I’m about to start my first ever pantomime. I have already done a few children’s plays, but I have seen enough panto to know that this is going to be a different experience. The venue I’m doing has a reputation for very interactive shows with a lot of audience banter.
Over the years, I have seen some of my favourite comics do this kind of thing brilliantly, so I did a few open-mic nights just to give myself a head start on this kind of performing. I discovered that talking to the audience isn’t anywhere near as easy as it looks. They often come up with funnier answers than the original material. I didn’t ‘die’ exactly, but I probably won’t be going back to those pubs anytime soon.
It will be less easy to hide away when I am doing three shows a day in the same theatre for several months. I wanted this panto gig to build my confidence, so I am still up for the challenge, but, as they say in panto land, can you help me put my nerves ‘behind me’?
Along with the ‘oh-yes-it-is, oh-no-it-isn’t’, the cry of ‘It’s behind you’ must be the panto equivalent of ‘to be or not to be’, guaranteed to be trotted out as soon as the word ‘pantomime’ is mentioned.
Just as in Shakespeare, the most familiar elements of the experience are one small part of a much richer whole. Don’t fall into the trap of deciding in advance how the pantomime should go.
As a newbie, you obviously don’t want to chuck years of panto tradition out the window, but you will be setting yourself up for a long and difficult run if you try to do an impersonation of other performers you have seen, without their long history of live experience to draw on.
Rather than trying to be a comedian, if you are not, find out what makes your character funny, and let your interactions grow naturally out of that. Just as the songs in a good musical move the story along rather than stop it dead, effective panto interaction shouldn’t just be shouting back and forth at the audience for its own sake, but a way of drawing them into the world of the story, no matter
Another reason for not being wedded to a set pattern of audience interaction is that you need to keep your wits about you and not focus so much on ‘the formula’ that you miss the unexpected and answers and incidents that make live panto such a magical experience.
Don’t see audience participation as a competition between you and the crowd to see who can be funniest, and don’t worry that your reputation might somehow depend on you ‘winning’. Sometimes you’ll come up with a great ad-lib, sometimes one of the audience (often a very young one) will come out with a gem that nobody can follow. If you can create a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ then everybody wins.
As well as the comics and dames, the great panto villains are masters at this. If there is one in the show you are about to do, you will learn so much from watching them in action. It’s one thing to turn an audience against you (most of us who have been on the open-mic circuit have done that accidentally once or twice) but to have them hissing and booing you while secretly loving the fact you are on stage is a skill the greats make look easy, but usually takes years to learn. Have fun building your own stage time during this panto run, and, however it goes, you are guaranteed to come out of it a much better live performer.
Contact careers adviser John Byrne at firstname.lastname@example.org or @dearjohnbyrne
John Byrne is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne