A Christmas Carol, Broad Street United Methodist Church, Burlington, Charles Dickens, Doctor Marigold, Ebenezer Scrooge, The Signalman
I woke up on Thursday morning with the happy knowledge that I didn’t have to be anywhere until 11.30, and that my venue, the Broad Street United Methodist Church, was only 10 minutes away, so I had plenty of time to drift into the day gently.
I had hung my costumes the night before, but I needed to retrieve my top hat, scarf and three white shirts from my large suitcase, and I unpacked them as gently as I could, so that I would be able to re-insert them with as little disruption to the rest of my packing as possible. The result of my efforts was a perfect top-hat-shaped void in my case. I made sure that I had all that I would need for two shows packed in my roller bag, or hung on hangers, and then went to breakfast.
In the small restaurant area next to the front desk of the hotel a buffet was laid out, and as I began to pile some fruit onto cereal, I heard the voice of who I assumed to be the hotel manager, talking to one of his staff: ‘Hey, would like to see a Charles Dickens show tonight? I have tickets here for the hotel staff – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Caro, you want to go?’ I didn’t hear the reply, but it was obviously in the negative, for the manager’s voice continued, ‘Ha! I shall take that as a no then – Bah! Humbug to you!’ I couldn’t help smiling, at which point the manager noticed me, ‘Wow, it’s him! Are you Mr Dickens? Hey great to see you!’ and he strode towards me, hand outstretched. He said that Laura, who runs the show in Burlington, had come to the hotel yesterday to make sure that all of the arrangements were in place and had offered free tickets to any hotel employee who wished to go. We spoke for a while and he asked me about the tour and where home was, mentioning that he had spent time in Surrey and loved our scenery and history.
After breakfast I went back to my room, and relaxed for a while, wrote some emails, and did a little sewing. A button had come off one of my waistcoats in Omaha, and this was the perfect opportunity to test my needlework skills. I have to say, I think that one of the greatest inventions by the human race is that little foil gadget with the thin wire loop that enables a fat-fingered person like me to effortlessly thread a needle!
With my repairs complete it was almost time to leave, for I wanted to stop at Wal-Mart on the way to buy a new USB stick for my sound effects, not because I had mislaid mine (although you would be justified in having come to that conclusion, knowing my track record), but because more and more venues were struggling to use a traditional USB, but had the smaller micro ports, meaning that on a few occasions the tech teams at various shows have been scrabbling around for adapters, or old laptops. In Walmart I found a double-ended USB stick with both traditional and micro heads to it, which seemed to solve my problem.
I continued the short drive and arrived at the Church on the stroke of 11.30. There was an air of familiarity about the arrival, in that I was here as recently as September when I performed The Signalman and Doctor Marigold, although on that occasion I had pulled up in the beautiful midnight blue Mustang.
I unloaded my costumes and after a bit of door knocking was admitted to the beautiful old building that was built in Dickens’s time, and one that has welcomed me on so many occasions that I feel completely relaxed and at home there. Having put my red cloth onto the stage, I went to the small office, where Laura and other volunteers were putting tickets into envelopes for collection, and where I could get out my laptop and transfer the sound cues onto the new USB. It was fun being part of the team, and just chatting as we worked.
The first show was due to start at 1, and audience members at Burlington have a habit of arriving very early, so Laura and I went up into the balcony to go through the various sound effects that she would be operating from her laptop. Neither of us are experts in the world of sound technology, but between us we managed to get the correct cables attached to the correct ports and there was music in the air – music followed by doleful bells tolling. I ran through the script telling Laura how each effect should be played and when they should be faded, and when she was happy with the procedure, so we did a microphone test and got the levels just right. It is an old building, with old electrics and wiring, and there is inevitably a bit of popping and banging, but on the whole it all works very well.
There was only one thing left to do, and that was to carry the large armchair for my set from the small lounge beneath the sanctuary, up a narrow and steep staircase and onto the stage, which we achieved without injury and accident.
Sure enough the audience were beginning to arrive now, so I retreated to my dressing room, the Sunday school classroom, and began to prepare. The room is not only used for classes but also as a large games room too, and prominent in it is a pool table. Having got into costume, I wiled away a few minutes by playing a few shots. I thought that this moment should be captured, so spent more time carefully arranging my camera on its self-timer mode, to capture me making a break.
