The two golden rules of writing an English pantomime.

  1. Aim for a masterpiece . (you will hit below your aim,  so don't aim low!)
  2. Have a strong plot - without it there is nothing for the fancies and furbelows of the pantomime to hang on.

The pantomime tradition is a wonderful gift that has:

  • A strong plot with mythical overtones. (Fairy stories have deep psychological roots - think Jung and Bettelheim - see links on the "Story" page) - and have been honed by telling thousands of times.
  • The dame and other comic characters let you comment on the myth and magic from an earthy point of view
  • Music is there to carry the emotion and to connect with the audience.
  • Supernatural characters let you explore deeper than the everyday.
  • A sympathetic audience who know the traditions.  This gets you half waythere before you start.
  • Think what Shakespeare and Mozart have done with this and try to do the same! Don't aim low.

  • William Shakespeare and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are the natural heroes of pantomime writers.  Shakespeare because: 1. He was willing and able to introduce comedy into the midst of high seriousness (the porter in Mac Beth, the skull in Hamlet and so on) 2. Because the nurse in Romeo and Juliet is the prototypical pantomime Dame (and maybe) 3 because "As you like it" is so full of cross dressing.  Mozart because "The Magic Flute" is a kind of pantomime written by a genius and the other operas mix  the comic and the poignant and even the tragic with such brilliance and panache.  So think Shakespeare and Mozart as you write, and you won't aim low  Who knows, you could write a masterpiece.  Of course you don't have to know, or like, Shakespeare or Mozart to write a brilliant pantomime.  Think Star Wars or Spielberg and model yourself on what you think is brilliant.  Just don't model yourself on something the next village or the local theatre (or the television!) did last year that you didn't like.  Aim high!

    A note on the English pantomime

    This essay teaches the best way to write a pantomime script (an English pantomime script).  Pantomime is a form that is serious, comic, absurd, poetic and surreal all at the same time.  It talks about the English pantomime, which is very different from European and American ideas of pantomime.  If you do not know the tradition, follow the Tradition link at the end of the next section where I summarize the tradition very briefly.  This link leads to other sites that cover the subject in greater depth.  

    The site is written by Nick Mellersh who has written twenty or so pantomimes to largely rapturous success (though I say it myself!).  I have tried always to treat the pantomime as an important art form and the site aims to encourage this.  Pantomime is the last living folk art  in England.  It offers wonderful possibilities though many are widely ignored.  It would be sad if English Pantomime dies.  But if people fail to see beyond the tired old jokes, and the vanities brought to it by self indulgent writers and actors,  pantomime will surely die - and deservedly so.  I hope this site helps you join me in the crusade to keep pantomime as a brilliant, vibrant, poetic work of art.  And one that can be seen all over the UK every year.

    The English pantomime tradition

    Pantomime has a comic tradition that lets you say anything combined with a magical tradtion that lets the story fly beyond the everyday.   

    In more prosaic terms, English pantomime is a Christmas entertainment based on a fairy tale. It is supposedly for children and is an English childs first experience of live theatre. English pantomime is:

    A Fairy Story PLUS

    1. Plus the Dame character. This character acts as a kind of earthy chorus much like the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, except of course that everything is much broader and we know that there will be a happy ending. The dame is absurdly overdressed and, to add a further sexual frisson, is traditionally played by a man in drag.

    2. Plus a broad style that emphasises audience participation. There is much warning of the hero by shouting "He's behind you" and so on
    3. Plus music and spectacle. The whole thing is supported by song and dressed to look spectacular.

    There are other traditions too but none that are central to making it work.

    The most noticeable of these other traditions is that the hero is often played by a woman in tights. I still cannot find a good dramatic justification for this. Maybe young kids are less frightened by a woman. Certainly men like seeing women's legs and this must be a good commercial justification.

    Another tradition is that the witches and the fairies traditionally talk in verse (usually rhyming pentameters). This can work well as a differentiating device. Shakespeare always used it to divorce the high characters from the low – also it is fun to write and, if reasonably written, fun to act.

    If you want to know more, go to history of pantomime page or try English Pantomime in one of the search engines.

    Choosing the story

    The smart way is to make traditional fairy stories your choice. The reason is not far to seek. It is because (as Jung and Bettelheim have pointed out) they have a story of mythic content with which people of all ages and most especially children can identify. Also the plot has been honed by thousands of story tellers before you so a lot of the work is already done.  Since we began talking of Shakespeare and Mozart it's worth pointing out that Shakespeare invented very few of his plots, whereas Mozart's Magic Flute was completely invented  (mostly by Emanuel Schikaneder the librettist in fact.)  The point is that the plotline of the Magic Flute is its weakness.  So don't be ashamed of picking your story from elsewhere.  And if you don't try telling your plot as a story to a sympathetic friend and see if it works! (There is more about Schikaneder in the Endnotes at the end of this essay.)

