Explore Cinderella: A Musical Panto!
What is a Panto?
Celebrating 10 Years of Pantos
A Decade of Pantos
Ella Opfinder’s mom, the loving, large and in charge Hazel, was feeling just fine yesterday morning, but she was dead by nightfall. Ella’s animal pals – Sudsy Squirrel, Flea, Big Gus the Rat, and Tom Cat – suspect that something fishy has happened and set out to find the culprit.
While people are mourning the loss of sweet and kind Hazel, the greedy and bossy Baroness Lucretia Loosestrife sets her sights on the just widowered Oliver Opfinder, a quirky inventor and owner of a large estate. She gets him to marry her and she moves in with her selfish and despicable daughters, Poisiana and Invasia.
ONE YEAR LATER…
On the other side of town, the dashing and debonair Prince Adian of Sargasso is tired of his princely duties and dreams of being a Vaudeville actor. His fastidious and fussy valet, Barnaby, reminds him that he can only return to Sargasso once he’s found a bride and wishes that he were in the Prince’s shoes. The two decide to switch places for the upcoming ball in Malvernistan.
Meanwhile, Lucretia has been making Ella do all of the chores around the house, including cleaning out the fireplaces. She gets ash on her face from the work and her mean stepsisters start calling her “Cinder-face” and “Cinder-Ella.” They’re especially angry when Ella finishes Lucretia’s long list of chores and is granted permission go to the Malvernistan Ball. But complications arise and it seems as if Ella will be staying home.
With the help of a Fairygod Tree, Ella finally makes it to the ball where she has the best night of her life, save for the fairytale faux pas of not leaving a shoe behind! But her animal pals help to get the shoe to the Prince…and Barnaby, who have both fallen in love with Ella!
In the end – in true fairytale form – the infamous glass slipper finds its way back to Ella, the animals and others solve the mystery of who killed Hazel, and Ella finally decides what she truly wants in life.
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What is a Panto?
The holiday Panto is long-standing British performance form that evolved out of the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition, the Twelfth Night holiday, the Festival of Fools and Epiphany celebrations, and British music hall entertainments. When the modern Panto became an established genre in the 18th Century, writers turned to familiar stories that appealed to children and adults alike. These tales provide loose narrative outlines that form the basis for exaggeration, variation and topical social commentary, outrageous jokes, humorous songs, dances and, sometimes, a strangely affecting love story. Popular tales that have inspired countless Pantos are Aladdin, Robin Hood, Cinderella, Dick Wittington, Jack and the Beanstalk, Mother Goose, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Goldilocks, and Snow White.
Almost every town in Britain puts on a panto during the Christmas season. Audiences gather in droves to enjoy the songs, jokes, costumes and treats of this holiday celebration. At People’s Light, we’ve joined this long tradition with gusto, adjusting it to our culture and aesthetics while honoring its traditional set of conventions that we’ve come to relish. Here are some of the familiar elements that you’ll see in every Panto:
• Music, dance, and slapstick
• The Dame: a boisterous yet benevolent matriarch played by a man in drag
• A hero (sometimes played by a woman); a heroine; and a stock villain
• Audience participation: boo, cheer, even argue with the characters onstage
• Satire of local events, government policies, and famous people
• A “messy bit”: a slapstick routine with something wet, gooey, and/or slippery
• A “candy bit”: the actors throw candy into the audience, sometimes by the villain’s lackeys to get information about the hero
• Silly songs that the audience joins in singing
We honor the madcap All Fools’ Day impulse that invented the panto, but also tell stories that live in the hearts of us all.
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The year, People’s Light and Theatre Company celebrates its tenth year of producing Holiday Pantos. Company member Kathryn Petersen has penned all but two of these very collaborative productions. Resident Dramaturg Gina Pisasale sat down with Petersen (or “KP” as she’s lovingly known among the People’s Light community), to talk about the evolution of this much beloved holiday event.
GP: How did the Pantos get started here?
