A Christmas Carol, Carry On Films, Charles Dickens, Ding Dong!, Douglas County Historical Society, Ebenezer Scrooge, Harry Potter, Leslie Phillips, Omaha, St Celia's Cathedral School, The Sorting Hat, WEstside High School
Tuesday marked my final day in Omaha, with two more performances of A Christmas Carol, this time in schools. On waking up I saw the news that the English actor Leslie Phillips had died, at the age of 98, and this was a sad moment for me. Many people who follow this blog may never have heard of him (although he was the voice of the sorting hat in the Harry Potter films), but Phillips does have a role in my performance of A Christmas Carol, He found great popularity in the 1960’s as a smooth-talking philanderer, who would sidle up to a lady, purring ‘Hellloooo’, or ‘Ding Dong!’ Obviously, such behaviour is rightly seen as unacceptable today, but when I was creating my performance, it seemed natural to use Phillips’ demeanor as a basis for the flirtatious Topper. So, on Tuesday I decided to honour Leslie Phillips by allowing Topper to say ‘Ding Dong’ as well!
Having had breakfast, I changed into costume and went to the lobby where Frank was waiting for me having loaded up all of the signed books which the hotel had stored for us. The first venue was the St Cecilia Cathedral School, a Catholic Elementary school, and as Frank and I arrived we met Kathy who reunited me with my cane! It had been quite an adventure to get it back to Omaha, but Cameo from Immanuel had assisted. I was so very pleased to have it back.
The morning show was to be for children in grades 5-8, and would be held in the school gymnasium, which filled me with a slight sense of dread following a rather disastrous school gymnasium performance in Omaha a few years ago. As we walked in, I saw that the hall had a stage, which was a relief, and everyone was so keen to help. From the stage I looked out into the hall and discovered that I would have the back of a Perspex basketball backboard in my eyeline – it looked like a giant version of those little Perspex teleprompters that politicians use to make their speeches. Fortunately, the hoop/backboard combination could be raised, giving me a clear view of the hall, and in no time a member of staff arrived with the correct key to send the sports equipment up to the ceiling.
As I made sure that the furniture was in the right place on the stage Julia Pick, the principal, introduced herself and thanked me profusely for coming to the school; there was a real sense of excitement and anticipation from all of the staff. I was also introduced to Mattia who would be assisting with the sound effects (he didn’t know that he would be assisting with sound effects but took to the challenge with great professionalism).
The show was to start at 9, and at 8.30 a physical education lesson was held in the hall, so we closed the main stage curtains and carried on our preparations unseen by the prospective audience.
As the start time came closer Mattia opened the curtains and there were the children, sat cross-legged on the floor, and as this seemed to be a very democratic sort of school none of the adults had chairs either! Mattia returned to his laptop in the wings and following an introduction he started the opening sound effect and I walked on to the stage to begin.
It was a fascinating production, for the audience didn’t audibly react at all, but as time went on it became more and more apparent that they were listening and concentrating and engaging. I edited the script a little, taking out some passages that I didn’t think were necessary for such an age group, although I did keep Topper in, and let him say ‘Ding Dong’, which may not be the type of behaviour that St Celia’s might encourage. At the end of the show there was lots of applause, and when Kathy asked if any of the students had questions lots of hands went straight up. One boy asked if I had thought of changing sets and costumes in my show, others asked me what my favourite part was, and another wanted to know if it had been a mistake that my top hat had fallen on the floor when I had thrown it up into the air – all good questions. With the Q&A over the staff suggested that we all gathered around the stage for a photograph, and as we took our positions one girl, who maybe had been too shy to ask in front of the rest of the school, quietly asked, ‘where the words you used all from the original book?’, which was superb question and observation The picture was taken, and it is a wonderful souvenir of a very special morning
It was only 10.30 when we left the hall, and elsewhere the students were being presented with their copies of A Christmas Carol, apparently, so Kathy told me later, their delight in discovering that I had autographed them all was beautiful to see. As it was early, I had plenty time to return to the hotel before my afternoon show. I changed back into regular clothes and went to the grocery store in the same block to buy some soup and crackers for lunch, which I heated up on the little kitchen hob in my room (I could have microwaved it, but it felt more like ‘real’ cooking to heat it in a pan).
Frank was due to collect me at 12.30, so I ate early and then got back into costume. Our afternoon show was at Westside High School, and we were greeted in the large auditorium by Jeremy Stoll, whose theatre class would be the core of my audience. Apparently the entire school had been invited, and the auditorium was certainly large enough to hold plenty of them, but I secretly hoped that it would just be the drama kids – I have found in the past the High School students who have been told to attend a show are generally bored, restless and some tend to show off to their peers, whereas theatre students get fascinated with the show, appreciating the characterisations and transitions.
At 1.30 Jeremy stood up to introduce me and sure enough it was just the theatre class. I gave the show everything, really concentrating on the mechanics, making sure that it was as technically good as I could make it. As the show continued so the students began to get interested and the response became more vocal and engaged, I am delighted to report that there was a loud hoot of laughter when Topper delivered his tribute ‘Ding Dong’ line.
The final third of the show was very rewarding, as the majority of the audience were completely hooked (a couple of students still lay sprawled across their chairs, probably asleep), and when I got to the final line and left the stage the response was as enthusiastic and vocal as you might expect from a lively bunch of theatrical teenagers. I came back to the stage and as we had plenty of time before the end of day bell sounded, we settled into a long question and answer session, which naturally concentrated on the technique of my show, the characterisations, the subject of theatre, how I cope with nerves, and other subjects relating to being an actor. Jeremy, the teacher, occasionally chimed in with a question also, and it was a very enjoyable session which became more of a class than anything else. I don’t know if my words helped or inspired, but it was great fun to talk to the class. Eventually the siren announcing the end of the day sounded and whilst some of the students left, there were quite a few who stayed to continue the conversation for a little while longer.
As we chatted, Kathy and Frank were packing up the furniture and props and soon it was time to leave. I said goodbye to my new friends, and we made our way to the car park where I said farewell to Kathy for another year – it had been a fun visit to Omaha, and all of the shows had been successful and enjoyable. Frank and I walked over to his truck, commenting on the quality of cars that students seem to drive these days (a very high-end Tesla purred by, with two of the theatre class waving to us from the driver’s and passenger’s seats). The drive back to the hotel was not a long one, and soon I was shaking hands with Frank, thanking him for all of his time and good company, and then I collected all of my belongings and went up to my room.
As I changed out of my costume, I discovered that far from leaving anything at the venues today, I had actually come away with something, for I still had the microphone clipped to my waistcoat! I will have to leave it at the hotel’s front desk and let Kathy know, so that it can be returned to Westside.
It was still early in the afternoon, so I relaxed in my room, watching some TV and catching up with some correspondence. I also booked a table for a celebratory ‘end-of-Omaha- dinner’ at a nearby restaurant, which, when the time came, was absolutely delicious.
So now it is time to move on once more, to the East coast very briefly before finishing up this first leg of the tour in Minneapolis. It has been a successful opening week, the scratchy voice from those early shows in Kansas City have gone, and the performance itself seems to be in a good place.
Wednesday will be a day off, although filled with travel, so I can rest my voice and prepare for the days ahead.