    Snow White and Cinderella have the ideal structure for a pantomime story: an initial crisis – a recovery from it – an even worse crisis – and a wedding. Here it is spelt out a bit more fully.

     

    Cinderella

    Snow White

    Initial Crisis

    Step mother and ugly sisters arrive

    Wicked queen throws out Snow White

    First recovery

    Fairy Godmother helps her to the ball

    Rescued by the dwarves

    Happy interlude

    Finds Prince

    Happy home making for dwarves

    Worse Crisis

    Lose touch with prince

    Witch poisons Snow White

    Final Recovery

    Glass slipper

    Kiss by prince

    Wedding

    Marries prince

    Marries prince

    A form like this is ideal as it breaks naturally into two halves – the second half starting with the happy interlude and then marching forwards fast to the final crisis and resolution.

    Beauty and the Beast is another good one. Other fairy stories do not seem to work so well but can be made to fit. Aladdin, much used in the commercial theatre, seems to me to be impossible because it has the wedding in the middle.

    If you reject fairy stories, you will need to find something else that has mythic resonance. I have used space operas (Star Trek and Flash Gordon) horror stories (Frankenstein), the jungle (Tarzan) cowboys and Indians (Hiawatha). Superheroes look a good possibility but remember they are heavily covered by copyright as, incidentally, are the well-known names for the seven dwarves. – Disney Corp is definitely the wicked stepmother here.  Other possibilities that strike me are, becoming a pop star with a Nasty Nigel figure as the villain and Mills and Boon stories.

    Why do you need a myth?

    Two simple reasons:

    1. So your actors have real emotions to portray
    2. So the audience has a real plot to respond to.

    Myths have deep resonance inside us all and if you try to put the clothing of the panto onto a non mythic story (or still worse onto no story at all) the actors and the audience will have nothing to respond to. The trappings of a pantomime do not work unless they are dressing something that matters to the audience and actors. So settle for myth or don't do it at all.

    Are fairy stories still relevant?

    There has been over the past 40 years or so a lot of criticism of fairy tales as painting a false and destructive picture of women as submissive creatures totally dependant on a man. This is basically a failure to see the substance through the trappings. Cinderella (to address the classic case) is the story of a woman escaping from the influence of a powerful mother figure so that she can herself grow and in turn become a mother. This is something that all women who have children must do. Don't be scared away from fairy stories by views that are no longer fashionable and are fortunately now well past their sell-by date. 

    Of course you can happily dress your heroine in contemporary clothes, give her ambitions to be a business executive or a champion boxer or a field marshal, the stories are strong enough to accept such trappings which really have little more meaning than the traditional crinoline. Above all give your heroine some good lines, she is the star of the show.

    How to get the right overall structure

    Best basic structure is the simplest and the simplest is this:

    Division into halves

    Divide the story into 2 halves with two crises. The second crisis is normally the first crisis writ large. The first half should end with the resolution of the first crisis and (maybe) rumblings of the second crisis on the horizon. The second half should be shorter faster and more dramatic than the first. The time for not-quite-relevant scenes and songs is in the first half, maybe at the start of the second, and (just possibly) as a sort of teaser at the crux of the action.

    Telling the story

    The plot should be bought in early on, preferably in scene 1. Pantos traditionally do not have subplots – the comic element is more a chorus commenting on the main plot. Comic scenes can be effectively `interspersed between plot scenes in the first half. This has the advantage of allowing the comic scenes to be played on the front of the scenes and gives time for the scenery to be changed at the back. (Pantos give you the possibility of having beautiful scenery so use it.)

    The second half should have fewer comic scenes (maybe one or two) and, those there are, should move the plot forward. The plot is getting exciting and the audience are getting restive if you throw in too much irrelevance. Pantos traditionally end the plot 2 scenes before the end of the panto. The last scene but one is a community song. The final scene is the wedding and the applause for the actors and, maybe, a reprise of the best song. Keep the final scene short and sharp. It is often a problem in commercial panto which typically uses new spectacular costumes to breathe some life into it – for me this rarely works.

    This chart shows the general dramatic intensity as the show moves through time.  The general direction is up with the second half faster and more dramatic than the first.  In this chart "Drama" includes music and laughter as well as action.

    The plot, comedy, music mix

    Here is a chart that you may like to compare your plot with. It is a sort of idealised panto showing where you want the music humour and story (which normally means action not talk . The chart shows a sensible mix of plot/music/comedy across a 12 scene pantomime. You may think that this is both prescriptive and mechanical – you're right. But you are an intelligent person and perfectly capable of taking what you want from instructions and ignoring the rest.  Playwrighting is a craft as well as an art. If you are not using the analytical side of your brain, you won't write as good a pantomime as you would if you did. There are lots of other ways to do it, but it is worth looking at your mix when the script is written and seeing how well balanced it is.