KP: It’s all Gary Smith’s fault. Gary Smith is a professor at the University of Penn. He is one of our national experts in mad cow disease. He’s a British guy and has that dry British humor. I think his kids went here for some of our theater education programs, but he also came to some of our adult classes.
And I had him in one class for writers and actors. He was the only writer [in the class] and he wrote this piece, Dick Whittington and His Cat, in the panto form. I didn’t know anything about pantos then. And I read it and it was really wonderful. We were doing a [Outside the Box] festival that summer [in 2001] and we were all invited as company members to submit possibilities that we wanted to be in or do. We didn’t have much for family programming for that festival, and I thought, “Well, let me play with this.”
So we did Dick Whittington and His Cat. I think we only performed it three or four times. And it was free. We only had like eight rehearsals. It was one of those ‘let’s throw things up in a short period of time.’ We were all doing different projects. It was really wonderful that way. And company members were in it and they pulled in some other actors, and I directed it. And I remember it was so much fun – it was so audience interactive.
[Artistic Director] Abbey [Adams] asked me to write Arthur’s Stone, Merlin’s Fire, which was the first thing that got us off the Christmas Carol train, but we were looking for something to really fill that slot and Abbey jumped on this. She had seen pantos over in England. So out of that, we commissioned Gary to do the next panto, which became our first Main Stage panto, Sleeping Beauty. Through that process I learned a lot because I functioned as sort of the dramaturg. He had already given the form to us in a way and we saw how it worked in the rehearsal room. That was the only panto that Abbey directed. After that, [People’s Light] commissioned me and I wrote Jack and the Beanstalk, which David [Bradley] directed, then Robin Hood, then Treasure Island.
The first three [Pantos we] did with Vince diMura. Vince was arranging and composing here [at People’s Light] in a lot of different ways. He’s an amazing writer/composer. And he would play the shows, too, so he would do it all. I would write lyrics and he would work with them and put them to music.
Then Michael [Ogborn] came along and he and I clicked. In the beginning, he didn’t know anything about the panto form, but he was comfortable stepping in to write songs and lyrics. Our first [project together] was Treasure Island, then Cinderella, then Snow White in Follywood, and then Three Musketeers. We clicked and it worked well.
GP: What have you learned to enjoy most about writing in this form?
KP: What I love the most about the form – and I think it affects me as a writer apart from pantos now – is I so believe in theatre (and especially theatre in the next generation) as really investigating: what is the living event in the room? And that the audience are participants in that event, not voyeurs. The panto just does that boldly and brashly with no apology. [For example], you learn that the first entrance of the Dame needs to be on stage alone. Or that the other characters need to get off quickly because that is the event in the room: [The Dame, a] big man in drag is coming in, and he’s going to have a fabulous costume on [and] talk right to the audience.
Pete [Pryor] and I talked about this with the actors – and now there’s a core group and they all know this. What they’ve learned is that everything you do is through the audience to the other person. And it’s not fake presentational, it’s telling the audience “We need you in the story with us!” The story doesn’t exist up here [on stage], the story is here [among the audience]. [Getting it to be] a living shared event in the room starts on the page. So there can’t be a lot of verbosity. There can’t be a lot of description. [I’ve tried] long monologues - good writing, but it wasn’t really a panto.
I think about getting other people to do pantos. But you almost need to say, if you haven’t seen a panto, you need to see a good one. You need to see one where the audience is as important as the players and they take their roles seriously. And that’s what we’ve cultivated here over time.
The other thing I would say is, for me the plot matters very much. I always do a lot of research in the origins of the tale. I like to mash [the various versions] up. So that’s why with Cinderella you have a fairy godtree, because in some cultures a magical tree helps her get the wishes she needs to go to the ball. And I really think about what inspires me, and ask, ‘Why do I need to tell the tale?’ And ‘What’s there that’s fun?’
