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Panto in Ruins?

Panto in Ruins?

Above: Pantomime’s celebrated return to Croydon’s Fairfield Halls could be short-lived! Imagine Theatre’s spectacular 2019 production of Cinderella in the Fairfield Halls’ Phoenix Concert Hall was led by Strictly winner, Ore Oduba, and stand-up comedian, Tim Vine. Photo: Craig Sugden.

Way back in March, when lockdown was introduced, I don’t think anybody could have predicted that the approaching pantomime season would have been at risk.

At the time, and with eight months still to spare, it was probably pantomime organisers and producers who were breathing huge sighs of relief.

Not so anymore! Theatre closed instantly on Monday, 16th March after Boris ‘advised’ us all to avoid visiting social venues such as pubs, clubs or theatres but, as we face a possible second wave of Caronavirus, getting the performing arts restarted has been a different ball game altogether…

With the easing of lockdown restrictions seemingly slower than an EastEnders’ plotline, all of a sudden pantomimes across the country have been cancelling, postponing or refunding… and that’s not good! Whether you’re an amateur or a professional, pantomime is the biggest money-spinner of the year, often providing a financial crutch for the coming season’s smaller box office draws.

Traditionally, the glitz and glamour of the big-budget professional pantomimes takes place throughout December, usually finishing in early January. However, with Qdos Pantomimes announcing on 3 Aug that following the Government’s decision not to revisit the reopening of indoor theatrical performances until November at the earliest, 2020’s December panto season is as good as over.

Qdos is the world’s biggest panto producer and responsible for thirty-four of the glitziest shows in the UK as well as its celebrated London showpiece at the London Palladium. So when Qdos makes a decision, everybody else listens.

Sardines spoke with head of UK Productions, Martin Dodd, and Laura Taylor, Imagine Theatre’s Celebrity Casting & Production Consultant, in July prior to the big Qdos announcement. At the time, it seems the writing was already on the wall. “There are so many factors which will go into making the final decision,” Laura told me (Imagine produced fifteen pantos last year). “Everyone knows pantomime works because we do two shows a day with high-capacity audiences – and that’s how we make it work financially. At the moment, none of that is pointing in a good direction for us. If we overcame all of the health & safety hurdles that are there, are we going to get the level of audiences that we need? The other battle we’re facing is even if we overcame all of those hurdles and challenges – so the venues could reopen and there was no social distancing and the audience numbers would still come – we would still have the fear of a second spike and a cast member coming down with symptoms, which means we would have to stop the show while everyone self-isolates for two weeks… at the moment, for the producers, there is no insurance cover for that happening.”

Martin Dodd (UK Productions have ten pantos with links to thirty more) agreed with Laura’s opinion and emphasised the importance of eradicating social distancing entirely. “There’s a huge question-mark hanging over whether you can get the same audience levels as before, but obviously with social distancing we can’t; we know that with social distancing we can’t put shows on. But even when you lose social distancing you’ve still got the threat of further lockdowns, quarantine, self-isolation… and it’s not even restricted to the cast and crew. We saw it with the pubs where they were allowed to open and just two days later some of them were closing back down, because somebody had been in the pub who had tested positive for Covid-19. So they were closed for a week or two.”

Pantomimes, the size that UK Productions are used to delivering, can’t think about opening without packed audiences. “If this [self-isolating] applies to a panto we’re losing two shows a day, every day,” Martin points out. “And it’s not just the cast; it’s the whole production process that’s affected. With panto you’ve got such a short time to recoup your outlay. You only have about four and a half weeks to get your money back on basically staging a new musical production. So we can’t afford to lose entire days, let alone weeks.”

Laura mentions some of the other reasons why pantomime needs every seat filled. “The great thing about theatre, why people love it so much, is because it’s a collective experience. You’re there with hundreds, if not thousands, of other people who are all watching the same thing at the same time. To have 20% of your audience – especially for pantomime which is so interactive and needs a packed auditorium shouting at the stage – then it really doesn’t do the genre justice.”

Sardines also spoke with pantomime playwrights, Ben Crocker and Tom Whalley, who both rely on the amateur sector for a large portion of their annual licenses. Ben is well aware of the fine line between amateur and professional panto productions: “Both the amateur and professional sectors are definitely linked; but the amateur productions are not risking so much money. Obviously they DO risk money, but it’s a different financial equation. For a start they’re not paying a star what could be tens of thousands of pounds a week. Also, I think the amateur and the professional markets are differently driven. As mentioned, the amateurs can welcome far more risk, but perhaps in the same way that they’re always looking for different titles to perform. The big professional companies of course like to stick to the regular half a dozen titles. But whether you’re amateur or professional, panto is a vital part of the whole ecosystem, so they are all in the same boat on that front.”

