Live Theatre – a Wonderful Thing

Friday dawned to reveal the first cloudy and miserable day that I have seen so far on my stay.  The early rush hour traffic’s lights were reflected against wet roads, providing a light show more akin to my Christmas tour. 

The routine has become fairly well set now, and as the rehearsal was not called until 1pm, I had the morning to myself.  I ate my customary breakfast of Muesli topped with blueberries, raspberries and banana whilst reading through Jeffrey’s notes from the last rehearsal, so I could incorporate them into  my morning run through of the play.

My temporary set had become more elaborate as the days have gone on, and for this rehearsal I discovered that I could remove a length of wooden dowelling from the coat hanging space, which became one of the walking canes that Dickens uses as a prop through the show.  Quite apart from the lines and the basic movements on stage, Jeffrey has directed in an awful lot of ‘business’ and it is vital for me to ensure that the various props end up in the correct place on the stage, ready to be used again.

 

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Scarf and Pole, ready to go

 

The run was one of the best I have done in my apartment: the lines were accurate, whilst my scarf (representing a scarf), and my coat hanging rail (representing the walking cane) both ended up in the right places.  I am very pleased with the direction that everything is heading.

After my excesses of exercise the day before I gave the gym a miss, as my running programme calls for a session every second day.  I have to be totally honest with you and confess that I was rather lazy for the rest of the morning, and spent a lot of time following the breaking news about the background of the  London terrorist (a story that was much closer to home than I had first realised).

At noon I made myself some poached eggs on toast, and then gathered my things in preparation for our afternoon rehearsal.

I was hopeful that we may be able to launch straight into a complete run through of the play again, and may even have time for a second, after notes, but those plans were foiled by yet another session going through sound effects, some of which had been tweaked or changed since last we went through them.  I have to say, that this time my patience was wearing a bit thin, but I kept myself to myself and let the process play out, until Jeffrey announced himself satisfied with the effects and we were at last ready to run.

This would be the first run through using the costumes, and I would have to be changing clothes for real, where in the past I have been miming, so I was anxious to discover if our timings had been right.

The play opens with Dickens in an angry mood, and the frustrations of sitting around in costume for an hour were positively used to create a very strong beginning to this performance.  Actually the show went well, and I was pleased with the progress I have made since our last run through.  Naturally there are still a few places I want it to be tighter, but everything seemed to run smoothly – even the costume changes.

We stopped after scene 3, and Jeffrey gave us all a few notes, before picking up the action at the big costume change: everything sort of ended up in the right place, but it was a bit clumsy and rushed, so I need to work on that.

The second act – sorry, scene 4 – went well too.  I was a little off colour at the start of it, due to the break, but was soon back into the story with a great intensity, that bodes well for the coming weeks.

With the run finished we only had a short time for notes, fortunately of which there weren’t many anyway, before Dennis appeared to whisk me away for an evening treat.

Dennis lectures at the University of Northwestern at St Paul, and my visit happens to coincide with their production of Mary Poppins, so Dennis had bought tickets for me, his wife Ann and her mother Betty to go and see it.

There is something so exciting in watching students perform – such energy, such commitment and such passion for the show, but this was just something else!  It was easy to forget that we were watching an amateur show cast purely with young adults – this could have been a fully professional touring production

To begin with (now, that’s an idea for a title….), the sets were incredible, either being flown in or moved around the stage on trucks.  Most amazing was the kitchen scene, which destroyed itself as the Banks children tried to make cake icing.  As we watched, the shelves slipped, plates fell, the table broke in two an iron chimney flue fell from the wall and the scene was a complete wreck.  But one ‘Spit Spot’ from Mary and everything righted itself again before our very eyes.

The ensemble numbers were all beautifully choreographed and perfectly performed, but standing out above everything was Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which filled the stage with noise, energy and colour.  The choreographer has created a sort of turbocharged YMCA dance on steroids – every performer created every letter of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in an ever faster and more manic whirl during which no one seemed to lose time or concentration.  It was one of those moments that exhausted the audience as well as the performers as we cheered and stamped and clapped.

Finally was the flying: of course Mary Poppins has to fly with her umbrella held aloft, but I had not been prepared for Bert to casually stroll up the side of the proscenium arch (parallel to the ground), and when he reached the top turn, and walk (upside down, now), across the top of the arch whilst still tap dancing and singing, and all of this as the sweeps of London belted their way through ‘Step in Time’ beneath him.  Whew.

I do tend to get rather emotional when I can see how much energy and love has been put into a show like this, and I unashamedly was wiping tears from my eyes as the cast took their curtain call to a boisterous standing ovation which became even more boisterous when Mary flew from the Heavens to take her bow.

A stunning, stunning show, and one that reaffirmed the sheer joy of live theatre. 

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Welcome Back

And so time pushes inexorably on towards our opening night next Tuesday.  Yesterday was a rather unbalanced day in that Jeffrey was not due back from Arizona until 4pm, so the rehearsal call was a late one.

In the morning, after breakfast, I ran my customary private rehearsal in the apartment, and was delighted to find that those lines, which I worked so hard at the day before, had by and large stuck in my memory.

With the rehearsal finished I decided to ‘do’ fitness, and got a little carried away.  I went down to the gym on the 4th floor of the building, and completed my running programme successfully and then, mainly thanks to the mirrored walls, thought it would be a good idea to do a series of stomach-crunching sit-ups.  I lay back on the inclined bench, hooked my feet under the roller and forced myself from the recumbent to the upright as many times I could – and then a few more.  That done, into the pool for a series of non-stop 10-length bursts.

When I had finished, I couldn’t walk and I couldn’t talk. 

Maybe I should take things just a little bit easier in future days, after all a one-man show featuring one man who can’t move or talk is not going to wow the Minneapolis crowds.

Having calmed down for a while I walked to the store and stocked up on a few things, before returning to slump on the settee and eat a salad for lunch.

There was still a few hours to go before the official rehearsal, so I did a little more work on the script before having a shower and generally energising myself again.

Jeffrey had made good time with his flight, and was already in the theatre when I arrived at 4.  We chatted over a few things that had occurred to us both, for example, by entering from the rear of the theatre it suggests that Dickens is coming in from outside – should he, therefore have his top hat and cane with him?  Do we have a hat that will fit over the wig?  What do I do with the items once I get to the stage, as the opening lines of the show are spoken immediately and with great power directly to the audience?  We came to the conclusion that it will be awkward to have them, so assume that he has cast them aside as he came into the hallway downstairs.

