by Cheryl Barrett
As a writer I continue to be amazed at the varied panto titles that have been performed over the years. For my part, I love to ring the changes and write something different. I particularly enjoy writing something that rhymes. Here’s a little something to whet your panto appetites:
Panto is unpredictable,
Enchanting, funny, off the wall.
Plenty of mayhem, magic and fun,
A bit of business, a quip, a pun.
Most pantos are based on fairy tales,
Like Cinderella – that never pales.
Sheer Luck Holmes is a good story too –
The panto detective hasn’t a clue.
Aladdin has an Eastern flair,
Jungle Book an endearing bear.
A dashing prince in Sleeping Beauty
Saves the day, does his duty.
Folklore pantos are rather good
Like King Arthur, Merlin or Robin Hood.
Don’t forget Dick Whittington and his cat
Thwarting the villainous King Rat.
We love a bit of history,
Adventure, magic, mystery.
Pantomimes based on nursery rhyme
Have always stood the test of time.
Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill, Old King Cole,
Complete with his fiddlers, pipe and bowl.
Delight audiences both young and old
Familiar characters, their stories told.
Pantomimes on the high seas
Continue to entertain and please.
Sinbad the Sailor, Treasure Island
Pirates at sea and on dry land.
‘Shiver me timbers’, ‘Pieces of eight’
Shout pirate baddies we love to hate.
Pantomime has been around for a while
With various titles, formats and style.
So whether in prose, or spoken in rhyme
You can’t beat a good old pantomime.
Above: Cheryl Barrett as the Isle of Wight Fairy
by Cheryl Barrett
What do pantomime writers do when there are no pantomimes being performed, especially in the amateur sector? For many, their income has dried up. No pantomimes, no performance rights, no royalties
With so much uncertainty about a return to staging shows, pantomime sales are few and far between. Societies that were due to stage pantomimes have invariably rescheduled them for the 2021/2022 season. This has a huge financial knock-on effect to writers and publishers alike, as the whole industry is playing catch up.
I am a prolific writer, with over one hundred published scripts and more awaiting publication. Like many writers, I have been even more creative during the various lockdowns. Writing is not a quick way to fame and fortune – unless you’re a top-selling author. It isn’t about the money, though to earn more than four figures at the moment would be nice… For me, it is about being creative. My history plays for schools are written to show children that history can be interesting and fun. I get a thrill out of researching the historical facts as well.
Writing a pantomime is time consuming. They are invariably over ten thousand words long, have two acts, an engaging storyline, comedy routines which need to be thought through, romance, snappy one-liners, great characters and fun adventures. As well as the storyline I add production notes, lighting cues, props list, characterisation, costume ideas, specific detail for comedy routines and a suggested song list. A pantomime takes time to write – it is a craft. My craft. I have all these ideas that need to be channelled into a script, subsequently, I wrote four pantomimes last year.
IT’S PANTO, BORIS – BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT
Like many in the industry I set about trying to overcome the challenges facing me as a writer. If pantomimes weren’t being staged I would need to adapt my writing. I wrote a collection of six panto-themed monologues under the title, It’s Panto, Boris – But Not As We Know It which has since been published by Lazy Bee Scripts. I wrote roles for a villain, dame, genie, Snow White and two monologues about chorus members. Writing them only took a few days, they are topical (Twankey’s ‘Wash Out to Help Out’ and the Genie’s ‘Face-Space-Wish’), funny and include most traditional pantomime devices (in ‘It Will All End in Tiers’ the Sheriff of Rottingham does a traditional pantomime routine that would usually involve a comedy duo as well). With Government Covid restrictions at the time, of no more than six people meeting together this would allow all six monologues to be performed onstage. If another lockdown, one person, or six individuals could perform the monologues from the comfort of their own home, as a Zoom video conferencing piece. We all have to adapt, or the industry won’t survive.
On a personal level, I would have been directing my Wizard of Oz panto in December 2020. Panto-deprived, I bought tickets for a pantomime at Shanklin Theatre and was really looking forward to it, but the country went into lockdown two days beforehand. To say I felt like Cinderella is an understatement. However, I managed to get my annual pantomime fix – Hurrah! – and was cast as a snarling baddie in the Townswomen’s Guild’s online pantomime. I even managed to perform the Twelve Panto Days of Christmas for a Facebook group, ‘Kitchen Sink Drama’. It took some reworking of lyrics and remembering what number I was at, but once the adrenalin, and Bailey’s, kicked in, it was great fun.