Ben Crocker licensed three hundred productions last year, the vast majority of which were to amateurs. “As far as the amateur sector is concerned, it can be more flexible,” he told me, before suggesting that the amateur arena isn’t as confined as its professional counterparts. “I’m not in any way saying that it’s easy for amateurs; it’s very, very difficult. But every amateur society is different and, unlike the professionals they’re not stuck having to perform over Christmas. They can play later in the year, maybe look towards an Easter panto? If a vaccine IS becoming available around Christmas then the late-February-Easter option starts to look possible.”

Tom Whalley has spent lockdown getting back to his Geordie roots while living with his family back in Newcastle-upon-Tyne; a situation which the playwright was more than happy to put up with. Tom’s panto scripts are performed by both amateur and professionals all over the world. “The public feeling and confidence is very much influenced by the media I feel,” Tom told me in an understandably cynical tone. “A headline or comment from a broadcaster can easily start a mad panic for plain flour and loo rolls or paranoia about local lockdowns. Obviously optimism doesn’t sell as many newspapers or garner as many clicks online.”

Similar to our two producers, Tom also feels that social distancing is a non-starter for panto: “He’s (two metres) behind you!” is my fitting punishment for coming up with the idea of speaking with a panto writer. “As much as I think a ‘socially distanced’ pantomime horse would be a sight for sore eyes I can’t see it working, no. Any type of theatre will suffer the effects of social distancing. Pantomime needs to play to packed houses to make them viable: coach loads of excited kids; care homes popping in for a matinee; whole families coming together from around the world. With distancing measures in place, most theatres can only sell to 30% capacity and they simply cannot afford to run a show at a loss. Especially with the Olivier Award-winning production values that major pantomimes now boast – and many audience members have come to expect.”

Tom also refers to a potential vaccine but, whether that is wishful thinking to save this year’s season is another thing. “I hear down the grapevine that social distancing will be a thing of the past come November but with everything being so conditional, it’s impossible to prepare for panto like any other year. To anyone outside ‘the business’, discussions of Christmas this early always seems laughably premature though we know of course that preparations often begin long before the curtain has come down on last year’s show. Christmas without pantomime will be like Christmas without turkey to hundreds of thousands of families across the UK and the public outcry, I fear, will come too late.”

Laura Taylor explains more about the usual preparation time for one of Imagine’s regular seasonal shows. “Usually, we have a whole year of sales patterns. We normally go on sale for the following year as soon as we open a show and ANY blip in the road on your ticket sales will have a detrimental effect, so to have your whole marketing campaign and sales stopped for six months… we haven’t even been able to announce a star name!

“The usual production cycle is to work eighteen months ahead, so we already know what title and production will go where the year before. Then, as I say, we get all of the performance schedules and ticket prices signed off and ready to go on sale from the previous December. As soon as one panto season is done we go straight into casting and, in an ideal world, we like to get casting announced in February or March. Of course, all of that has had to be put on hold as well plus, behind the scenes, as well as the casting we’re arranging photo shoots, getting artwork designed and organising large school groups to come. So by May we normally have a substantial amount of money in the box office – and all of that has just stopped. We haven’t even been able to get into the stores or offices as we’ve all been working from home.”

Like Tom Whalley, Ben Crocker appears to be holding out for a vaccine to reinstate public confidence. He also reiterates the ability for amateur companies to boast a great deal of flexibility: “I think it’ll be a vaccine that will boost public confidence enough to bring people back into theatres. And I think the amateur market has enough flexibility to capitalise on that if one comes at the end of the year. But as I say, ‘who knows?’ Literally, nobody knows! We’re all making this up as we’re going along, without exception.

“Even the very few who were alive just after the First World War, when we had the flu pandemic in 1918-19, would have themselves been babies. There is nobody with living memory of anything like this,” continues Ben, alluding to the previously un-encountered aspect of the pandemic. “After the Second World War everything bounced back pretty quickly, but there wasn’t a virus to contend with at that time. My parents were both professional actors and were pretty much working directly after the war ended; they were young actors in Rep. But you only have to look back after the 1918-19 flu pandemic to the Roaring Twenties, when things had got back to normal. That’s the year after. So, we just have to keep our fingers crossed.”