The open shirt issue is another discussion point.  Jeffrey has been suggesting for a few days that I play the final scene, in which Charles is rehearsing, with an open-necked shirt, in a rather flamboyant, Byronical way.  I had argued that Dickens was a stickler for his appearance and would be properly attired, but the more I thought about it, the more Jeffrey’s idea made sense.  Dickens was a man of the theatre, and actually I am sure would metaphorically have rolled his sleeves up, and physically divested himself of his cravat to rehearse.  Also the white open shirt matched with the pale linen trousers will create a powerful and familiar image as he portrays Jesus performing miracles preaching on the mount and leading his Disciples.  Finally, it will give me one less thing to fiddle with during the scene 3-4 costume change, which is proving awkward.

We decided between us to look at the open shirt when the costumes arrived and then consult with Dennis for final approval.

And at that moment – the costumes arrived, and so did the furniture for the set. Dennis, Bob and Ben had been at The Guthrie Theatre rental department picking up everything we used two years ago, although there were a few changes.  On the original set we featured a large, circular pouf downstage, but unfortunately this had been re-covered in a very modern fabric so was no good to us anymore.  The replacement, which was the only vaguely suitable piece of furniture there, is smaller, square and features gold fabric and tassels.  It doesn’t look quite right, and we may need to mount a search of Minneapolis for a more appropriate replacement.

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The wonderful leather and oak armchair is back, as is the wooden side table, but a new item on the set is a heavy wooden hat stand, with brass ‘buckets’ to hold walking canes. 

In the old show each costume change was carried out in a black out, meaning that the various items could be hidden in storage boxes which had been cleverly built into the large window frames at the back of the set.  With no blackouts available to us at The Wesley, Dickens now has to change ‘naturally’, so the various smoking jackets and waistcoats and cravats have to be on the set.

For almost an hour we worked out how to hang the various coats so that: a) the set looks pleasing to the audience as they arrive, and b) I can reach them easily during the changes.  One annoyingly reflective waistcoat caused the most trouble, but we sorted it out in the end by hanging it between the jacket and the waistcoat of the cranberry-coloured ‘Portsmouth suit’.

As our attention naturally turned to costumes  Bob told us that the linen suit I wore in the opening scenes of the play (and which looked so good), was badly stained, and that he almost didn’t bring it, but a quick inspection of it showed that it was no worse than before, and that the stains didn’t show under the lights anyway.

I tried the suit on and it fitted perfectly (it must have been those sit-ups this morning), and it felt good to be wearing it again.  We then worked through the costume changes one by one, working out where the discarded coats etc should go. 

Finally we tried the open shirt look – Dennis liked it, and we agreed to try it in the next rehearsal

All of these practical issues took time, and in the end there were only a few minutes left for Jeffrey to go through his notes from our last run through, and to go over some of the new blocking again. 

It is frustrating not to get full runs of the play in but the work we are doing is vital to the overall success of the show, and I am of course doing my own rehearsals each day back in my flat, with my re-arranged furniture.

We had to finish our work at 7.30 because Tricia arrived from the Guthrie to re-introduce me to my wig, which he constructed in 2015 specifically for this show. 

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Two years ago Tricia had attended almost every performance to fit it and tweak it for me, but this year she is not available, so while she slowly turned me into Charles Dickens she was also demonstrating to Bob and Kasey (who works with Dennis on the PR for the production), who will take on wig duties.  They took copious notes and I tried to feel what was going on at the back of my head, so that I can be of some use to them.

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Tricia did a great job on this hairpiece, for she captured Dickens’ wild, unruly, uncontrolled locks and it is not perfect or pretty.  It is the hair of a man who would take his cravat off to rehearse a play. 

When Trish finished I looked in the mirror and smiled: welcome back Charles John Huffam Dickens!

 

A Dark Day

With Jeffrey away, Wednesday was a day off for the cast and crew of To Begin With, although I am sure that everyone was still working hard on the project in their own ways.

A free day gave me the opportunity to do plenty of work on the script, and during the first part morning I went through scenes one to three with a fine-tooth comb.  This wasn’t line learning, this was line perfecting.  During my run through I had the script close at hand and whenever I was slightly in doubt I would check.

For example:  in scene one I say ‘Charitably, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps my neighbour’s spawn had been taking a brisk morning immersion.’  I made a note of that line because I wanted to check that the word was ‘perhaps’ and not ‘maybe’.  In this case I have been getting it right, but there were a few others where inaccuracies have crept in, often in the order of words:  ‘educated and intelligent’ should be ‘intelligent and educated’; ‘longing, frustration and bitterness’ should be ‘frustration, longing and bitterness’, and so on.  Essentially it makes no difference to the progress of the plot which way round I say these lines, but I want it to be perfect.  So it was two hours well spent.

To escape from my little apartment/rehearsal room, I decided to walk to the Minnesota Institute of Art, which is an amazing  gallery and museum.  The collection contains ancient items from before Christ, right up to a fabulous collection of modern art and photography.  There are urns, coffins, jade carvings, Native American headdresses and robes.  There are works by Manet and Monet; Picasso and Pissaro; Singer Sargent and….oh, I’ve rather backed myself into an alliterative cul-de-sac there!  Anyway, it is a fine collection.

As is often the way in modern galleries (and although MIA is housed in an old Palladian-style building, the interior is very modern), the interior can be just as astounding as the works it holds.  At one point I walked down a staircase, and looking back up saw a view of angles and shade which was a piece of art in its own right.

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My delight at the various works of art was tempered though by the awful news coming from London. 

Terrorism has moved on since 9-11 and London’s co-ordinated bomb attack of 7-7 in 2005.  These days all that is needed is an individual and a vehicle.  We have seen such attacks in Niece, Dijon and Berlin and now in London.  If a single madman wants to create havoc and has a car at his disposal, there is nothing to stop him – no online chat, no planning, no terrorist cells, just a madman.

As the news came in to my phone, so the stories of bravery and heroism began to surface.  Of course the London police force, who lost one of the number, were professional and instant in their response.  The scene was cleared and Parliament was locked down immediately, presumably in accordance to a carefully planned emergency protocol, while the attacker was taken before he could cause more carnage.

Soon photographs began to appear on the web and we saw bloodied Member of Parliament Tobias Ellwood performing first aid on the fallen officer.

