So this is the story of how I flew to another country to get an autograph outside a stage door.
For several years now, I have been a fan of the British show Doctor Who. I confess that I’m one of the “new-Who” fans – all I remember of the show’s tenure before its 2006 relaunch is a few glimpses of Tom Baker in his iconic scarf, but I was only seven and it didn’t quite catch my attention. But the show was revived ten years ago, after I’d been primed with the sci-fi adventure of The X-Files and the freewheeling fantasy of Neil Gaiman, and I was hooked.
And like many fans, I have a favorite Doctor – and also like many fans, that favorite Doctor is Scottish-born David Tennant. David was the tenth actor to take on the role, and I was charmed at the story of how his own childhood love of the show lead him to become an actor in the first place. He was also visibly having the utter time of his life in the part; some critics tutted that his performance in the role was a little too manic, but it was obvious to me that it wasn’t mania, it was a little boy inside the man who was utterly losing his mind that “oh my gosh I used to play Doctor Who during recess and now I get to meet Daleks and Silurians and Cybermen and K-9 FOR REAL!!!!” That kind of enthusiasm is utterly, utterly charming.
…And the pulchritude didn’t hurt either.
On the show, The Doctor often has a human sidekick – or “companion,” in the show’s parlance – and I have a favorite here too: Donna Noble, played by comedienne Catherine Tate. Other companions of the past were younger women who all had worshipful crushes on The Doctor; but Donna was closer to my age, had a saucy tongue, and had utterly no romantic interest in The Doctor whatsoever. “Why would I fancy you?” her character sputters during an early conversation. “You’re an alien! There’s probably laws against that!” Donna instead became a friend to The Doctor, jumping at the chance to travel with him because he offered her something far better than the dull office work and low confidence she’d been mired in before they met. Donna’s sauciness was covering a lot of self-doubt, and The Doctor was able to spot that and pull her out of it, and for a year they were a witty, lively, formidable team.
I could also tell that David and Catherine adored working together. Their comedic chemistry was absolutely divine, and they would do a lot of joint interviews that year where they riffed off each other with absolutely no effort whatsoever; the kind of riffing that is born of mutual respect and affection. But after a year, Catherine Tate left the show – something which often happens – and the following year, David announced that 2011 would be his last year too. I was already missing Donna, and learning that my Doctor would be leaving too was a bit of a fangirl blow.
…Then I learned that David and Catherine had decided to do a little something together after David was done with the show. Because they had indeed loved working together, and wanted to do more things together now and then. Like….a play, maybe. And not just any play – they wanted to do something that showcased their comedic chops.
Like, say, Much Ado About Nothing. With the pair of them as Beatrice and Benedick.
They announced the show during the spring of 2011, with a summer performance schedule on the West End. My roommate at the time was another Whovian, and an actress, and we both speculated over the next few days about what such a perfectly-cast production would be like; but then we would both sigh – it would be in London, we were in New York. We wouldn’t ever see it.
And then a week later I got a last-minute opportunity to stage manage a show one last time. I was already considering leaving theater, but this particular show offered a much shorter schedule than usual, and I was considering it as a swan song. But then they quoted the pay – which was considerably better than what I was used to.
In fact, it would be just enough for a round-trip ticket to London.
I said yes, went home from that interview, and in the course of only about an hour and a half I’d bought my plane ticket, secured a bed in a youth hostel and bought a front-row-mezzanine seat at the theater on Charing Cross Road.
I’d gotten a red-eye flight, landing in London the same day as the show. Between the excitement and the cramped seat, though, I’d only gotten an hour’s sleep, and turned up at the hostel meaning to get a nap before the performance. But either excitement or vanity prompted me to have a shower and pick out the perfect outfit instead, so I ended up heading to the theater about an hour before showtime, where I mingled with a horde of other fans waiting for the doors to open.
The show itself was delightful. Other productions I’d seen were more faithful to the script’s Renaissance Italian setting, but this production set everything in the 1980’s, and the design staff clearly had had more than enough fun bedecking everything in 80s kitsch; one lead dons a wedding dress like Princess Diana’s, a child with a small supporting role toys with a Rubik’s cube in each scene. Even the music – the show’s famous song “Sigh No More,” a song about the fickleness of men, had been given an 80s pop spin that reminded me of something by Wham (and which was stuck in my head for three full days afterward). But this also wasn’t just a fan pleaser; the rest of the cast more than held up their end of the show. The actor playing Claudio, half of the play’s other romantic plot, was especially good; and I was stunned to see that the actor was actually still in drama school.
