Sunday, 22 January 2017

A Guide to Theatre or a Lexicon of Life for Luvvies

Something I wrote several years ago for a conference, but still as valid.
You know they're all true. 
Admit it ...

A Guide to Theatre
A Lexicon of Life for Luvvies

Director – A person who a psychiatrist would describe as ‘having issues’. They are never wrong, they are always right and have an uncanny ability to spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about things that do not matter whilst ignoring the obvious; if it was bad, it was your fault. If it was good, it was their idea.

Assistant Director – the person who you would never allow to direct on their own and giving them this job is a good way to keep them from whining for another season

Choreographer – the person who changes their mind at every rehearsal on what they want you to do and after 60 years of doing it has still not realised that the same hard core of women will always end up on the front row and that all male chorus members have the dancing ability of a millipede that has had a significant stroke. The company must also be resigned to the fact that the bows will always be re-set during the interval on the opening night.

MD – they shout and demand that you should always watch them, but the tempi they beat never bears any resemblance to what the orchestra is playing. It is not helped by the fact that they live in their own little alternate reality, in which they are third in line to God but as they don’t believe in God they only have the Pope to worry about.


Wardrobe Mistress – a bit like a surrealist artist in that what they produce bears no resemblance to the reality of your shape. She possess a tape measure that appears to have more elastic in it than all the alto’s frocks put together.

Actors – According to the stage crew, actors are merely self-propelled props and they annoyingly get in the way of the audience enjoying the view of their wonderful set.

Principals – a small group of people who defy medical science in that they suffer with a severe throat and chest infection for six months which then magically disappears on opening night. This wonder-virus can then reappear at the first sign of a fluffed line or bum-note.

Supporting principal – is a performer who has the ability to have a foot in each camp when it suits. They are a ‘lead role’ when slagging off the chorus, but a member of the general company when all the principals are rubbish.


The Chorus – a group of individuals who retain that individuality at all times, particularly when instructed to do any move or gesture that requires them to appear the same as everybody else. Additionally, they must possess the ability to engage in copious amounts of nodding, shrugging, head shaking, pointing, sighing and knowing looks, as this to them constitutes acting.

Libretto – a very vague sketch of the plot over which nobody should ever have a hang up about paying attention to. It is there to be wantonly butchered by the director (who clearly knows better than the author) and then blatantly disregarded by the actors (who always know better than the director).

Stage Manager – for a detailed description, see the entry entitled: ‘Psychopathic alcoholic chain smoking stress monkey, who hates theatre and all those involved in it’.

The Orchestra – a happy, fun loving group of individuals who ironically appear to despise amateur theatre. They are the last ones to arrive for a band call but always the first ones to leave it. They are invariably not professional musicians but are glad to claim the same rate of pay. They enjoy the performance so much, they listen to ipods or mark exercise books during it and when they miss their cues and entrances, shake their heads and blame the MD.


Sound Engineer – the guy who ironically has the worst hearing ability you have ever encountered and believes that a 150db whine bouncing around the auditorium is the fault of: the actor, their costume, the poor venue, mobile phones, a lack of projection, sun spots or a combination of all of them and regularly chants ‘… its not my equipment. Do you know how much this cost?’ If there is any feedback across the system he is for some odd reason, the last person to hear it. He also convinces you that a whole roll of micropore encasing his precious radio mic’ and your head, is actually invisible to the audience.

Sound Plot – this will undoubtedly have little to do with the piece being performed and will be an opportunity for the sound guy to share an in-joke with his obligatory, pimply assistant. For example, the requirement for a simple door bell will sound like Notre Dame on Christmas Day and if he gets a whiff of a requirement for inclement weather to be represented in the action, you can guarantee that the end result will be the sound of a category 5 hurricane accompanied by a thunder clap straight out of a Hammer House of Horror film.