A woman was reported to be in the Thames, presumably having jumped from Westminster Bridge as the car ploughed through pedestrians, later it was confirmed that she had been pulled alive from the water.

A horrible, horrible day, and one that made me feel very alone here.

However, life goes on and I very much approved of Theresa May’s response, after denouncing the ‘sick and depraved’ attack, and praising the security and police forces, she went onto say:

‘But let me make it clear today, as I have had cause to do before: any attempt to defeat those values through violence and terror is doomed to failure.

‘Tomorrow morning, Parliament will meet as normal.  We will come together as normal.

‘And Londoners – and others from around the world who have come here to visit this great city – will get up and go about their day as normal.

‘They will board their trains, they will leave their hotels, they will walk these streets, they will live their lives.

‘And we will all move forward together.  Never giving in to terror.  And never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart.’

 

From the museum I walked back into the City and then home, where I spent a further two and half hours working my way through scene four: Essential work for me, and although it felt difficult and meaningless, it was vital to do for, as Mrs May said, if we don’t go on as normal they have won.

On Thursday we will begin the final push towards opening night: the furniture will arrive, the props will arrive, the costumes will arrive and I will have my wig fitted!

So, let me close with a quote from the show:

‘Faith and life.  Not so dark after all.  Though darkness must be part of the story, the darkness shall not overwhelm.  But if the dark is not truthfully dark, the light cannot be truthfully light.’

 

Postscript:

In the few minutes since I first published this post, the following picture appeared on Facebook, which sums it all up!

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Welcoming Our New Cast Member

Prologue

We officially welcomed a new cast member into the performance yesterday.  She has been flirting with us all for the best part of a week, and making great efforts to become part of the show.  Last night Dennis, Jeffrey, Ben and I relented and let her have a role.

 

As our Tuesday rehearsal was not until 2pm, I had a fairly quiet morning in the apartment, and for the first time I decided to avail myself of the gymnasium facilities here (I had promised myself that I would anyway, but when Bob measured me for costumes and the numbers were rather larger than I’d expected, that made my mind up).  I didn’t have a long work out, and really just picked up a running programme that I had started at home and let lapse a few weeks ago.  I returned to the apartment red of face and moist of skin, but it is a good discipline and I shall make every effort to keep it up during my stay.  Actually, the weather is so good that I may well start running in nearby Loring Park.

After a healthy breakfast I started a run through of the entire show, using my previously re-arranged furniture as a temporary stage.  It seemed to go pretty well, but there are a few moments that are hesitant, so more work to do: always more work to do.

The rest of the morning was taken up with domestic chores, such as laundry and ironing, before having some soup for lunch.

Over at the Wesley Center the performing space had moved one step on, as Ben had been in all morning hanging large black drapes at the back of the stage to mask the altar, organ, piano, various speakers, a large TV screen and other equipment that would look out of place in an 1847 study.  As I walked around the stage I realised that the issue of physically getting onto the set to begin the show would be tricky.  I would have to part the black curtains, and that would break the integrity of the ‘room’.  At the Music Box theatre we had much more space and I could walk between masking flats at the back of the stage and onto the set itself, but here that is not possible.  I had a brief chat with Ben about it, and we decided that until a lot of the backstage equipment had been moved we couldn’t really make a decision.

Jeffrey arrived and after a discussion about the entering issue, we spent some time re-blocking a couple of scenes that are not working quite as well as they could:  Jesus’ dinner with Simon, the Pharisee, and the moment that Dickens sees his son Alfred staring at him, as he ‘performs’ the crucifixion and a couple of others.

We were on a tight timescale, as Jeffrey had to catch a plane to Arizona where he is working on another of his plays, so as soon as we could we began a complete run of our show

I made the best entry I could through the curtains and onto the set and off I went.  This was the first run with the sound cues that we worked on yesterday and on the whole it went well, although there were a few occasions that cues didn’t come in, or weren’t quite right, but it is amazing to feel the atmosphere of the piece growing and developing with each run.

As for me, it wasn’t a great performance:  Those hesitant lines become much bigger issues under the pressure of keeping the story flowing, and I am using much more of my mental capacity just to ‘get it right’ than I should be.  When the performance is complete I will be saying the lines without thinking, and 100% of my concentration will be on the emotion and atmosphere of the piece. The same is true of the movement on stage and all of the work we had done an hour earlier  went completely from my head!  So, more work to be done there, then.  Always more work to do.

When the play finished, we all sat down to chat, although we didn’t have long due to Jeffrey’s flight.  Jeffrey, Dennis and Ben were sat in the auditorium, whilst I sat on the steps at the front of the stage looking straight up the aisle to a rather grand wood and glass door at the back of the house.

Immediately Dennis chimed in with a note about the start of the show: he hated the clumsy first entrance through the black curtains onto the stage (exactly the issue that Ben and I had discussed earlier), and felt that it would be better if I took to the stage when the house lights went out, allowed the audience to accept that the show was about to begin, then bring the stage lights up and start the show with me already in the scene.  The problem with that solution is the lighting system in The Wesley Center does not allow for a complete black-out (all of that Tiffany glass), and it is difficult to turn all of the house lights out at the same time, as they are all operated from separate switches.

We passed this problem back and forth for a while, all trying to come up with the best solution.  In fact, that solution was right in front of my face the whole time: the impressive wooden door at the back of the house.  The long central aisle, or hallway.  The small flight of steps up into Dickens’ writing room.

‘Couldn’t I enter from the back?’  I said.  After all the character of Dickens is returning to the house after a tea party.  He is returning in high dudgeon and Dickens was known for his rapid walking pace.

‘How about, playing the opening music, and as the clock bell chimes six I walk into the room?

Everybody pondered this idea for a moment and then it began to take hold – this might just be our answer.  We decided to try it, and Ben cued the music up, while I went to the back of the hall.  As the bell started to ring I strode down the aisle (with a satisfyingly loud tread to alert the audience to the action) and found myself in perfect positon as the final chime subsided: we had found our answer.

As the week goes on we have been adapting our show to suit the new venue, and now the dear old lady that is the Wesley Center will provide not only a backdrop to the action, but become part of it.

We have officially embraced our surroundings.

 

 

To see the Wesley Center, watch out promotional video:

https://youtu.be/Plw3Od0AqdY

 

 

 

 

 

A Slow But Vital Day

After a very positive day’s rehearsing on Sunday, Monday proved to be rather more frustrating, although in the overall creation of our piece of theatre just as important.