But really I was there for David and Catherine, and they were having just as much fun here as they were on Doctor Who. They had slapstick, they had witty hijinks, they had a scene where David was dressed up like Madonna (do not ask), and they were full of that crackling energy that a pair of actors get when they know that the two of them are capturing lightning in a bottle and it was intoxicating.
…Now, maybe it was undignified of me to join the crowd of fans outside the stage door. But I couldn’t go all that way and not try to get an autograph. It’s something I’ve done before, at stage doors here in New York; but I also knew that with celebrities, you have limited success at that. Usually, the autograph scrum at stage doors is really tightly regulated – the actor has a pen already, the fans can’t ask for an autograph on anything but the program, and usually there’s a car already waiting close by for the actor to flee to and make their escape. The past couple times I’d tried, I’d been stuck in a crowd three-deep and the actor didn’t look at anyone, they were just looking for programs to grab, sign, and hand back as quickly as possible so they could get going before the crowd got too wound up. A couple times I hadn’t even gotten an autograph myself.
The crowd in London was already thick when I got there, and I shouldered my way as close to the front as I could, still standing behind two younger women. I opened my program to have it ready, and listened to the usher barking out the rules – no pushing, no long conversations, the cast will only sign the program, and he reserved the right to shut the whole thing down if the crowd got out of hand. I settled in, preparing for a long wait while the cast got changed.
But within only a couple minutes, David Tennant came bounding out of the stage door, waving at all of us as he darted towards the far end of the crowd from where I stood. He had a thick pen already in hand, and frantically began grabbing programs and signing them; but I also noticed that he was looking people in the face as he took them, shooting them a quick “hello” each time. When he saw someone had a camera in hand, he cheerfully leaned over unprompted so they could take a selfie with him, and went right back to signing. The crowd was buzzing with excited and happy energy, and bubbling with snips of conversation – squeals from fans, and his own breathless but modest responses in his Scottish burr.
He seemed so gracious, in fact, that I decided that I was actually going to say something to him after all. I’d planned on just getting the program and saying thanks – I tend to leave celebrities alone, figuring they’d prefer to be treated like regular people – but I decided I had to say something. And so when he’d worked his way to our end of the crowd, and was reaching for the program I’d shoved between the girls’ heads, I blurted out, “Sir, you should know I was in New York City only twelve hours ago, and this show was worth a red-eye flight!”
He actually stopped writing for a second and looked at me in surprise. “Did ye really come all that way just for this?”
“…uh-huh!” Despite myself, my heart started racing that oh my god he is actually talking to me.
“Wow!” He was already handing my program back and reaching for someone else’s, but still addressed me. “Thank you so much! Are – are ye alright now, though? Are ye all jet-lagged?”
I’d recovered enough to crack a joke. “Eh, I think I got about a half hour’s sleep somewhere over Reykjavik.”
“Ah, yer fine, then,” he teased. “You’ve got nuthin’ to complain about!” He was still frantically signing other programs, trying to also talk to other people if they shouted out their own greetings or congratulations. “Are ye an actor?” he tossed back my way.
“A stage manager,” I said. He just nodded, and I could tell he was trying to also keep an eye on everyone else. I’d had my moment, so I started to fade back into the crowd and let him be.
But as I did, he glanced back over his shoulder at me. “Thank ye so much for comin’ all that way!”
“Thank you!” I gushed back, and then slipped into the crowd. In a daze, I also sought out Catherine Tate for her autograph – I didn’t think of anything to say to her but “thank you” – and also saw the young man playing Claudio hovering to one side, waiting for friends, and got his autograph too. I then started back towards the Tube to head back to the hostel, and managed to get a block and a half before completely breaking down and texting everyone I knew that “OH MY GOD YOU GUYS I JUST MET DAVID TENNANT AND HE ACTUALLY TALKED TO ME!!!!”
I was still in a fangirl daze when I made it back to the hostel and burbled my story to the desk staff (“listen, can I just share this because I’m too excited and have to tell someone…”) they patiently listened, and teased me a bit about how giddy I was. But then one of the women there smiled and said, “actually, though, it’s really good to hear that someone who’s that big a celebrity can also be really, really nice.”