What advice you would offer to a pantomime director?

Don’t forget the audience. If they are not involved from the off, you have lost them and the show will be boring for them and the cast. It is vital you establish a shared community as soon as possible. The main rules when directing such a show are simple 1) Am I laughing? 2) Should I be? 3) Is it boring? 4) Is it necessary?

What exercises or prep. work do you suggest to get actors into their character? The group I am working with have never seen/heard of panto before.

Watch some of the many pantomime clips on YouTube, especially pantomime production companies’ showreels. The most difficult thing to understand and achieve is that successful link and interaction with the audience. To help this, try to have half your cast ‘playing’ the audience at some rehearsals – doing shout outs and joining in etc. This will help ‘train’ those on stage.

What makes panto such an enduring and well loved genre?

Fairytale narratives speak to us at the various points in our life, whilst the pantomime Industry has perfected a very strong business model in ensuring financial success. The combination of fairytale stories, spectacle and stars at your local theatre, all tied in to the notion of pantomime as a ‘British festive tradition’ mean it will continue to be popular for many years to come. It’s contemporary nature and the fact it involves the audience further increases levels of enjoyment as the audience become part of the show and each performance, due to its topicality and local referencing, appears specially made for its audience.

Do you have any tips on incorporating lights, stage and costumes, in order to get the story across?
Lighting is important to create atmosphere and tone, whilst costumes help communicate character in terms of social status, personality and occupation. The Dame’s costumes can be outlandish and often change on every entrance adding to the spectacular notion of pantomime. Staging differs across the Industry and is sometimes simplistic to place focus on the characters, other times it is extremely complicated and more spectacular than a West End show.
How do I create that panto magic of actors and audience interacting?
There are many staples you can use to help enforce the shared community of Pantoland. The Comic usually has a call and response interaction “Hiya Kids” “Hiya Buttons”. The Uglies often elicit a reaction to their “Aren’t we adorable?” / “Don’t you just love us?” “No- Boo!” before every exit. The Fairy Godmother can encourage cheering and booing by explaining conventions in her opening spot. Every character should say “Hello” to the audience to acknowledge their presence. Breaking the fourth wall physically as well as verbally also helps; popular ways to do this include sweet throwing and waterpistol spraying. Another way is to pick an audience member for continued interaction; in Cinderella this is often a boyfriend for the Ugly Sisters who is waved at and spoken to at various intervals throughout the show. The songsheet at the end of the production before the walkdown constitutes an audience sing-a-long and audience members are often invited on stage to join in. Interactive set-pieces such as the ‘Ghost Gag’ (“It’s Behind You”) or ‘Don’t Touch The…’ encourage and rely on participation. Another popular device in Cinderella is hiding one of the glass slippers under an audience member’s chair and after the Ugly Sisters having shattered Cinderella’s remaining one, the Fairy Godmother appears to say she’s put the other one in a safe place somewhere. It’s often a little girl’s delight when she finds it under her chair and is invited onto the stage to help save the day and ensure Cinderella marries the Prince.
What is the function of a Dame or Comic’s opening spot?
  • To introduce the character to the audience
  • To build rapport with the audience
  • To introduce call and response patter to help break the fourth wall and establish a shared community
  • To give details about the character’s backstory and role in the story
  • Often follow the pattern: Hello > This is who I am > Who are you > Let’s be friends > About my past (jokes, ex husband, etc) > Why am I here? (my role in the narrative, my sons / jobs / current situation etc / musical number >
  • To provide a run of jokes and make the audience laugh and feel at ease with the character
  • To pick someone out of the audience who will become an integral part OR to introduce a “please look after my X” moment
  • To enable the chorus to change into their next number
  • To give the Dame / Comic their own comedy musical number
What characters usually appear in panto?
  • Principal Boy (Aladdin, Prince Charming, Jack, Dick Whittington, etc)
  • Principal Girl (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jill, Snow White, etc)
  • Dame (Widow Twankey, Mother Goose, Dame Trott, Nurse, Nanny, etc)
  • Comic (Buttons, Idle Jack, Simple Simon, Silly Billy, Wishee Washee, etc)
  • Member of the Monarchy, Aristocracy or Nobility (Emperor/ress, Baron/ess, Squire, King, Queen, Mayor/ess – often comedic too and sometimes a love interest for the Dame if male)
  • Benevolent Agent (Fairy, Genie, Spirit, etc)
  • Villain (King Rat, Abanazar, Fleshcreep, Demon, etc)
  • Skin (Priscilla the Goose, Daisy the Cow, Giant, etc)

Sometimes the roles are dispensed with, merged or doubled. Some Aladdins dispense with Wishee Washee and have a Comic Principal Boy. Others include double acts, such as the Chinese Policeman or Brokers Men in law-enforcement roles. In Cinderella the Ugly Sisters are the Villains, a Double Act and regarded by many as the show’s Dames.

