BWW Interview: 6 Questions & a Plug with TO BEGIN WITH's Gerald Charles Dickens
Twin Cities audiences have flocked for many years to the Guthrie to see the annual performances of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Other shows based on the works of Charles Dickens grace stages here periodically. A prolific and popular writer, there are not many people who are unfamiliar with Dickens' literature.
But who knew he wrote a children's book about the gospels? Dickens wrote the book for his own children, never intending for it to be published. However, 64 years after his death, his family allowed the book to be published. It became "The Life of Our Lord," in 1934. Local producer, Dennis Babcock, former general manager of the Guthrie Theater, had long been a fan and wanted to turn it into a stage show for 20 years. He finally got the chance and worked with local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher to do so and produced the show in 2015 at the Music Box Theatre.
In a return to the Minneapolis area, Babcock's The Daniel Group brings the production back this week in a run through April 15 at the Historic Wesley Center, next to the Minneapolis Convention Center at 101 E. Grant Street. Hatcher directs again and the show stars Dickens' own great-great grandson, Gerald Charles Dickens, an actor from the UK who has taken after his ancestor in both looks and vocation.
Dickens (the actor of today) took time during his busy opening week to answer 6 Questions and a Plug. Check out more about this interesting production and see it in a unique building downtown until Easter weekend.
We know the basics of the story of the play but can you tell more about the book it's based on - why did your great-great-grandfather write this book and was it something that was shared through the generations in your family?
The show TO BEGIN WITH is based on a short book that Charles Dickens wrote for his children between 1846 - 1849 called "The Life of Our Lord," and it was simply his way of teaching them the story of the life of Jesus Christ in such a way that he knew they would understand and respond to: it is a literary version of a father sitting at his children's bedsides telling them bedtime stories - but what important bedtime stories!
They say he didn't want the book published but it was published 64 years after his death. What is the story behind the family deciding to publish this work?
Dickens never intended the book to be published because it was written solely for his children. Some authors have capitalised on their children's stories (AA Milne, author of "Winnie the Poo,"springs to mind), and Dickens definitely did not want "The Life of our Lord" to become a product.
However, when my great grandfather, Henry Fielding Dickens, wrote his will, he pointed out that as he was the last surviving child of Dickens there was no longer any reason to keep "The Life of our Lord" hidden, and gave the family his blessing to publish it after his death, which they duly did in 1934.
Can you describe a little more about the play you're performing? Is it a fictionalized tale of Dickens' work on this book or is the story really true to life?
(Playwright) Jeffrey Hatcher has done a brilliant job in weaving fact and fiction into our tale. We do not know why and how Dickens actually wrote the story, but this was a period during which he must have been in a very reflective frame of mind. He would start writing "David Copperfield," his most autobiographical work, in 1849, and in that novel he reveals some of the darkest days of his own childhood.
Our script is set in Winterbourne House on the Isle of Wight where Dickens DID spend a summer with his wife and children. The house is next door to a grand manor house called East Dene, which WAS owned by the Swinburne family, including the 12 year-old firebrand Algernon Swinburn who would go on to be a poet of great renown.
Taking these facts as a backdrop TO BEGIN WITH shows us Dickens being tormented by young Algernon and being moved to write "The Life of Our Lord" for his children, so as to give them the life lessons that would help them in adulthood. The script takes us deep into Dickens' creative and emotional mind, and suggests how he may well have tackled the writing process.
How did you come to get involved in this production when it came about in 2015?
TO BEGIN WITH is the culmination of a long held dream of Dennis Babcock, the producer. I have been fortunate to know Dennis for many years, thanks to his close associations to the Dickens family and to The Pickwick Club. I used to perform my one-man version of "A Christmas Carol" at the St Paul Hotel in Minnesota, and Dennis would come to the show each year, always promising that we would one day work on a project together -- he was as good as his word!
What's it like portraying your great-great-grandfather? Did you do a lot of research with your family or other sources to bring him to life again? And, do you feel closer to him now that you've worked on embodying him on stage?
Charles Dickens is a fascinating man, with so many facets to his character, but one of those dominates: his passion for the theatre. Dickens had always wanted to be an actor, and spent a great deal of his adult life on stage, either in plays performed by his own company, or touring giving dramatic performances from his own books. Instantly, then, I feel a connection when I step onto the stage.
As far as research is concerned I am very fortunate as his life was so well documented - he was a star and everybody wrote about him -- so the information is readily available. He was passionate, had boundless energy and could soar to the heights and descend to the depths, so to be truthful to him I have to make sure that I give my performance that same energy and passion.
The more I perform as Dickens, especially in such a well-researched play as this is, the more I feel I know him and understand him.
Why should Minneapolis audiences come to see this production at the Wesley Center?
The play is fun! It is about an entertainer who knew how to tell a story in the best possible way. If you come to the Wesley Center you will get to know Dickens and his family a little more intimately. You will understand his faith and his commitment to God, but this is by no means a theological lecture, it is a fabulous portrait of a great man. Laughter, tears and everything in-between.
Is the production going to tour beyond the run in Minneapolis? What's next for you and the show?
We do not have firm dates at the moment, but our plan is to tour the show throughout the USA (taking in as many cities as possible where Charles himself visited 150 years ago this year), and then in the UK with the hope of a run in London's West End.
TO BEGIN WITH plays now through April 15 at the Historic Wesley Center next to the Minneapolis Convention Center. Tickets start at $33 and are available at https://hennepintheatretrust.org/events/begin-tickets-new-century-theatre-minneapolis-mn-2016/ or the State Theatre Box Office.