As playwright’s, both Ben and Tom have waived any financial penalties for societies that do need to reschedule to next year. “The amateur market, for me, is a much larger part of my licensing base,” Ben told me. “Obviously I want them to be able to take a punt… and knowing it’s not really even a punt because it can be transferred to next year if necessary. Most people also think that, ‘If we want to do Puss in Boots, Cinderella or Treasure Island,’ – whatever it may be – ‘and we can’t, then it doesn’t mean we don’t want to do it next year.’ A lot of societies know that they simply cannot perform this year. They might have a venue for a week, but at a certain time only. And if they can’t have it for whatever reason then it just has to roll over until next year. There are almost as many different sets of circumstances as there are societies aren’t there?

“Everybody’s in a slightly different boat. But the one thing I really have noticed about the amateur sector is that everybody’s very ingenious and they’re usually able to come up with a solution, in all sorts of ways. Within their memberships they’ve normally got people from all walks of life, providing many different areas of expertise. There’s always somebody who’ll be a wizard at something and will blow your socks off.”

“While there has been a perfectly understandable drop in perusal copy requests, my clients are desperate to come back together and get back to doing what they love and do best,” agrees Tom. “I introduced a Covid-secure, no-quibble postponement clause so that any licensed productions though Tom Whalley Pantomimes can be delayed and rescheduled at no additional charge. This has helped many groups book their scripts with confidence for 2020, Easter and even Christmas 2021.”

“I’ve also had groups seeking to use the scripts in new, creative ways,” reports Tom before explaining that an amateur pantomime is definitely not just for Christmas. “One client is using my Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates script for a swashbuckling summer school; developing a whole week of fun activities teaching children about the history of pantomime and piracy culminating in an online pantomime performance. I can’t wait to see it.”

That is for this year, of course. Martin Dodd isn’t so confident that things will get back to normal anytime soon: “Without wishing to be too pessimistic, I wouldn’t bet on being in a better position this time next year,” he told me (in a slightly depressing tone). “Without a vaccine it’s going to take a long time to get back to normal and we’ll [‘Theatre’] be at the bottom of the list when it comes to relaxing the rules and also people having the confidence to return. The reason is simple; people don’t have to do it. They might sit on an aeroplane because they really want to go on holiday and only have a small window of opportunity but when it comes to paying for a ticket to sit in a theatre where they might risk catching the virus, they could just say, ‘I’ll go next month instead.’ So, it’ll be a slow return to normal but I hope I’m wrong!”

Laura Taylor took an arguably more diplomatic route: “I think some of it is a lack of understanding. Don’t get me wrong; I would not want to be in a politician’s shoes at the moment, as I think they’ve got an impossible task ahead of them trying to manage this, so I do sympathise a lot. But I think saying things like, ‘you can open theatres without live performance,’ then it’s not theatre is it; it becomes a cinema or hospitality through the restaurant.”

Martin Dodd isn’t impressed by the Government’s reaction to the crisis either. Regarding the guidelines that were issued he says: “They don’t seem to have been written by anyone who’s had to run a show backstage. They’re Just not practical for large shows; one-way systems, actors in their own bubbles only with the other actors they’re actually acting within the show. They clearly haven’t accounted for putting shows the size of musicals into many of our very old theatres, especially for short runs or touring. From Sardines’ point of view it must be even worse because a few of the guidelines say it’s possible to do some things only if it’s a professional production, and therefore you have to assume that it will be even further down the road before amateur theatre can get the full go ahead.”

The pros and cons of participating in ‘theatre’ – as a hobby – is perhaps the subject of another article. For now, it’s obvious that Martin Dodd is facing some impossible decisions, as well as being completely passionate about producing pantomime. “Even if the Government said that theatres didn’t have to socially distance, returning would still be very difficult from a financial point of view as we are unable to get insurance cover against Covid-related show cancellations. It may have been better If the £1.5 billion, or better still another fund, was used for a cancellation insurance scheme which would be a positive force to get the industry working again. Producers and theatres could take the risk that the public will want to return, knowing that we could call on this pot of money if cancellations happened. That might get things going a lot quicker although we still haven’t seen the detail yet for the grants. I hope that ourselves and others in the supply chain may qualify for some help but apart from the very welcome Furlough scheme unfortunately we didn’t qualify to get even a rates rebate from the retail, hospitality and leisure grant!” …and Martin Dodd’s UK Productions is also in the business of hiring out entire stage sets and costumes to both the amateur and professional markets (housed in five large warehouses across three different sites!).

Ben Crocker agrees that there are plenty of suppliers to theatre companies (many of whom are amateur) who have also fallen victim to the shutdown. “The people, I imagine, who must be having a really tough time at the moment are people such as the costumiers, lighting hire companies, sets, wigs… We obviously sell to the same people but at least I don’t have the overheads and investment in stock. All that kind of thing costs money to operate. We’re all in an impossible situation and, as we’ve said, nobody’s been here before. Whatever happens, mistakes will be made.”

