I was very dubious earlier this year when my agent sent me to a casting for an Easter panto (which I hadn’t realised existed).
I had never done panto of any sort before, but it turned out to be four of the best weeks I have had since leaving drama school. I learned a lot watching the dame, who was amazing with audiences and really did have them eating out of his hand. I also got to do some flying, which came in handy when I had a casting for a motion-capture job a few months later.
I was on the phone to my agent as soon as we closed, asking her to put me up for more panto work. I’m now in rehearsals for a three-month run that continues into early next year. Though I’m looking forward to it, I notice that the experienced actors in the cast are already stocking up on throat lozenges and other kit. Is there any other prep I should be doing?
JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE The traditionalist in me was a little thrown when I first noticed the trend for shows associated with the festive season to pop up at Easter, but on further investigation I discovered that the link between panto and Christmas is relatively recent.
The art form dates back to at least the 16th century, when comic mimes and harlequinades were performed all year round. However, there is one important panto lesson that a springtime panto will never be able to teach as well as a Christmas show: how to survive a long and very full-on run.
Quite a few pantos start their previews in late November and continue to the end of January or even mid-February. Whether the cast and crew will still be going strong is entirely dependent on how well they take care of themselves and each other, and it’s no surprise that the ‘old soldiers’ are already making preparations for the long campaign ahead.
Having worked with and interviewed many of panto’s leading lights over the years, I know they all have ‘you couldn’t make it up’ stories of backstage shenanigans ranging from all-nighters in remote village pubs to diabolical pranks pulled on Handsome Princes just before curtain-up. I’m sure you will have your own nuggets to add to that Aladdin’s cave of theatrical mythology before you finish.
There is no denying that letting off steam is an important aspect of maintaining team spirit and enthusiasm as you do the same show over and over. However, from Wicked Witches to Dick Whittingtons, the first piece of advice that almost every panto veteran seems to give me is the importance of pacing yourself on stage and off. The louder the audience, the more successful this type of show, but the louder the actor – if they are not very careful – the more chance they will be unable to speak in more than a whisper by Christmas Eve.
Don’t push your voice more than you need to, get to bed early at least a few nights a week and stock up on decent food when you can, because when you are exhausted between shows, you may be tempted to live on junk food.
However well you get on with the rest of the company, don’t be surprised if living in each others’ pockets for nearly three months causes occasional friction. Be kind to your fellow cast members when they are having a wobble, and they will usually return the favour.
Enjoy the run and, whether in panto or other long-running engagements, I hope these tips help you live happily ever after.