Writing Your Own Pantomime

Writing your own pantomime for amateur groups.

The last cheer has gone up, the last encore has been sung, the curtains have closed, and the pantomime season has come to an end once more. The loyal audiences, blessed with selective memory loss, have declared, as they did last year, that this was the best panto yet and someone is bound to ask what’s planned for next year.

There is a mountain of clearing up to be done, and a host of things that you have neglected for the past few months waiting for your attention, but it doesn’t matter. There is no finer feeling than the glow of your show taking shape, and the camaraderie from all the hard work and fun you’ve had together can’t be beaten.And with the right preparation, you can ensure that it will be cheers not tears, for you and the rest of the cast.

Behind the scenes

Of course, there will have been the usual ups and downs before the first curtain rises. At least one actor will have been unable to make rehearsals after all, so there will have been some frantic re-casting or re-writing. Then there’ll be a song that’s just right for a character, but the actor struggles with it, so that, too, will be changed. Some of the lines, jokes and comedy effects, which sounded fine in the read-through, don’t work in performance, so more juggling will be required.

And that’s only on the technical side. Invariably there will be some emotional dramas backstage as well, from mislaid props to sore throats and stage fright. One year we had a young girl decide at the last minute that her costume didn’t look as good as her friends’ and didn’t suit her, so precious minutes were spent coaxing her out of the ladies’ and repairing her tear-stained make-up just in time to get her on stage for curtain-up. (whilst those of us of more advanced years and stately figures would have given much to look as lithe, leggy and lovely in our costumes!)

Pantomime style

Whilst such glitches, and more, will be common to most pantomime companies, our particular style of panto isn’t. After a second attempt to adapt a standard show and finding it too long, too complicated and too intricate for a village hall stage and cast, I began to write my own.

Not being a lover of the more slapstick elements of traditional panto, I decided to play around with the genre, reducing the reliance on the rather grotesque dame, cutting the corn, and twisting the traditional stories so that the audiences wouldn’t always know the plot or outcome.

But some elements are important in all types of pantos, to ensure the audience wants to come again next year, and I discovered that by adhering to these I could play around with the format enormously. So if you, too, are tempted to write your own slightly different pantomime, here are some pointers:

Panto writing tips

  • No matter how much you digress from a traditional scenario, maintain basic features of pantomime for your audience to identify. These should include: a really effective baddie – or two – so that there is lots of opportunity for hissing and booing; ‘behind you’ and ‘oh yes he is/no he isn’t’ interludes; an audience participation song; and a hero and heroine who the audience root for.
  • Use well-known, popular songs, adapting the lyrics where necessary so that they fit the story and help to move it along, rather than including them just because they sound nice. A rousing final song should stay in the audience’s minds all the way home.
  • Have a couple of sub-plots going on between minor characters, to give the show more colour and give the characters more to do – but make sure all their loose ends are tied up by the end, too.
  • Make sure all the characters, especially the children, have pertinent lines to say and a reason for being on stage. Many amateur – and some professional – pantomimes fall down when children are brought on stage, sing a song of no particular relevance, and then troop off again.
  • Give energy and interest to group songs by having good choreography. No matter how simple, it will be far more effective than your characters just standing there – but it must be well-rehearsed and polished.
  • Write interesting ‘links’ for front of curtain during scene changes, rather than relying on one character to tell the audience a string of corny jokes, which can break the flow of the story too much. Even if it’s the audience participation song during the ‘link’, give the character who leads it a reason for being there – and a reason for going away again.
  • Whatever the twists and turns of your plot, it must have a happy ending, and vanquished baddies.

Panto technical tips

For fewer headaches and a smooth operation:

  • If the organising as well as the writing is down to you, gather a good technical team around you – musical director, choreographer, costumes, props, sound and light, and front of house – so you are not trying to do everything yourself. And then remember to delegate.
  • If you are not directing the show yourself, establish ground rules between you and the director for changes to the script/songs/plot etc. Don’t be afraid to cut lines or even scenes if they are clearly not working.
  • Keep your sets simple and your scene changes as few as possible to maintain the flow.
  • If you are unsure where to put the interval, go for a longer first act as the audience is more likely to grow restless in a long second half.
  • Ask your cast for a firm commitment to attending rehearsals, as nothing drags a show down more than wasted rehearsal time and a big rush at the end.
  • More than one dress rehearsal and several complete run-throughs can help instil confidence in an amateur cast and iron out any little problems with costumes and props.

And finally, don’t worry if those funny lines no longer sound amusing by the final rehearsal. They will be fresh for your audience and as soon as you hear that first laugh you can relax and you’ll even find yourself enjoying your very own pantomime production – oh yes, you will!

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