Throughout this year’s tour, and with the realisation that I have been performing A Christmas Carol for nearly 30 years, I have been reflecting a lot about my life on the road.
So, while sitting alone in my hotel room letting Covid get out of my system, I thought that I would share a few of them. Some of these anecdotes feature in my new book, to be published next year, but I will try not to scoop myself too much.
When I first came to America, I was not a seasoned traveller, and everything was new to me. In fact, I seem to remember at my very first hotel I actually broke the key (yes, a real metal key), in the lock of my room. I can’t imagine what the manager of the hotel must have thought, or how much it must have cost him to replace the lock. I was in Atlanta, Georgia and had been booked to read at a very lavish open Christmas house in the affluent Buckhead area of the city. It was raining hard when I arrived, and everyone was rushing about trying to put the finishing touches to the decorations, and as one lady made her way into the large hallway, probably holding a poinsettia, she stopped, looked at me and said, ‘Oh, are you the Dickens guy? I thought you’d be older and fatter!’ and went on her way. At the time I thought that she seemed a little disappointed by my youth and slimness. However, nobody has said that for a few years now!
Another anecdote from my early years of touring came back to me just a few days ago when I spent time in Lenox with my friend Jeneene, she reminded me that she had come to see me in a show in Ohio, at the town of Waynesville, and there was quite a story behind that. Back in 1843 Charles Dickens had visited America and had travelled into Ohio, to the very edge of the great plains. He travelled by carriage and the roads were dusty and rough. He arrived in the small town of Lebanon where he stayed at the Golden Lamb Inn. Local legend has it that the great author was parched after his day’s travelling and requested a glass of brandy to satiate him. Unfortunately, the house was a temperance one, and not a drop of liquor would be served there. Dickens therefore marched down the main street to another inn but received the same response. Early next morning he departed, and that afternoon stopped in the even smaller town of Waynesville where once again he asked for brandy, only to rebuffed once more. He left in high dudgeon. When I was invited to perform there, the locals wanted to make amends, so that everywhere I visited I was given brandy – by the time I got to my evening performance in a high school auditorium I could hardly stand, let alone remember any lines!
I have performed in many of the great cities in America – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Franscisco, Charlotte, Boston, Kansas City, Omaha, Birmingham, Memphis, Nashville, Dallas, San Antonia, Phoenix and others, but I have also performed in many small towns, where the sense of community and hospitality is so strong. I have stayed in great, lavish hotels, and in some wonderful B&Bs and private homes, I have performed in large theatres as well as in tiny halls, and it is that contrast that helps me keep the show fresh, because every day sees a new challenge, a new set of opportunities to adapt and change the performance to fit the venue, meaning that it never becomes routine or a chore. In fact, the last week has encompassed that perfectly: At Vaillancourt Folk Art I performed on a good-sized stage, beautifully decorated, with the audience on three sides of me, very close and intimate. In Virginia I was in the traditional setting of a beautiful theatre – lots of space on stage, and a large auditorium stretching back into the darkness, meaning that I had plenty of room to move and stretch the performance out, but the audience were invisible in the darkness, behind the lights. From Virginia to The Berkshires and a small Victorian parlour, performing on the floor at one end of the room, with the audience very close, and in that setting the show becomes more of an entertainment that may have been enjoyed by guests in the 1800s, and then to another large auditorium in Manchester, where once again I needed to expand and hold a larger hall.
I am sometimes asked if there are any performances that I have not been happy with, and one in particular always springs to mind. I was in Wilmington, Delaware and the venue was a lecture theatre, I think. From memory, and I may be mis-remembering this, I was on floor level with seating sloping up, but it may have been just a normal function room with chairs on the floor. It was grey, it was very grey, and illuminated by unforgiving and untheatrical fluorescent strip lighting. A chair and a stool and a hat rack were placed in the middle of the floor, rather lost in the large room. I remember that I wasn’t feeling great and that my voice was strained and tired (in those days I used to do 3 shows in a day, and had yet to realise how important it was to protect my throat, not only by using a good technique, but also via diet – I have since learned that consuming any dairy product in the hours before a show creates an extra thick lining to the throat making it much more difficult to project and therefore leads to straining). Much of the audience were on bust tours, and had the show included in their itinerary, so hadn’t necessarily made their own decisions to be there. I began, and it did not go well! I was sluggish and wasn’t engaging with the audience, nor they with me. As the show continued, I began to edit as I went on, cutting parts of dialogue, even whole scenes, just to bring this torture to an end for all of our sakes. I reached the final scene, and finished up with ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’ and bowed once. The front two rows were filled with people from one of the bus tours, and apparently worried that they would miss their departure time, they all stood up to leave, which lead to a most curious set of circumstances. The audience members further back saw everyone at the front standing, and must have assumed that they were giving me a standing ovation, so they stood also to join in. The bus tour at the front looked around and saw everyone else standing and applauding and obviously felt that they couldn’t leave, so continued to stand and clap. I, on stage, took a few more extremely embarrassed bows, for everyone in that room knew that my performance that day didn’t deserve such a response.
The show itself undergoes a constant process of change, and not intentionally, for very rarely do I sit down at the start of a season and think that I am going to change a scene. The alterations usually come to me during a show, sometimes by fortuitous accident, sometimes by a desire to improve how a scene works, how the characters are positioned on stage and are able to interact. For example, on this year’s tour I have decided that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come will always point directly towards the grave, whereas in the past he has just pointed Scrooge to wherever they were travelling. In the opening scene I, in the character of Ebenezer, look down onto Jacob Marley’s grave, and at the end when he is being shown the vision of his own tombstone, it is in exactly the same spot. Even when Bob Cratchit is talking to his wife about the site of Tiny Tim’s grave, he gestures to that same corner of the stage, so that downstage right corner becomes the focus of Yet to Come’s journey – whatever else happens during his visit, it is all leading to one place.
So, when I return to a regular venue, the show has undergone what could be called a full cycle of change since my last visit, lots of tiny changes, maybe of movement, maybe of expression or tone, and regular audience members will say ‘It is different this year, you’ve changed it up a little!’, and I will have no idea, for I have just gone with the flow and let it develop.
I will finish this brief post (not knowing how long I may be rendered hors de combat, I need to save some stories), with an observation on how many versions of A Christmas Carol are being performed in theatres this year – I have never known a year like it. In England there must be about 30 different professional performances being advertised in many formats, including a few one man shows (‘Bah, Humbug!’ I say), but that really does tell you everything that you need to know about the enduring legacy, the durability, the importance and the sheer entertainment value of this amazing little book, which Charles Dickens hoped would haunt the houses of its readers pleasantly, ‘and no one wish to lay it’. Well, there is certainly no sign of that happening for a long time to come.