Up To My Neck With Research

On Wednesday I completed my ‘Four Corners of England’ tour by driving to my old home region in the South East.  My show was in the town of Ashford in north Kent but before that I had a very important place to visit.

The day was beautiful as I left Oxford, with a clear blue sky and a watery, winter sun demanding sunglasses in the car.  However as I drove further south so the clouds rolled in and the rain began to fall.  By the time I reached the county of Kent visibility was down to nothing and the windscreen were working overtime to give me any sort of view of the road ahead.

I left the M25 and headed down the A21 passed my childhood town of Tunbridge Wells and on towards Lamberhurst.  At the Blue Boys roundabout there is a petrol station and as the gauge was again showing empty I peeled off to fill the tank.  I had another reason for stopping and when I drove away again I had a dozen red roses on the passenger seat.  After a mile or two I left the main road and headed towards the Wealden town of Staplehurst.

Those who have been following my blog posts throughout the year will know that I have been researching the circumstances of the rail crash of 1865 which took place just outside Staplehurst and I couldn’t resist the opportunity of visiting the scene and paying my respects to the victims.

I have visited the site before so knew the road to take, and soon I was parked by a bridge crossing the dead straight stretch of railway line.

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There was no footpath nearby so the only way to get to the scene of the accident was to trespass.

I trespassed.

I put on wellington boots, brought for the purpose, and climbed over a small padlocked gate (dad would have been so proud!) I found myself in a very muddy field with a few curious sheep who watched me as I walked around the perimeter, close to the railway line.  The other side of the field was bordered by the River Beult which meanders back and forth across the countryside.  As I walked a beautiful rainbow arced across the grey sky as if giving me affirmation for my mission.

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A little copse of trees cut into the field and as I rounded them I found that I had reached the point where the River Beult passes beneath the railway line.  I had reached the very spot at which the 12.15 tidal train from Folkestone to London Bridge plunged from the rails into the river below on June 9th 1865.

Well, not quite the point, for I was still a few feet from the river, surely I could edge a little closer.  I put my foot in a puddle, feeling for the ground beneath but there was none.  My foot went down and instantly I realised that the water was going to gush over the top of my boot, which would be annoying,  Just as the water started seeping in I felt solid ground beneath it.  That was a relief.  I put more weight down and then felt the muddy ground give way and before I knew it I was slipping further and further into the water until I was in up to my waist.  Suddenly my connection with those who had been plunged into the River Beult 154 years before was rather more intense than I had planned for.  I managed to keep my head above the water but my feet kept slipping in the mud and for a moment I couldn’t get any purchase at all.   Eventually I managed to scrabble back to  dry (well, drier) land but muddy water cascaded off me.  My boots were full and squelched loudly as I walked away from the flood.

Somehow I had managed to keep the flowers above water, so I made my way to where the edge of the field formed a bank up to the railway track and laid 10 red roses there in honour of the individuals who lost their lives that day but whose identities are forgotten because Charles Dickens happened to be on the same train.

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The flowers were for:

Amelia Raynor aged 37

Annie Bodenham aged 28

Lydia Whitby aged 28

Caroline White aged 45

Emma Beaumont aged 24

Hannah Condliffe aged 36

Charlotte Faithful age unknown

Adam Hampson aged 41

James Dunn aged 36

Hyppolite Mercier aged 33.

 

Having laid the flowers and spent a moment reflecting I splashed back to the copse of trees and sat down on a mossy trunk to finally removed my boots and pour the muddy water out.  As I sat I remembered the letter that Dickens had written describing the awful scene and that he had  ‘…stumbled over a lady lying on her back against a little pollard tree, with the blood streaming over her face (which was lead colour) in a number of distinct little streams from the head.’  Could this be the same tree?  It was a fanciful thought but certainly possible.

My trousers were heavy with water as was my coat and I needed to get back to the car, so I took my leave of the area where the shattered carriages had once lain and splashed my way back to the sheep field where a farmer was waiting to see me.  Nothing for it but to brazen it out.

‘Hello, I am sorry, but I wanted to visit the site of the train crash that happened here in 1865…’

‘Ah, Charles Dickens!’

It was time to play the famous relative card: ‘Yes I am his great great grandson and am writing a book about the crash.  Do you own the land, for I was hoping to arrange a proper visit next year sometime to view the site.’

This was all rather impressive, considering that my trousers were sodden and muddy and I felt very bedraggled. The farmer explained that he owned the sheep but the land was owned by another and he took out his phone to kindly give me the landowner’s name and telephone number.  He wished me a cheery, if rather confused good bye and I made my slow way to my car, where I changed my socks, shirt and jumper then sat on a towel in the drivers seat and set the satnav for the nearest superstore where I could buy some new (dry) clothes.

I have no idea what people thought about me as I stood politely in the queue for the till – perhaps I had a major incontinence problem (it would have to be a VERY major one), but everyone kept themselves to themselves and smiled politely.

Fortunately my hotel was only a few minutes from the shop and having checked in I was delighted to discover that my room had a bath in it, so I removed all the wet clothes and plunged into hot water to prevent a chill spreading.

My evening performance was at the Revelation Arts Centre which is based in The St Mary the Virgin Church in the heart of Ashford and it is a venue I know well, in fact I am an official Ambassador for the centre.  Eight years ago a group was formed to create a vibrant music and theatre venue in the town and Revelation was the result, it is a truly impressive space with the stage being dominated by a huge stone arch.

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I reversed car up the tiny lane by the churchyard and unloaded my furniture and was greeted as an old friend by all of the staff and volunteers including the manager of the centre Debra.  We had to set up early as there was due to be a reception for various sponsors and supporters before the main audience arrived, so I liaised with John in the technical box to make sure that he was happy with the lighting and sound cues and then went to my dressing room ( actually the vestry, through a magnificent gothic door), to change.

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The reception involved drinks, canapes and lots of speeches. I circulated with a glass of water in hand and shook hands with various council members and dignitaries, before returning to my dressing room at 7pm when the main doors were opened.

It was another impressive audience and the old church was filled with laughter and conversation as the 7.45 start time approached.  When given the nod that all was ready I made my way up some rickety stairs to the balcony and then back down to the foyer so I could be ready to walk slowly to the stage from the back of the auditorium.

The slogan for Revelation is ‘up close and personal’ and there is certainly a very close connection to the audience, especially a full house such as I had.  It was a wonderful.  John provided perfect lighting and the sound cues worked very well.  I was once again performing the 2 act version and the applause that accompanied me off the stage was very loud.

The second act was just as intense and exciting and when I came to take my bows I received a long and loud standing ovation, which felt so good.

I spent some time chatting and posing for photographs, before returning to the vestry to pack my things away ready to load into the car beneath the magnificent floodlit tower.

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I returned to the hotel where I ate some sandwiches and watched television before letting sleep come over me.  It had been an unexpectedly memorable day!

And that was the end of my British tour for on Friday I return to the USA to perform in New England, Pennsylvania and Virginia and of course I shall keep you posted of my adventures, which hopefully will not involve any more impromptu swimming sessions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Length and Breadth

Just over a week ago I returned from the USA following my Mid-West tour, I was due to have about a week and a half at home before returning to the east coast over the Thanksgiving weekend.  You may think that I would take that opportunity to spend a little time at home to relax and recharge the batteries, but at this time of the year it is a question of making hay while the sun shines (a rather unsuitable metaphor for November), so almost as soon as I was back I was on the road again.  Over the period of the last week I have passed through most of England with only the south eastern corner being untouched by the wheels of my Renault, and that will be added to the list later this week.

My first venue was The Lit & Phil in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the far north eastern corner of England, any further north and I would be over Hadrian’s Wall and into Scotland.  The Lit and Phil has been a regular stop for me over the past few years and I love visiting Tyneside, as Charles Dickens did 150 years earlier.

The journey from Oxford to Newcastle takes about 5 hours, and with a couple of stops for lunch and coffee I arrived just in time to check into my hotel, have a quick refreshing shower and then get to the venue ready to set up.  The Lit & Phil (Literary and Phillosophical Society) has an arrangement with the Sleeperz Hotel which is only 100 yards away, and I found a parking space on the street that was equidistant between my accommodation and the library itself.

At 5.00 I returned to my car and started shifting all of the props and furniture into the grand hallway and was greeted by the very welcome sight of a poster for the show with ‘SOLD OUT’ emblazoned across it: very heartening.

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Soon I was met by Kay who was responsible for bringing me to Newcastle a few years ago, and together we sorted out the room where I was to perform.  Soon my set was in place as were all of the chairs waiting for an audience.  Kay very generously agreed to look after my sound effects and settled herself down at a large CD player and practised with the script that I had given her.  I am not sure if I have ever seen anyone look quite so nervous!

Soon the first members of the audience began to appear, so I hid myself away in a very elegant meeting room which was doubling as my dressing room this year, and which was off the main entrance hall meaning I could here the growing hubbub as the crowd gathered.

At 7 o’clock Kay came to fetch me and after a short introduction I made my way to the front of the room in the character of Scrooge to begin the show.  Being in a sort of drawing room (albeit a very large and grand one) the narrative passages worked very well, as if I were telling the story to a gathering of friends (albeit a very large group!).  Everything worked well and Kay brought all of the musical cues in bang on time proving that her earlier fears were quite unfounded.

My performance at The Lit and Phil was a single act one but with a mix and mingle session afterwards and having taken the applause I joined the audience in a large ante room chatting and signing copies of my souvenir programmes which sold well.  The audiences in Newcastle are always very friendly and enthusiastic and it was a pleasure to chat.

Eventually the audience started to leave and I was able to pack up all of my furniture and carry it back to the car.  Having said my goodbyes to Kay and the rest of the Lit and Phil team I returned to my hotel where I was able to squeeze a dinner order in before the kitchen closed for the night.

The next morning I had a quick breakfast and then got on the road at 8.30.  Why so early?  Well some fool had booked me another performance that evening, in Dorset.  If Newcastle is as far to the North East as it is possible to go then Dorset is not far off being as far to the South West and a majorly long drive lay before me.  If Pam Byers booked me a show after a 7 hour drive in America I would be furious, but on this occasion there was no one to blame but myself!  I am not sure what I was thinking of when I made the bookings, but here I was driving diagonally across the country.

Actually the drive went well and I was able to use the time to rehearse the extra passages that turn my one act show into a two act one  –  in the first act Scrooge lingers a little longer at his front door pondering the vision of his deceased partner’s face in the knocker and Jacob Marley himself gets a little more time to play.   Scrooge gets to see his old school chums as they ride home on shaggy ponies and the Ghost of Christmas Past also shows him a second Christmas in the school when his little sister Fan comes to bring him ‘home. home, home!  Home for ever and ever, home for good and all!’

In the second act Scrooge is seized by a fit of violent trembling  when the Ghost of Christmas Present does NOT arrive at 1 o’clock in the morning and Mrs Cratchit asks Bob how Tiny  Tim behaved at Church.  Each of these scenes are fairly short and simple to learn and after I had gone through them a few times I devoted my time to my alphabet game on the road, which involves spotting cars whose make or model begins with each letter of the alphabet in order.