Pantomime is a huge part of my life, I either direct or perform in it every year. I usually see half a dozen or more pantomimes a year as well as reviewing them for Sardines magazine. I have been writing for this Sardines’ panto edition since its inception in 2014. With the popularity of pantomime, there were forty pages of panto in issue no.29 (2016). I can only imagine there will be less this year, but pantomime is here to stay – albeit in it’s adapted forms.
Touring pantomimes are very much part and parcel of the pantomime season, with many companies performing their shows the length and breadth of the UK, giving children their first experience of theatre…
I worked in a variety of schools for over thirty-five years and can honestly say that any visiting theatre company is greeted with great excitement by the children – and not just because they get a break from regular lessons. For most children the excitement starts from the moment they are told about a pantomime or show. There are those who have never seen a live performance so teachers will explain the process in advance and reassure those who may be anxious about the whole thing.
Speaking and listening skills are developing beforehand – an event like this generates excitement and promotes discussion both before and after the event. Some children talk about the pantomimes that their parents or grandparents have taken them to see, whilst their friends listen avidly. The anticipation is building up.
The big day arrives. One of the pupils, on an errand to the school office, has noticed a van parked outside the school and tells others. The buzz travels along corridors and into classrooms – ‘They’re here!’ Excuses are made to get out of class and go for a wander, via the hall, for a quick peek at the ‘pantomime people’ setting up.
And then the time has come. Follow me if you will into the heart of any school – that wonderful vast space known as the hall, used for assemblies, breakfast and after-school clubs, PE, school dinners, PTA meetings, Christmas Fayres and small pockets of differentiated learning sessions. PE benches and chairs have been set out in front of electrical equipment, behind curtains the scenery and stage are set, and classes are filing into the hall to take their seats. The atmosphere is electric. The anticipation palpable.
Whether the panto is Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk or Treasure Island these self-contained shows have something for everyone, be it the music, dancing, knockabout comedy routines or puppetry. All credit to the actors involved in putting on these pantomimes, particularly those who perform in two schools on the same day. Many companies use between four to six actors for a show, depending on the number of characters, with some playing more than one role. Their energy is boundless, and for sixty minutes they capture the hearts and imagination of hundreds of children. And the best part about the touring shows is that it gives youngsters their first experience of live performance, triggers questions and promotes discussion about the characters, set, songs etc. Lunchtime play takes on a whole new scenario as children become pirates, animals and other characters from the pantomime they have just seen.
I was that child and remember the time, over fifty years ago, that a theatre company visited our primary school and staged Coppelia. I was enthralled. My first theatre trip as a child was to a London Theatre. The school hired a coach and we travelled from Essex to The Mermaid Theatre, Puddledock (I love that name) to watch Treasure Island. Bernard Miles played Long John Silver and Spike Milligan played Ben Gunn – what a performance. I still treasure that memory. I was totally engaged with the action and developed a lasting love of theatre, thanks to my primary school realising the importance of live theatre to a child’s learning journey. Nowadays many school budgets are so tight that there is no ‘spare’ money to pay for a visiting production, and that is such a shame because there is nothing more joyful than the sound of a child’s laughter.
As well as school visits touring panto companies travel the country playing at various venues ranging from village and church halls, clubs and even leisure centres. For the past few years I have enjoyed Trio Entertainment’s pantomimes which are performed at a leisure centre in Kent. This season the company produced professional pantomime for eight theatres across the country. Many of the star names are actors from EastEnders, Coronation Street etc. and are supported by professional actors and dancers from local dance schools.
The benefits of doing a long run or a few shows at one venue is that the actors and techie can familiarise themselves with the set up and get to know the local area. One of the disadvantages of a ‘one-night’ performance is that it doesn’t give the actors time to build a rapport within the local community. Other downsides are early starts, rushed get-ins and the attention to detail needed for the technical side of things given the time restrictions. Once it finishes they have to pack everything up again and travel to their next venue which could well be the other end of the country where the process starts again.
Touring theatre companies boast of entertaining over a million people, quite a feat and responsibility. Like most of the touring pantomime companies M & M Productions – a company which extensively visits and entertains schools – has a wide range of scripts which are written by an in-house team. Gary Starr Pantomimes – billing itself as ‘The Magical Touring Pantomime Company’ – has over twenty-five years’ history in the entertainment business, with Gary himself as the creative mind behind the company. He writes, produces, directs and makes the odd appearance in a production or two. A read of Gary’s ‘join the team’ blurb left me chuckling. For actors who want to hone their skills, touring pantomime offers the perfect opportunity. It is certainly worth checking the terms and conditions to find the pantomime company to suit you.