Lighting Engineer – An individual who looks 12 and acts like he is 70 or a 70 year old who acts like he is 12. He sits in the best seat in the house, sees what goes wrong at the dress and then never mentions the problem until the after show party. He is the one at a technical who insists on recreating a teleportation scene from Star Trek by constantly fading sharply focused lights on and off above each principal on stage. Even though he will delay the start of the dress by hours, the lighting will oddly, still be the same on the last night as it was during the technical.

Stage Crew – A group of committed individuals who do not appear to speak a language you have ever heard before, have no concept of personal hygiene and who do not have any hobbies, friends or living pets.


Lighting plot – a psychedelic mixture of as many coloured gels as possible, shuffled into no particular order and with no bearing on the set, the mood of the piece, what the piece actually is or whether there is anybody on stage. To complete the tableau, it must always be shrouded in copious amounts of smoke, especially when the story does not require smoke. In addition, a lighting plot which bathes the stage in pools of shadow, sufficient to make what is on the stage invisible, will always be described by the engineer as ‘atmospheric’. During a performance, unexpected blackouts are not mistakes, but simply additional cues that the lighting engineer will swear blind the director asked for.

Props mistress – a person who lives in their own little world and where a good night in consists of feeding their 15 cats, making a replica firearm and replenishing their stocks of home made fake blood.

Prompt – to qualify for this important position, the person must have the hearing ability of a sound engineer and be at least 70 years old. They will turn up for the first time at the ‘dress’ and will fill you with confidence by saying that they know the piece, all the lines, all the pauses and who is playing what; this confidence is misplaced. When you ask for a prompt they will leave you for a good minute to make sure you really don’t know and then shout out to the stage manager in a resounding voice for the audience to hear: “what page are they on now?”

Tea lady – the individual who turns up even before the rehearsal period has started but knows the piece, everybody’s lines all the pauses and who should be playing what. No matter what your gripe, you can guarantee that she will agree with you and will almost convince you that at 4’8” tall and 17 stone, she was until the last show, the principal dancer of the company.


Front of House – the stalwarts of any company who, when dressed up in their obligatory formal evening wear, look like they are about to stage ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’. The male element will invariably have at least forty years worth of after show hotpot splattered down their front and even though there are only half a dozen of them, they will still sell 90% of the tickets. They will also make some radical suggestions at the AGM such as “Why don’t we do something new like a G & S?”

Audition – a chance for people who have already been cast, to audition for the role in front of a group of people who have already cast them. It is also an opportunity for those who will never be cast in any role, to be publicly humiliated one more time and then spend yet another six months whining about the fact to anybody who is stupid enough to make eye contact with them.

Blocking - The skill of moving actors around the stage in such a way as not to collide with the set, the people on it, or their egos. It is similar to playing chess, except that in chess, the pieces do not know better or talk back.

Rehearsal - a 2½ hour period in your life similar in every respect to an alien abduction in that by the time you get to the pub after it, you cannot remember what has taken place.

The ‘Get-in’ – that fun time when you never actually assist the stage crew getting in, but turn up early to get the best seat in the dressing room and bitch about those who have not yet arrived.

Technical – another fun exercise in which the technical crew attempt to fit a set into a space half the size available and following which, the director and/or choreographer re-block 6 months work in half an hour.

Dress rehearsal - similar to a child’s first day at nursery: Tantrums, tears and new outfits you do not want to be in.

Costume call – a magical event when no costume seems to fit you and yet where the mirrors in the changing rooms are possessed of mystical qualities that prove to all stood watching that beyond any doubt, you have never been anything other than a size 12.


Make-up – a substance used by amateur performers which always makes them appear like (a) a character out of Sesame Street, (b) somebody with a tropical disease or (c) a patient with a severe liver function abnormality

The Set – a term used to represent a thing which is nothing like it has been described to you for the past six months. Similar in many respects to a holy shrine in that you should stare in awe and wonder at it when The Creator is watching and under no circumstance find fault in it, lest you want The Creator to self combust. NB Stage smoke only comes in two types: dense & impenetrable

Props – items to be considered but never worried about. They must always be placed by the crew in the wrong place and returned to a different place by the company where the props mistress would not dream of looking for them