I was making good time until I noticed that my arrival time was starting to slip back, just by a minute at first, then 5, then 15.  At the same time as the satnav on my phone started to deliver the bad news so a radio bulletin confirmed that the M1 was closed northbound due to a ‘police incident’ and that southbound traffic had also been halted to allow the air ambulance to land.  There was nothing for it than to switch off and wait.  I got out of the car and chatted to some of the other drivers who suddenly had personalities instead of being purely ‘arrogant BMW’ or ‘middle lane hogging Ford’.

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Eventually a solitary ambulance appeared on the deserted north carriageway travelling  at great speed unhindered by traffic.  Somewhere in the sky I heard a helicopter flying away and shortly afterwards traffic began flowing again.  As I passed the scene of the hold up I saw no wrecks, no skid marks, no battered barriers and the awful truth behind the phrase ‘a police incident’ became clear: the incident must have involved a pedestrian on the carriageway either by accident or design.  As I drove on in my comfortable warm car I gave a thought to a family whose whole world had just been shattered.

In a strange quirk of navigation my route actually took me passed Abingdon and I could almost see our house as I sped on down the A34 and further westward.

My destination was the town of Blandford Forum and having skirted the Cathedral City of Salisbury I arrived with a good couple of hours to spare.  I was staying at the beautiful Crown Hotel which is familiar to me thanks to both my work and Liz’s and it had a reassuringly familiar feel to it as I checked in and walked up the old creaky staircase.

The Crown doesnt do generic for the rooms are stylishly and quirkily furnished.  No paper mugs for tea of coffee here, but bone china cups and saucers and my room even boasted a classically gorgeous wooden pipe on a stand.  The sweet smell of my father’s pipe tobacco suddenly wafted over me.

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Once again I was close to the venue and at 5.30 I drove the few hundred yards to the old Corn Exchange standing proudly in the main High Street.  Once again I as greeted with a publicity poster on an A board with a ‘SOLD OUT’ banner pasted over it which gave me a  warm glow for the second time in as many days.

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I had performed Mr Dickens is Coming and Doctor Marigold in Blandford a couple of years ago but this was the first time that I’d taken A Christmas Carol there and it seemed to have captured the imagination.  The fact that my show was also part of the very first Blandford Literary Festival helped too.

The Blandord Forum Corn Exchange consists of a single huge room with a high ceiling supported by wonderful iron arches and a large stage at one end.  Although there were no theatre lights built into the hall itself the council had provided six lights divided between two large stands..  When I arrived the lighting stands were actually on the stage but once we had moved them to floor level and adjusted them there was more than enough illumination on the stage.

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The sound effects were more difficult to sort out for the only way of getting into the system was to plug a phone into the sound board which was hidden in a backstage cuppboard.  Linda, my contact in Blandford, was happy to do the first music effect but the idea of her huddled in a dark dusty corner for the whole show wasn’t appealing, so I decided to do without the other effects.

Once again the audience began to arrive early and I was particularly pleased to see my old colleague Michael Jones who was one half of the production company that used to promote all of my UK theatre shows.  Michael and Derek  have retired from the world of theatrical production now so Michael could actually sit and watch the show rather than running the lighting desk as he did for so many years.

Having caught up with Michael I retired to the dressing room and got into costume and waited for Linda to come and tell me that we were ready to start.  There was a slightly awkward moment as I had told Linda that I would enter from the back of the hall after she had introduced me from the stage but we hadn’t determined where we would ‘meet’.  I waited back stage ready to get the nod to take my position whilst she waited at the back of the hall for me to come and tell her that we were ready!  Unfortunately the houselights had already been dimmed so the audience sat in quiet anticipation while nothing actually happened.  It was Linda who eventually blinked first and came up to the stage meaning that I could go and get in my place to make the long walk to the stage when the music played.

It was lovely to be on a big stage with bright lights and I got completely into the story, relishing the additional scenes as much as the old familiar words.  The longer show is oddly easier to perform in that I get a break in the middle meaning that I can change my costume and refresh myself a little. I was applauded off the stage at the end of act 1 and applauded back onto it at the start of act two.

It was a really fun evening and I definitely felt that I had done my best as I brought the story to a close with ‘God bless us, every one!’

Having left the stage I dried myself off and then made my way into the hall to chat and sign, but unfortunately the organisers were already packing the chairs away which rather encouraged the audience to leave rather than waiting to chat.  I talked to a few people who had waited behind but soon I was changing and packing my car up once more.

Unfortunately the Crown was no longer serving food when I got to the bar so my dinner on Saturday night was a packet of crisps and a packet of peanuts!

The next morning I enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, followed by a croissant accompanied by honey carved off from spectacular comb.

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Saturday was a day off and I was able to drive home and spend a day with Liz and the girls which was a rare treat indeed! It was not a treat that was to last, however, for on Sunday I was back on the road driving to the North again, this time to the north west and the city of Preston where I was to perform two shows at The Preston Playhouse.

The drive to Preston was not as long as the Newcastle trip but I still had plenty of time to play the alphabet game, unsuccessfully as it turned out (the most difficult letter to spot is ‘W’ and this is invariably where my progress shudders to a halt.  The only three cars that qualify are a Jeep Wrangler, a Renault Wind and a Suzuki Wagon R, none of which are paritcularly numerous on the British roads).

I arrived at the Playhouse at 1.30, having stopped on route for a lunch of fish and chips.  The shows on Sunday were being staged to raise money for a charity and we were only able to get in to the theatre an hour before the show was due to start, so it was quite a rushed get in.  Fortunately there was a superb tech duo on duty who took my script and reassured me that everything would be fine.  I relaxed a little.

The foyer of the theatre was swarming with volunteers who prepared to take tickets, sell raffle tickets and staff the refreshments bar.  I descended into the building’s basement where the dressing rooms were situated and changed.

At 1.30 Joe Cornford (who with his wife Karen bring me to Preston) knocked on my door and we were ready to go.

Joe and Karen are trustees of a charity called PIES which stands for Partners In Education Swaziland.  PIES does amazing work in the small African country by raising money to provide food and education for children who otherwise would have none.  Corruption is rife and the King of Swaziland has recently made the headlines by spending £13 million on 19 Rolls Royces for his wives (there were 120 BMWs too, but they must only have been mere run-a-rounds).  Meanwhile children in the villages starve and have no access to schooling.

In a Christmas Carol the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two children, Ignorance and Want,   ‘Are they yours spirit?’ asks Ebenezer.  ‘They are man’s, but they cling to me!’ replies the ghost.  PIES is the Ghost of Christmas Present and the children of Swaziland cling to the organisation, literally for dear life.  Never has that particular passage meant more to me than last Sunday.

The two shows were packed to capacity and the response was again amazing.  During the second show a new little of business came accidentally to me – prior to the moment when Jacob Marley appears in Scrooge’s bedroom the old miser takes a look through his apartment to check for anything suspicious before sitting down in his fireside chair.  I usually remove the thick wollen scarf and hang it on the hat stand before he sits, but on Sunday I forgot to so it was still there all through Marley’s scene and suddenly, for the first time in my 26 years of performing, Jacob Marley had a chain!  I love it when happy accidents such as that occur.

The most important thing to tell you about Sunday is that PIES raised over £4,000  which will all be put to vital and good use.

Having packed up my things I thanked the tech crew as well as Joe and Karen before following Norman and Lynn (two more of the PIES trustees) to their beautiful home where I was to stay for the night.

We sat and chatted for a while as the adrenaline gently subsided.  We talked about the show and my tours and golf and cruise ships, but most of all we talked about Norman and Lynn’s repeated and numerous trips to Swaziland, for PIES isn’t a charity in which a few kindly middle class folk feel better about themselves for the fundraising they do,  oh no: PIES is a real hands on, practical charity whose trustees visit Africa often and actually do something to help. I am full of admiration for them and what they achieve.

On Monday morning it was time to drive home again, having filled the car up with fuel for the third time in as many days. As I guided the Renault through the rainy suburbs of Preston I realised that only seven days before I had been getting off the plane from Chicago.  In the intervening days I had driven 1,185 miles and performed A Christmas Carol four times.

The drive home was difficult through heavy rain and thick  spray, but as I neared Abingdon a Renault Wind passed me, followed soon by a Citroen Xsara and a Vauxhall Zafira thereby allowing me to complete the alphabet for the first time in my British tour.

It had been a most succesful and satisfying week!

 

For more information of PIES and the amazing work they do here is a link to their website:

Home

 

 

 

 

The First Last Day

Saturday 17 November

Saturday marked the last full day of the first part of my 2019 American adventures and Kathy had given me a full morning off, with nowhere to be until 12.00.  Sadly that didn’t prevent me from waking at around 4am yet again.

I spent the morning writing my blog, eating breakfast and watching the coverage of the practice sessions from the Brazilian Grand Prix, which passed the time.  I was also able to check in for my flight home on Sunday morning.

At around 11.30 I started gathering my costumes and props ready for a performance at The Field Club of Omaha, where I have performed every year that I have been coming to the city.

On the Saturday of my visits it has always transpired that The Huskers (Omaha’s college football team) have been playing at the stadium in Lincoln Nebraska, and being  a dedicated fan Lee has always driven down to cheer them on (or to share in their disappointment, as seems to be the case this season.).  On Saturday therefore I would be liberating my car from the parking garage and driving myself to the Field Club.

I arrived at the stroke of 12 and found Kathy already setting up, being helped by her marketing assistant Chris (who had been responsible for the early morning TV  interview a couple of days before). I dumped all of my things in the locker room where there were plenty of men getting ready to take advantage of the fine November weather by playing a round of golf.  I watched them rather enviously!  Lee is a member at The Field Club and one day the schedule will actually work out so that  I can play.

I made my way to the ballroom which was set ready for the splendid tea service which would precede my performance and found a microphone laying on my set, so I clipped it on and began a sound check, all of the levels sounded good and needed no adjusting.

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The next thing to sort out was my sound effects which have always been rather a problem at the club, for the only way to play music through the speakers in the ballroom had been to plug a phone into the sound system which was located in a closet at the end of a long corridor.  In previous years we have had a human chain exchanging a series of hand signals to get the music playing at the correct moment. My sound check had brought Caitlin, the events manager at the club, to the ballroom and after hugging hello she delivered the astounding news that we could now actually play music in the room itself.  A laptop was sourced and plugged in and in no time my sound cues filled the space.  Chris had volunteered to operate the sound so I talked through all of the cues with him and he seemed confident.  Unfortunately I had left my script at the hotel, but there was plenty of time to drive back (it was only a few minutes away) to collect it.

Once the preparations were completed I went back to the lobby where Susie had arrived, and we went into the restaurant for a bit of lunch before the event got under way.

The guests started to arrive for their two o’clock tea, and as I had nothing to do until 3 I simply sat in the locker room and relaxed until it was time to dress in my costume.

When I was ready I peeked into the ballroom and the tea was going well, there was the loud murmur of conversation that signifies a group of people enjoying themselves.  Kathy was running around trying to sort a few seating issues out, as some guests had simply ignored the table they were supposed to be seated at in favour of a better one.  Apart from that all seemed calm.

