens, we mused, that these days we were using much more sophisticated and reliable equipment. That thought came back to bite me on the bum, when I began the show, and my words were accompanied by loud cracks of electronic disobedience. It was obvious that a lead was loose somewhere, but short of disrobing on stage, there was not much to do about it. I took my own decision: the audience wasn’t a large one and the acoustics of the room were good, so I switched off the mic and went unplugged for the evening.
The show went well, and I managed to escape Scotland on his occasion, which was a relief. We had another Q&A afterwards and again after a slow start the questions flowed freely, including a few old favourites and some that required more thought from me before answering. As the clock ticked towards 8.15 we wound up the session, I took my final bows of the day and left the stage.
I mingled for a while with some of the audience members and posed for pictures, before returning to my green room (and it was green, naturally) to change. Before I left the theatre, I went to the sound desk so that Sara and I could find out what had happened to the microphone – I am due back at Woodneath on Saturday to perform to a much larger audience, so we wanted to make sure that we were on top of the issue. It seemed as if the main lead into the unit was slightly loose and was moving about, thereby creating the static noise whenever I moved. Sara tightened it up, and we ran a few lines to check that the repair was successful, before saying our goodbyes and goodnights.
The evening was not quite over, for Kimberly and I had been invited to dinner at the home of long-time fan Doug Streu and his wife Denise. Doug is a self-confessed A Christmas Carol addict, watching every film version multiple times each season. He comes to most of my shows, if not all, in the Kansas City region and was keen to say thank you by inviting me to his house, and also to honor Kimberly’s retirement from Mid-Continent. Our evening was a lovely one, with a simple meal of chicken, corn and potatoes, and good conversational banter. A fine way to wind down, but soon fatigue crept up on me, and it was time to say thank you and farewell. Doug and Denise sent us into the night containing goody bags containing banana bread, pumpkin bread, some brownies and in my case a bag of freshly ground coffee, as has become traditional over the years. They are truly kind people
Back at the hotel I could reflect on a successful first day on the road, and look forward to my first performances of A Christmas Carol on Friday November 4th.