As 1 o’clock came closer I left the table, wrapped my scarf around my neck, made all of the final checks and went to the back of the sanctuary ready to start. The audience was not a huge one, but were all grouped together at the front, rather being spread out throughout the spacious area. Laura went onto the stage and began her introduction my making a sincere apology to a lady who had called to book tickets. The call had come at a particularly busy time, and the area code was a Californian one, and Laura supposed that this was going to an unsolicited sales call. When she picked up the phone the voice on the other end said, ‘Oh hi, I didn’t expect you to answer….’, to which Laura impatiently said ‘OK, so why did you call then,’ and hung up! Apology made she went on to introduce me and asked the audience how many people had not seen my show before, and an amazing 2/3 of the audience raised their hands! It is always interesting performing for people who do not know the style of the event, and sometimes it can take a while for people to relax into it, so this would be an interesting afternoon.
It is such a lovely church to perform in, so warm and welcoming, and the ‘stage’ gives me lots of options to use different levels and areas. The auditorium could hold over 500 people and yet it retains a very intimate and cosy feel. Sure enough the newbies in the audience took a little while to warm up, but soon they were laughing and gasping and sobbing along with the seasoned regulars, of whom there were many. When I finished, they all stood and applauded and shouted, and I took my bows gratefully.
After I had left the stage I quickly walked down the steep staircase to the lounge beneath, made my way to another staircase and clambered up (I was going to ascended, but that term may be a trifle presumptuous in a church) another staircase to the Kindergarten classroom, where I changed into a fresh costume for the meet and greet session.
One rather sad thing has occurred over the recent days, and that is my lovely pocket watch has stopped working. After an event last week, I don’t recall which, I noticed that the minute hand had come off, so I took the glass from the face and carefully clicked it back on to the spindle, but unfortunately the mechanism must have taken a knock, or a spring had broken, or something, for the winder would not wind and so the hands remained stationary. I bought the watch a few years ago in Plymouth Massachusetts over a Thanksgiving weekend, and it has been a wonderful companion to me ever since. Although it is still a perfectly good prop, I miss being to actually tell the time with it, for when I am in costume and have no modern wristwatch or phone to consult, it is my only way of knowing when I should be somewhere. I hope that I can get it repaired when I return to England next week.
When I was freshened up I went into the large room where tables were laid out and audience members were eating cookies and cakes, drinking tea and enjoying good fellowship. I took my seat at the signing table and soon there was a line of people, some of whom wanted books signed, some to pose for pictures but the majority just to talk about the show and my tour. It is always a very relaxed session, as people tend to remain at their table until they notice I am not occupied, and then come to chat. In the meantime, I had a cup of tea and my own plate of goodies to keep me happy.
It is a long-held tradition at Burlington that between shows all of the volunteers go for dinner at a local Italian restaurant, and although the group was smaller this year, still we all had an enjoyable time, chatting and laughing and comparing stories.
Back at the church I retired to my classroom, where I stretched out on a sofa, having taken my shoes off first of course, and had a short nap, which was very welcome. When I rose again, I spent some time trying to find a watchmaker in England who could care for my injured timepiece, and then began to get into costume once more. Marcia, the member of the team who brings me tea in a china cup, and Rich Tea Biscuits, knocked on the door and delivered my pre-show tray, which included a bowl of fresh fruit and a glass of iced water.
The evening show began at 7pm, and the routine was as before, I stood at the back of the hall ready to make my entrance, while Laura made her introductory remarks. Again, the show went extremely well, although some of the sound effects didn’t come across as clearly as usual, and the volume didn’t seem to be consistent. As I continued with the script I wondered if I had downloaded the wrong files onto the new USB, and made a mental note to check them when I could – it is amazing what goes through your mind when you are in the middle of a scene.
The evening show was as enthusiastically received as the afternoon one had been, and the reception was as fun with lots of people wanting to chat and ask questions, most particularly an ex-journalist who was very kind, and somewhat apologetic for her constant queries, but still followed each and every one through with a tenacity honed through many years on the news desks.
My time with the good folk of The Broad Street United Methodist Church was coming to a close, and I changed back into my regular clothes, made sure that I had collected and packed everything, and then said goodbye to me dear friends. I drove back to the hotel and hung my costumes up to air, ready to be packed into my little roller case again to journey to the final venue of this leg of the tour – Minneapolis.