One thing that everybody completely agrees with is that way back in March nobody foresaw the kind of challenges we are all now facing. “Who could have seen this coming?” replied Tom Whalley. “I was very optimistic back in March, reading every article I could find and convincing myself that it was ‘only March’ and things would eventually return to normal in good time. As the reality of the world’s reaction started to become more stark and the question mark over the 2020 pantomime season remained, it became clear that I (both as a resident pantomime performer as well as a writer) needed to prepare for the worst but hope for the best.”

“I think when we went into lockdown in March, everyone had their eyes on China, which was just coming out of their own lockdown,” agrees Laura Taylor. “So we thought, ‘OK, well it’s going to be twelve weeks of hell and then we’re all going to come out of it on the other side.’ I don’t think, at that point, any one of us would have predicted the length and the detrimental effect it was going to have. The trouble is there’s no end date to all of this which is slightly worrying, isn’t it.”

I had The Kite Runner on the road when lockdown came in,” recalls Martin. “We’d literally only played three weeks following rehearsals and had to close the whole thing. With the best will in the world I don’t think it’s going to get better before the spring. The only thing that’s going to change anything is if we get a vaccine.

For the last word, we’ll happily hand over to Ben Crocker: “I think that whatever happens this year, whichever market you wish to focus on it’ll be a very subdued year, and everybody understands that. But I do think that the moment it becomes viable to start to bounce back, I think it will happen with gusto. There will be a real yearning for those community experiences. Again, in the amateur world, I think that community aspect is such an important part of everything. That’s why it’s a slightly different equation to the professional shows. Amateur productions will offer a financially viable way to create that very British seasonal entertainment that we all love.”

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Cancelled 2020 productions…

Since Qdos made its big announcement on Monday, 3 August, December’s regular pantomime slot for this year’s season has been shrinking faster than a pot plant in the summer sunshine. However, the announcements are almost entirely professional and we’ve heard very little from amateur societies that might be waiting in the wings ready to reclaim the pantomime stage.
Here’s a list of the shows that have already cut their losses and announced rescheduled dates for 2021. This is only a snapshot and you can bet there are lots more to come. It’s a long and truly tragic list!