The Strike - The time immediately following the last performance when all the cast and crew members are required to stay and dismantle the set, but then as the word infers, they strike a pose and watch two people who then do everything. Doing this whilst holding a very cold alcoholic drink and repeating several times how hot and tired you are will always motivate the two happy workers. It is also very useful during this to stand on the stage and constantly stare above you, pointing now and again to complete the effect. Repeatedly saying things like, “where shall I put this nail I have found?” and “I always feel like I am in the way” are vital. Giving helpful tips to people carrying very heavy objects is a must. Always remember to raise your hand positively to confirm your availability to attend at 7am the following day to clear the venue, particularly when you have no intention of doing so.


After show party – a very special occasion when ladies in particular like to either wear their most expensive outfits, or their least flattering ones; preferably a jogging suit, bought in 1982. Either way the ritual requires them to keep on their stage makeup which by now has run and smeared to the extent they look like Van Gogh’s palette. Everybody then competes with each other to spout the most self-righteous, self-congratulatory, fawning, sycophantic platitudes they can physically muster and when the recipient leaves for home, get in one last bitch with the stage crew who by now are too drunk to avoid you, disagree or care.

Post show meeting & AGM – a time for people who know no better to give an opinion on things on which they have no idea and come up with groundbreaking labour intensive ideas for raising money which they have no intention of helping with. They will also give a very vocal opinion on why the show made a loss whilst failing to comprehend that they are one of a group responsible for the deficit, created by the fact that they and their like only ordered only one ticket … and even then, returned it unsold at the cast party. If when discussing the next production you have no suggestions, remember to keep calling out ‘… but there’s nothing in it for the chorus’. But be content that even after three hours arguing, you will still do the piece the chairman first suggested and for which the committee have uncannily, already got a licence. 

Monday, 16 January 2017

A Personal Perspective on Pantomime

Have you ever tried explaining the concept of pantomime to a non-Brit?

“Well, it’s based on a children’s story – but not always – and it involves loads of different characters; a Dame … which is always a man playing a woman with a huge bosom and a garish selection of wigs and frocks; a principal boy who is actually a girl – usually in tights and long boots; a demon or wizard who is trying to steal the beautiful girl; a simpleton or pair of them; a magic potion, lamp, cow or camel that everybody is trying to find; ghosts and spooks behind every piece of scenery; lots of sing-a-longs, chases, dancing for no reason, trips, custard pies, water and as many “behind you” and “Oh no he isn’t” opportunities as you can dream up. Oh, and kids … lots of them and all ages dancing, with the youngest doing what they want to …”.

Hmmm. I bet you lost them somewhere around the ‘… man playing a woman” bit. The Americans will assume it’s some bizarre take on ‘The Birdcage’ and the rest of the world will glance sideways and say to each other, “They’re British … they are like that”.

I remember being asked in an article what my take on it was, based on an Adjudicators perspective. This was my wordy reply: “What should a good pantomime be? It must be a tumbling and dancing profusion of colour, calamity and corny-ness, all delivered by a cacophony of caricatures that capture and retain the whole audiences’ interest. It must contain a solid and engaging story which is told through a well-blended mixture of song, silliness, slapstick, seasoned sketches, mild seaside sauciness and all tied together with genuine sincerity. It must gallop along at a breath taking pace with a plethora of added local references and topical songs, sketches and gags, consuming the youngest to the eldest in the audience and demanding their constant attention … and a good deal of their participation. But ALWAYS with an eye on the tradition and the handed down humour that makes panto a British institution.” A mouthful I know, but how do you encapsulate in a paragraph such an important aspect of our theatrical history that is a part of all of us?
What do you think it is? So many local companies perform it every year you would think the whole nation would be expert in it, wouldn’t you?

But from many years of ruminating and cogitating over all things musical and a good proportion of them being panto, it appears to me (IMHO) that many are losing sight of what this genre is.
No, you will be pleased to know that I am not going to degenerate into a history lesson, but I think that a good many local performers of this national institution need to take stock of the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of their panto’s.
To start with, if only I had a quid for every failed joke in a panto that has been followed by the deliverer predictably with “Oh well, suit yourselves”. Well actually, they did. Actually, they didn’t laugh because it wasn’t funny.