At 3 Kathy checked that I was ready, I checked that Chris was ready and the show began.  The stage at The Field Club is a slightly strange one, in that it is very wide side to side, but very narrow front to back, especially with the furniture on it, so I had to be extremely careful not to fall.  Fortunately the stage was not high and at certain points of the show I could use the floor as well to expand my available space, and of course on such occasions the front row of the audience were easy prey!

The performance went well and the audience were most appreciative as they always are at this event.  When Kathy had asked before the show how many people had seen me perform before the hands that went up must have accounted for about 80% of the people there.

But one incident about the sperformance troubled me greatly, for as Scrooge walks into the streets on Christmas morning muttering ‘Merry Christmas’ under his breath as if rehearsing the phrase, he momentarily forgets himself and barks ‘GET OUT OF MY WAY’! at one of the guests, before continuing on his way.  Usually I return to the individual asking for their forgiveness and wishing them a heartfelt Happy Christmas, but on Saturday I returned to my chosen victim and found myself looking into the terrified, tear-filled eyes of an elderly lady, who clearly thought hat she had ruined the show.  I held her hands as gently as I could and tried to assure her by my look (not Scrooge’s) that all was OK.  I Kissed her hand softly, and whispered ‘Merry Christmas’ until I was fairly certain that the tears would not fall, but she still looked like a fragile little sparrow which had fallen from its nest.

After the applause and when everyone sat down again Kathy opened the floor to some questions, and I spent an extra fifteen minutes entertaining the crowd with a few anecdotes from my years of touring, before it was time to say goodbye and head for the signing table in the lobby.

The signing session lasted quite a long time and I didn’t get to finally leave the Field Club until 5.20.  Kathy had told me that I was being picked up at my hotel for the evening event at 5.45, so I didn’t have much time to play with!  I rushed up to the 7th floor, quickly swapped my gold waistcoat for a plain sombre black one, picked up my reading folder and script before rushing back downstairs again to find Frank, Kathy’s husband, waiting for me.

The evening show was in the general Crook House, which as well as being open for public tours, is also the headquarters of the Douglas County Historical Society.  On Saturday night I was to perform the gruesome, violent, brutal reading of Sikes and Nancy, which has at its heart the murder of the poor young girl.

The first part of the evening was spent mingling and chatting as the guests enjoyed what were billed as ‘heavy appetisers’.

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During this time entertainment was supplied by two high school students, neighbours of Susie and Lee, who played violin together from the little stage.  Noah and Negil sounded superb and as their proud mother whispered to me ‘they are brothers, so this is the ONLY time they are in harmony!’

The music was good and the crowd were generous in their tipping.

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At 7 o’clock it was my turn and I took to the stage and explained the history of the reading, before launching in.  The script of Sikes and Nancy had been brilliantly constructed by Dickens in 1868 to slowly build the tension before the explosive climax to the reading as Sikes bludgeons Nancy to death.  Even then he didn’t release his audience but continued the action until Sikes hangs dead with the knife clenched in his stiffening hand.  If that wasn’t enough Dickens provided the coup de grace by describing the death of Bullseye, Sikes’ dog, as he leapt helplessly for his master’s shoulders.

I think my performance caught the full horror of the reading and I even broke a cufflink in the sheer violence of the moment of murder.

It was with a quite and reflective air that we all gathered round the dining room table to listen as Susie delivered one of her superbly crafted toasts and we raised champagne glasses to the end of another memorable visit to Omaha.

On Sunday I will be flying back to England t be with the family, before setting off on the road again, and I shall keep you informed of all my adventures.

The Wrong Stage

Friday 15 November

 

Friday morning was another early one as Lee was due to pick me up at 7am to take me to my first performance of the day which was due to commence at the ungodly hour of 8.30.

Whereas Thursday had been retirement centre day, Friday was high school day and our first appointment was at South High, Omaha.  The morning was a beautiful one with the   moon high in the sky to the west and the sun low in the sky to the east which coloured the wisps of cloud as if they were fine golden thread.

It wasn’t a long drive to South High School and students were already arriving as we found a parking space outside the theatre entrance.  Lee and I collected my costume, hat, scarf and roller bag and together went in, we obviously looked rather lost for a member of staff asked us where we were going and when we mentioned the theatre she showed us to a set of doors that led onto the stage.

I doubted that I had in fact woken up and wondered if I was still in bed at the Element dreaming, for on the stage was a huge stone fireplace with some little bells attached to it, a tiny chain leading through the wall, ready to be pulled by a stage hand.  Next to the fire was a little chair, table and candlestick, on the other side of the stage was a huge bed, complete with curtains.

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In the wings was a clerk’s desk with a high stool, a ledger lay open on it and a quill pen was ready to be used.  Further investigation led to a discovery of a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come which must have been at least twelve feet tall and inside was a mechanism to operate his arms, I also found a grave stone engraved with the name Ebenezer Scrooge.

Call me brilliant but I deducted that the school may have been doing a production of A Christmas Carol, although the set and props did seem incredibly well made and sophisticated for a school.  I was very impressed.

Lee had disappeared to find a teacher and I took the opportunity of being alone to work out how best to adapt my show to the set – the bed was on the wrong side for my blocking, but I could easily remedy that and I wondered if someone could operate the bells to presage the arrival of Jacob Marley?  I had also noticed a large sound desk in the auditorium so I would be able to have my full range of effects for this performance, I was going to have a lot of fun!

As I was pacing around the set Lee returned with our contact at South, Becky Noble and in a single moment my dreams were shattered:  ‘Actually, we cant use the stage – the school has rented the space to the Omaha Playhouse to rehearse their touring production (hence the sophistication of the set).  Unfortunately they will be working in here later, so we have had to put you elsewhere, let me show you.’

We left the stage, and descended a dark staircase until we arrived at a classroom.  Any adrenaline that had been in my veins as I had imaged a huge performance of A Christmas Carol was well and truly gone now as I surveyed the harshly lit room with a white board behind me.  To be fair the room was a music classroom and there were a few curved tiers of seating with a performance space at the bottom, so it was perfectly fine for what I do, it was just not what I had been visualising a few minutes before.

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There was due to be a guitar class in the room before I was to perform, so Lee and I went to the theatre green room where we were surrounded by costumes and wigs from the touring production.  In a few minutes Kathy joined us as well and we all sat talking about this and that until we could return to the room at 8.20.

Gradually the class arrived, about 40 of them, to take their seats and a little after 8.30 Becky introduced Kathy and Kathy introduced me.

The show was fine.  But in the bright light it was difficult to build any sense of atmosphere, the students didn’t react to the show AT ALL, no laughs, or titters, nothing.  To  be fair to them they were perfectly behaved and were not fiddling with phones, or shuffling around, they just weren’t reacting, which made ploughing on very difficult.

Obviously I removed all of the audience participation sections, which would have fallen dead on the floor, and just concentrated on telling the story which I did perfectly acceptably .  I did give the Fezziwig scene a little extra, however, for Becky had played Mrs F in the Omaha playhouse production many years before.

The show came to an end and the students clapped.  Kathy and Becky took the stage and asked if there were any questions?  Any?  None? Anyone?  No.

And with that my time at South, which had promised so much two hours earlier, petered out.

Lee and I collected my things from the green room and I didn’t bother to change.  As we drove away we looked at the clock and it was only just passed 10 am!

Back at the hotel I purchased some laundry detergent from the pantry behind reception and went up to my room to collate the final laundry load for this leg of the tour.  The laundry room at The Element is on the third floor and I made my way down with two bulging bags to be washed, but the door wouldn’t open, even though the green light flashed when I presented my key card.  I went down to reception to report the fault and soon two maintenance guys were in the corridor with me peering at the door.  One of them had a huge mallet and a crow bar,  but after a few little taps he decided against brute force.  He assured me that repairing the door was his challenge for the day and he hoped it would be ready later.  I took my clothes back up to the 7th floor.

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I had quite a while to rest before the second show of the day and I was able to pop into the grocery store and deli next to the hotel to buy some lunch.

At 12.15 I went back to the lobby to meet Lee and Susie once more ready to drive to our second high school, Omaha Central. We couldn’t immediately find a parking space so Lee dropped Susie and me at the front door and we went in where an incredibly unhelpful security guard signed us in and then ignored us, instead chatting to a rather young and attractive teacher.  Susie manoeuvred herself brilliantly between the couple and asked him to tell us where to go. ‘Why are you here?’ was his answer.  Susie patiently explained and he radioed the office who thought we should be in the Black Box theatre space, and they would send a student to take us there.

We walked, and walked and walked through old corridors and then new corridors, for Black Box was in a newly built wing of the school beneath an impressive library.  The  Black Box was locked.  Our student thought for a while and wondered if maybe we were in the auditorium?  Was there any way of finding out? He wasn’t sure.  How about going up to the library and seeing if they could find out, so up we went.  The library staff looked at the school schedule on the computer and announced we were definitely in the Black Box, but outside we met another student who saw the top hat and gushed ‘are you the guy doing the show?  I’m coming to that, I cant wait!!’  We asked her where she was going to watch me and she said The Auditorum…oh dear.

I was reminded of the passage in Jerome K Jerome’s s brilliant comic novel Three Men in  a Boat when two of the characters arrive at Waterloo  railway station and cant find the train:

We got to Waterloo at eleven, and asked where the eleven-five started from. Of course nobody knew; nobody at Waterloo ever does know where a train is going to start from, or where a train when it does start is going to, or anything about it. The porter who took our things thought it would go from number two platform, while another porter, with whom he discussed the question, had heard a rumour that it would go from number one. The station-master, on the other hand, was convinced it would start from the local.

 
To put an end to the matter, we went upstairs, and asked the traffic superintendent, and he told us that he had just met a man, who said he had seen it at number three platform. We went to number three platform, but the authorities there said that they rather thought that train was the Southampton express, or else the Windsor loop. But they were sure it wasn’t the Kingston train, though why they were sure it wasn’t they couldn’t say.

 
Then our porter said he thought that must be it on the high-level platform; said he thought he knew the train. So we went to the high-level platform, and saw the engine-driver, and asked him if he was going to Kingston. He said he couldn’t say for certain of course, but that he rather thought he was. Anyhow, if he wasn’t the 11.5 for Kingston, he said he was pretty confident he was the 9.32 for Virginia Water, or the 10 a.m. express for the Isle of Wight, or somewhere in that direction, and we should all know when we got there. We slipped half-a-crown into his hand, and begged him to be the 11.5 for Kingston.

 
“Nobody will ever know, on this line,” we said, “what you are, or where you’re going. You know the way, you slip off quietly and go to Kingston.”

 
“Well, I don’t know, gents,” replied the noble fellow, “but I suppose some train’s got to go to Kingston; and I’ll do it. Gimme the half-crown.”

 
Thus we got to Kingston by the London and South–Western Railway.

 

Back in Central High we met a member of staff outside the Black Box who said asked his head of department who said that he thought the show was due to be in the auditorium, although the schedule definitely said Black Box.  Eventually Susie and I took the initiative and asked our student to take us to the auditorium, and half way there we found Lee who was leading a search party for us!

At last we entered the huge and impressive theatre where my show was indeed due to be held.  The stage was massive and my furniture stood ready to be arranged, which I quickly did.

