She’s 90 years old, does yoga, is in fine fettle and is as bright as a button – and she’s travelled over three hours from Wisconsin with her daughter to see my play.
That’s the biggest journey made to see it by anyone on this US tour that I’m aware of.
She’s also the mother of my host Ellen, I should point out. But still… three hours drive from Wisconsin.
Ellen, teaching peace studies and conflict resolution (as well as a course in human rights and social justice) has clearly given me a big build up. Hope I can live up to it.
Besides Ellen’s mum, 150 students, as well as professors and staff, fill the auditorium at Waubonsee Community College, Sugar Grove, Illinois, for a 12.30 show.
This is definitely the youngest audience I’ve performed the play to in the States. And a number of them are there mainly to ‘get a credit’ for their course. Will they pay attention?
I have got into the habit here of making an announcement just before starting – about one of the interesting facts my research has uncovered: that it was some years after the end of the First World War that the cellphone was invented.
Audiences usually chuckle at this and take the hint. But I don’t see the students here today reaching for their phones.
I should have had more faith. During the performance you can hear a pin drop. They dash off to lunch as soon as it’s over, certainly; but for an hour and a quarter they seem to have been held by this 100 year old story and its continuing relevance.
Jean (for that is Ellen’s mum’s name) makes it clear to me that she feels her six-hour-plus round trip has been well worth it.
Having directed plays herself for thirty years, she wants to talk to me about all aspects of the staging as well as the performing challenges I’ve set myself – like the 52 characters and minimal props and costume – and the timing required with the intricate soundtrack (created by Mark Noble.)
Jean is also thrilled to hear just who I’ve been directed by in my four decades in the theatre – especially the late Sir Peter Hall, with whose work she is very familiar.
I sincerely hope that if I make it to 90 myself, I am as healthy and vibrant as she is.
In the cafeteria afterwards, a young woman serving us enthusiastically congratulates me on the play.
‘Oh, did you see it?’ I ask.
‘Oh yes! I mean, I only work in the cafeteria part-time. I’m a psychology student here and I’ve also done a lot of theatre.’
Well, that’s one student then who definitely got something from it.
We pack up the crates and after fond farewells to everyone, we head off the short distance to Elgin – where Maria, Cara and I are staying at Dan McFadden’s house, in readiness for performing at the Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren the next day.
The Mennonites, the Quakers and the Brethren – all of whom this tour has visited – are US churches with an historic peace testimony. COs from these churches were therefore looked on more favourably when claiming exemption in WW1. But that doesn’t mean that some of them weren’t harshly treated and persecuted.
Dan is a fabulous host (well, ALL our hosts have been fabulous).
‘Let’s not eat out – I’m happy to prepare a little something for us,’ he says. Little? Indonesian egg fried rice with babi ketchup and a huge plate of steamed veggies topped off with gado gado sauce. This is followed by a dessert of sweet sticky rice with coconut milk and fresh mango slices.
I am happy. No, let’s be honest. Very happy.
My only dilemma is when we’re offered a second portion – how much to take? Because let’s face it, to have a THIRD portion would seem a little excessive – so I need to get the size of my second portion just right.
Dan works for the Brethren Volunteer Service, who send volunteers to placements in many parts of the globe. He also is the proud owner of a lime-green VW Beetle.
‘Ooh, can I ride in the Beetle with you, Dan?’ I ask.
So following lunch at Al’s Cafe (a former law firm premises, now a stylish eatery), Dan takes us on a tour of Elgin’s highlights, after which we head to the attractive modern church in Highland Avenue.
It’s a smaller turn-out for the performance than we’d all hoped but it goes well nevertheless. However, something is nagging at me.
Jim Lehman, who operates the sound tonight, was a Vietnam War CO. He notices in my biography that I was in Sharpes Rifles, the Napoleonic War drama, on TV many moons ago.
We have a fascinating chat about the appeal of war dramas, and westerns, (which he says he loves), and he talks about a Mel Gibson film, ‘When We Were Soldiers’, which I don’t know – but which he says helped him to understand the mindset of being a soldier.
Jim says he feels his conscience and pacifist stance has matured and developed over his lifetime into a far more complex and subtle thing.
I wish I could talk to him longer but there’s packing up to be done.
Back home, Maria and I meet Dan’s wife Wendy, who has been away on a conference. Their home is lovely and I feel so relaxed here, so welcome. It’s been a great day (plus I got to ride around Elgin in a lime-green VW Beetle), but still something is nagging at me.
It’s the disappointment of the small audience. Or more specifically, the feeling that this is a very long way to travel to perform for so few people.
The publicity was excellent, Dan had worked so hard to arouse interest, but as ever there were competing events, oh and it was Friday the 13th too, if one were superstitious.
I try to articulate to the others what exactly it is that’s bugging me:
‘Here’s this actor who’s come all the way from London with this play on an important and relevant subject – I mean, couldn’t people rearrange their diaries? I won’t be here again. This is a one-off. And it’s not as if it hasn’t had excellent reviews. Surely it should have taken first priority in people’s calendars?’
Clearly not. Not tonight at any rate.
Dan asks if we’d like any snacks. ‘There’s plenty of sweet sticky rice with mango left, if you’d like some?’
‘Ooh yes please!’ I answer, without a moment’s hesitation.
And it’s funny, but I find that the disappointment I’m feeling fades away with each succeeding mouthful.