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Dear West End Producer: ‘How much is it acceptable to improvise during a panto?’

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Pantomimes have a reputation for being rather ‘free’ as a form of theatre – actors are allowed to be flexibile and respond to an audience. This is what makes them such a fun form of entertainment. However, it all has to be done in the right way: we don’t want Abanazar improvising for half an hour when the rest of the cast (and audience) want to finish the 10am show.

It’s down to the director. Some don’t want improvisation, but for me this takes away the joy and stops performers from engaging with the naughty boys and girls (and wicked mums and dads). The whole point is that it should be fun. Of course, it has to be done within the confines of the story – and crucially not go on for too long (like the panto that turned into the Cannon and Ball show).

A panto has stars, but it is still a company piece. This is why Equity has created the new panto law (clause 36c) that reads: “If any celebrity talks about themselves for longer than 15 minutes on stage, they are legally required to spend the night in Aladdin’s cave to receive discipline from the dame.”

Many pantomimes have only one week of rehearsals, meaning that a lot of the finer details are discovered during performances. This loose framework is another thing that makes them exciting, as the playing and production develop in front of the audience.

It is a theatrical fact that audiences love to be involved – that’s why they go to a panto – and without this element it just doesn’t work. Those magical moments when a child goes to help with the songsheet are wonderful. I remember seeing a young boy going on stage to sing Old McDonald with Buttons (a 50-year old soap star who was far too old to fall in love with the 20-year-old Cinderella). The boy was asked if he was enjoying the show to which he replied: “No, it’s boring and I’m tired.” After that, he lay on stage and went to sleep. It was hysterical. And he was right, it was boring – but that’s what happens when you have a jaded D-lister playing Hook, dear…

However, there a some tight rules and regulations when improvising in a panto. Here is a list of tried and tested dos and don’ts:

Do:

Heckle the audience.

Make the dame laugh.

Use local references.

Mock the people sitting in the front row.

Insult people if they leave to go to the loo.

Don’t:

Say “He’s behind you” more than 50 times.

Go off script for longer than an hour.

Talk about politics.

Go through Shakespeare audition pieces.

Try to upstage the comic (especially if it’s Jim Davidson).

Improvise during a 10am show (everyone will be hung over).

Good luck with your improvising – keep it funny, relevant and quick. You generally know you’re doing a bad job when the audience is silent and the girl on the second row says: “Can we go now, mummy?”

Send questions to your dear agony aunt via Twitter @westendproducerhttps://www.thestage.co.uk/pantomime/

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