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When I was finished on stage I was introduced to Oliver, who would be looking after the technical side of the afternoon.  Instantly I knew I was I good hands, for Oliver was one of those people who is utterly at home behind his mixing board, who knows what every switch, knob and dial does and how to combine them to produce a perfect result.  Every theatre needs an Oliver.

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We spent some time going over the various sound cues and when we were both satisfied we knew what the other was doing, I went to change.

And then the audience arrived, and kept arriving, there seemed to be hundred’s piling into the hall (and this is why the show had been moved, so many students had signed up that the Black Box wouldn’t have been able to hold them all, unfortunately nobody had thought to change the details on the computer system).

At 1.30 it was time to start and Kathy once more introduced me and there was a huge round of applause as I stepped out onto the stage.

It was a lovely show, with so much space to work with and of course Oliver brought each of the sound cues in perfectly (in fact he even started following the lighting cues as well, which I hadn’t bothered to discuss with him).

This was an actor’s stage and I enjoyed every second of the 80 minutes I performed.  I could hear some chat and fidgeting from the auditorium, but on the whole the students listened and reacted maturely, generously and enthusiastically and when I reached the end they whooped and stamped and shouted and cheered! (A rather different response to that earlier in the day)

Kathy came onto the stage and announced that we would take a few questions which we did, but soon it was time for everyone to leave and the auditorium became quiet once more.

I thanked Oliver for all his help and then changed back into my normal clothes and Lee took me back to the hotel again.  As we pulled up we met the maintenance man who had earlier wielded the crowbar and he assured me that the door to the laundry was working properly now, and so it was that my afternoon down time was spent travelling to the third floor to wash and dry.

I had one more engagement on Friday and that was our annual dinner at the old Crook House.  This event has become a wonderful tradition at which 12 of us enjoy a 5 course dinner lovingly prepared and presented by Chef Mario.  Kathy had decorated the table so imaginatively  using antique books as her theme, the napkin rings were folded paper taken from a copy of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Stories, and the table runner was also made from pages, there were antique reading spectacles and old printers woodblocks to enhance the overall effect.

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The menu was amazing, with an amuse bouche, soup, salad, mac n cheese with lobster tail, an amazing piece of Omaha steak, and all finished off with a chocolate mousse cake.  My waistcoat was in grave danger of bursting open.

The banter and conversation was loud and the room filled with laughter, I tried to explain cricket and Yorkshire Puddings to my fellow guests, and by the end of the evening plans were being hatched to stage an England vs Omaha cricket match!  I suggested it should be a doubled header contest, with one game of cricket and one of baseball on successive days, with food to match – a genteel English cricket tea one day and beer and hot dogs the next.

Soon our dinner was over and after a few photographs we all drifted back into the night.

Saturday marks my final day on this leg of the tour before returning to England for a week.  Two more performances to come, one of A Christmas Carol and one of Sikes and Nancy: The Murder!

 

AFTERWORD: Past or Present?

Regular blog readers will have noticed that during this week I have written my blog in the past tense, rather than the present tense that I have used in previous years.  I would love to know what you think and which you prefer.  Let’s hold a Twitter poll @DickensShows   #PastOrPresent

 

 

The Nicest Compliment

Thursday, 14 November

On Thursday it was back to work and I had to be early at the office.  My alarm woke me at 5 am and I immediately got out of bed lest sleep should return to overwhelm me again.  A coffee and a shower helped me into the land of the living and by 5.30 I was making my way to the lift and the parking garage.

I was due at KMTV3 at 6am so I put the address (charmingly in Mockingbird Lane) into my sat nav and headed out onto the streets of Omaha.  Although the was a fair amount of traffic the journey was unencumbered by delays and I arrived bang on schedule at 6.am

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Having rung the morning show’s producer I waited until someone came to the door to let me in and from that point everything went by in a bit of a blur.  No sooner was I in the green room than I was called to the set and fitted with a microphone, and no sooner was I sat on a sofa than the anchor appeared (I didn’t even get her name, although I think the weather guy called her Courtney when he threw back to her).  While we waited I said ‘I have NO idea how you can do this every morning’.  I had expected her to be bright and perky as most morning anchors are, but instead she replied ‘Nor do I, God, it is killing me!’

When the meteorologist finished his piece (I noticed that he was wearing grey trainers, which looked completely incongruous against his smart suit and tie, but of course they were unseen on screen), he passed back to us and our chat commenced.  It was a fun conversation, although brief, and the station showed some footage of my show which looked as if it had been filmed in Bethlehem PA, judging by the set.  All too soon we were finished and I was back in my car before I knew what had happened.

The traffic was heavier now and of course I was heading back into the city, so the journey back was slightly slower, but I was still able to sit in the lobby eating breakfast before 7.

My old friends Lee and Susie were due to pick me up at 8.30 so I had a little time in my room to make sure that all of my costumes and props were ready for the day ahead. I needed to plan for two performances as we wouldn’t have time to return to the hotel between the two shows.

When I went to the lobby Susie was standing reading a newspaper with great concentration so I was able to surprise her by creeping up and giving her a hug!  Lee was waiting in the car and soon the three of us chatting away and sharing our various news.

The day’s shows were both to be at retirement villages owned and managed by the Immanuel  Group.  We have been working with the group for 5 years or so now and I have performed in most of the venues in the cities of Omaha and Lincoln.  This year I would be at the Courtyard and the Trinity Life Center.

We arrived at the Courtyard with plenty of time in hand and were greeted by Cameo who we worked with last year.  The venue was to be in the Folgestrom Chapel which was dominated by a huge stained glass window which took up the entire back wall behind the stage.  The bright sun illuminated the figure of Christ and cast the most beautiful rainbow across the room – I would be in good hands.

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Not only were Lee and Susie there but also Kathy who is the director of The Douglas County Historical Society, and who  is responsible for bringing me back to Omaha.  It was great to have the team back together again.

In one corner of the room two men were working hard to get a new sound system working for my performance.  There was not time to fully install it so when it was switched on there would be no way of adjusting the level, we just had to hope that it was OK – I clipped the microphone on and the sound was perfect.  Yes, we were definitely being looked after.  I asked if we could play the CD so as to get the opening music for the show, the engineer shook his head, it was doubtful he thought, but we could try.  Sure enough when we pressed the play button music filled the room at a perfect level, the engineer took of his baseball cap and opined ‘That just goes to show, it’s better to be lucky than good!’

Soon the residents began to arrive and as The Courtyard is an assisted living centre many of them were using walking frames, in fact there so many that the staff had arranged a parking lot in the ante room with specific areas depending from where in the community an individual resided.

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The Chapel filled up and a choir of carol singers from the centre serenaded the guests as they arrived.  At 10.30 it was time to begin.  Kathy made my introduction and then the music filled the chapel and I walked slowly to the stage.

Marley was dead, to begin with.  I was off and running.

At the point in the show where Scrooge walks into the London streets it is my custom in  a venue such as this to walk into the auditorium, barking at people to get out of the way:  I did that.  It is also my custom, as Scrooge arrives at his melancholy tavern to take his melancholy dinner, to plonk my hat on someones head, snarling ‘there hold that!’:  I did that.

When Scrooge finishes his dinner I always stand up, peer at the person wearing my hat, and wrench it from their head scowling ‘give me that, you look ridiculous’ which always gets a good laugh:  I did NOT do that.  I don’t know why I didn’t do that, but I can only imagine that I was being well and truly guided.

This is what actually happened.  I stood, and stared at the lady who was wearing my hat, and she looked at me.  I didn’t move and she said quietly ‘would you like your hat back?’, at which point I (or Scrooge), would naturally have grabbed it, but I (he) didn’t, instead I said ‘yes, I would like my hat back’ and the lady took it off and gently handed it to me.  Now, as I looked at the hat, before placing it on my head I saw that the lady’s hairpiece had come off her head and was stuck in my hat, at the same moment she also realised what had happened. I made no comment, and didn’t react in any way, either as Gerald or Scrooge but I simply handed the hat back to her and she retrieved the wig quite calmly and with no sense of embarrassment or anger, then she handed my hat back to me, and I was able to continue the show.

If I had played the scene as I always do I would have ripped the hat off her head, the wig would have flown across the room, just at the moment that I would have been saying ‘you look ridiculous!’  But on Thursday morning something stopped me.

The rest of the show passed without incident, although I fluffed a couple of lines, which was frustrating, but not disastrous.  I had been aware that many of the audience had been shading their eyes against the multi coloured glow streaming through the window, but it was only when I went back down into the auditorium, so that I could approach the altar when Scrooge went to Church, that I realised the light was SO bright that it must have been impossible for anyone to see anything for the duration of the show. It didn’t seem to matter though, for the response was amazing and the whole room stood to applaud me as I took my bows.

Cameo had set a little table up near the door so people could have their programmes signed and everyone formed a very orderly line.  The comments were lovely, but one stood out, in fact it is maybe the most moving compliment anyone has every paid me in all my years of touring.  A lady took me by the hand and said simply: ‘Thank you.  Thank you for letting that be part of my life’.  I almost cried with gratitude.

When all of the residents had collected their walkers from the correct zone and returned to their rooms it was time for me to change and rejoin Susie and Lee.

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We drove to a nearby Panera Bread, where we ate a healthy yet hearty lunch before driving to our second venue of the day, the Trinity Village, another Immanuel venue.

My performance was actually being held in the Trinity Life Center, a large hall which is used for both church services and recreational events.  On the wall were folded up basketball hoops and yet the floor was covered with a hard, fine carpet – I wouldn’t like to play basketball on carpet, imagine the burns if you went sprawling onto the floor.

Once again the smiling Cameo was there to greet us, along with a huge staff from the Trinity Village.  The stage was an impressive size and would give me lots of room to use.

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I changed quickly, but there were already audience members making their way in and carol singers singing by the time I was ready to do a microphone check, meaning that a few folk got a sneak preview of the show, although I was careful not to give them any plot spoilers.

Soon the hall was filling and I paced up and down at the back, like a caged lion desperate to be released.  2 o’clock came round and once again Kathy made the introductory remarks, while Cameo squatted on the floor ready to hit ‘play’ on a portable CD machine that she had bought specifically for this purpose.

During this performance I did not venture into the audience, partly because the stage was quite a distance from the front row and partly because I didn’t want to press my luck after the morning’s narrow escape.

As I performed the charity collector’s scene in Scrooge’s office on Christmas eve a thought came into my head which rather changed the dynamic of the exchanges in my mind.  Some actors love back stories.  If you are playing a character you want to invent a full back story so  that they appear as fully rounded individuals, not simply one dimensional sketches.  Some actors, however, dismiss this exercise by pointing out that if we randomly meet someone in the street and strike up a conversation we do not know their history and it is completely irrelevant anyway.  I am somewhere in the middle of those two poles.

So, here is my thought: surely everyone in the City of London would have known about Scrooge and his reputation for meanness (in the scene with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come we see three businessmen discussing Scrooge’s death as if it is common knowledge), but the charity collector (singular in my version, but there are two of them in the book) seems to have no idea about Scrooge and Marley, even thought the latter has been dead for seven years.