I also do a lot of research in the setting. Having Cinderella set in the 20s [got me] thinking about the different groups you have. What if the skin roles [traditional panto animal characters played by an actor in "animal skin" or animal costume] were ‘20s gangster animals trying to help solve a crime? And then you’ve got the sisters who want to be flappers. So going to flapper dictionaries and really starting to play with all that language and letting that just be [snapping fingers] back and forth – this rhythm. Flappertastic! And then playing with the Prince and Barnaby [his valet] being an old vaudeville team. Some of this comes in brainstorming with the team at the beginning of the process.
GP: Has writing pantos affected your other dramatic writing?
KP: In terms of me as a writer, it absolutely got me thinking cleaner and clearer and more specific, because you just don’t have the time. You can’t go on too long. I mean, it’s a form that if it’s really working, it’s so full tilt. And getting to write for all different ages and forms, you really get to think about the slapstick elements and the very active elements, characters, and little one liners that kids will really connect to; as well as some of the more sophisticated themes that adults will be listening for.
I love standing in the wings and looking down a row of audience and seeing a whole family from kids to grandparents with all of them rapt and laughing. Real credit for the whole team for making that happen year after year, but there’s something about the form that if we do our job right, it respects everybody in the room.
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Celebrating 10 Years of People's Light Holiday Panto
by Gina Pisasale
This year, People’s Light is celebrating the production of its 10th Holiday Panto . If you ask Kathryn Petersen, who has penned seven of the past nine pantos, about how this interactive form came to be at this Regional Theatre in Malvern, PA, she’ll say, “It’s all Gary Smith’s fault.” British-born Dr. Gary Smith is an epidemiologist, teaches at UPenn, and according to Petersen is “one of our national experts on mad cow disease.” In addition to degrees in Zoology, Education, and Ecology, he also brought from Britain his love and appreciation for the British panto to People’s Light.
While attending an adult theatre class taught by Petersen, he adapted the popular English folk tale Dick Whittington and His Cat into a panto. Petersen fell in love with the form and produced it as part of People’s Light’s Outside the Box Festival in 2001. Petersen recalls, “It was so much fun because it was so audience interactive.” By that time, People’s Light had “gotten off of the Christmas Carol train” and Artistic Director Abigail Adams commissioned Smith to write the theatre’s first Holiday Panto, Sleeping Beauty.
Since its debut in 2004, there have also been a core group of artists that have honed the development and performance style of People’s Light Pantos to truly make it their own. Pete Pryor, director of the past five Pantos, observes that, "everyone that’s been in the Panto rehearsal room has developed a kind of performance vocabulary that’s unique to this process. It’s all about invention, giving and taking, flexibility, and expert levels of coordination.” Samantha Bellomo has acted as the movement and fight choreographer for all ten Pantos at People’s Light. She has also assistant directed since 2008 and co-wrote last year’s Panto, Aladdin, with Pryor.
I asked Pryor and Bellomo to reflect on their experiences with the Panto during their tenures here:
GP: Over the years, what have you learned about this art form that really makes it work?
Pryor & Bellomo: That the best idea in the room can always forward the project. We’ve learned not to be shy about that risk. We’ve learned not to be precious about anything and to let the laughter inform our decisions.
GP: Has working on the Panto affected any of your other non-Panto work?
Pryor & Bellomo: The immediacy of the Pantos and the electric connection with the audience has informed EVERYTHING we’ve done in the theatre. It is about sharing the joy and uniqueness of being in a room together. The Panto form honors the audience as a participant and co-conspirator.
GP: What most excites you about the People’s Light Panto? Has that changed and/or evolved over the years?
Pryor & Bellomo: The first day in the rehearsal room. Hearing the Panto out loud for the first time and eagerly anticipating all the invention that the wonderful creative and crazy team of artists will bring to the process. This hasn’t changed. Panto time is our favorite time of year.
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A Decade of Pantos
Aladdin: A Musical Panto
Three Musketeers (The Later Years)
Snow White: A Musical Panto (2009-2010)
Cinderella: A Musical Panto (2008-2009)
Treasure Island (2007-2008)
Robin Hood: A Panto (2006-2007)
Jack & the Beanstalk: An American Panto (2005-2006)
Sleeping Beauty: A Comic Panto in the British Style (2004-2005)
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