Putting on a panto?
Putting on a panto? As one of the most traditional and beloved forms of theatre, there are many elements that you have to include. Here's a handy checklist...
It’s pretty much the first thing anyone thinks of when they think of panto. Whether trilling in her best falsetto, or embracing her beard and baritone, every panto must have a game man in a dress. The dame is a panto’s lynchpin, she’s responsible for a panto’s biggest comedy moments and for getting the audience going with its responses (oh yes she is!). She’s got to be bright and bold and larger-than-life.
But that’s not where the importance of casting ends. Forget soap stars that were killed off in the early 90s. Forget that guy and his pet budgerigar who came third on Britain’s Got Talent. You need a proper cast of amazing actors from chilling villain (boo! hiss!) to charming hero. You need genies and giants, fairy godmothers and mother geese, Dicks and Pusses. Just as the dame is usually a man, the protagonist is usually a woman playing a man. It’s all par for the course in the weird, upside-down world of pantos.
Now this is where things can get controversial. Panto purists will say that the likes of Peter Pan and Robin Hood are too modern to be real pantos, and lament the decline of traditional stories like Mother Goose and Puss In Boots. But as long as it’s got all the elements of a proper panto, then the specific story doesn’t matter. Some pantos are still done in old-fashioned rhyming couplets, some are stuffed full of the most up-to-date chart hits with lyrics rewritten to suit the situation. There’s no need for a fourth wall, certainly no need for subtlety, and the more double entendres you can stick in there the better.
The actors have learned their lines and they’re simply itching to get into costume and onto the stage. But rehearsals are where the show gets put together. Pantos often have huge casts, with choruses and ensembles, so the rehearsal room has to be big enough to accommodate everyone from the Ugly Sisters to the back-end of the pantomime horse. Multiple spaces might be necessary, so that it’s possible to rehearse those intimate lovey-dovey scenes between the hero and their lover as well as bringing the entire cast together for a massive dance number.
This is a chance to really go to town. The sky’s the limit, especially when it comes to the dame. We’ve seen dames dressed as washing up liquid bottle, dames dressed as bags for life, as burgers and cupcakes and Chinese takeaways. Audiences are expecting wigs that poke up higher than Jack’s beanstalk, bodice-busting busts and the frilliest skirts. And of course the costumes have to be colourful. Ideally, you want people in the stalls to feel like they need to wear sunglasses just to take in the full rainbow splendour of what’s on stage. They need to be elaborate enough to wow the audience, but simple enough that characters can perform a quick change between scenes.
Once you’ve got those fabulous costumes, you can’t have the cast prancing around on an empty set. From Agrabah to Neverland, from Widow Twankey’s Laundrette to Sherwood Forest you need sets. And lots of them. Some modern pantos feature 3D sequences and state-of-the-art projection designs, but don’t forget that panto is a traditional form so painted backcloths and elaborate wooden constructions are just as - if not more- valid. If the panto includes a traditional slop scene, where the characters end up throwing all kinds of disgusting gunge and gunk over each other, then you’re going to need a set that can be cleaned easily (not to mention an obliging stage manager).
You want your genie to come out the lamp with a huge bang, not a whimper. That pumpkin has to turn into a magnificent golden carriage. A huge child-eating giant has to appear at the top of the beanstalk. A boot-donning cat has to talk and a goose has to lay golden eggs. All these weird and wacky occurrences are just a few of the impossible things that happen in pantos. How are you going to pull off these effects? Sometimes it’s as simple as sleight of hand, maybe employing the services of a magic consultant. But for big finales and explosive endings, pyrotechnics and then, before you know it, it’s Christmas and the curtain is coming up on the first performance. The house lights dim, the rustle of sweet wrappers and the family squabbles die down, and the centuries-old tradition starts up again. In an instant, all the months of preparation and making sure every element is as good as it can be are suddenly behind you...
John manages a thriving studio in Staffordshire working with a wide range of makers and specialists offering a broad professional service to the theatre industry providing props and costumes for a number of venues and clients throughout the UK.: https://www.thestage.co.uk/directory/suppliers/john-brooking
Founded in 1977, Le Maitre is one of the world’s leading innovators and manufacturers of pyrotechnics, special effects and smoke, haze and flame machines: https://www.thestage.co.uk/directory/suppliers/le-maitre-event