My new premise is that the collectors are new in town and have been sent to Scrooge and Marley’s as a kind of prank or initiation by more seasoned and battle scarred colleagues.  You can almost feel the flush of anger rising as the poor man realises that he has been duped, but he ploughs on relentlessly until he comes to the conclusion that he has been fighting a losing battle and withdraws.  Imagine then the fellow’s delight when Scrooge seeks him out in the street the very next morning and says ‘I hope you succeeded yesterday, it was very kind of you!’ and goes on to whisper that he will donate an apparently huge sum to the cause.  No doubt the collector will have run back to his friends saying ‘old Scrooge wasn’t so bad, but it was I that solicited the donation when all of you have failed!’

None of this changes the show, but it is fun to think about.

The performance at Trinity was a good one and I was pleased with the way it worked.  I battled for a while with a crying baby but that was OK, and anyway the father left the room in the end to comfort the infant in the lobby area.

After I had taken my bows we took a few questions and answers and then I sat at another little table and signed more programmes until the hall was empty once more.  Before I changed I posed with all of the staff on stage for a photograph and then made my way to the spacious restroom which doubled as my dressing room.

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Lee drove me back to the hotel and extended a very kind invitation to join he and Susie for dinner, an invitation that I was happy to accept, and after an hour or so during which I wrote a little and showered, I joined them for a convivial evening of good food and fine fellowship

It was only 8 pm when I returned to the hotel but I felt ready for sleep for it had been a long day, starting with a 5 am alarm call and then the performance of two big shows. However as I got ready for bed a warm glow came over me as I thought once more of those very precious words:

‘Thank you.  Thank you for letting that be part of my life’.

 

 

 

Heading to Omaha

Wednesday 13 November

Wednesday was a travelling day with no definite commitments which gave me a great sense of freedom.  I didn’t even have to check in for a flight as I would be driving to Omaha.

At breakfast I watched the news coverage and was reminded of the little story A Child’s Journey with Dickens which I occasionally perform.  What could there possibly be in common between a day in March 1868 and November 2019?  Well, in both cases a man named Dickens was travelling from one venue to another having performed the night before, in Charles’ case from Portland Maine to Boston, in mine from Kansas City, Missouri to Omaha. What else?  Well the answer comes in a memory of the author Kate Douglas Wiggin as she described the main topic of conversation on her train ride being the impeachment proceedings against the President, and so it was in a Kansas City hotel on Wednesday morning.

I spent the morning catching up with some emails from home, one of which was a request for an interview to promote my performance in the St George’s Hall in Liverpool later in the season.  Charles Dickens performed in the same hall, so the questions were geared around how I felt to stand on the same stage, but the last one was interesting: ‘If you could meet Charles Dickens tomorrow what would you say?’  Goodness!  Firstly I think I would be in awe and probably wouldn’t be able to ask anything.  But I suppose a natural enquiry would be ‘How was The Mystery of Edwin Drood going to end, and would you mind if I publish that ending!’ (that is called having a ghost writer, I believe).

Another line of enquiry right now would be as research for my book, so I would press for details about his stay in Paris in 1865 – what hotel, how did he get to the station, what was the journey like, etc.

Both of those questions are very self serving and mercenary, so I settled on a simpler answer which was ‘Am I doing alright?’ And ‘Thank you.’

Another question elicited a cheeky answer from me: ‘Tell me something about Dickens that we may not know’

To which I replied:  ‘I don’t know what you don’t know!’

When my work was finished I started to pack all of my things up to take to the car,  I had to remember to leave the 2 hangers that had been holding my costumes for three days and the towel that I had taken to the shows, for they were the rightful property of the Hampton Inn.

I stayed in the room until the 11 o’clock check out time and shortly before I left an email came through from Pam Byers telling me about a request for me to do an early morning TV interview on Thursday.  I would need to be at the studio at 6am, so it is going to be another long day on Thursday!

I got all of my bags into my Kia and checked out before setting off for the 3 hour drive to Omaha.  I have described the route before in previous years and it really isn’t interesting enough to go over yet again being one of the dullest roads I have ever driven on.  I passed the time by listening to the continuing story of Lyra Belacqua in Northern Lights on Audible.  It is a brilliant recording.

One little moment of light relief came from my very English satellite navigation system who when directing me towards St Joseph insisted on calling it ‘Street Joseph’

My car was obviously aware of the monotony of the journey for every now and then a little alarm sounded and a message popped up on the screen: ‘Consider taking a break’ and there was  little picture of a steaming cup of coffee underneath.

At one point in Northern Lights  Philip Pullman describes the fens, the flat marshy lands to the east of England and I realised that the country I was driving through was very similar.  Flat expanses covered with ponds and drainage streams, and a huge sky above, which was blue with some amazing cloud formations painted across it like a Wedgewood bowl.

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From ignoring the scenery around me I now began to study it more closely: many of the ponds were iced over with little lumps on the surface which reminded me of skimming pieces of ice over a frozen lake when I was a child, which set up a harmonic vibration causing the lake to ‘sing’.   And then I realised that these weren’t ponds at all but frozen floods.  Roads disappeared into the ice, and there was an incongruous stop sign poking up in the centre of a silver expanse.  Stainless steel silos were left high and dry like agricultural Noah’s arks.

These diversions, along with the book, passed the time most effectively and soon I was approaching Omaha, Nebraska which is about as far from an ocean as you can be in the United States of America.

I have been coming to Omaha for a number of years now and in the way that the Hampton Inn at Liberty is my home in Missouri, so the Element by Westin is my home in Nebraska.   I parked the car in the garage next to the hotel and checked in.  Soon I was in my comfortable room.  As I m due to stay for 4 nights I took the opportunity of unpacking and hanging everything up, which is a luxury often not available to me on tour.

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I spent the afternoon chasing some more research leads for my book: a man named Martin Condliff and his wife Hannah had been travelling on the train when it crashed at Staplehurst and I had already discovered that he was a hotelier and possibly mayor of his home town ‘in the north’, but I wanted to find more specific information about him.  Using an amazing British newspaper archive I cast a wide net and eventually found a tiny planning application by a Martin Condliff who was proprietor of The Queen’s Hotel  in Waterloo on Merseyside.  Further digging confirmed that this was the same man who had been on the train with Charles Dickens and who had lost his wife in the crash.  There was no mention of his being a Mayor however, but I sent an email to the local council asking if they had any record of him holding such a position in 1865.  I await a reply and will let you know.

A very satisfying couple of hours work.

It was getting dark now so I decided to dine at the local restaurant, The Black Oak Grill which is part of the impressive Midtown Crossing development.  I walked out into the cold evening air, and before going to the restaurant made my way to a branch of Walgreen’s as I needed a few toiletries to see me through to the end of the week.  Having run the pedestrian gauntlet of a fairly major intersection and picked up such items as I needed, I made my way back through the little sloping park in front of Midtown Crossing and went to the Grill, where I enjoyed a delicious crusted trout dish on rice.

After supper I returned to the hotel and watched a bit of The Legend of Bagger Vance before getting ready to retire for the night.  I set my alarm for 5am, so that I would be bright and perky and ready for my 6.15 interview, and fell straight to sleep.

On Thursday it will be back to work.

Trying to Break One Thousand

Tuesday 12 November

 

Tuesday was a day on which I had two very large shows to perform, in fact the library service were looking to break the 1000 mark for the number of attendees in a single day’s programming – that is a lot of people!

But before any of that could happen there was a much more pressing chore to be undertaken, a landmark in its own right, yes it was time to do laundry for the first time on this trip. For the first part of the morning I juggled breakfast (oatmeal again), laundry, drying, writing and sending submissions of my work to unsuspecting publishers in the UK.  By 10.30 all of those objectives had been achieved and I had a little time to do not very much until Kimberly came to pick me up at 11.45 to take me to my first event which was back at the Midwest Genealogy Center, where I had performed Mr Dickens is Coming in darkness two nights before.

On this occasion the room was set up with theatre style seating and there were 400 chairs out in neat rows.  Steve, the director, was there and immediately showed me the improvements that had been made to the lighting, and it was impressive indeed.  Now the stage could be bathed in light and thanks to some hard work earlier that morning been transformed into a really effective performance space.

Gunard was back to look after my technical requirements and he was joined by Edwin.  Together we went through my sound cues until they were both happy as to how they slotted into my performance.

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L-R: Edwin, Gunard, me

Having completed our technical discussions and had a sound check my next commitment was to pose for some photographs for the Mid Continent marketing team to use in future years in their promotional magazine (the image that they are using at the moment is rather old and features a remarkably slim Mr Dickens with a dark beard nonchalantly leaning on his walking cane. It is a nice picture but with the best will in the world is not a wholly accurate representation of me these days.)

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As ever at the Mid Continent venues the audiences began to arrive early (in fact the first person turned up at the door at the same time as us, 12.30!)  I retired to my dressing room and waited for the arrival of a newspaper reporter who needed to do an interview prior to watching the show.  We chatted for a while and then he left to take his place among the growing throng in the hall.

Over the intercom system I could hear the growing hubbub as the seats filled up, as well as the beautiful harmonies of the carollers who were back yet again and were doing sterling work entertaining the crowd.

Although I was already in costume thanks to the photo shoot I went through my final preparations as the start time approached:  Microphone switched on, Victorian penny in the right pocket of my waistcoat, scarf wrapped around my neck in such a way so as not to bang the microphone, frock coat buttoned up to hide the bright red and gold waistcoat during the opening sombre scenes, cane in hand and hat on head.

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At 2 o’clock precisely we were ready to start and I waited in the wings as the head librarian at the MGC made the introduction and welcomed me to the stage.

For so long my performances for Mid Continent have been slightly compromised by the very small and cramped stages that have been squeezed into library branches, but this year Kimberly has made a real effort to find larger venues for me and I have been able to give big proper theatre-style shows, which is much more satisfying to me and hopefully the audiences.

When Gunard, Edwin and I had been chatting in the technical booth earlier Gunard had asked ‘do you ever forget a line?’ I had jocularly riposted ‘do you ever miss a cue?’ but most frustratingly we both messed up slightly in the first minutes of the performance.  The error from the booth was to fade the opening sound effect before the heavy, sombre, tolling bells rang which wasn’t a huge mistake but slightly changed the atmosphere of the opening.  For my part I completely scrambled the line ‘he was a squeezing, wrenching, rasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner’.  I am not sure what came out but it wasn’t that!  Maybe it was a lapse of concentration, or just one of those things that occasionally occur, but for the next 15 minutes or so I became very nervous about my lines and concentrated on them more intently than I really needed to, meaning that the first scenes were a little stilted and not as natural as I would have liked.

As the plot progressed I relaxed again and things started to go well once more.  Indeed after the show one audience member who has watched almost every performance I have given in the Kansas City area (yes, I really mean that – over 23 years), was moved to say that he felt it was my finest ever performance!  I will take those sort of comments any day.

The signing session went on for quite a while and there were lots of pictures to pose for and hands to shake. I could feel the adrenaline seeping away and fatigue taking over so that my smiles became a little more forced.

There was due to be another major author event in the hall that evening and as I started to change and pack up, so another team from the library arrived to set up. This is exactly how this room should be used and I am sure that Steve was very happy to see the company’s investment being so well utilized.