    Notice most importantly that plot appears in every scene until the end

    Scene 1:  Start plot, establish main characters, maybe have a song

    Scene 2:  Establish comic characters, Dame and others.  Time for plot explanation.

    Scene 3:  Time for a good song but keep the plot moving

    Scene 4:  Pre-crisis scene.  Plot is paramount.  Season with music and comedy as seems right.

    Scene 5:  Crisis resolved with comic assistance.  Move on to ...

    Scene 6:  Maybe a happy song and comedy with perhaps the shadow of crisis 2 hovering in the background.

    Interval:

    Scene 7.  Post interval.  Happy song and comedy.  But ends with the beginning of crisis 2.

    Scene 8:  Time for comic relief but keep the crisis 2 rolling.

    Scene 9:  Leading up to crisis 2.  All plot

    Scene 10:  Climax.  Resolution of crisis 2.  Plot completed end with comedy and maybe a song.

    Scene 11:  Community song.  Time for the audience to let their hair down and the cast to get ready for their final bows.

    Scene 12:  Keep it fast and sweet with maybe a reprise of the best song.  Don't drag it out, but give all your cast the chance to be acknowledged by their fans.

    How to shape 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.

    Lets 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 in 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 plaot 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.

    Here are some scene shapes to aim for and others avoid.

    Scene shape charts

    Here are three good shapes:

    Remember the highs may be action or emotion or comedy or some combination of the three.

    1. Good beginning – average middle – dramatic end. A good shape but watch for boredom mid-scene. 2. Medium beginning – work down and up to a dramatic ending. Probably the best shape. Drama can reduce a little at the end unless the plot is winding up fast. 3. Slow beginning – a little bit slower – works up to a climax. Can be a good shape if it follows a big action scene.

    Here are three bad shapes:

    1. Slow beginning – dramatic middle – slow end. If you write one of these, see if you can stop in the middle at the high point 2. Dramatic beginning – fizzling down – and out. Maybe start earlier in the action and build up to the drama you have placed at the beginning. Nothing much happens at any time.  Throw it away!!  Or if you can't, at least give it a surprise ending.  Have the scenery fall down or something!  "Exit pursued by a bear" says Billy!

    Special scenes

    A few things about specific scenes.  Mostly random thoughts that don't fit anywhere else:

    Opening scene:  Try to start with a bit of a bang and try 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:  I've always used this to introduce the comic characters and to do such explanation of the plot as is necessary.  I tend to use a talk to the audience by the Dame character.  It works well, but there is nothing sacred about this scheme.

    Slapstick scene:  I love slapstick scenes and so do the cast if you are working with children.  Adults are harder I imagine because they are more self-conscious and so the audience is not naturally on their side.  Traditions are the food scene and the wall paper scene.  Food is probably psychologically best because it contrasts effectively with the magic element of pantomime.  Costume people and stage hands hate slapstick as it is mess to clear up.  But if you can, include it.  It is worth its 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 has to be a song that the audience will know, so a good idea is to give new words to a well known tune - Clementine or something else that is easily singable.  The words should be relevant to the audience and the occasion - by this time there is no need to keep them relevant to the plot.

    Final scene:  Keep the final scene 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.

    The dangers of writing a "masterpiece"

    There is of course a danger in trying to write a masterpiece.  The traditional advice has been "if you write something that you feel is particularly fine, put it in the desk drawer for three years.  Then take it out and throw it away."  There is a danger in being too "poetic".  If you've aimed for a masterpiece, read your piece through (preferably aloud and recorded) and be ruthless about such things.  Seek a second opinion, and heed it if  the holder of it thinks you are going over the top.  But don't aim low "man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's heaven for?" as Billy would, no doubt, have said, if Browning hadn't said it after him.

    Writing verse

    It's fun to write in verse but the danger is you take a couplet to express every thought:  Consider these two pieces:

    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.

    Neither has much merit!!  But the second is half the length.  So watch for make-weight lines that are used only to make a rhyme and cut them out.  Shakespeare had a knack for keeping verse tight, so try looking at Richard II if you don't like my samples.

    How to use music

    "If music be the food of love, play on".  No question Shakespear was almost as fond of music as Mozart and used it to heighten the mood, comment on the story, and probably just because the audience like a good tune.  These are the reasons to put it in the panto, and also because the actors like to sing it.

    I have always had the music specially written for the pantos I've done. It is good in that it makes for a totally original performance. But there is a good case for using existing songs. The audience know them for a start.