The day was given over to our composer Michael, and stage manager to Ben so that we could work hard at the various sound cues through the play, which fall into two categories, the first of which is linking music.  Having watched a few rehearsals to get the tone of the play, Michael has been busy creating some short pieces to fill the breaks between each scene, and we start with the opening of the show.

The music that Michael has come up with slips seamlessly onto a seascape sound, then comes a simple piano melody, joined by cello and an oboe in the background, and one can easily picture the opening credits of a film: the camera is skimming across the sea, over a beach (probably at low tide to create some wonderful reflections and ripples on the wet sand), a grassy cliff sweeps below us and we are in a garden, but the camera still continues over a large fig tree and on towards the handsome house beyond.  In true Hitchockian style we fly through a window (perhaps white linen curtains billowing is a cliché too far), and into a study, where a clock is striking 6. A door is flung open and the unmistakable figure of Charles Dickens storms in.  ‘Disagreeable evening!  Lost and argument with Swinburne over the meaning of Christ and the existence of God.’

All of that from around 30 seconds of music and sound: It is going to be a wonderful opening to the show, and will really bring the audience into Winterbourne House, where Dickens genuinely stayed on the Isle of Wight.

From that major effect we just make our way through the play scene to scene, cue to cue:  do we want a tiny sound as Dickens first sees young Algernon Swinburne on the churchyard wall?  A note, perhaps, or two?  Try this?  No, let’s try something else.  Too loud, let’s make it softer.  Too short, let’s make it longer. 

 

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Michael and Ben working the cues

 

Each stage had to be re-programmed into the computer, then tried out again, before being built into the master programme, which will eventually include lighting cues as well.

And all of this takes time.  Lots of time.  Jeffrey and I sat quietly, passing comment occasionally, and then I am called on to do a few lines. 

This went on throughout the day, and there is not a great deal more to say about it really!

As I sat in the auditorium, a few things caught my mind – I  looked up at the magnificent Tiffany glass dome in the roof and reflected that when I look down on the church from my  apartment, there is no dome, just a slate pitched roof.  Curious.

Seat numbers are being put in every pew by Bekah, the manager of the venue.  She is using individual self-adhesive numbers (so seat, say, 42 is two stickers).  We are selling 340 tickets to each show: that is 671 individual numbers, not to mention row letters as well: an awful lot of sticking!  If I thought my day was monotonous, I just need to cast a quick glance into the auditorium!

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The one great excitement came after lunch, when Jeffrey produced a new half page of script, which hopefully will clean up the awkward break between scene three and four.  I got to rehearse the scene, with props, a few times and it seemed to work well.  The real test, though, will come during the next complete run-through.

Came 5 o’clock and our time was up.  We had jussssst about reached the end of the play, although there were a couple of effects that Michael was going to take away and work on overnight. 

From an actor’s point of view it was a day to display a great deal of patience, and just be there when required.  It was not a day to flounce and have temper tantrums because I was not the centre of attention.  A play such as To Begin With, although a one-man show, is a massive team effort and yesterday’s rehearsals were a vital part of the process.

From the rehearsal I went to shop, buying new trousers as well as food for my supper (a piece of salmon, some wild rice and asparagus), and then walked home.  The weather was everything that you would expect from the first day of spring – sunny and warm with a slight breeze, there was no need to wear a coat and all, which is in stark contrast to my visit here in 2015, when my beard froze as soon as I stepped outside, and thawed again as soon as I got into the warmth.

The amazing thing about the day’s rehearsal, on reflection, is how early in the process we were able to do it. Usually such grinding tech runs come just before the dress rehearsals and everybody gets very tense, nervous and moody.  We still have a week to go, and we are looking in good shape!

 

This is a short publicity video for the show – share the link far and wide!

 

 

 

 

Turning a Corner

Sunday was an important and interesting day for many different reasons, and although actual rehearsal time was severely limited I think that we turned a big corner with the show.

Firstly, the beard.  I mentioned in yesterday’s post that I felt needed to become more Dickens-like and so the first thing I did on getting up was to grab the scissors and razor and start chopping.  I have been cultivating the beard for a couple of months now, so that when the time came it could be quite wild and straggly, as Charles’ would have been during a Summer holiday to the Isle of Wight.

 

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Before…..

 

 

The end result was pleasing, even if my cheeks were feeling a bit chilly.

 

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…..and after.

 

Being Sunday I wanted to continue a tradition from two years ago, when Liz and I (and latterly my brother Ian and I) went for Sunday breakfast at a wonderful chrome and vinyl diner nearby.  On leaving the apartment I took a brief detour up two floors to 35.  There has been a notice in the lift about Zumba and Yoga classes held up there.  I wasn’t particularly keen to join in the classes but I was interested to see the space, and I found a wonderful open-plan lounge, presumably used for functions (as well as Yoga and Zumba).  To me it screamed out ‘REHEARSAL SPACE’ and as I wanted to run through the entire show later in the morning, I was delighted to have found it. 

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There was a door out to a roof-top terrace which gave me a beautiful early morning view of Minneapolis.

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And now, breakfast:  I walked with a Dickensian spring in my step past the Wesley Center and onto Nicolett Avenue, where I stopped for a moment outside The Music Box Theater where we played in 2015.

The Nicolett Diner was quiet and I was warmly welcomed and shown to a booth, where I had a wonderful all-American breakfast. This really is a once-a-week thing, otherwise I will never fit into any of my costumes.

 

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Breakfast (note the script on the table – always working!)

 

I returned to the apartment ready to rehearse, but to my dismay discovered that my rehearsal room had been locked up.  There was nothing for it but to return to my apartment and move the furniture around, to make an approximation of the set: the sofa became the window box, the coffee table the pouffe, two chairs represented the chaise longue and an arm chair took the role of, well, an armchair.

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It was a very useful exercise, and I was able to go over and over some lines that caught me out yesterday, as well as fixing the new blocking into my mind.  There are three very similar lines during the show over which I always get mixed up: ‘was Swinburne looking for truth and guidance?’, ‘What if it’s lessons of redemption and grace were delivered by a black-clad martinet….’ And ‘it will reveal grace and hope and announce redemption.’  All of those truths, graces, hopes and redemptions have been getting very muddled and in the pressure of performing each of the scenes I have just been coming out with whichever combination happened to spring into my mind on the spur of the moment.  I spent a lot of time on those.

My unofficial run-through went very well and I was confident that I had overcome some of the frailties of yesterday.  At 1 I had a bowl of chicken noodle soup and was ready to rehearse for real at 2. 