Sorry to be blunt, but many are missing the point.

I have an indicator in observing a panto that has never let me down yet. I listen for when the kids start talking. It is a fool-proof sign that the panto has lost their interest and being the most accurate critics around, kids are invariably right.
The next thing that always switches them off is clever humour. It makes a handful of adults smile and the odd one laugh, and I can guarantee that it was undoubtedly a hoot in rehearsal. Lesson one: a laugh in rehearsal amongst the company is not automatically replicated when presented to 37 Brownies; and “Oh well, suit yourselves” after it, doesn’t make them realise what they missed either.
Think about it. What makes kids laugh? I saw one recently that proved it for the umpteenth time.
The ‘comedy duo’ spent ten minutes on an uninspiring gag (two minutes into which the 5th Beaver Troop were exchanging sweets) at the end of which the under 11’s in the audience suddenly screamed with laughter which made all of the remaining audience also laugh. The reason? He kicked him in the pants. Pure kiddie humour that has had us rolling around since the first yokel gained self employed status as something called a Jester.

It doesn’t have to be clever, it doesn’t have to be expensive, it just has to be plain old corny-daft-stupid-juvenile humour with an eye always on honesty and sincerity in delivery.
“But what about the adults?” I hear you cry. Well, have you ever noticed that we all have the ability in us to laugh and latterly, groan at kiddie humour? We never lose it and panto resurrects that primeval ability to laugh at the simple misfortunes of life and those who experience them. Add to that the fact there is nothing funnier in life than hearing a youngster REALLY laughing. It is so infectious and ultimately, catalytic for an audience.

My next bugbear is inane tracts of dialogue delivered between two uninspiring characters with no reference to the audience; it immediately disenfranchises them. Dialogue that seems to go nowhere and achieves nothing is an element of many (poor) scripts and there are a good deal of poor ones out there. But as with anything in theatre – and especially in pantomime – it is in the construction and delivery that it comes to life. A lot of the time, a panto loses pace and purpose at these points because the players face each other, talk to each other and consequently exclude the observers. How do you hold a conversation with another adult in which you want to involve the kids? Well, you bring them into it by turning statements into questions; you ask them directly about actions and seek reactions, you seek agreement and most important of all, you look at them. Not rocket science I know, but why do so many panto performers not do it? The list of key ingredients could go on and under the heading of ‘music’ are disclosed so many more issues that need careful thought and planning.
I have a rule of thumb that songs should be no more than 2 minutes or 2 verses – otherwise, you lose them again. Also, interpolated music or scripts that allow you to mix and match songs do it for a reason: to keep it topical. So, what are all the youngsters singing now? What, when you get in the car, causes the booster seat to come to life with lyrics? The skill is blending that with the well worn kid’s favourites … the downside is how many kids know the traditional children’s songs any more? It is a fine balancing act, but one that really does need thinking through and definitely not taking for granted.

Whilst I am on a soap box about music, where did the piano/keyboard chords and accompanying drum rolls/crashes disappear to? Remember them? The ones that accompanied the entrance of the Good Fairy and the menacing signature for the entrance of the Baddie? Similarly, every misfortune, slip, trip, slap, funny walk and/or appalling gag? They are an essential element of conditioning the audience when to laugh and what they are supposed to be finding funny! It’s like a formula; 1. There’s a gag coming (drum/cymbal roll) 2. This is the gag (piano chord) 3. That was the gag (drum/cymbal crash). It follows a historical, theatrical formula that subliminally signposts the route to inane, loveable can’t-help-it-but-laugh humour.