Kimberly and I loaded all of my things into her car and we set off towards Lee’s Summit for my evening commitment.  I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I could feel my body crying out to be refuelled before I asked any more of it, so we drove through a drive-through near to our destination and carefully avoiding anything with cheese in it I chose a bag of chicken tenders to keep me going.

The venue for my evening’s adventures was the John Knox Pavillion, a huge, cavernous pyramid which can hold over 1000.  When we walked in I was taken aback once more at the sheer scale of the place.  800 chairs were laid out and the stage looked tiny in the distance.

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We were greeted the venue’s manager Richard and also by Larry who was running tech for me.  We have all worked together before and immediately he dropped into a friendly banter.  Before we did anything to prepare for the show Kimberly and I took our lunches to my dressing room where we ate quietly, both in a sort of ‘shut-down’ mode before starting to build ourselves up for a major evening.

When we were finished with our food I took the script and the sound effect USB stick to Larry and we started going through my technical requirements.  Larry is one of life’s utterly positive guys and his  enthusiastic demeanour is infectious.    You cant spend time with Larry and not smile, added to that he has one of the finest sets of moustaches I have ever seen.

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It was 6 o’clock with an hour to go and the audience were arriving, so once more I took myself back to the quiet of my dressing room where I pulled two chairs together to form a little couch and napped for a while.

The time ticked on.  A dressing room for a one man show can be a lonely place so I decided to slip into the hall and stand quietly to watch the audience arrive.  It was a big crowd, and they kept coming.  I think the final count by the library staff was 670, although the pavilion staff reckoned it was more like 750 (there were a lot of young children running around, or sitting on laps which made an accurate count difficult).  Anyway, there were lots of people.

As I stood some dear friends came to say hello, having spotted me lurking or skulking in the shadows – firstly Miriam Alexander who used to work with the library and looked after me during my first years with Mid Continent.  It was lovely to see Miriam again after so many years.  Another ex colleague from those early years was Carma who was also there with her family and she came and chatted too, meaning that the evening had a most nostalgic start.

The audience continued to arrive,  and the carollers sung loudly.  I returned to the dressing room to go through my final preparations, only to find it locked!  I went back to the hall and fortunately found Richard who gave me the key.  Mic on, watch in pocket, penny, scarf, buttons, hat, cane.  It’s showtime!

It is such a pleasure to be on a big stage, well lit with such a huge audience watching.  I was where I love being and I gave the show everything, in fact maybe a little to much, I was over extending myself when I really didn’t need to.  At one point I could feel a sort of tension headache building behind my temples which is always a sign that I am trying too hard, so I tried to rein things in a bit.  Most importantly I got the ‘squeezing, wrenching etc etc etc’ line right.

It was not my finest show, but it was a good one and the audience were enthusiastic and attentive.  During the Tiny Tim death scene it must have looked as if I was genuinely choked up and crying real tears, but the truth of the matter was that I managed to rub some sweat into my eyes which stung like anything and caused them to water profusely.

Scrooge’s scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come were passionate and dramatic and it all led to a fine finale. On Christmas morning when Bob Cratchit arrives late for work I unwrap my scarf and fling it over my shoulder before taking a set on the little stool, well last night the scarf fluttered through the air and settled perfectly on the hat stand right next to the top hat – I couldn’t have placed it more neatly.

The applause and ovation was wonderful and as I bowed I knew that I couldn’t have given any more than I had during the previous 80 minutes.

I took a long time changing and calming down before going out to the signing table where a very long line as waiting for me.

There were many old friends waiting to say hello, as well as lots of people who proudly announced that this was their first time seeing the show.  Two ladies had books to sign which already bore the autograph of my dad from his years at the Holiday Fair which I spoke about yesterday.  I felt a huge emotion welling up as I looked at (and touched) his scratchy cardiogram of a signature, and so wanted him to be looking down at me saying ‘well done dear boy,  I am proud!’

At last the pyramid was empty apart from a few of the staff.  Larry was packing up, as was Kimberly and I went back to the dressing room to collect all of my belongings.

Having said goodbye and thanks to Larry we loaded the car up and went to find dinner, which came in the form of an Olive Garden nearby.  Both Kimberly and I were exhausted from what was an incredibly full on day.  Did we hit the 1000 mark?  Not quite, but very nearly and our efforts had certainly set a new record for a single day’s attendance.

Kimberly drove me back to the Hampton Inn for the last time and we said our goodbyes for 2019.  I am due to drive to Omaha to spend three days with the Douglas County Historical Society, whilst the library embarks on its annual Storytellers event, but for now we could congratulate each other on a job well done!

 

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore….

Monday 11 November

On Monday morning, Remembrance Day in Britain and Veterans Day in the USA, I woke satisfyingly at 6.00.

Outside the window I could hear a heavy wind whipping through the carpark.  All of the forecasts had warned of bad weather sweeping in, with the possibility of icy conditions and even snow.  I opened the blind and looked out to see proud American flags tautly tugging at their flag poles as if they were standing to attention to honour the military.

I had to get a bit of a move on as the marketing team at Mid Continent had managed to get an interview for me on the Fox4 morning show.  I had to be in downtown Kansas City at 8.15, so needed to get up and showered and also grab a bite of breakfast before Kimberly called for me at 7.30.

I surveyed the breakfast buffet and on such a cold morning decided to have a bowl of porridge, or oatmeal, and suddenly a memory came into my head.  My appearances in the Kansas City area originally came about because my dad had been involved in the creation of the Kansas City Holiday Fair – a Christmas celebration which featured the works (well, one work, to be honest) of Dickens heavily.

The event was an indoor one and dad travelled to the city on two occasions to be the face of Dickens (as well as to add his expertise).  He stayed in a large hotel in the heart of the city, right next to the convention center where the event has staged, and as the hotel was a corporate sponsor of the fair he was given a lavish suite – the Governor’s Suite.  I remember him telling me about the huge bath tub in the suite and the fact that there were mirrors on the ceiling above it and he asked ‘what DOES the Governor get up to?’

As befits such a great man, and I speak of my dad not the Governor, he didn’t have to descend to the main hotel restaurant for his breakfast, rather there was a little breakfast service on his floor and he became obsessed with the delicious, hot, creamy porridge that they offered.  After his two year stint Dad suggested that I take over from him and his main advice to me was ‘make sure you have the porridge!’

25 years later on a freezing, cold, blustery morning In the Hampton Inn I ladled some steaming oatmeal into a little cardboard bowl and thought of dad.

As I sat in the lobby of the hotel I watched the Fox4 coverage on the TV and wondered if, in an hours time, anyone in that room would cast an eye up as I was interviewed.

The marketing team had asked if I would do the interview in costume, so after breakfast I changed into my frock coat and waited for Kimberly to arrive.  Apparently the roads were not too bad, although there was icy rain in the air, and the high winds were making conditions very tricky.  We drove towards Kansas City.

Our route to the studio took as right past, and indeed underneath, the convention centre where the old Holiday Fair had been staged and the memories which had risen earlier continued.

Kimberly had been worried about the traffic but in fact it was OK and we arrived good and early with plenty of time to spare.  In the reception area of the studio we were joined by Emily and Tommy from the Library’s marketing team and made our way into the Green room where se sat down to wait.

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Tommy asked me what had originally brought me to Kansas City and how had I started working with Mid Continent?  My nostalgic journey resumed:  Dad had not only attended the Kansas City Holiday Fair but also the Dickens on the Strand festival in Galveston, Texas and he asked me if I would appear in his stead at both events, which I was happy and excited to do.  The only problem was that between the end of Galveston and the beginning of the Holiday Fair were four days in which I would be at a loose end, so the Kansas City organisers struck a deal with the Mid Continent Public Library for me to perform at various library branches as a way of advertising the fair the following weekend.

The weather had been awful that week, with raging ice storms bringing trees down into power lines and creating fires throughout the region.  I was looked after by a lady named Linda was short of stature and she wore an almost black fur coat with a matching stole protecting her face from the icy blast.  Linda also had platinum blonde hair and I recall thinking that when viewed from behind she resembled a pint of Guinness!

In the green room Emily, Thomas and Kimberly roared with laughter which elicited the appearance of a floor manager to see what was going on.

The memories flowed on and I recounted the time when I was being taken to another interview, again in costume, again in the early hours, again in terrible conditions.  There was thick snow on the ground and our interview was for a radio station which broadcast out a single-single roomed shack situated on the top of a remote hill.  The road leading up to said shack was impassable, although there was a clear route coming back down  which we could exploit so long as nobody decided to drive the other way.  We made the decsion to give it a go and my driver (I think Marlena Boggs from the Library) asked me if I would walk ahead and warn any drivers that a car was coming on the wrong side of the road. So, in full Victorian costume, with a scarf wrapped round me and a walking cane in my hand I strode up the hill.  Sure enough a pick up truck driven by a guy in denim dungarees and wearing a baseball cap (I cannot be sure about those details, I use them for stereotypical effect) came lumbering along the road.  Imagine how he must have felt when out of the gloom came a ghostly Victorian gentleman mournfully waving his cane   If the scene had been in an early 80s movie the driver would have looked at the inevitable bottle in his hand and then taken another swig from it.

My flow of anecdote was ceased as the floor manager invited me into the studio ready for the interview.  Firstly I was going to do a ‘walk on’ meaning that the presenters would welcome me and I would appear onto the set as if I were walking through the door.  The main news of the morning had been about the weather, so the fact that I was wrapped up in my scarf and hat was most suitable and I brushed imaginary snow from my coat as I made my entrance.

I then sat on the sofa watching the weather reporter wave her hands around in front of the green screen.  It was amazing to watch the image on the monitors, complete with the digitally projected map, and see how completely accurate her gestures were.

The interview itself was short and sweet, as these slots invariably are, but it was a nice chat and we finished with a couple of Christmas Carol trivia questions to the two presenters, which was fun.

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And with a shaking of hands I was finished for the morning and we all left the studio.  Hopefully somewhere in the Kansas City Metro area someone was logging on to the Mid Continent website to reserve tickets for one of my upcoming shows.

I was being taken back to my hotel by a car service, for the entire Mid Continent Public Library staff were due to attend a training day which was being held in the city, so Kimberly was not able to drive me back to Liberty.  The seminar also meant that I would have no shows during the day and the time was mine.

The snow was falling now and the wind was still strong, it was no day for sight seeing.

Back at the hotel I walked into the lobby and on the wall my friends from Fox4 were still doing their thing, but nobody at breakfast raised an eyebrow or said ‘wow, you were on TV!’  I went to my room and changed.

There is not much to be said about the rest of the day, I wrote in the morning, went out for lunch, got frozen solid and came back for a lazy afternoon of TV and rest.

My only show on Monday was in the evening on behalf of the Excelsior Springs branch of the library but which was being held in a local high school’s performing arts center, so at 5.15 Kimberly arrived to pick me up and off we headed once more.

As we drove we smelled a strange burning rubber smell and realised that the car in front of us had a broken front suspension and that his wheel was being dragged along the road at a crazy angle creating plumes of blue smoke and the awful smell.  The driver must have known of the problem but the knowledge didn’t seem to hinder his progress as he continued on at unabated speed.

