It’s panto time once more – oh no it’s not, oh yes it is etc – and as theatres throughout the land try desperately to get that Christmas feeling moving once more, we are all getting very excited about the prospect of some (socially distanced) real-life theatre once more. Now I love panto, and I especially like adult panto so am very, very excited that the team that brought us Jack and His Giant Bigstalk, last year are back with another offering – as Snow White And The Seven Poofs 2020 comes to the Karma Sanctum Soho Hotel. Being a big fan, I was very lucky to get a chance to interview some of the people involved in this year’s show. First of all, it was Abigail Bailey and Ben Felton, and I thought I’d start by asking them to tell me a bit about themselves.
BF. I’ve always loved the entertainment industry and I really loved community radio. I’m now a London-based actor, graduating last year from The Bridge Theatre Company, a great company based in Camden which puts on productions and trains at the same time, with a wide variety of ages. I had a couple of jobs last autumn, finishing with the pantomime, as Daisy the Cow, last year and then 2020 has been a bit of a write-off really.
AB: I Moved to London in 2016 to train in musical theatre at a place called Associated Studios. I graduated in 2017 and since then have done a bit of TIE (Theatre in Education) Tours, really learning the craft by performing to children and uninterested teachers. I’ve also done some writing and devising for the Vaults Festival this year. Called Superman, it involved interviewing young people and tackling the topic of consent. Like Ben, I also did the pantomime as Princess Jill, last year.
TE: Last year you were both in the pantomime how was it for you:
AB: Everyone says panto is such hard work but for me, I didn’t expect to have such a good time and form such a strong bond with the cast. It was really hard work, but I made such good friends out of it.
BF: I completely agree. We had a lot of fun both off and on stage. It was my first foray into panto, and in a way, as it’s not just panto but adult panto so there’s that extra edge to it. Whereas I’d seen lots of pantos growing up, I’d never seen and adult panto before. So, while I knew the actual conventions of panto, with adult panto I wasn’t quite sure how it would work, and I love the freedom of it, and the audience who are quite rowdy. It’s great, it’s like you’re being heckled but it’s positive heckling, sort of like the Rocky Horror Picture Show where they are encouraged to ‘heckle’. It was like having a party every night.
TE: Why do you think pantomime has endured for so long?
BF: They always say for a lot of kids, pantomime is their first experience of the theatre, because it’s like the most widely known and most accessible piece of theatre that non-theatre goers will go to. In that sense, it’s almost like a rite of passage and I think it’s that familiarity of going as a child and having the best time, then growing up and starting to notice the jokes that are directed at the adults whereas as a child they went over your head. Then, each year it’s kept topical and it’s the same every time but it’s different. People like familiarity and good fun, but there’s also enough different in there to keep it fresh each time. People are excited to go back and they want to see their resident panto star.
AB: I completely agree. I also think for actors and creatives it’s the best way to learn your craft. In drama school they are always telling you to be in the moment and notice what you are doing, and when you do plays that are the same every night you can get into a rhythm, but when you’ve got someone shouting at you – which they are encouraged to do – you can’t get away with things like if you’ve dropped a prop or a curtain has come down, you have to acknowledge it and that really keeps you on your toes as an actor and helps you become better. A lot of drama schools now have pantos in their Christmas Term, so they will send students off to do professional panto, and it’s a great module to put your training actors in as it’s on a level for the audience but for the theatre industry, it’s our bread and butter and where we learn our craft.
BF: It’s a source of employment and Christmas is when most actors, entertainers, and creative are fully employed. And though it’s a lot of work, it’s fun and also a job that people look forward to, and a guaranteed income for those that go back year in year out to take part.
TE: Do you think pantomime as an art form can only work at Christmas or could it work at other times of the year?
AB: That’s a really good question. I saw an adult panto advertised in summer in Guildford, and I was like ‘what?’ I would be really intrigued because for me it’s so linked to Christmas. You also have a Christmas song at the end. I’m a big fan of Christmas and probably start it too early but I’m also not keen to start too early. I’ve never seen an Easter panto, but I think 2021 might see a few Easter/summer pantos, and then are they a normal show, I don’t know.
BF: You do see the odd one advertised, but they are so entrenched in Christmas as Abi said. In theory, the principles of panto can run any time of year, but I do wonder how much of an audience appetite there would be for it at alternated points of the year rather than this exciting social thing as part of the Christmas tradition.
AB: At its heart, panto is something for all the family. The kids love the familiar stories and characters and the adults love the other level on top of it. I don’t think it wouldn’t work but it’s one of those things where you don’t want Christmas every day so it wouldn’t be fun.
TE: And when you finished the run last year how did you feel? Where you fired up and ready to sign up for the next panto straight away?
