If you find yourselves in the UK during the Christmas season then it is pretty much impossible to ignore the Pantomimes (called affectionately Pantos by the locals) that are on at pretty much every theatre about. These are done by community groups, schools and professionals alike and are all about family fun, a good afternoon or evening out for the whole family and lots of laughs (at terrible jokes). The laughs come from the silly jokes, visual comedy, sexual innuendos (for the adults in the audience) and the familiar format of every Panto that involves lots of singing, audience participation and oodles of childish antics.
As there were two Pantos being staged at my local theatre I could not resist the opportunity of working backstage on them. For the first. ‘Peter Pan‘, I was FOH (front of house) and the second ‘Beauty and the Beast’ I was part of the backstage crew. This blog will to through my responsibilities, step by step, and give you an insight to what goes on during a traditional British Pantomime, both in front of and behind the tabs.
For ‘Peter Pan‘ I had the main role of helping people find their seats and find their way out of the venue if they needed the toilet (for a show like this with half the audience being under 10 years old, you would be amazed how much movement there is from seats to the bathrooms!). My other two main jobs were as follows:
- Keep the aisles clear of small children. This was because Captain Hook and Peter Pan had a good chase and sword fight up and down the aisles. When Wendy and Peter Pan were ‘flying’ there were bird puppets that flew down the aisles to the stage. At the end of the show there was a huge sword fight between Peter Pan and Wendy against Captain Hook and his evil sidekick. This moved from the stage into the aisles, accompanied by laughter and squeals from the audience.
- To join in with all action songs. During the show Peter Pan or Wendy had songs that they sang with the audience and encouraged them to join in. As FOH staff we helped families keep up with what they had to do. These action songs don’t tend to have much to do with the plot, but give a chance to involve the audience and get everyone moving and singing.
For ‘Beauty and the Beast‘ I was part of the backstage crew responsible for props and set. This meant that my jobs were many and varied. I have listed them below and how they contributed to what we know as Panto:
- Whisk up a bucket of shaving foam to a fluffy consistency. This shaving foam was ‘cream’ for the Dame Bessy Bessy Bun Buns cakes at her bakery. Two large bowls were then piled with this cream which were later used in a scene where Bessy Buns and he son Billy Buns try, unsuccessfully, to put cream on the cake bases. More cake went on them than the bases.
- Filling the cake applicator 5000 with ‘cream’. This was an enormous syringe what was filled with the shaving foam. This was to be used on a member of the audience that was brought up to ‘help’ put cream on the cake bases.
- Moving the well. In Panto the backdrops create the main set location with a few signature pieces of set added too. The well needed to be brought on whenever the company was in the town market. Market stalls with huge cabbages and piles of cake were brought on by the cast.
- Let the pony in the back door. Yes! There was a real pony in this show. Panto is known for having animals in it, usually played by humans (the pantomime horse can appear in any show, but key animals in other Pantos include the Dog in ‘Peter Pan’ and the puss in ‘Puss in Boots) but this one was real. Each night I had to let the pony in and out of the Stage Door so that she could go to her comfortable trailer when not on stage. Her owner decorated her with little birds in her main and a fine arrange of different coats for the village, forest and wedding.
- Construct the jail cell for the Beast’s victims. This was our most challenging job. Just before the end of Act 1 we needed to strike the table and ground sheet (after the cream scenes) then assemble the jail cell around Beauty’s father. This had to be done in about 45 seconds, so we practiced it as a team and it was a good example of how even the crew needs to be good working ensemble.
- Operating the dry-ice machine. This was at a crucial moment in the play where MAGIC took place (there is always some magic in a Panto). The Beast had been wounded by his enemy and Beauty said that she loved him. As a result the Beast transformed (under the veil of dry ice!) into the handsome Prince. What actually happened was that the Beast snuck off stage and the Prince snuck on, when the dry ice was thick enough to mask their movements.
- Letting off huge party poppers over the cast. This was at the end of the show where, of course, there was a HUGE wedding celebration for Beauty and the Beast. The full cast did a dancing and singing number dressed in lots of sequins, and the Dame comes out in her most impressive costume yet. A real treat for the audience.
Hopefully this blog has given you an idea of what the key elements of a Panto are and what you would need to do as a cast, director and crew to put it on. Have fun if you do it, and be prepared to tell lots of terrible jokes!!