In the Wesley Center the congregation from the service was slowly leaving as we rapidly moved in.  For the first time we were using the large window frames that shape the back of the set, and this would be extremely useful as it would mean I had an idea as to the space I will have to work with over the next few weeks.

We were slightly pushed for time as another congregation was coming in at 4, so as soon as everything was assembled Jeffrey said ‘Go’ and I went.

The run today was so much better than yesterday’s and I really began to feel at home in my new surroundings.  My morning’s efforts had paid off and the performance was much more accurate and slick.  Both Dennis and Jeffrey move around the auditorium during the run, testing sight-lines and volume.

On cutting the show Dennis had asked for a run-time of 90 minutes, and I stopped the clock at 89, so everybody was pleased about that.  There were still issues that will need fixing, such as the long transition between scenes 3 and 4, which is not right yet.  This is where the original interval fell, and matters are complicated by needing a costume change, as well distributing various props around the stage: this is maybe where a degree of re-writing is needed.

As time was marching on and as had to leave the sanctuary to the new congregation we all decamped upstairs to Dennis’s office for notes and a debrief. 

Jeffrey ran through his comments, which tended to be very small tweaks here and there ‘lose the comma in that sentence’, ’ move a titch earlier downstage’ and ‘we need to work out where to put the cane’.  Dennis chimed in with a few notes also, mainly about the text, but the greatest news is that there was no problem with volume and clarity in the domed room, so the tech team will not need to mic me, which brought a sigh of relief from around the table.

The largest part of the discussion was the sound effect issue and exactly how and where to use them.  Dennis has a very firm idea as to what he wants, but hasn’t yet heard it.  Jeffrey stood up for his role as a playwright saying that if a scene needed something artificial in it, then he hadn’t done a good enough job with the words!

There was a slight stand-off and it was agreed that the next rehearsal would concentrate on this issue.  Our composer Michael was sat taking this all in, and I am sure he will come up with a soundscape that suits everyone and that will enhance, rather than detract, the show.

Our meeting over I had just enough time to return to apartment and heat up the remains of my Bolognese sauce, before it was time to meet Jeffrey again, as he had very kindly invited me to the theatre.

The largest theatre in Minneapolis is The Guthrie, and they are currently performing King Lear.  We drove out towards St Anthony’s Falls, which was the starting point of the entire city as clever engineers realised that they could harness the water power to drive mills and factories.

The current Guthrie is a relatively new building and is immensely impressive.  From a cavernous lobby space long escalators take the audience up to a bar, and from there into circular corridors to the auditorium itself where a huge stage thrusts deep into the audience.

The show was impressive, although my continual 2.30 mornings meant that a few blinks lasted for rather longer than they should.  The storm was wonderfully staged, with music and sound (can we learn something from this?), as was the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes with Regan joining in the fun, using her stiletto heel for extra leverage.

When the show was done Jeffrey asked if we could just say hello to a few people, and we headed to the bar.  The arts scene in Minneapolis is very close and everyone knows everyone.  There were lots of congratulations and hugs and catchings up and anecdotes.  Drinks were bought and general conviviality descended.

As the evening went on I found myself sat at a table with our lighting designer Michael and his wife as well as with James Williams who played Gloucester (fortunately not occularly-challenged any longer), and Stephen Yoakam – Lear himself, who seemed to have recovered his sanity.

It was getting late when suddenly the conversation veered towards 1960s sports cars: Stephen owns a Mustang, as does Jeffrey (’66 and ’67 respectively).  Michael loves his cars and I used to own a 1973 Lotus Elan.  Stephen’s eyes lit up at my mention of  Lotus, as he used to live in Indianapolis and watched Jimmy Clark and Graham hill race there in the 60s. 

An hour earlier I had been watching this man becoming increasingly mad, and moaning like a wounded animal as he carried the corpse of Cordelia to the stage; and now here we were chatting about engine sizes, manual transmissions and the sea change from front-engine to rear-engine race cars.  Very odd but great great fun.

Close on to midnight we said our goodbyes and Jeffrey took me back to my apartment block, where I thanked him for treating me to a wonderful evening. 

As I turned all of the lights out and got ready for bed one thought occurred to me:  ‘if I wake up at 2.30, I will NOT be happy!’

 

Nothing Remains the Same

Yesterday saw me once again waking at 2.30, which was slightly frustrating to say the least.  Having read for a while I got up, grabbed an orange juice and sat down at the table watching the full video coverage of the 2015 show, making notes in my script as I went.  Actually, and this will come across as rather arrogant I am sure, but I am rather impressed with the video!  Everything was very clear and nicely timed and the look of the show was superb – it was quite inspiring to watch and made me realise where I have to get to in the space of the next week or so.

The rehearsal was not called until 12, so I had a bit of time during the morning and thought that I would walk into the heart of Minneapolis to Macys and try to buy a new pair of trousers to replace my ink stained ones from the flight over.

But I was to be disappointed.

Macy’s is on a long thoroughfare through the entre of Minneapolis – Nicolett Avenue, but currently the whole street is a building site – the road is dug up and there are rusty pipes and iron stanchions littering the way where cars and busses used to run. 

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The consequence of this massacre is that businesses along Nicollet Mall are failing, including Macy’s.  When I pushed the revolving door it was as if I was entering another dimension, for there was nothing.  All of the shelves, at least those that remained, were empty, while tills and keyboards littered the floor.  A few desultory rails were being pored over by a few bargain hunters drawn in by the large ’80 or 90% off EVERYTHING!’ signs.

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When Liz and I were here two years ago Macy’s was an elegant and vibrant store, and now it is on its last legs, in the death throes.  The shop was originally a grand old independent department store, Daytons, and every city of note had such a store, but big bucks bought them up one by one – Filene’s in Boston and Strawbridge’s in Philadelphia suffered the same fate.  Who knows what business will move in when the construction is over, but the days of downtown shopping are gone – all out to the Mall of America these days.

It was with a sad and heavy heart that I walked back home (I did pop into Barnes and Noble too, only to find ‘Clearance Sale’ signs there too, although it was nice to see a display featuring A Christmas Carol and a compendium of Dickens’ novels carefully arranged a Bible – very apt).