Both professional and amateur pantomime is big business with more adults, drawn by star names and lavish sets and costumes, going to the big theatres in cities like London, Manchester, Southampton, Hull, Birmingham, Glasgow etc. Touring pantomimes are thriving and expanding annually in a variety of venues with top quality shows. For amateur theatre groups and societies pantomime is their lifeblood, and there are thousands of well-polished pantomimes being performed in church or village halls and small theatres across the UK.
Pantomime and audience participation go hand in hand. They want to be included. Everyone loves to hate a villain and audiences should be encouraged to boo and hiss the baddie – my baddies always goad the audience. One tip is to write an “Oh, no it’s not!” towards the beginning of a script to get the audience to react with the characters and involved in the action as soon as possible. The ghost gag is a well-loved tried and tested pantomime routine. This can be adapted to suit your script – I scripted a gorilla in Jungle Book the Pantomime and a monster rat in Robinson Crusoe, so consider your storyline and setting. The comedy business for this routine should be well-scripted – looking behind, left and right, walking around in search of the ‘ghost’ etc. If you make it fun then children and adults will enjoy shouting “It’s behind you!” and “Oh, yes it is!” with gusto.
The audience participation song (or ‘songsheet’) towards the end of the panto is also a favourite. Suggest songs relevant to the storyline to encourage everyone to join in the singing and actions, though as a writer you won’t have the final say on song choices – that is left to the director or musical director of the group staging the production. Scripting this front-of-cloth scene also gives the stage crew time to set the stage for the finale and allows the rest of the cast time to change into their walk-down costumes.
Participation is an essential part of pantomime.
We all love a good adventure – OH, YES WE DO! Audiences can switch off from the real world for a couple of hours and be transported to Morocco with Dick Whittington, sail the high seas with pirates in search of treasure or join the hero as he embarks on a quest to snowy mountains to save the princess.
Robinson Crusoe, Pirates and the Caribbean Queen has plenty of adventure both on board ship and on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. If you’re writing a pantomime featuring pirates, ensure your swashbuckling cast is both fearsome and funny. I speak like a pirate when I am writing pirate dialogue – ARRRRR. Get your pirate villain to interact with the audience – “Avast there, me hearties, oi’ll sort ye lily-livered layabouts out later.”
The audience should be encouraged to be a part of the adventure, get your lead comic or dame to ask them, “Do you want to come on an adventure with us?” The resounding response will invariably be YES!
Remember the main ingredients of a great adventure are: action, romance and a dangerous quest. A panto audience will expect something out of the ordinary.
Whilst there are many versions of Cinderella, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty and other well-loved pantomimes, it is good to add new ideas to existing stories or create something new entirely. A few years ago, myself and Bob Heather collaborated on Sheer Luck Holmes the Pantomime, based loosely on the character Sherlock Holmes. The usual characters were there, albeit in a different guise – Watson now Dotty Watson the housekeeper (Dame), Sheer Luck Holmes (Comic lead), Baskerville his faithful hound and a wonderful Victorian villainess, Mary Arty. Yes, it’s a different title, but has all the elements and comic devices of a traditional pantomime.
As a writer I was inspired by, and applaud, writers Louise Beresford and Anna Spearpoint for their alternative panto The Fairytale Revolution: Wendy’s Awfully Big Adventure. Based on the traditional Peter Pan story it subverts many pantomime stereotypes and with an all-female cast of four, played at Battersea’s Theatre 503 to resounding audience reviews.
Take a risk with your writing and think outside of the box…
T.raditional stories retold
Many pantomimes are based on traditional fairy tales or folk lore such as Cinderella, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty and Robin Hood. Don’t be put off from writing a Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or Treasure Island pantomime. Lazy Bee Scripts, Samuel French, Spotlight Publications, Smith’s Scripts and other publishers have a huge catalogue of panto titles. No two scripts will be exactly the same, so make your script stand out from the rest.