We eventually arrived at The Excelsior Springs High School and entered the most amazing auditorium with a huge stage, it actually reminded me of the theatres on board cruise ships and it bore no resemblance to anything I ever experienced at school.  Our contact and techie for the night introduced himself as Xavier and instantly I knew we were in good, safe, professional hands.

The school had just finished a run of The Wizard of Oz and the thrust stage was painted as the yellow brick road.  It was rather surreal, and bearing in mind the day’s weather, I was tempted to exclaim ‘we are not in Kansas anymore!’ (OK I know that technically we had never been in Kansas, for the main part of Kansas City is in Missouri, but you wouldn’t begrudge an old man a little artistic licence, would you?).

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As I set my furniture on the stage I realised that however impressive the yellow road was, it was actually above the eyeline of anyone in the audience and therefore nobody would have been able to see it.  I asked Xavier if there had been some clever mirror effect so that the set painter’s hard work was actually visible, and he sighed and shook his head.  ‘No.  It was the director’s idea.  He likes to paint the floor.  Nobody could see it but it made him feel good.  I would have just painted it black.’

In the little technical box I gave Xavier my sound cues and a script.  He gave me great confidence by installing them onto whatever programme sound engineers used and checking that each cue started instantly and sounded alright.  I knew that he would do a good job with them.  He also set me up with a microphone and we did a sound check, before I realised that the first members of the audience were arriving, so I took myself off to my dressing room where I hung my costume up next to those of munchkins, flying monkeys and the great wizard himself.

It was quite a long wait until show time, but the monotony of being alone was broken by a knock at the door which revealed Kimberly asking if I wouldn’t mind chatting to a journalist from the local paper who was also named Kimberly.   the interview was excellent, for Kimberly 2  was a real fan of A Christmas Carol and delved and probed much deeper than the usual questions, causing me to consider my own adaptation and performance in more detail than perhaps I usually do.

We finished up with 15 minutes to go before curtain up, and I was also able to greet some old friends from Excelsior Springs, Keith and Greg, before getting ready to take Scrooge into the land of Oz.

I waited in the wings for Xavier to open the show with music cue number 1 and then slowly walked out onto the large stage.  The one strange thing about the evening was that Xavier never brought the house lights down, so I could see the audience quite clearly, which was a bit strange, but other than that the show flowed seamlessly.

My performance was good and strong and passionate, for the day’s rest had left me with plenty of energy, and a large stage always brings out the best in me.  The audience enjoyed  themselves immensely and joined in at the requisite moments meaning that the show became, as I had told Kimberly 2 I wanted it to, less of a one person show  more of a 400 person one.

It was a great success and I was buzzing with the adrenaline rush of a job well done.

I changed amongst the Munchkins and went to the lobby where I posed for lots of pictures and signed a few autographs.  I was also able to chat with a young actor who also performs a one man show, his based on the story of Doctor Faustus.

Xavier was keen to close up the theatre however, so I got changed collected up all of my things, including the two little mice that hide on every set of my tour and who, on this occasion, had watched from the yellow brick road.

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Having said my goodbyes and my thank yous Kimberly (1) and I braved the arctic blast and slithered across the icy parking lot to her car.  We found a nearby Applebee’s restaurant where we had our customary late post-show supper, and then she took me back to Liberty and the hotel.

On Tuesday I am back to a full schedule of two big shows, the first of which will be back at the Genealogy Center where hopefully all of those stage lights will have been pointed at the stage!

 

 

 

The First Day

At home I wake early every morning, maybe 5am and once I am awake I find it difficult to go back to sleep so it is from this early hour that I tend to do most of my writing or rehearsing.

Yesterday, Sunday 10 November I woke up at 6am….UK time.   Unfortunately I wasn’t in the UK, I was in Liberty, Missouri and the clock confirmed that fact by emotionlessly informing me that it was 1am.  Despite my best efforts I could not immediately get back to sleep so I wrote my blog post and did a little more Staplehurst rail crash research, before eventually dozing off again at around 3.  Wakefulness returned at 4.30 and stubbornly remained for the rest of the day.

Sunday would see my first performance of A Christmas Carol this season and I was keen to use a free morning to rehearse, so I formulated a plan for the first half of my day, which involved breakfast, coffee, rehearse, rest, lunch.

The lobby of the Hampton Inn is set with tables and I fetched myself a bowl of cereal with yoghurt and fruit, along with an orange juice and set myself down  with all the other early risers.  There was not much conversation among us early birds, but the cheery lady who looks after the buffet, and who has been at the hotel for as long as I can remember, bustled and smiled and welcomed us all to the day.

On the wall a TV showed the news, of which there didn’t seem to be much.  The channel was the local Fox TV affiliate and that put a question into my head: who chooses the channel in a hotel lobby?  The Fox network is of course closely associated with The Republican side of the political divide (with CNN representing the opposite pole).  Does the Hampton Inn company insist that every hotel play a Fox channel, to make a political statement, or is it the individual hotel manager who decides, based on their knowledge of the demographic of the likely guests, and do the guests themselves have a say?

I ask this with no political bias one way or the other, but simply with a sense of curiosity about the way political and corporate America works.

Having finished breakfast I took an extra coffee back to my room, and moved the furniture around to resemble my set.  Although I didn’t get into full costume I did put my hat and scarf on and placed the red shawl that made its debut in my show last year on to the chair where it would become Scrooge’s bedclothes.  I got the various sound effects ready on my laptop to check that they still fitted into the performance and then began.

The run through wasn’t quite seamless, there were a few passages that needed a little attention, but on the whole everything slipped back into my mind easily and I felt ready for the first show which was to be at 2 pm.

Breakfast, coffee and rehearsal had been ticked off my list.

I rested.

Kimberly was due to pick me up at 12.30, so I decided to have an early lunch at the nearby Panera Bread where I chose a bowl of a Fuji Apple Salad with Chicken which is a delicious and filling dish without being too heavy.  When my order was taken I was asked for my name and I, quite naturally, replied Gerald, which after a slight delay and a look of slight incomprehension was scribbled onto the ticket.  I waited to see how Panera had christened me today, for I have had a few iterations of my name over the years.

I sat at a table and sipped a delicious still lemonade until my little electronic buzzer buzzed electronically summoning me to the counter to fetch my lunch.

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On Sunday I was Jarold.

Back at the hotel I got everything ready for my two shows today, as we would not have time to return after the afternoon’s performance and bang on 12.30 a call came from the lobby to tell me that Kimberly was here.

Kimberly and I have known each other and worked together for so many years now (more than either of us would care to admit, I am sure) and it is always lovely to meet up again, we had a hug and then loaded my costumes and things into her car for the very short drive to the Woodneath branch of the Mid Continent Public Library.

The way that Mid Continent present their shows differs to most venues in that there is no charge to come, although people do have to register their intention by signing up to attend.  Numbers for all this years events were looking extremely good, with one of the larger venues later in the week nudging up towards the 800 mark!  Of course there is no guarantee that everyone will show and this was especially so at Woodneath  because the Kansas City Chiefs football team were playing at the same time as my show: sport vs culture.

At the library the staff were starting to set out the chairs for the expected crowd and there did seem to be an awful lot of them!  I sat on the edge of the stage looking out at the auditorium and thought my own thoughts.

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I was feeling tired after my difficult night and I began to have doubts as to my ability to do such a big show.  As I sat (and with over an hour to go before the start of the performance) the first members of the audience started to arrive and settled into seats at the very front, so we chatted about this and that which was a lovely and gentle time, and one which gave me a huge amount of confidence again.  I was reminded that I was performing for people – not a block of 300 chairs, but real individual, kind, generous, supportive, people, who had given up their Sunday to come and be entertained.

More people began to arrive, including my old KC friend Doug the meteorologist and his son Collin.  Soon my place on the stage was taken by the brilliant Dickens Carollers who entertain the crowds before my shows here.  I took myself off and started to get into my costume.  My dressing room at Woodneath is a sort of closet/storage/ electrical plant room  just off a room in which I used to perform before demand outstripped the available seating capacity.  Once changed I was able to use my former auditorium to do a little more rehearsal as well as some vocal warm up exercises.

The clock ticked towards 2pm and I went back to the main library and waited for the off.

I am pleased to report that the show went very well and any fears I may have had about remembering how it worked, were quickly dispelled.  By that I don’t mean remembering the actual lines – I am not that unprepared – but the little nuances of timing, of movement, of knowing where the ‘other’ characters on stage are standing as I speak to them.  These are things that come through live performance and cannot be effectively rehearsed.

I was pleased with my efforts (although I was slightly over doing it, which I knew I would) and everything ran to plan.  It is always lovely to receive a standing ovation for ones efforts, but when the audience stand before I even get back onto the stage to bow, that is very precious and so it was on Sunday afternoon.

When the applause had died down I ran back to my little room to change into a fresh costume and then went to my signing table where quite a line was waiting.  I chatted and posed and scribbled and was presented with such thoughtful gifts, which has been quite a feature of recent years in Woodneath: some amazing hand made soaps, a large packet of Stroopwafel (I love it when people read my blog and react!) and incredibly generously a gift certificate to a nearby Indian restaurant.  Erin, thank you.

Doug also presented me with a gift bag containing some of his wife’s amazing banana bread and some good strong coffee to keep me going whilst on the road.

But all too soon it was time to pack up the circus and move out of town.

My evening show was not a public performance but a chance for the library to thank their ‘Library Lovers’ supporters group.  The event was being held at the Midwest Genealogy branch where a brand-new performance space has recently been built.  The room was impressive indeed, with a stage at one end and an impressive array of 12 theatre lights overhead.

I was due to perform Mr Dickens is Coming for the group, so while Kimberly and the other staff busied themselves with preparing tables (the show would be performed while the guests ate, cabaret style), I set my props on the stage and tried to prepare myself.  I felt so tired.  My limbs felt heavy.  I had no energy.

Kimberly had arranged for there to be a professional sound engineer to look after the evening and I was introduced to Gunard who gave me a lapel microphone and undertook a professional and effective sound check.  The sound system built into the room was superb and the inherent acoustics of the space effective too.

Next onto the lighting, I was excited by this for those 12 lamps were going to really focus the attention onto the stage.  Gunard threw the switches…..

Whoever had installed the lights hadn’t thought to actually point them at the stage!  They were all over the place, much like the 20th Century Fox searchlights frozen in time.  No, I am wrong, they were not ALL over the place for there one very specific area where they were not: the stage, which remained bathed in shadow.

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Unfortunately there was no way for us to adjust the lamps for the ceiling was very high and the branch does not own a tall enough ladder to reach them, we were back to good old regular ceiling lights to cast a glow over my efforts.

I am due to be back in the Genealogy centre on Tuesday and the staff have promised that they will try and get things improved by then.  This auditorium is a new space and there are bound to be teething problems, but the possibilities and the potential for this facility are massive and the library service should be very proud of what they have.

At 6pm the guests started to arrive and again were entertained by the carollers before making their way into the hall to tuck into their suppers.  The event was catered for by a local pub which specialises in English cuisine so the dishes on offer where: Fish and Chips, Shepherd’s Pie, Bangers and Mash followed by Sticky Toffee Pudding.  Ladies and gentlemen I give you England’s contribution to epicurean culture.

