London Staging Pangs of First Tour

Times Staff Writer

My first experience leading a 10-day tour of British theater started out well enough. Everyone made the plane in Los Angeles, and so did their luggage. Everyone got off the plane in London, and so did their luggage. There appeared to be no trained professional killers in our group, and the hotel accommodations seemed quite pleasant.

I was, in fact, almost convinced that leading a tour wasn't all that different from taking a tour until the first morning I sat down to breakfast. That's when a personable woman of about 65 (whom we'll call Dorothy) stopped at my table, slipped into the seat across from me and confided that she had an unfamiliar pain in her side.

I panicked, images flashing in my head of tour group members dropping one after another like bowling pins.

"You must be terrified," I said, terrified. Then, recalling that she'd come to me for comfort, not hysteria, I quickly rebounded with, "Don't worry. We'll take care of it."

From acquainting myself with the hotel doctor--Dorothy was fine the next day--to figuring out how our room heaters worked, my first experience as a tour leader was truly a learn-as-you-go experience. A British tour organizer, a Long Beach travel agent and I had put together the theater tour, and while I've edited three books on theater, I didn't know too much about leading a tour.

Sole Responsibility

I had traveled only twice on tours, once through China, another time to cover the Edinburgh Festival, and wondered if my assignment to lead discussions with actors, critics and others would really be my sole responsibility.

Not that I wasn't prepared. While still in the comfort of home, I had studied all my maps of London and guidebooks to Britain, read up on English actors and English theater and memorized the hours when museums opened and closed. I even did push-ups, just in case I wound up having to carry luggage.

As it turned out, about the only thing I didn't do was carry luggage. Take all my studying of museum and theater schedules, for instance. Having drilled myself as to which plays were on which stages and which art shows were at which galleries, I confidently awaited the group's first questions. The first questions? "What time does the bank open?" "What's the best pub in the neighborhood?" "Where's the nearest subway stop?"

Meanwhile, I didn't particularly want the group to learn that it was my first tour. Richard Barran, the co-founder of London Arts Discovery Tours who was running our excursion, had done dozens of theater tours, so I kept stressing his experience. My most often-repeated phrase those first few days: "Now that's an excellent question for Richard."

Things did improve, however. When we went on a tour of the Barbican, home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, for instance, I raced ahead of the group into the cafeteria, rushed up to the cashier and briskly interrogated her. As the group dawdled in behind me, I authoritatively told them which lines were for coffee, which for rolls. I pointed out the bathrooms with the same confidence displayed by stewardesses in pointing out emergency exits.

Meeting Professionals

Even my assignment to lead discussions required some on-the-job training. Our program included meetings with assorted theater professionals--among them a set designer, stage manager, actor and critic--as well as seeing plays. That involved interviews, and unlike many of my journalistic colleagues, I was not accustomed to interviewing in front of an audience.

There are, for instance, amenities to think about. Instead of scribbling furiously in your notebook, you have to look with great fascination at the interview subject, not to mention make eye contact with some of those people out in the audience. A smile doesn't hurt, nor do chitchat, idle observations and snappy patter. Courtesy is a must, even when someone blurts out a question that has nothing to do with anything and breaks the flow of the interview.

While my interview with London theater critic Michael Billington went very well, I had a few problems interviewing actor Antony Sher. In that case, plans called for me to interview Sher at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon following his acclaimed performance as Richard III in the play of the same name.

Unfortunately, the interview site was switched at the last minute to a cavernous rehearsal hall, with another tour group, far too few chairs and no microphone. Sher and I soon were yelling at one another to be heard. Worse yet, the actor was apparently weary from his demanding role and gave relatively short answers. I exhausted my supply of questions long before we exhausted our discussion time.

My tour group couldn't have been more supportive, however. They rushed up to me afterward, somehow finding complimentary things to say--"That was great when you asked him his favorite color"--and showed a solidarity I've noticed again and again among groups of people who spend time together.

Nobody Left Behind

They couldn't do enough for one another, either, always making sure that nobody was left behind, helping with head counts and expressing familial interest in tour members traveling alone. (It reminded me of a moment in China when we heard that an American was stuck in an elevator and one woman asked, very concerned, if it was someone from our group.)

I grew similarly fond of them, occasionally sharing museum or shopping treks during our free time. (We went to the theater most evenings, but our days were free.) I spent the better part of one dinner mediating a debate on life's anguishes between an 18-year-old boy and a semi-retired physician. And I deflected the halfhearted flirtation of a 20-year-old busboy in an Italian restaurant who was inspired, encouraged and, I learned later, even coached by the two teen-age girls in the group.

As the two teen-agers suggest, ours was a pretty diverse tour group. One teen was traveling with her mother, another with her grandmother, and the college boy was traveling alone. (The physician was traveling with his wife.) The student was making his fifth trip to London, but several other tour members couldn't have identified Big Ben, Parliament or Westminster Abbey before our trip.

Several travelers were in their 60s or 70s, but hardly any were retired and nearly everyone rivaled the teen-agers in energy and enthusiasm.

There were two doctors (a cardiologist and a dermatologist, neither of whose skills we needed to draw on, fortunately), two lawyers, two realtors, another journalist (who kept taking notes and making me nervous) and a political strategist. An art museum docent practiced her 10-minute welcome talk on me during one bus ride.

Some people wanted only to shop in their free time; one woman reasoned that the dollar was so strong that she was losing money if she wasn't spending it. Others rushed from one museum to the next, and a few of us even packed in optional plays on our days off.

Foodies wedged in extravagant meals between theater stops, while a junk-food devotee also satisfied his gastronomic needs, lunching almost daily at a diner across the street on fish and chips. (I only warned him once that he would be the first U.S. tourist to return from London with scurvy.)

Saying goodby proved to be the toughest part, and one woman even spoke of gathering us together for a reunion. A tour member from Santa Barbara called me with a local theater recommendation the other day, and another, from Sacramento, sent me a program from a play she saw in London after the rest of the group had returned home.

Said a 15-year-old girl, our most energetic tour member: "If there's another tour next year, I'll be there." So will I, with a complete list of nearby subway stops, banks and pubs.

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