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At 12 the team gathered once more, and Bob, the designer, had brought in plenty of bits of costume for me to use.  And so did Jeffrey.  And so did Dennis.  Plenty to go round, then.  We set the stage as well as we could, in the absence of the formal constructed set, and set forth to rehearse the complicated scene four, which we all still call ‘the second act’

To be honest, I wasn’t terribly pleased with the rehearsal, and the lines were not as accurate or slick as I would have liked.  I actually think that watching the video this morning was not helpful, in that I now want to be performing like that all the time – but this IS a rehearsal process, and we all learn by mistakes and problems.  My problem is that every time I stand on the stage I want to give a perfect performance, and then get frustrated when I don’t manage it.

We spent plenty of time on scene four, and fettled it so that the various costume pieces and props all end up in the right place at the right time.  

After a break, and Jeffrey’s notes, we moved onto scenes 1-3, which are less complicated from a movement point of view, although there is still the issue about how to move from one scene to another in full view of the audience.  Michael the composer was there and had prepared some lovely linking music, so that the audience will know what is happening, while Dickens changes his suit, and cravat in front of them.  It is interesting to see how the 2017 version of the show is now moving in a new direction – its own direction, and is finding its own identity.  Nothing remains the same, nothing CAN remain the same, and out of the old grows the new, in the same way that Dayton’s became Macy’s and Macys will become whatever it becomes.

We are not simply recreating an old version of To Begin With, we are mounting an all-new show, which naturally shares the DNA of the original.  Our new venue will become part of the fabric of the show, and we must embrace that.

From my point of view I don’t think I am completely immersed in Dickens himself yet, and during the afternoon run I took a decision – it is time to become my great great grandfather, so before the next rehearsal I shall take scissors and razor to my currently bushy beard (I have been letting it grow for months, so that it can be trimmed correctly), and leave just the straggling goatee that he favoured.

After a few more notes, and much more music/sound effect discussion, we wrapped things up at around 5pm.  Ben, Bob and Michael set to the task of clearing all of our equipment from the stage, so that the Church could be used for the regular Sunday services.

I made my now regular walk to Lund’s and bought all of the ingredients to make a spaghetti bolognaise – nothing pre-packaged here, I wanted to chop, slice, dice, season, fry, boil and simmer it all.

A simple dish of course, but one that brought me a great deal of pleasure to make.  While the sauce was gently cooking, I opened the balcony door and sat looking at the cityscape glowing golden in the setting sun as I sipped a glass of wine.  As I sat and relaxed I realised that I am being too hard on myself – yes, I must work harder and yes, I must concentrate more, but all in all the production is in good hands and it will be more than ready for the first previews in just over a weeks’ time.

I cooked the pasta, ladled the sauce onto it, sprinkled Parmesan cheese and fresh basil leaves and sat down to enjoy it with a clear head.

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The First Steps

My first full day in my Minneapolis apartment began very shortly after the previous one finished – at 2am I was wide awake.  I read for a while (I am currently alternating between Andrew Lycett’s biography of Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, and it was the latter that got the early morning nod). 

I hadn’t had a chance to get any provisions in yet, so as the clock ticked towards 5.45 I got dressed and walked to Lund’s and Byerly’s grocery store, which opens daily at 6am.  The City was deserted and quiet and as I passed the Wesley Centre a bright moon shone over the wooden cross which is mounted on the roof.

At Lunds I grabbed essentials for breakfast, and decided to take stock before returning later in the day for more provisions.  I returned to the apartment and unloaded coffee, filter papers, orange and mango juice, muesli and granola (with blueberries and raspberries to have with them), milk, eggs, bacon, bread and butter (or lo-cholesterol spread if truth be told), and two of the amazing sumo mandarins that Liz and I were introduced to here in 2015.

 

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Sumo Mandarins

 

First up: coffee.  Only to discover that I bought beans and not ground.  With no means of converting said beans into said grounds my coffee needs had to be put on hold for a while.  I had a large glass of the orange and mango juice, some of the cereal and then started to pace out a full run through of the show in my living room.

I have been working on the lines at home for many weeks now, and my black folded has been laying open in various rooms on various pieces of furniture, as I muttered the words to myself. 

Some came back easily, and some were more of a struggle and I developed little ways of remembering tricky phrases.  For instance ‘When at last comes the darkest, coldest night of the year….’ I could never remember was it darkest, coldest or coldest, darkest.  The way I sorted that out was David Copperfield – D followed by C – darkest, coldest.  Another similar passage features the words ‘It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful and forgiving…’ but is that gentle followed by merciful or the other way round?  General Motors (or genetically modified, it doesn’t matter which) and I have my prompt.  Little tricks like this may not work for all, but sometimes they are useful, so long as one doesn’t proclaim that ‘it is Christianity to be General Motors’.  That wouldn’t be good.

When I reached the end of my run through, I got showered and dressed before writing a list and returning to Lund’s for my second shopping spree.  This time I concentrated on things like washing detergent and sealable freezer bags, washing cloths and multi-surface cleaning spray.  Of course I remembered to pick up ground coffee too.

 

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The Old Wesley Center

 

The first rehearsal was called for 10am and when I arrived at the Church the team were assembled and it was wonderful to see so many familiar faces.  Ben, stage management, clutching his trusty Mac laptop.  Michael, lighting, with his wealth of theatrical knowledge.  John, sound, looking frail and thin after a major operation within the last few days, but not letting THAT get in the way of his work.  And then there were some new faces, Bob has taken over the design of the show, as our original designer was not available for this run, and another Michael in charge of creating some musical interludes to add atmosphere to the performance and illustrate the passing of time between the scenes.

Of course Dennis was there overseeing everything, and he was accompanied by Rosalie, who runs The Daniel Group Group with him. 

 

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The Team Assembles.  L-R: Bob (designer), Michael (lighting), Ben (stage manager), Michael (music), Dennis (executive producer), Jeffrey (writer and director), Rosalie (associate producer)

 

We started the rehearsal without great fanfare, and just made our way through the script, referring to old notes and dredging our memories as to how we had blocked the show (blocking being the process of making sure all of the movements are correct.  For example there is no point having Dickens gazing out of a window which is on the left hand side of the stage, when the next time he refers to it he is on the right.)

One of our biggest challenges this year is how to transition from one scene to another.  In our previous theatre we could create complete blackouts which told the audience that this was definitely a scene end, and gave me the chance to change a few aspects of costume, so that when the light returned it was obvious that a period of time had passed.  The Wesley Center boasts a remarkable collection of Tiffany windows, including a huge glass dome; they look wonderful but let in a lot of light, meaning that blackouts are impossible.  At the end of each scene Jeffrey, Bob and myself spent plenty of time working out how to change costume, how to move props around and how to be in the correct place for the following action.