And for some reason, some companies still seem to think that panto characters are funny per se. I think not. For example, if the dame is just expected to generate hoots of laughter all night for simply being a bloke in a frock, think again. The components that are needed for sustainable laughter value are many: the timing, the asides, the animated facial expressions that are nearly choreographed, the exquisitely timed ad-libs, the retorts to the audience, the put-downs to the hecklers, the double-takes, the knowing glances, the balletic false eyelashes, the “Sissy & Ada” adjustment of the false bosom, the walk, the accent and never mind what the script provides … the list is endless.
It is interesting as well to remember that within panto, there is a wealth of historical and traditional gags and routines that many who work it well, know and have learned rote: the ghost gag, the echo gag, the tree of truth, Widow Twankey’s Laundry, the blackboard gag, the list again is endless and must literally go into the hundreds. Research them, learn them and work them. Add them into your scripts and better still, write your own. Research the repertoire and watch what others do well and not so well. Also, understand the characters and how they interact. Panto is a recipe of essential ingredients and optional flavourings to suit the palette, the pocket and the personalities of the performers – and not least of all, the expectations of the paying public.

Additionally, the basic building blocks in many pantomimes seem to have been taken out. When did slapstick die?! Where have all the custard pies gone? Whatever happened to the thunder-flashes, the smoke, the water, the false props that break, the trips, the prat-falls, the meaningless chases, all of which (and dozens more beside) make up that essential added business that some scripts no longer seem to give you, but which panto demands and most importantly, the audience expects. Much of it is the doing, the interpretation, the heritage. If you don't know, read a book! There are some belters out there from people who have been there, bought the t-shirt and probably worn the lashes!

And then there is the TRUE spirit of panto, which all productions should be striving to fundamentally encapsulate; the spirit of Christmas, the sentiment of the season, the goodwill, the festivities and the fun, but most of important of all, the magic. And by ‘magic’ I don’t mean the conjuring tricks and the gimmicks. It is that age-old, feel-good factor that is associated with the same mind set that really does make kids believe that Santa is real, that reindeers can fly, that good will and kindness are not one day-a-year qualities and all those other genuine human foibles that make it so charming and innocent and which can make kids in the audience sit wide eyed and open mouthed one second and scream with uncontrollable delight the next. Am I being overly romantic and unrealistic? I really don’t think so, but I do know one thing. Even trying to achieve that quality of ‘panto product’ is probably the hardest theatrical experience you will ever attempt and if you do achieve it, it is in my opinion, one of the most rewarding.

The final issue in this broad personal perspective on what makes a good panto, is keeping the story topical. Local references, personalities in the media that kids love to love or to hate, their catchphrases, their misfortunes, the stars, the cartoon characters, the shows on children’s TV, the sports stars, the pop stars, fashion, slang, the adverts that they annoyingly recite parrot fashion in the playground, there is a wealth of stuff to be going at to make your panto a success. They really are a contemporary snap shot of the tastes and traditions of ‘now’ and if you can capture just that aspect, you will be head and shoulders above many productions.

But most important of all, read it, see it, live it and then perform it through a child’s eyes – and please – keep crudity out. Saucy asides need intelligent construction and delivery and they are a world away from vulgarity. It takes immense thought and skill to get a belly laugh out of the adults for one gag because they got the innuendo and then giggles out of the kids who tuned into a wholly different facet that satisfied their innocent understanding and humour. Let’s save at least one bastion of our heritage from dumbing down to the level of the gutter!

Parts of the theatre publishing industry are seeing their largest business growth in the pantomime sector. There are some great new writers and new works out there which are fresh and original BUT, not all have a keen eye on traditional structure, story, humour and presentation. I would simply say, shop around. Don’t stick with the same stack of dusty scripts you have in a cupboard. Equally, trendy and clever hardly ever works. If a script needs to add in weird and wonderful plot devices, characters or scenes that have nothing to do with the story, give them a wide berth.

So, keep it simple, involve the kids at every opportunity, blend traditional with contemporary references and twists and you have the potential for success. But the actual success lies in the delivery and understanding that panto delivery, phrasing and audience reaction are like nothing else in theatre that a performer will ever, could ever do. And taking it all for granted and assuming you are funny are the two big killers!

And don’t ever forget…it’s behind you!