A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, Rochester Dickens Festival, The Berkshires Magazine, Ventfort Hall Mansion
Although my only performance on Thursday would again be at 7pm, I had to be at Ventfort Hall at 8.30 in the morning for an interview and photo shoot. I had a small breakfast of yoghurt, granola and fruit and returned to the room to get ready. Outside it was very cold in fact the remaining puddles from Wednesday’s rainstorm were now solid ice, and when I tried to open the car door, I found that I could not. At first I assumed the lock had failed, or the remote key was low on battery, but I soon realised that the door had an effective seal of ice, and it took a good deal of force to break it, and gain access to the Santa Fe (maybe, bearing in mind the season, it should be a Santa Sleigh instead?)
It is always a nice feeling, when I have been to a city multiple times, to set off on the journey from hotel to venue without needing any digital aid to navigate me there. Such is the case in Lenox, although admittedly the journey is not a complicated one, involving only one turn, but still there is a feeling of belonging when you can just jump in a car and know where you are going.
I arrived at the Hall at the same time as Haley and waited as she unlocked the venerable old building and switched the lights on. I went upstairs and got into costume and by the time I was ready I could hear Haley welcoming Anastasia Stanmeyer, the journalist from The Berkshires Magazine. We shook hands and she immediately got down to work, starting with taking a whole series of photos to accompany the article. Firstly, I stood on my set, in front of the red curtain that Haley had fixed in front of the windows to provide a suitably theatrical backdrop. I did some Scrooge faces, as well as a few posed portraits of the real me (whoever HE is?) Next Anastasia wanted to move to other areas of the house (the article, of course, being just as much about promoting Ventfort Hall as my shows). I walked about and down the long hallway leading to the Billiard Room, and then posed in front of a great stone fireplace while Anastasia called out various emotions which I had to instantly reflect in my pose and expression, it felt rather like being at drama school!
With the photo shoot done (all on her phone, for long gone are the days of hours waiting for photographic lights and flash units to be erected, readings to be taken and a single image being captured before setting up again somewhere else), we sat down in the library, or auditorium as I like to think of it, and began to chat about the show and my career. One question that she asked, which interestingly has become increasingly common this year, was ‘what is your favourite part of the show?’ The answer is a scene when nothing is happening at all, there are no words being spoken, and no action, indeed no movement. I speak of the moment that The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come leads Scrooge back to the Cratchit’s house and simply points straight forward (over the spot on the stage where both Marley’s and Scrooge’s graves are placed). The line is, ‘It was quiet. Very quiet’. and I hold the pause. If everything has gone well up to that point you can feel the silence in the room, almost heavy in its intensity, and it is an amazing experience for a performer to know that an entire audience is almost breathless with fear and anticipation.
I also shared some of my ‘secrets’ about playing multiple characters, citing the conversation between Ebenezer and the charity collector on Christmas morning, during which old Scrooge holds his hat and cane together in his left hand, while the collector holds the hat in his left hand and the cane in his right. It is a simple device, and one that maybe an audience doesn’t really see, although they are aware that there is something different between the two gentlemen. And these are the kind of details and secrets that you will be able to read in my new book, available next year!
When the interview was finished, and thank-yous exchanged, I went back to change, The Hall was now open to the public, so I wouldn’t be able to leave my costumes on the chaise longue, but Haley told me that I could hang them in a large wardrobe in the room, where they looked as if they may feature in a new Narnia novel.