 

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The Challenges

 

This process became particularly arduous between scene three and four, which is where there used to be an interval, during which I completely changed costume.  Now the show has been changed to a single act and there was a lot to ponder. 

So we had lunch instead.

The whole of our afternoon was spent gently piecing together the complicated scene four, during which Dickens is rehearsing his performance of The Life of our Lord – there are lots of separate little scenes going on, with Charles himself dropping in and out of a multitude of characters.  Our efforts were greatly helped by Ben, when he tracked down the video footage of the show from two years ago, so much of the afternoon was spent huddled around his laptop –‘ah, yes, I knelt down then’; ‘oh, I thought I moved in front of the chair, but it was behind it’; ‘of course, I had the robe on then, but when do I take it off?’  It was a fun process!

We finished our labours at around 4.30 and all went our separate ways, ready to re-group and to go through it all again in subsequent days.  It was a good first day and we got plenty done.  As rehearsals continue so props and costume will start to arrive, thereby making some of the logistical problems clearer, which will be useful.  Lighting effects will be introduced, and sound effects slipped in.  The tech team will shudder as Jeffrey says ‘Tell me if this is impossible, but could we just have……?’  Little by little we will fettle the show and by the first preview it will be ready.

I said my goodbyes, and returned to Lund’s for a third time, to buy my supper and then returned to the apartment for an evening of TV, before a very early night.

To Begin With has Begun.

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New Beginnings

At the end of my America tour last Christmas Liz and I left Minneapolis for home, and now I am back in the city to reprise the show I premiered here two years ago: To Begin With.

Over the next month I will be teaming up with producer Dennis Babcock, writer and director Jeffrey Hatcher, lighting designer Michael, stage manager Ben, Sound designer John and some new members of the team.  The show has been slightly changed to allow it to be performed in a single act, so there will be new moves, costume changes and logistics to be learned.  For the next four weeks I will be that rare species, a full time actor.

But first, I must travel.  Saying goodbye never gets any easier, and this time seemed even harder than usual.  Perhaps Liz and I have managed to move some way towards compartmentalising a Christmas parting, but a Spring one caught us both out. 

My bus journey to Heathrow was easy, which considering the route involved the M40 and the M25 in rush hour, was remarkable.  Equally remarkable was the efficiency check-in and security at Heathrow airport, and the result of all this ease and efficiency is that I found myself with over two hours to kill.  I made my way to Bridge, a restaurant I know well, where I ordered some scrambled eggs, coffee and orange juice.  The eggs arrive but of the drinks there was no sign.  For a while I tried to catch the eye of the server, but then I thought ‘I’ve got two hours, what’s the rush?’  Sure enough my drinks eventually arrived, thus prolonging my dining experience and giving me less time to while aimlessly in the various shops.

Delta flight 11 was on board a Boeing 767, which is one of the smaller trans-Atlantic aircraft, and it was almost filled to capacity.  I say almost because I was the lucky one on board with an empty seat next to me.

London to Minneapolis is a 3 movie flight and on this occasion I passed the time watching the new Ghostbusters (silly but fun with some lovely nods to the original), All the Way (a brilliant Bryan Cranston biopic about Lyndon B Johnson) and Denial (the astounding story of the court case in which Deborah Lipstadt had to prove that the holocaust actually took place.  Rachel Wiess, Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson are all fabulous).

Five hours into the flight I pulled up the window shade and see ice fields stretching as far as the eye can see.  A couple of hours later I repeated the exercise only to be greeted with the same view.  If Aliens sent a space ship to observe planet Earth and they happened to break through our atmosphere over Labrador (or wherever), they would probably return home to report no signs of life and an inhospitable icy planet.

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Into the last hour and after the ‘light snack’ I thought that it would be a good idea to complete my customs form.  Unfortunately my fountain pen decided that 36,000 feet didn’t suit it and promptly ejaculated all over me, meaning that my khaki trousers now have permanent black ink blots all over them.  So stylish.

There was low cloud as we approached Minneapolis – St Paul airport, but I was soon able to recognise a number of landmarks in a city that is beginning to be very familiar to me.

If Heathrow’s check-in and security was impressive, the immigration and customs at Minneapolis was quite extraordinary.  The captain parked our plane at the door to the immigration hall, so there weren’t interminable walks down never-ending corridors to be endured.  Most of the passengers were US citizens, and those that weren’t had ESTAS which these days can be checked at an automatic terminal; this means that us visa holders are in the minority and don’t get stuck in long queues.  I was first in line, and my interview with the TSA officer was over and done within a few minutes.  This was quite a surprise as I have been reading dire stories of artists and writers being denied entry under the new stricter immigration strictures, but for me it was easy as pie (oh, if only my interview had lasted for 3.14 minutes).

I collected my bag and was in the terminal building just 25 minutes after the plane first made contact with terra firma.

There to meet me was the show’s producer Dennis Babcock who has been a friend for many years.  He drove me into the heart of downtown to the Old Wesley Centre, a red stone church dating back to the late 1800s, which is to be the home of To Begin With 2017.

As To Begin With is about Dickens’ relationship with the New Testament the new setting is perfect.  The sanctuary is lined with dark wood panelling and the pews wrap around the stage, cosseting it.  Dennis’ crew had already moved in and were beginning to meet challenges of rigging lighting and sound systems.

From the theatre to my apartment which was a walk of two minutes (it took so long because the cross/don’t cross light was not in our favour).  Dennis had booked an apartment on a short lease in the block directly opposite the church and the longest part of the journey is the ride in the lift up to the 33rd floor.  I wheeled my suit case into my temporary home, and had a quick shower before meeting up with Dennis once more.  We walked a few blocks to Ruth’s Chris steakhouse, where we met up with the show’s author Jeffrey Hatcher.  Our three-handed dinners have become a rather fun tradition over the last few years and Ruth’s has become our ‘local’ 

We talked too much about this and that and had a wonderful evening, but as far as my body is concerned today is already tomorrow and I am quite grateful when we eat the last piece of steak and finish the last of the wine.  I walked back to the apartment block and almost as soon as I was in bed I was asleep. 

The hard work is yet to come and I hope you will follow the whole progress from stumbling first rehearsal to the final curtain call – To Begin With begins here.

