A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, Henry V, Jacob Marley, The Mechanics Hall, Vaillancourt Folk Art, William Shakespeare, Winterthur, Worcester
Sunday would see me perform A Christmas Carol twice more at Vaillancourt Folk Art and, just to keep me on my toes, the times were different to those on Saturday with the metaphoric curtain going up at 12 and 4.
The morning at The Beechwood featured a video call to home, which was particularly lovely, and a chance to catch up with life back in England. When the call was over, I went down to breakfast. Our youngest daughter had told me that they had enjoyed pancakes for breakfast and I had promised that I would order the same for me – oh, the sacrifices I have to make as a parent!
In the restaurant I took a seat by the window and in a short while a very elderly couple made their slow way to the table next to mine. The lady remarked on my sweater (a red Christmas design covered with snowmen), and we fell into a brief conversation – they came from Buffalo, NY, ‘Where,’ they told me, ‘The real snow is!’ We discussed the abilities of various states and countries to deal with snowfall, and then by means of a silent agreement that we had chatted for long enough, turned to our respective breakfasts. It was one of those beautiful moments when you make an unexpected connection for an instant, and the world is a better place for it. When I left the restaurant I wished them safe travels home, and our worlds separated again.
Back in my room, I showered and made preparations for the day ahead, which really only involved grabbing 2 fresh shirts and 2 fresh pairs of socks from my case, as everything else was still hanging in my dressing room in Sutton. I left the room at around 10 and in no time was walking into the Christmas fantasy land of the Vaillancourts.
Firstly, I checked the stage, although I had made sure that everything was in place after the previous night’s performance – this is good theatrical practice, as soon as a show is done to prepare the stage for the next performance and if I am in a venue for multiple events, it is something I always do. Of course, I always also check that everything is exactly as I left it immediately prior to a show. On the current occasion the cloth was draped over the chair, the stool was in its starting position and my hat and scarf were back in the dressing room, all was good to go.
I also took the opportunity to chat a little with Curtis about the head mic which had refused to stay in place during Saturday’s performances, this not only made me feel nervous and uncomfortable, but also effected the sound quality, as the mic unit itself was never in the same place relative to my mouth. He said he had another headpiece in his equipment and we tried that, it was a much tighter fit and felt much more secure. I returned to the dressing room and Gary called in to say hello and also to leave a stack of the souvenir brochures that Ian and I created a few years ago, for me to sign. With no actual post-show signing sessions, venues are taking the opportunity to have me sign plenty of product before the events, so that audience members can still take autographed merchandise home with them. I finished the pile of books and then got into costume, giving myself plenty of time after the previous day’s debacle.
My dressing room is quite large, and at the far end is a small office which is where Gary works during the days. He is tucked away and has no view of the warehouse, so he has a little motion-activated alarm which ends out a series of chimes whenever anyone is approaching. With my penchant for pacing up and down I was constantly setting off this device during my days there, but yesterday as I was sat on a sofa reading my book, the alarm went off and a voice asked if it was ok to come in. There was Anna, Luke’s wife, with their two kids, Nate and Charlie, who are growing up rapidly. We had a lovely chat and took a few photos, before she whisked both boys off to a playpark for the afternoon.
The audience were in now and it was time to begin. For my own state of mind, I had to make this a good show (I was still upset with myself about the day before), and it was. I felt very strong and committed. The new head mic certainly made a difference and the audience were top notch. It was a performance that I was very happy with.
The Q&A went very well, and these are proving to be a very popular part of the show – the feedback from Gary, Judi and all of the staff has been that the audience members have particularly enjoyed the sessions, and although they miss having their books signed, and pictures taken, the opportunity to listen to a few anecdotes and opinions is one they relish.
Having changed I was just hanging my costumes up when Luke poked his head in and told me that an old friend had been in the audience: Ellen Taviano, with whom I have worked for many years at Winterthur in Delaware, wanted to say hi! Sadly, Winterthur had laid off all of their retail staff during the pandemic, and Ellen had found a new position at Old Sturbridge Village which is located not far from Sutton (Ellen had wanted me to perform for here there, but Gary put a VERY firm foot down! Possession is very much nine tenths of the law). It was lovely to catch up and Ellen had been delighted to see the entire show for once, as event organizers always have some issue to contend with and rarely get to sit through a complete performance. I will be returning to Winterthur later on this tour, but it won’t feel the same without Ellen at the helm.