I drove back to the hotel, and did a little work before heading out for a lunch date. A very dear friend of mine, Jeneene Brengelman had flown in from Cincinatti with her companion Tom, to see my show. Jeneene has often travelled over to England for the annual Dickens Festival in Rochester each June and became very much a part of the regular crowd of characters, which is where we met. After years of hoping that I may perform in her own city, she decided to come to Massachusetts instead, and very kindly extended an invitation to lunch. We were due to meet at Electra’s Cafe, which was only a matter of a few minutes from my hotel. At 1 o’clock I pulled into the parking lot, locked the car door and walked into the building, only to discover that I had nonchalantly strolled into a cannabis store (legalisation of recreational cannabis in the state and the ability to buy it from an outlet was passed in 2018, and such shops are now as prevalent along the way as popular fast-food chains). Quickly realising my mistake, I exited and took the adjoining door which opened to a much more familiar scene, and there were Jeneene and Tom waiting for me. Jeneene makes wonderful Christmas ornaments and presented me with a special one featuring a family of four snowmen and a snow cat, with all of our names written around the frame – it will hang on our tree this Christmas! We sat down, and they told me about their nightmare journey of the day before, when they had been due to fly to Albany and then drive to Lenox. In the height of the rainstorms that had hit the region, their pilot had taken the decision that it would not be safe to fly, and so the plane had trundled back to the terminal, where they had to wait for a much later departure, meaning a very late arrival at their B&B, which was all locked up. I was truly fortunate that my flight from Virginia had been on the day before the storm hit, or I may have been describing a similar tale of woe. Soon the conversation was flowing, mainly with reminiscences from Dickens festivals in the past. Many years ago, Jeneene had sent me a picture taken at one of the festivals of me and my dad, and it is a picture I treasure, for his is very obviously looking out for me, making sure that everything was OK, without taking over – his support at that time, when I was finding my feet in what was a new departure for me, was essential for the success that followed. I owe him so much.
Looking at the picture now, so many years on, how slim I was and even had a sort of a fringe!
As we talked, we ate a delicious lunch, which for me featured my regular fare on the day of a show, a large salad with grilled chicken.
It was a lovely diversion and break to my day, and great to catch up with Jeneene and to meet Tom, who would be coming to the show at Ventfort that evening (having managed to change their tickets from the night before when they were stuck at the airport)
I went back to my room again, and actually had a short nap, before watching another extraordinary football match, this time Japan managing to beat Spain, thereby knocking Germany out of the tournament – it is turning into quite an interesting World Cup all things considered.
I drove back to Ventfort at around 5pm, and there were festive flurries in the air, not enough to make driving dangerous, but enough to make the town look extremely Christmassy. There wasn’t much to do when I arrived, for I had made sure the set was in place that morning, but it is always good to check so as not to be caught out, and everything was just as I had left it. I chatted with Haley, Leah and various volunteers who would be helping that evening, but even as we spoke the door opened and the first audience members arrived (actually, Jeneene and Tom). It was time to withdraw and to change. My costumes were hanging in the wardrobe, but I wasn’t transported to a magical land to be greeted by Mr Tumnus, which would have made for a very interesting blog post, but simply got changed into the meet and greet costume, without the Velcro attached.
As soon as I walked down the stairs, I could tell that the Thursday audience was a lot livelier than the Wednesday crowd had been, there was a buzz about the building. I circulated, chatted, and once again many people told me that they had seen me before at various other venues. I posed for quite a few pictures, and it was obvious that the evening was going to be a fun one.
Gradually the guests began to take their seats in the library, and I went upstairs briefly, to change into my performance costume. There was the inevitable delay while the queue for the single restroom cleared, but soon everyone was in their seats, including Anastasia, who had interviewed me that morning and was watching the show to further flesh out her article.
I was right about the audience; they were very lively and vocal and thoroughly enjoyed the performance. I had a few adventures during the show, including the fringe of the red cloth, that becomes the image of Tiny Tim’s frail body, getting caught on my coat cuff button. It seemed to take an age for me to untangle it, but I am sure it was only a few seconds. I made a couple of adlibs in the voice of Bob Cratchit, ‘ah, Tim does not want to leave go of me’ but I managed to untangle myself eventually and carry on. When I got to my ‘favourite’ moment, I hoped that the silence was as impressive as I had told Anastasia it would be, and indeed it was, I could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.
The reaction at the end was spectacular and I could feel myself completely pumped up with a huge adrenaline rush. Having taken my bows, I stationed myself in the hall and chatted and posed with audience members as they left. Jeneene still had tears in her eyes as we hugged, and others were in a similar state of emotion. It had been a very good night.
My time at Ventfort had ended all too quickly, but before I changed, I posed for photographs with Haley, Leah and the other staff. and then mounted the grand staircase for the last time.
Back at the hotel the lobby bar was still serving food, so I had a burger and fries, before turning in for the night. On Friday I drive to New Hampshire for performances in Manchester and Nashua, before heading south to New York.