 

Not Taking Coats to Newcastle

After the adventures of Christmas I have had a relaxing few weeks at home, recovering from the rigours of daily travel and performance.  For a short while it is lovely to be so leisurely, but soon I began to feel as if I needed to get back on stage again, and my first opportunity of 2017 came last Friday.

I had been asked to perform in the North-East City of Newcastle upon Tyne, which is a city that I do not know well, so I greatly looked forward to my trip.   I set off on my 4 ½ hour drive, leaving early so as to leave me plenty of time for whatever the British road system should throw at me.

It is extraordinary how much longer a 4 ½ hour drive in England seems, compared to one of the same length in the USA.  On the whole our roads are narrower and twistier, so a great deal more concentration is required. 

I have commented before that the level of anger on the roads is much greater in Britain, where we are supposed to drive in the left-hand lane, unless we are overtaking another vehicle.  Good lane discipline is key to making our system work and that is something that we sorely lack: so many cars just sit in one of the middle lanes, dawdling along completely unaware of what is happening around them.  Faster cars get bottled up, and the delayed driver becomes angry, either swooping by on the wrong side (‘undertaking’), or flashing headlights, sounding the horn and gesticulating as he eventually passes.  In America, where you may overtake on either side, everyone just makes progress in their own lane at their own speed and the whole thing seems to work just fine.

My route took me up the spine of England on the M1, before branching off onto the A1, roughly following the route of the old Great North Road, which is the historic trunk route between London and Edinburgh.  The Great North Road has a legendary status in the UK, as Route 66 does in the US, although without the rhyme and lyrical quality of its America cousin (‘You may be slowed on the Great North Road’ doesn’t really compare with ‘Get your kicks on Route 66’).

I passed many cities that are familiar to me thanks to my travels and as I got further north so the scenery subtly became more rugged and wild.  I passed signs for Doncaster before crossing the river Don, which set me to wondering ‘what does caster mean?’  A little research after the event told me that the suffix comes from the Roman ‘castrum’ which means a military camp or fort, so Doncaster was the site of a fort protecting the River Don. 

Onwards.  I passed Sheffield, Huddersfield, Leeds, Harrogate and York, following the road as it ran between the two great Yorkshire National Parks, the Dales to the left of me and the North York Moors to the right, (‘….and here I am stuck in Middlesbrough with you…’  Americans, you have to trust me, but that is an incredibly clever geographical joke).

Finally I passed the signs to Durham and Gateshead before Newcastle, with it’s amazing bridges and football stadium, was laid out before me.  I drove across the Tyne and to my hotel in the very heart of the city.  The weather was cloudy and wet as I alighted from the car, and is it was dismay that I realised that I had forgotten to bring a warm or waterproof outer garment with me: perhaps I had misremembered the old adage and thought that it was bad form to take coats to Newcastle.

I had been invited to perform for the Newcastle Lit & Phil, which is Britain’s largest independent library outside London, and holds over 160,000 books on its shelves and in its archives.  Originally founded in 1793 as a conversation club, the membership was 1 Guinea and the volumes were either the ancient classics, or scientific tomes.  Literature was rather scorned and looked down upon within the hallowed portals, and works of fiction was not permitted for many years, and then only grudgingly.

Charles Dickens never visited the Lit and Phil itself, although he did travel to Newcastle on many occasions to perform both with his theatre company the Guild of Literature and Art, as well as on his own reading tours in the 1850s and 60s.  The city is a bustling one, and I am sure that Charles must have thoroughly enjoyed staying there.

I was greeted at the grand front door by Kay, who had booked me, and after taking a look at the room where I was to perform, she gave me a quick guided tour of the library itself, which is magnificent:  shelf-lined walls towering up to the glass-domed ceiling, with quirky iron spiral staircases linking the levels.

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My dressing room was another library room, and somehow I felt very at home surrounded by so many wonderful volumes, whilst an old wall clock tick-tocked reassuringly in the silence.

 

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My Dressing Room

 

The audience was a good one, numbering around 100 and which satisfyingly filled the room.  I was performing my double bill, which features two short stories from Dickens’ magazine ‘All The Year Round’, The Signalman and Doctor Marigold.  Of the two, people tend to know The Signalman better, and that is what I performed in the first half.  Actually the show felt rather at home in this venue, as I have always imaged that the narrator is telling his story to a gathering of fellows at a society of the paranormal.

During the interval I had a chance to chat to some of the audience members and it became apparent that there is a keen following of Dickens and his works in Newcastle.  There were some members of the Dickens Fellowship from nearby Durham, where I performed a few years ago, as well as a gentleman who deals with post-traumatic stress disorder in his work, and recognised the unmistakable signs of the condition in the history of Dickens and the Staplehurst rail disaster.  This is the second time that the same observation has been made to me, and apparently Dickens’ reaction to the crash is quoted in a textbook as being one of the first recorded accounts of the condition.

In the second half I performed Doctor Marigold and really nailed the early fast sales patter.  As usually tends to be the case the majority of the audience were not familiar with Marigold and Charles Dickens pulled their emotions this way and that as the story unfolded.  The performance was not perfect, however, as I gave the crowd a perfect opportunity for an extra snigger, which they politely passed up, when I managed to spoonerise the phrase ‘Put the horse in the cart’, saying instead ‘Put the arse in the court’

All in all the evening was a very enjoyable and successful one and I would very much like to return to Newcastle soon.  Dickens spent quite a bit of time in the North East, with shows in Newcastle, Durham and Sunderland.  He visited Gateshead, as well as making his famous trip to the nearby town of Bowes to research Nicholas Nickleby.  Maybe a collection of events celebrating Dickens’ connection with this region is something that I will think about creating. 

Saturday morning dawned even mistier and wetter and the drive home would be made in horrible conditions, but before I headed south on the Great North Road, I wanted to pay a brief visit to The Angel of the North, the remarkable steel sculpture which towers over the road just outside Gateshead.  The figure, with its giant spread wings, was completed in 1998 and is the work of sculptor Antony Gormley; it is made of raw steel and the rusted colour gives the figure an industrial feel fully in keeping with the traditional industry of the area. 

On the morning of my visit the heavy rain was blown horizontally across the hillside, so I did not spend long in its shadow (not that it had one, of course), but the prevailing conditions seemed perfect to witness this magnificent structure.

 

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The Angel of the North

 

As I drove away the 20 meter tall figure disappeared into the mist, but the 54 meter wingspan seemed to be saying ‘come back soon, you will be welcome’, and I certainly hope to.