BF: I was definitely open to returning. Obviously, no-one knows what the year is going to throw at you, as this year has proved, but I did show interest in coming back if the opportunity was there. I did have a slight concern that having done this once and I wondered If another year would be able to live up to the experience. So, I did have it at the back of my mind, do I leave it here having had this great experience. But I actually think this year will have such a different vibe, that I won’t be able to compare it to last year.
AB: There were definitely a few prosecco fuelled conversations after the show last year when we would be like, how much would this be if we did it next year. We came off on such a high, that when my agent asked If I would be interested, I was like ‘yeah’. After the year we’ve had, if it’s half as much fun as it was last year, it’s going to make the year much, much better. Like Ben, I had no idea what I was going to do this year, and I’m really grateful to have been offered it again because I know a lot of people won’t have. I’m excited, it’s going to be a good thing.
TE: This year’s offering is Snow White and the Seven Poofs, what can you tell me about it?
AB: Partly because of the social distancing restrictions. It’s going to have a small cast, I think some of the seven poofs might be puppets.
BF: We are in the same place as last year but because of the size of the space needed, we aren’t downstairs in the function space but are up in the restaurant and it’s going to be a cabaret-style panto where people get a meal and drink alongside the performance.
TE: Given that panto is a very interactive thing, how do you think the new space and social distancing rules will affect the dynamic of the performance?
AB: I think if anyone can bring up a crowd – even socially distanced – it will be Simon. Give him, any boundaries and he will be able to overcome it, because he is just amazing at bringing the crowd up. I think it will feel a bit different this year but I think the meal will be served before so I don’t think we will have people spraying food over us, but you never know. With panto, anything goes. It’s definitely going to look different and it will be interesting in rehearsals to see how we move as a bubble while keeping to social distancing rules, and I’m sure there will be a lot of relevant jokes in the script. But I think if any group of people or going to get past it and still make it funny and enjoyable, it’s going to be us lot with Simon at the helm.
TE: So where are you with preparations now?
BF: We haven’t seen the script yet. I know this is quite a legendary show on the adult panto scene, so for anyone that has seen it before, I know it will be the same basic story but freshened up for 2020. I will be playing Igor the Henchman among other roles
AB: I am doing more multi-rolling this year but my main character is called Fag-Hag, and I’m very excited to see what she gets up to.
TE: Given the way things have been this year, do you think the audience will be different compared to last year?
BF: I think there’s going to be excitement because it’s something live, it’s live entertainment and for the majority of people they have been starved of that. I do think people will be more reserved slightly. We are going to get people who may be a bit out of their comfort zone in coming out to an event. So I think it’s going to be really different and our job will be to give them the best time but also adhere to all the restrictions in place so they can relax and feel safe in watching. I think it’s going to be interesting and until the people come you just don’t know what it’s going to be like.
AB: That was half of it last year. I remember Simon saying to us on the night before we opened, It is a completely different ball game when that audience is in there, and I think that will be the same this year. It could be extremes with people going too far because they have all the pent-up excitement or they may back away because it’s not the norm anymore. If we get a mix of it all, then brilliant. It’s going to be interesting if we have to be a sort of rule-keeper, which is a difficult thing geeing people up but then keeping them to a safe level. I think it could be a big learning curve for us all.
BF: And for us, it will be different. Last year we went out into the audience a lot but that’s not an option this year so it’s about finding new ways of interacting but without breaching people’s space. It’s going to be a different kind of show but with the same fun behind it, and hopefully, that will be the same for the audience.
TE: What’s Simon (Director) like to work for?
BF: Simon is a determined man. He knows what he wants and he wants the best standard possible. He will put his heart and soul into getting that performance to be the best. He gets stuck in and is so involved. But he’s also a good laugh and looks after the cast.
AB: It’s Simon’s baby. From the costumes to the set, everything has Simon’s stamp on it. As Ben said, he’s a very caring guy. He was always there after the show making sure everyone was OK and offering a drink. He was such a kind person which is nice in a Director, especially when they are making you run around with objects, I can’t talk about.
TE: As actors, how do you keep the intensity level up so that the last show is as good as the first?
AB: What we always liked about the audiences was that they laughed at different places. So, for me, I always wanted to see where they were laughing and maybe make small changes as we went along. I think last year as the cast were all such good friends we could kind of play with that. Not mess each other up or anything but keep each other on their toes. Because it is all so important to remember that even after Christmas, the show goes on and it’s their first time seeing the show and the characters so you have to make it good for them.
BF: I think that’s the same for any performance you do. There is a bit more flexibility in panto and you can ad-lib and improv more than you can in regular plays. At its core principle, you have to, as Abi said earlier, be in that moment. Be open to slightly saying the line in a different way, or moving slightly differently.
TE: Did anything happen last year that really stands out for you?
AB: I’m pretty sure we had some prop malfunctions. There was a certain present they used to trick the giant, and I’m pretty sure we lost one half way through a show so had to come on with a prop, and then improvise with a different prop. There was a blow-up doll of Simon’s character Gene Talia, and we forgot to reset it so had to try and sneak out his doll without getting noticed.