    Ideally the song should move the story forward (for example Beauty and the Beast can sing a duet to establish that they are in love). But a strong story can stand several songs that are put in for just the fun of it. (In a weak story the song is often a merciful relief from the weak story – at least it is something different for the audience.

    Here is a sort of recipe you may want to follow:

    • 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 a an idea that seems too good to throw away

    • Writing for children

    Since we are talking about Mozart it might be said that being a child prodigy can be a pretty bad training for being an adult.  But maybe being an ordinary child isn't either.  In, in a way, all children are prodigies  They are often more perceptive and intelligent than us adults.  Hence these rules for writing pantomimes for children.

    Rule 1:  Give them a story with real emotions to portray.  Don't underestimate them - remember 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 story will help.  After that, expect them to understand everything.

    Rule 2:  Don't give them adult jokes.  This can at times be an irresistible temptation.  And will probably get a laugh - but it is a form of child exploitation.  They are a horrible temptation that I never totally avoided.  The only answer is to revise carefully and cut out most such jokes (about politics, local affairs, sex and so on).  If you want a rule of thumb, go through the script and leave only three or four such jokes.  They are unjustifiable really, but panto writers need to satisfy their egos just occasionally.

    Rule 3:  Don't write cute.  The appeal of children comes from their ability to be themselves.  You will not be able to do it for them.  Let them be naturally cute or not cute at all.  Adult idea of cute is awful (and harmful to the children - if I can be pompous for a minute.)

    Teaching children how to act

    Children don't need to be taught to act.  They do it naturally.  The basic trick is to give them the opportunity to do it and to make sure they know they are allowed to do it.  This does not mean that you don't show them how you want it done.  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 it 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 it.  Some will, some won't.  All children are not brilliant actors (thank goodness!) but all children can enjoy it if you show them how.  Imitation is how children learn - to deny it them in the field of creativity is a form of moral cowardice

    Avoid the tradition of gender swapping

    I've mostly avoided gender swapping when working with children.  The Dame character has always been played by a girl and, unquestionably, the principal girl too.  The ugly sisters in Beauty and the Beast seem to work well with boys who relish acting as horrible sisters.

    Some practical points

    Be willing to sacrifice your script to please your actors.  If you have two children that both want to be the fairy godmother - then have two fairy godmothers.  Be prepared to bend a lot to keep your actors happy.  But don't go to the point of destroying the plot.  (As I keep saying, plot is number one.)  In practical terms, I have found "twins" to be an excellent ploy where 2 friends want to be together or there is rivalry for a part.  Twin wives, witches, fairies all are excellent devices.  In the same vein, be ready to throw away lines the actor hates even if you love them.  Also be willing to create an entirely new character, if it is needed to make a child actor happy.

    The chance to be a star is something that every child needs.  Give your cast the opportunity to be beautiful and brave.  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 making the plot serious and the emotions real and for avoiding adult jokes.  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.

    Don't expect young children to hang around behind the stage.  The best place for young children and maybe older ones to wait for their entrance is in the audience.

    Maybe try and make groups of people (seven dwarves for example) always talk in the same order.  I've never done this but often meant to.  Certainly the time when they say "their" lines is often a worry for children.

    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 to avoid getting parents involved in teaching their children the script - it is almost always counter productive.  (Probably because the ability to learn by heart decreases as we get older and most parents teach their children nothing but anxiety - the worst enemy.)

    It is perhaps a fault in me, but I always feel the less parents have to do with it the better.  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.  I never really mastered the art, but you can expect parent management to be as much of a problem as child management.

    Ultimately you have to love the children and make it a joint enterprise between you and them to produce a marvelous show.  If you don't do that let someone else write and run the show.  And always remember that the children must be the stars not you.

    That is the end of my advice so here is the final summing up.

    1. Have a plot and make it a good mythic one.
    2. Aim "poetic"
    3. Enjoy yourself as you write - but don't indulge yourself by filling it with
    4. GO AHEAD AND WRITE A MASTERPIECE!!!

    Endnotes

    About inventing your own stories:  While writing this Essay page I have discovered an interesting fact about Schikaneder, Mozarts's librettist for the Magic Flute- apparently, before he wrote the libretto for Magic Flute, he had just finished acting in a run of Shakespeare's Tempest and seems to have borrowed a lot of the characters (Prospero becomes Sarastro for example).  Significantly, about the only plot  Shakespeare did not borrow was the Tempest which suffers (like the Magic Flute) from being as clear as mud and doesn't have the redeeming tunes.  Enough of my prejudices, but all this does point to the problems of inventing your own stories.  So don't be ashamed to use someone else's plot - better writers than you have done it!


    ©Nick Mellersh October 2002 How to write a pantomime

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