Shaping the scenes.
Just as the complete pantomime needs shaping, so do the individual scenes within it. A good analogy is with a piece of music with themes coming and going and being repeated in slightly changed forms. Let’s move from the sublime to the ridiculous. Here are two rules…
1. Everyone should come in running and go off running
2. The situation must change during the course of a scene. That is, each scene must add something to the story and/or to the audience’s understanding of the story.
Rule 1 is to be broken frequently in the letter but hardly ever in the spirit. Rule 2 should never be broken at all.
More about the rules.
Rule 1 can more acceptably be put as “anyone who comes on must have a good reason for coming – anyone who goes off must have a good reason for going”.
Rule 2 is that each scene must change the situation. Think of the beginning and ending of the scene. A scene should begin with a high point and end with a higher point.
As the plot winds up (that’s until the last of the action scenes), the tension should be higher at the end of every scene than at the beginning. Towards the end, when the tension is being resolved, the requirement is not so strong. Ends of course have to be real resolutions of the plot with the “Oh thank goodness it’s all worked out” factor. “Oh, thank goodness she’s escaped”, “Oh thank goodness she’s married the prince” or whatever.
A few things about specific scenes. Mostly random thoughts that don’t fit anywhere else:
Opening scene: Should start with a bit of a bang to get the plot moving, before the scene ends. A song is nice, getting the whole cast on at the start (a tradition in commercial panto) is probably more bother than it’s worth, particularly if you are managing a cast of children.
Scene 2: Commonly used to introduce the comic characters, and to do such explanation of the plot as is necessary. Sometimes a talk to the audience by the Dame character, works well, but there is nothing set in stone about this scheme.
Slapstick scene: The audience (especially children) love slapstick scenes and so do the cast. Traditionally these are either food fights or wallpapering scenes. Food is probably psychologically best, as it contrasts effectively with the magic element of pantomime. Costume people and stage hands hate slapstick as it is mess to clear up. But such scenes are worth their weight in gold.
Community Songs: The audience love a good community song and the best time for it, is after the action is over and before the final scene. It should be a song that the audience will know well, or changed words to a well-known tune. ‘Darling Clementine’ or something else that is easily singable. The words should be relevant to the audience and the occasion, but don’t need to be relevant to the plot as the show has almost ended.
Final scene: This should be short and sharp, but be sure to give time for everyone to take their bow and have their applause. A reprise of the best song is often a good way to end.
So, read through your chosen script (preferably aloud and recorded) and be ruthless about things that need changing or cutting. Seek a second opinion, and heed it.
It’s fun for characters to speak in verse, but the danger is they use a couplet to express every thought. Consider the following two pieces and then aim for the latter.
“We are the fairies of the wood,
We’re always kind and always good.
We’ve come here in the darkest night,
To help save beautiful Snow White.”
“We are the fairies brave and bright,
We’ve come to save our dear Snow White.”
Used to heighten the mood, comment on the story, and probably just because the audience like a good tune. These are the reasons to have it in your panto, and also because the actors like to sing it.
You can use music specially written for your panto. But there is a good case for using existing songs, that the audience will know. Ideally the song should move the story forward (for example the Principal Boy And Principal Girl can sing a duet to establish that they are in love). But a strong story can withstand several songs that are put in for just the fun of it. (in a weak story the song is often a merciful relief for the audience, from the weak story)
Where should songs be placed?
- Chorus songs at the beginning and end of each act.
- Comic song in the middle of act 1 and maybe in act 2 but don’t break the action.
- A couple of solos or duets where they are needed to bolster the emotional content (or just where the actors want them or where you have thought of an idea that seems too good to throw away.
Cast – Children.
Rule 1: Give them lines with real emotions to portray. Don’t underestimate them, they will probably be better at understanding emotions than you are. There is an age, up to about seven, where your actors will not understand much. But even then a good story will help.
Rule 2: Don’t give them adult jokes. This can at times be an irresistible temptation and will probably get a laugh, but should be avoided if not absolutely necessary for the story. Just revise them carefully and cut out most such jokes (about politics, local affairs, sex and so on). The appeal of children in panto comes from their ability to be themselves. Let them be naturally cute or not cute at all. Adults idea of cute is awful. All children are not brilliant actors, but all children can enjoy it if you show them how. Imitation is how children learn, so don’t deny it them in the field of creativity.
The chance to be a star is something that every child needs. Children also relish wicked parts. These give them the opportunity to be wicked without any consequences. It is wonderful for them. This is another reason for avoiding adult jokes.
The time when they say “their” lines is often a worry for children. Try and make groups of people (seven dwarves for example) always talk in the same order as this will help them to get used to their cue line. Don’t make too much of learning the script. Most kids take it in their stride, particularly if they are expected to. An expectation that all the lines will come, is often all you need.
Try and avoid getting parents involved in teaching their children the script, as it is almost always counter-productive. The social and political rivalry and the determination that their child should be the best, can make life a real misery for the director and destroy a show. You can expect parent management to be as much of a problem as child management.
Cast – Adult.
Remember actors are acting mostly to please the directors. If you leave it to them, and expect it all to come from “inside” they will not have a clue what to do and, come the performance, this fact will be obvious. Show your actors what you want. First they will imitate you, then they will grow into it and, if they are good, they will grow beyond what you showed them. Some will, some won’t.
Be willing to alter your script to please your actors, but don’t go to the point of destroying the plot. In the same vein, be ready to throw away lines the actor hates, even if you love them. Don’t make the villains totally comic, this destroys the plot and eventually destroys the play. You need to let children be funny too. That is good for them as well.
- Your panto must have a good mythical plot.
- Include the main traditional elements.
- Mustn’t be too “poetic”
- Don’t indulge yourself by filling it with personal jokes and self-references.
- And finally. If it’s not funny or doesn’t help with the plot – cut it!