BF: All the moments that stand out for me are audience-based. Certain things audiences did. I think the first two shows we did, we were only on microphones for songs. But that Friday and Saturday, the audience were so rowdy and boisterous you were fighting to get the dialogue out. I really loved it as there was a real to-and-fro with the audience, But after that, we had the mikes on all the way through.
AB: Those nights really taught me the audience were listening. Simon started the show by telling the audience they could really let rip, and didn’t have to just boo and hiss. Naively I thought they probably wouldn’t but those first two shows, they didn’t hold back which I think was a great baptism of fire and we didn’t get audiences any rowdier than that, so could handle things.
BF: I think it was always the way, they would either start very quiet and we’d be thinking it was a tough crowd, but then we would warm them up. One of my drama teachers would always say “If the audience is water (quite still) then that means you’re job as an actor is to bring fire and really warm them up. But if the audience is already fire, then it’s your job to bring the water and slightly bring them back down. So it’s about finding the balance and do they need to be brought down or brought up and you adjust your performance accordingly.
TE: Pantomime has always pushed boundaries but with adult pantomime those boundaries are much wider. Do you think there is a limit to what can be said or done during and adult pantomime?
BF: Yes, there definitely is freedom. You can go out and be someone else and say things you would never normally say, but you get away wit hit as the adults are all kids again and enjoy being naughty. Most of the time the jokes are made at the expense of the person making it. The boundary is there and I think you know as a performer where the line is.
AB: I think it’s true, there is a line and there are certain things you wouldn’t touch. This year there has been a lot going on with Covid and the whole Black Lives Matter and there are things you wouldn’t approach, but there are also things that you can get a bit more risqué. I think we knew our limits and what we were comfortable with as performers.
BF: Anything that is universal is open but at no point do you want to be punching down upon people or belittling them unnecessarily. You might have a cheeky tease at someone but it is all done in jest and is never malicious. I think really that is probably how you define where the line is. It’s about the delivery and the set-up. In comedy, you have to have the context. That’s key because the audience has to be involved and prepared for the jokes. If you buy a ticket you kind of know what you are in for so, unless it’s on an extreme level, you should be ready.
AB: It comes back to the intention, it’s not malicious and was created by a group of people who are members or allies of the groups they were poking fun of.
BF: I think you have to weigh up the room and you can’t go in too soon. You have to warm them up first, and see how they are responding.
TE: For the last few minutes can we talk about the effect COVID has had on you as professional actors.
AB: It’s been a very tough time, but what has been encouraging. Is seeing how people are thinking outside of the box. For example, seeing other theatre-makers doing online things. Also, I think we are all in the same boat, and once we realised how tough it would be, seeing people giving up their time and helping you work on your craft in ways you wouldn’t normally do. For example, I got to do a self-tape programme run by casting director Manuel Puro. It was a 21-day challenge and every day you were sent a script and you had to tape it and upload it. I would never have been able to do this if I’d been working but it really helped me to practice this side of my craft. Its been really good and I came out of the first lockdown with this extra training behind me and I’m proud of that. There’s been a lot of people in the industry that have given up their time and provided opportunities that wouldn’t necessarily be there without the pandemic.
BF: I completely agree. Its been crippling for the industry as a whole and everyone has been affected to some level. I think a lot of positives have come for it. Especially the online community in the acting and entertaining would is very supportive and there’s a lot of community spirit. So many different initiatives, like the Pearson’s collective creative initiative, with loads of free classes you can watch on YouTube, then the chance to have one-to-ones with casting directors which you would ever normally be able to do. I think everyone’s made the best of a bad situation.
AB: Something me and my friends have said a lot during lockdown is if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, and I think the industry has been laughing our way through it and thinking how can we do something to make this better for us. Ben and I have the same agent and she started up a newsletter to keep everyone in touch and allow for swapping of skills. Although it sounds so twee, people really do care in the industry.
BF: I think that’s it. The pandemic really has brought out the goodness in people. Its been very supportive and it definitely hasn’t felt like you’re alone.
TE: What comes next, are shows casting for next year?
BF: You are seeing shows getting started and Producers starting to get he ball in motion and putting adverts. Everyone is preparing and hoping next year gets back to normal. But as we’ve seen with this second lockdown, everything is at risk. For me, I don’t know because it’s such a weird landscape and we have to hope and pray.
AB: I’ll be doing the same and maybe back to the non-acting job and pray that Eastenders snaps me up some time.
You can catch Snow White And The Seven Poofs 2020 comes to the Karma Sanctum Soho Hotel at the Karam Sanctum Hotel in Soho. The runs are from the 15th – 23rd December and 27th December – January 7th all at 7.30pm and there will also be two matinees on the 17th December and 7th January at 4pm.