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.