Having said goodbye, I made my way up into the office where another impressive buffet meal had been laid out. I had to ponder what the correct balance was between an energy-restoring meal and over indulging meaning that I would be sluggish at the next performance, and it was while I was struggling to make this decision when a message pinged into my phone – this was from – ok bear with me, it is slightly complicated – Liz’s sister’s sister and brother-in-law’s daughter, who lives in Connecticut and had also been at the show! Fortunately, she was still in the building, and we were able to meet up, masked and distanced to have a completely unexpected reunion. Amy was there with her wife and father-in-law, (all of whom have seen the show before, in another, less than perfect location), and two friends. We chatted about various things, including family news, and all agreed that the venue at Vaillancourts was a much better place to watch the show than the very soulless hotel function room where they had last seen it in their home state.
Amy’s parents have been amazing to Liz and me over the last couple of years and we have had some lovely times on their remote farm which nestles in a Devon valley: we feel very much a part of their family. It was a really nice surprise to see Amy, and hopefully we can all meet up again in England next Summer.
Back to to my lunch/supper (the blending of breakfast and lunch has its own word, so I feel that this meal should have done too: is lunch and supper called ‘Lupper’? or is it not supper, but dinner, in which case it should be ‘Linner’. Anyway, I chose some soup and salad and a pulled pork sandwich. I decided against any dessert in the interests of theatrical mobility. Having said that the dessert on offer was a Pecan Pie and I was amazed when one of the staff pronounced it ‘Pee-Can’, as the British say it, rather than ‘Pi-Carn’, as I had been led to believe is the correct American pronunciation. I commented on this and another member of the team put me straight by telling me what her mother had told her: ‘It is always Pi-Carn, because you pee in a can and you wouldnt want to eat THAT in a pie!’ Fair enough, and now I know!
Back to the dressing room for the 4 o’clock show and another full house of excited audience members filed in and availed themself of the bar service. By this time Gary and Judi had departed to catch their flight to Germany, so it was down to Luke to step into his father’s shoes and make the introductions, which he did with great style. It was another very enjoyable and successful show, with a particularly lively audience. My delight was literally crowned when at the moment that Scrooge flips his top hat into the air as he gets ‘dressed in all of his best’ it landed square and safely on my head earning me a huge cheer!
The final Q&A at Vaillancourts was interesting, with one lady asking what was my favourite line in the show (actually she initially didn’t specify A Christmas Carol, but asked about any show that I had been involved with, but we reigned that in), I settled on a line that doesn’t normally feature in my one act show, and that is when Jacob Marley is tormented by thoughts of his business: ‘Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business. Charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’
On reflection now, and in answer to her initial question, I would say that the prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V ranks among my favorites as it sums up the entire art of the theatre: ‘….a kingdom for a stage, princess to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene.’ and, ‘…can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooded O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?’, and again, ‘Think when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hooves i’ the receiving earth: for ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, carry them here and there; jumping o’er times, turning the accomplishment of many years into an hour-glass….’
I have not acted in Henry V but I did perform that prologue as an opening to an evening of Shakespeare and music a few years ago. The performance was in a magnificent Church and I made the speech as I walked up the aisle, through the audience with the beautiful language circulating into the high vaulted ceiling. It was very special moment.
Back at Vaillancourts the final question was about Dickens’ own trips to America and specifically to the city of Worcester, which enabled me to tell the story about his reading in The Mechanics Hall when the performance was accompanied by the sounds of cocks (roosters) crowing. The poultry were all caged ready for a sale the following day and had been stored in a second story hall immediately beneath the grand hall where Dickens was performing. When the gas lights on Charles; set were ignited the bright light shone through the floorboards, thereby waking the roosters who announced the apparent dawn with great gusto!
It was a good anecdote to finish with.
And so, my time with the Vaillancourts was over for another year and when I had packed up, I said goodbye to all the staff, and hung my costumes in the car (which can now be their permanent wardrobe), and drove away into the night.
From Massachusetts I will be driving to Long Island and with an entire day to travel I may even get a little time for some sightseeing along the way.
Thank you, Gary, Judi and Luke, it is always a great pleasure to spend time in your company and to perform in such a warm and intimate setting.