My Jack and the Beanstalk pantomime was initially rejected by Lazy Bee Scripts as they had a huge catalogue of pantos with that title, ergo a script with that title would need to differentiate substantially from the traditional format. After I got over the initial writers’ shock of having my work rejected, I re-read it and realised that it just wasn’t exciting enough. I thought carefully about taking Jack on an adventure and reworked the script so that it had a sufficiently different storyline. Jack’s Amazing Beanstalk Rocket has the traditional Jack and the Beanstalk storyline with Jack taking the cow to market etc. Jack is given a rusty toy rocket in exchange for the cow, cue Jack, “I was expecting a handful of beans.” Act two takes Jack and his family on an adventure in the beanstalk rocket – cue great song suggestions, a rapping robot, aliens and plenty of comedy.
Don’t rest on your laurels and don’t be afraid to change the location and adapt the storyline. As a writer you need to make your panto script stand out from the rest.
O.ver the top
With larger-than-life characters and comedy routines, pantomime is very much ‘in your face’. The fourth wall is broken as the villain, dame and other characters interact with the audience. When writing material for the dame, whether it’s Widow Twanky, Clementine Crusoe or Dame Trott, her mannerisms and actions should be over the top.
When writing jokes for pantomime consider your audience. A family pantomime should be suitable for family audiences, so don’t be tempted to script something that will cause offence. It should be more innuendo than smut. A few double entendre for the adults should go over the top of children’s heads and be swiftly followed with dialogue. The children will follow the action whilst adults chuckle at the joke.
Be outrageous but don’t outrage.
A pantomime doesn’t need to have magic tricks, but it should be magical for children and adults alike. From a writer’s point of view, aim to give the audience a story with wonderful characters, plenty of jokes and comedy routines. Once my scripts are finished they’re ready to be selected from the publisher’s catalogue of pantomimes by drama societies. The baton is then taken up by a director, actors and backstage team who deliver the set, bright costumes, big chorus numbers and any special effects to create a magical experience for their audiences. Sometimes a writer will get the opportunity to take their script from page to stage. I was fortunate to direct Jungle Book the Pantomime and convey my enthusiasm and ideas to the set builders, costume team and cast. They brought my script to life. The audiences loved the characters and song choices. It was as magical for me as the audience and cast – I even dressed the part.
Pantomime should be a magical escape from the real world.
It goes without saying that writers need imagination to write. Without imagination we couldn’t create interesting characters and scenarios to tell our stories. As writers our aim is to captivate the audience. Whilst most pantomimes have the framework of a traditional fairy tale or folklore, a writer has the imagination to expand on that. Traditional characters can be developed, new ones added, and exciting new adventures created. I used the basis of the Dick Whittington story for Galloping Goose the Pantomime. I transferred the action to Victoria BC in Canada and changed the names of the characters, but the basic storyline is similar.
Read a few fairy tales and see where your imagination takes you as a writer.
Whilst panto may appear to be complete mayhem to the uninitiated, it isn’t. A good pantomime consists of well-choreographed chase scenes and well-rehearsed comedy business. Many asides and bloopers are deliberate – I script ad-libs in my pantos to get the laughs. The following is from Robinson Crusoe, Pirates and the Caribbean Queen published by Lazy Bee Scripts.
Captain: We bain’t found anyone else. (Takes his hat off and holds it to his chest) An’my poor flippin’ flappin’ poopin’ pesky pirate pet parrot Pickle perished.
Clementine: (To Captain) That wasn’t easy to say was it?
Captain: No, it weren’t. That pesky script writer should be made to walk the plank, arrrrr.
Give the dame an umbrella as the Captain speaks and you’ve added visual humour.
Classic pantomime routines involving slosh have been toned down over the years but are very much part of the pantomime tradition. When writing a slosh scene, whether it’s decorating the Ugly Sisters boudoir or the dame baking a cake, keep the dialogue slick and ensure plenty of visual comedy.
Visual comedy is vital to pantomime – keep your routines slick.
Every aspect of a pantomime needs energy and pace. As a writer it is important to keep the momentum of your story. Remember that children may get unsettled easily if there is a lull in the story. Keep the romantic girl-meets-boy scene short and follow it with plenty of action or humour to keep your audience engaged, equally the comedy business should be slick.
As well-written and slick your script is, it is very much down to the actor’s performance on the night. Use your author production notes to convey information about comedy routines or comedy chases. Directors will ensure that the cast understand the concept and have plenty of rehearsal time. Think about the characters that will be delivering the high energy comedy routine and equip them with funny lines and mannerisms. Above all remember that visual humour is paramount.
Remember energy + pace = an engaged audience.