Adam Smith Theatre; Kirkcaldy, Snow White, Imagine Theatre – Dates: 5 Dec – 3 Jan
Anvil Arts, Basingstoke; Beauty and the Beast, UK Productions – Dates: 10 Dec – 3 Jan
Arts Depot, London; Aladdin, Arts Depot – Dates: 4 Dec – 3 Jan
Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Evolution – Dates: 11 Dec – 3 Jan
Birmingham Hippodrome; Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Qdos – Dates: 19 Dec – 31 Jan
Blackpool Grand; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, UK Productions – Dates: 4 Dec – 3 Jan
Blackpool Winter Gardens; Cinderella, Charming Pantomimes – Dates: 13 Dec – 3 Jan
Bolton Albert Halls; Beauty and the Beast, Polka Dot Pantomimes – Dates: 28 Nov – 31 Dec
Bolton Victoria Hall; Snow White, Joseph Purdy Productions – Dates: 21 Nov – 28 Dec
Buxton Opera House; Aladdin, Scene 3 Creative – Dates: 12 Dec – 1 Jan
The Byre Theatre, St Andrews; Title not listed, The Byre Theatre – Dates: Not listed
Central Theatre, Chatham; Peter Pan, Jordan Productions – Dates: 10 Dec – 3 Jan
The Clifties; Title not listed, The Clifties – Dates: Feb 2021
Curve Leicester; The Wizard Of Oz, Really Useful Group – Dates: 28 Nov – 16 Jan
Durham Gala Theatre; Robin Hood, Gala Theatre – Dates: 25 Nov – 10 Jan
Empire Theatre, Consett; Treasure Island, Leah Bell – Dates: 27 Nov – 31 Dec
Encore Theatre Company; Cinderella, Encore Theatre Company – Dates: Not listed
Exeter Northcott Theatre; Robin Hood, Northcott Theatre – Dates: 5 Dec – 10 Jan
Falkirk FTH Theatre; Beauty and the Beast, Imagine Theatre – Dates: 11 Dec – 30 Dec
Glasgow Tron Theatre; The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, Tron Theatre Company – Dates: 26 Nov – 10 Jan
Grand Opera House, Belfast; Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Qdos – Dates: 28 Nov – 10 Jan
Guildhall Arts Centre, Grantham; Jack and the Beanstalk, Polka Dot Pantomimes – Dates: 15 Dec – 3 Jan
Hackney Empire; Jack and the Beanstalk, Hackney Empire – Dates: 21 Nov – 3 Jan
Harrogate Theatre; Cinderella, Harrogate Theatre – Dates: 25 Nov – 24 Jan
Hexagon Reading; Beauty and the Beast, Imagine Theatre – Dates: 5 Dec – 3 Jan
Hilton Metropole, Brighton; Aladdin, E3 Events – Dates: Not listed
His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen; Beauty and the Beast, Qdos – Dates: 28 Nov – 3 Jan
Kilmarnock Palace Theatre; Aladdin, Imagine Theatre – Dates: 27 Nov – 30 Dec
Kings Theatre, Edinburgh; Sleeping Beauty, Qdos – Dates: 28 Nov – 17 Jan
Kings Theatre, Portsmouth; Peter Pan, Mark Thompson Productions – Dates: 5 Dec – 3 Jan
Loughborough Town Hall; Aladdin, Little Wolf Entertainment – Dates: 21 Nov – 3 Jan
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre; Aladdin, Lyric Hammersmith – Dates: 14 Nov – 3 Jan
Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury; Jack and the Beanstalk, Evolution – Dates: 26 Nov – 21 Dec
New Theatre, Cardiff; Aladdin, Qdos – Dates: 5 Dec – 10 Jan
New Theatre, Hull; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Qdos – Dates: 12 Dec – 3 Jan
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth; Cinderella, Jordan Productions – Dates: 16 Dec – 2 Jan
Norwich Theatre Royal; Dick Whittington and His Cat, Norwich Theatre Royal – Dates: 8 Dec – 10 Jan
Peterborough New Theatre; Aladdin, Prime Pantomimes – Dates: 12 Dec – 31 Dec
Phoenix Theatre Group; Dick Whittington, Evesham Arts Centre – Dates: 20 Jan – 24 Jan
Porthcawl Grand Pavillion; Aladdin, Imagine Theatre – Dates: 11 Dec – 3 Jan
Princes Theatre, Clacton; Jack and the Beanstalk, Anton Benson Productions – No dates listed
Queen’s Theatre, Barnstaple; Cinderella, Prime Pantomimes – Dates: 11 Dec – 3 Jan
Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch; Aladdin, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch – Dates: 26 Nov – 3 Jan
Rotherham Civic Theatre; Aladdin, Imagine Theatre – Dates: 4 Dec – 10 Jan
Salisbury Playhouse; Cinderella, Wiltshire Creative – Dates: 28 Nov – 10 Jan
The Savoy Theatre, Monmouth; Jack and the Beanstalk, Spontaneous productions – Dates: 14 Dec – 1 Jan
Sheffield Lyceum; Sleeping Beauty, Evolution – Dates: 4 Dec – 3 Jan
South Holland Centre, Spalding; Dick Whittington, Polka Dot Pantomimes – Dates: 9 Dec – 30 Dec
South Shields Customs House; Rapunzel, Customs House – Dates: 25 Nov – 3 Jan
Southampton Mayflower; Cinderella, Qdos – Dates: 11 Dec – 3 Jan
Southport Waterfront Theatre; Peter Pan, Shone Productions – Dates: 11 Dec – 30 Dec
The Spotlight, Hoddesdon; Peter Pan, PHA Pantomimes – Dates: 11 Dec – 31 Dec
Stafford Gatehouse Theatre; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Prime Pantomimes – Dates: 11 Dec – 3 Jan
Stirling Macrobert Arts Theatre; Mother Goose, Macrobert Arts Theatre – Dates: 27 Nov – 4 Jan
Theatr Clwyd; Beauty and the Beast, Theatr Clwyd – Dates: 20 Nov – 16 Jan
Theatre Royal, Nottingham; Robin Hood, Qdos – Dates: 5 Dec – 10 Jan
Theatre Royal, Stratford East; Red Riding Hood, Theatre Royal Stratford East – Dates: 21 Nov – 9 Jan
Theatre Royal, Wakefield; Beauty and the Beast, Theatre Royal Wakefield – Dates: 19 Nov – 3 Jan
Welwyn Garden City Campus West; Jack and the Beanstalk, Campus West – Dates: 10 Dec – 2 Jan
Wolverhampton Grand Theatre; Cinderella, Wolverhampton Grand – Dates: 5 Dec – 10 Jan
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford; Robin Hood, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre – Dates: 4 Dec – 3 Jan