As the guests filed along the buffet I was astounded to see that they all took a little bit of everything!  English food of this nature is not delicate and light, so the thought of battered fish sharing a plate with a fat and spicy sausage and lamb’s mince soaked in gravy and lots of mashed potato was too much for me to comprehend.

I stood at the back of the room with Mid Continent’s director Steve Potter watching the scene.  Steve and I go way back to my first visits in 1995 when he was a branch librarian and it was wonderful to chat and reminisce.  As we looked at the huge space in front of us he reminded me that in those early days I had to be careful about jumping too high on the stage, lest I should hit my head on the low ceilings.  We have all come a long way since those times.

Soon it was time to start and Steve and I went to opposite sides of the stage and waited in our respective wings to begin.

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Steve welcomed and thanked the guests before calling me onto the stage where he made some very nice remarks before turning the evening over to me.

To be honest, I was still feeling tired, but I launched into the show with as much zeal as I could muster and soon the titters were turning into laughs and everything went well.  I was conscious of the lighting issues and tried to return to the upstage centre region as often as I could, for it was only there that one of the theatre lights cast a small pool of light.

The audience loved Uriah Heep and the James Bond Skit, and also listened intently (as you would expect Library Lovers to do) to the new Miss Havisham sequence.  I wasn’t at my energetic sparkling best, but it was a good evening and the applause at the end was generous and appreciated.

When the show had finished I posed for a few photographs with guests before retiring to my green room to change.

Now I was REALLY tired!  Kimberly took me to dine at The Hereford House steak restaurant, which used to be an old haunt of ours for, in the years before the Hampton Inn at Liberty, I used to stay in the hotel attached to it.  The Ribeye steak that I chose was delicious and was just what I needed after my long day, which had started at 1am in the morning.

When we had finished Kimberly drove me back to Liberty (me rather impolitely sleeping as she drove) and so ended the first day of my tour.  It had gone well, A Christmas Carol is in a good place and as a team we had overcome various problems throughout the day to provide two excellent events.

On Monday the adventure would continue, and bad weather was due to sweep across the Kansas City area. Strong winds, plunging temperatures and snow were forecast and I was due to be at a TV studio at 8.15 am.  I will tell you all about that in the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travelling to Old Friends and Missing Others

Saturday 9 November 2019 saw the start of a new Christmas season and at 7 am the first act of a well rehearsed system fell into place.  A black Mercedes taxi was waiting for me in the thick fog of the early morning and soon my bags were loaded and I was on my way to the airport.

I had a new travelling companion this year, for you may remember that my old suitcase split at the seams during my trip in September.  After much research and a couple of false starts (cases ordered and returned for the reason that I couldn’t fit my walking cane diagonally in them – the sole criteria which an auditioning case must fulfil), I ended up with a petrol blue Samsonite model, which seems sturdier yet lighter than my old one.

I had packed during the days preceding and was somewhat worried that the case came in so underweight, leading me to panic that I had left something of vital importance out, but I had checked and re-checked and all seemed to be present and correct.

On Friday morning I had received a confirmatory email from United Airlines inviting me to check in so I had dutifully logged onto their website to do just that.  Now, I like to have a window seat when I fly and there are two reasons for this – one I love to see the view and possibly comment on what I see in these posts (although on a transatlantic flight of over seven hours that pleasure is confined to a few minutes at the start and a few at the end).  The other reason is that I feel much safer and more secure if I can see the ground as the plane touches down, I hate the thought that I might not be ready for the impact – it is a silly  thing, but a few years ago I was flying to join a cruise ship and was sat in a seat next to the main door and from which I had no view at all.  As we came into land I experienced what can only be described as a mild panic attack, and became quite scared.  I am a well travelled man and have had plenty of experiences of bad landings as well as good ones, but even today there is just something about seeing the ground that reassures me.

So, it was with some dismay that I discovered that United Airlines now do not offer a window seat as part of the standard fare anymore, for that privilege you have to pay an extra $99 to upgrade to an ‘Economy Plus’ seat.  Was my mental wellbeing worth $99?  No, not on this occasion, especially as I was booked into a central aisle seat from where I was sure I would have some glimpse of the ground.

My taxi took me towards Heathrow and directly into the most amazing sunrise, the great golden disk was softly diffused by the fog and it seemed to be huge in the sky, the bottom tip  barely touching the horizon.

As regular readers will know I have been tentatively working on a book, and as I sat in the back of the taxi I read what I had written so far, making mental corrections as I went.  It was a strange feeling for in one section of my account Charles Dickens is sat in a railway compartment and I had written: .’Perhaps Dickens took the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend from his pocket to study and read over once more, mentally correcting a certain passage and losing himself in his work.’  And here was I doing exactly the same thing.

The traffic on an early Saturday morning was not heavy and I made it to the airport in good time where the check-in procedure was equally swift.

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Even the lines in the security hall moved quickly and I was delighted to discover that I had time for breakfast before making the 15 minute walk to my gate.  I found a restaurant and ordered scrambled egg and smokes salmon with a fresh orange juice and coffee to wash it down with, it was delicious.

There was a different feel about Heathrow on a weekend and it seemed a happier, more positive place that I have often found it.  There seemed to be more people going on holidays, or pleasure trips.  There were more smiles and less grumpy, impatient people with extremely important business to attend to, needing everyone else to be out of the way.

Having finished my breakfast I made my way to the gate where the preliminary boarding process was just beginning and I didn’t have long to wait until my group was called and I shuffled up the rather narrow aisle of a 767 and found my seat (from where I did have a view to comfort me!)

We were slightly late departing for the cold morning had necessitated a de-icing spray but soon the little collection of strangers was being propelled into the sky and away from England.

The flight passed as flights do these days, smoothly and efficiently.  I watched  The Favourite, with Olivia Colman.  It is a discordant film, nasty, difficult and slightly Hogarthian in its direction, but it is superb and the performances by the three female leads are wonderful.

Lunch was served and I opted for a rather nice chicken curry, but I noticed that the United Airlines cuts had extended to no pudding on the plate (perhaps that would have been included in the extra $99!)  They even teased me by supplying a plastic spoon with the knife and fork, which seemed a bit mean.   I don’t know why, but I kept that spoon when the main course was cleared away and was made to feel ashamed at my unworthy thoughts towards United when soon afterwards a little tub of Belgian Truffle Ice Cream was served.  Everyone around me had to eat theirs with the a little plastic spatula which was concealed in the lid of the tub, but I, for whatever reason, had kept my spoon.  I felt superior and smug about that.

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More films (a re-watch of Bohemian Rhapsody which was just as exciting on the second view, and rather oddly Little Shop of Horrors) passed the time,  and I also read some of The Invisible Woman, the book by Claire Tomalin about Dickens’ relationship with Ellen Ternan.  It is a superbly researched book but as always whenever I read it I felt a huge sadness over the way Charles treated my great great grandmother, Catherine.  I was fortunate enough to meet Claire at a literary festival a few years ago and she said much the same, that is made her feel sad to record such awful actions of a man she otherwise greatly admired and revered.

The movies and the book helped me across the southern tip of Greenland and the northern wastes of Canada before a warm croissant was served (‘turkey and cheese or just cheese?’  I was tempted to ask for turkey and cheese but without the turkey please, but that would have just been facetious.

We began our slow descent into Newark airport and I caught a glimpse of the magnificent Manhattan skyline bathed in a golden  fall sunlight before we touched down and taxied to our gate.

The line in the immigration hall was long, a 50 minute wait so the helpful video screen informed me, and I settled down to reading more about Ellen and Charles as I shuffled forward.  Many people in the queue were staring to panic about missed connections and indeed I was due to board a plane to Kansas City, but I have learned over the years that it is better not to look at a watch or a clock in these situations for that only leads to a sense of panic which doesn’t do any good at all: the line is never going to move faster and the officers will not allow you to leap to the front, so there is no point getting heated about the whole situation.

Eventually I was cheerfully waved on my way by an agent and I picked up my suitcase to clear customs before re-checking it for my onward flight, where the baggage handler looked at his schedule and said ‘Kanas City, 3.30?  You need to hurry!’  Now I could panic and get heated.  Of course my flight was due to depart from a different terminal so I ran to the skytrain and trundled round to where I needed to be, then I had to clear security again – shoes, belt, watch, jacket off.  Stand in the tardis-like thing with my hands up.  Clear.  Shoes, belt, watch, jacket back on again and run through the terminal to gate C84, which seemed to be halfway to Missouri.  Sure enough the gate was deserted when I arrived but fortunately the door was still open and I managed to get on board with a few minutes to spare before it was firmly and finally closed.

The flight was over two hours and this time I entertained myself by listening to the opening chapters of ‘Northern Lights’ the first of the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pulman.

Coffee was served and for a snack I could choose a bag of peanuts, a Biscoff cookie or a Stoopwafel wafer.  I selected the latter.

As well as listening to my audio book I also played a little Backgammon on my phone, desperately trying to beat the computer 11 – 0 and endeavour in which I was eventually successful, just as the wheels were touching down at Kansas City airport.

Kansas City is a familiar airport to me as I have been coming here for many years and I was soon waiting at baggage claim for my nice new case to appear, which it didn’t.  I became rather nervous for as I had only just got on the flight, surely my bag would have been one of the last on, therefore one of the first off?  In my mind I began imagining a show tomorrow with no top hot or cane (I always travel with a costume and shoes in my carry on case, so it wouldn’t be a complete disaster).

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At last however my case appeared and I revisited my illogical thinking: yes my bag would have been first off the aeroplane, which meant it would also be first onto the cart and therefore the last off again the when the bags were loaded onto the carousel.

Having taken a shuttle bus to the car rental facility I was able to choose my steed for the next week, a white Kia Optima and in no time I was making the drive to my Missouri home, the Hampton Inn at Liberty. Having checked in I decided to get a bite to eat straight away  only to discover that my usual restaurant, The Longhorn Steakhouse near to the hotel was packed, and it was then I realised that it was 7.30 on a Saturday night:  food was not going to be easy to come by.  I drove around to other restaurants only to find the same large crowds all waiting for a table to become free.  Eventually I ended up at the Corner Café a homely place in the mould of the Cracker Barrel chain of restaurants, but much less corporate and with a more local feel to it.  I enjoyed a beef pot roast with mashed potatoes and green beans, all washed down with a large glass of Sprite.

It was 8.15 when I returned to the hotel although my body and head was still somewhere in the early hours of Sunday morning.  I unpacked my costumes and hung them up and then went straight to bed.

I am delighted to be back and especially to be among my dear friends in the Kansas City area and to be working again with Kimberly and her team at he Mid Continent Public Library branches, but there is a slight feeling of sadness and emptiness about this year’s trip, because I am not performing in Pigeon Forge this year which has become the traditional starting point for my recent tours.

My commitments at home just didn’t allow for me to travel any earlier this year and therefore I couldn’t make the trip to the beautiful Smoky Mountains. To Kristy, Dwight, Debbi, Art, Gary and his Corvette and all of my other friends there I can only say that I hope to be back in 2020!