Isn’t panto just about being silly and actors mucking about on stage?

One of the biggest misconceptions about pantomime is exactly this, which can result in an embarrassing production full of badly behaved actors ‘messing about’ on stage. This often occurs when a) the script is poor and b) when performers think pantomime means a free range to self indulgently ad-lib. Only the Dame should really have the opportunity to ad-lib, with the Comic entitled to ad lib in response to the audience as and when required. Actors need to remember their stock character trait and that is it not everyone’s role to be funny.

Is live music necessary?

It’s always good to have it if you can. Not only can it help with long scene changes (!), but in the Songsheet you need it to account for the slower / faster singing of the audience. Having musicians mean you can also have nice play-ons and play-offs, as well as twinkly underscoring for the fairy etc – this is much easier than sound cues and avoids the embarrassment of the Fairy receiving a “Dun-dun-duuun” moment instead of a twinkle if tracks get mixed up!

How many songs should a full-length panto have?

Each Act needs to have an Opening and a Closing Number – so that’s four. Then the Dame should have a number, sometimes as part of her opening spot and the Principal Boy and Girl need a romantic duet in Act One. There’s usually an additional full chorus number in Act One too, which means Act One will have around five songs. Act Two will have the songsheet and the walkdown in addition to the opening and closing number, as well as a slapstick / it’s behind you scene number and then perhaps one additional song – often a romantic ballad, which takes Act Two’s count to Six. In total, you’re looking at roughly 10 – 12 pieces of music.

What is pantomime’s narrative structure?
Each Act needs to have roughly six to seven scenes and will generally follow this pattern:
Act One
  1. (Prologue)  Villain vs Benevolent Agent. What’s the problem? Why are   they fighting? What’s the solution? Let battle commence…
  2. Introduce setting and establish key plot situation and characters.
  3. Introduce romance narrative.
  4. More information about the problem that’s threatening to scupper harmony OR explain in further detail what needs to be done to ensure harmony.
  5. Slapstick scene
  6. Introduce possible solution / action to problem
  7. Off to (re)solve problem / transformation sequence / Solution identified
Act Two
  1. (Prologue) Problem not too easy to solve. Villain will ensure he wins. Benevolent Agent will ensure she wins. Oh dear….
  2. Principal Boy/Girl must confront task and think about how they will do this aided and inspired by Benevolent Agent (e.g Jack at top of beanstalk, he contemplates the task ahead of him and is encouraged by Fairy). Alternatively Sc 1 begins with the Villain revealing their plans and awaiting Principal Boy / Girl. In many ways Act 1 Scene 1 is constitutes the ‘Awaiting Of’ or ‘Arrival Of’ the show’s Principal Boy / Girl.
  3. Confrontation of task / main event (think ‘Meet the Giant’ ‘Dance with the Prince’  ‘Lamp gets stolen’)
  4. Solution to this problem thought through and put into action.            
  5. It’s Behind You Sequence or similar as the characters travel to their next destination.         
  6. Arrival at place where problem can be solved. Problem attempted to be solved.              
  7. Harmony restored – evil gets their comeuppance!
  8. After Scene 6, it is traditional to have a community songsheet, followed by the Walkdown and another musical number as the show’s finale.
How can I break into the industry as a performer?

Getting into panto is extremely tough. Most people start off in the ensemble or are spotted partaking in another form of theatre or during their work at a holiday camp / Butlins as a host or entertainer. Others work in the ensemble and understudy a role, which often gives them the opportunity to perform it at least once over the run.

The first and most important thing if you want to star in panto is to go to lots of pantos and see how they work. The next is to create your own character, be it Dame or Comic, and think carefully about the type of role this is and how you will make your Dame / Comic different to everyone else’s. Make sure you check out the Panto Advice Page which has great advice from those in the Industry who have been there, done that and got the T-shirt: http://www.pantoadvicepage.blogspot.co.uk/

Generally people start with very small companies and over a period of ten years then get to work for the likes of Evolution, Qdos and FFE. Smaller companies producing pantomimes are generally more open to new performers than the larger companies. Of course, this does mean that with the smaller companies roles are often unwaged or less than £100 a week as you start out on your career.

Another possibility to consider is to audition for a touring pantomime company. Many performers who started off here learning the ropes have since gone on to bigger and better roles with bigger and better companies.


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