Friday, 11 December 2015

I Believe in Once Upon A Time

On Wednesday, The MTA opened a new production of my version of Cinderella, as ever with my pantos with a book by Daniel O'Brien. Commissioned originally for the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, back in my pre-MTA days(2007), and then revived in 2010. In fact it was the first panto that The MTA ever produced (when we were doing our productions in the Drill Hall). Fast forward 5 years and with another year group with a rubbish gender balance, I've found myself revisiting the show for a 3rd time. 3 versions, all with very different directors (and companies I should say)...resulting in yet another adaptation of the original.  This year's director, the rather splendid Howard Samuels, who has directed The MTA panto for the last 3 years, agreed that we should revisit Cinders, much, I should say, to my relief at the time, as I just fancied a few months off writing (having written 5 pantos and 6 full length musicals in 6 years, I fancied a breather).  Of course that didn't happen as Howard always works hard to ensure that all of our MTA students get a good show (not just the Principles)...however in this instance that meant that I had to write an additional 7 songs. So not quite the breather that I was hoping for.  That said, as ever, he was right, and the show is all the better for the addition of that material.

My very first professional job out of college was a panto - The Wizard of Oz which played at the Roses theatre in Tewkesbury.  Back then I seriously thought that I'd hit the big time, as I'd graduated in the August and it was the first time that I would be receiving a salary for being a MD.  I then spent over a decade in panto wilderness, as I took over the musical reins of The Steam Industry and of course Christmas was the time that we were producing the infamous, and critically acclaimed BAC musicals.  In fact during that time I could often be heard saying that I was glad to be doing a Christmas show, but not a panto.

Then fast forward to 2005, and I found myself back in panto land, this time persuaded by a mate who was producing, directing and staring in his own panto down in Hounslow.  By the 2nd performance I had remembered what was so special about panto - the excitement on the children's faces, as the most simplest of theatrical tricks, enthralled them into the trap that is theatre.  A quick dip back into the ocean of the Christmas musical (curtesy of the UK tour of Annie), before I found myself in 2007 writing the music for my first panto.

I constantly preach to my students that there is never any need to be unemployed at Christmas time, there are just so many shows going on up and down the country.  Of course some are better than others, but whether you're appearing in a huge QDOS spectacular, or touring the local care homes delivering your panto...Christmas is the time where there is potentially work for everyone. I've been a professional musician since 1989...and have worked every single Christmas (much to my partner's annoyance some time)

Sadly though there is still a snobbery about panto in this country, even though it is an English institution.  Performers who will do anything rather than having to do a panto.  I have strong memories of one, rather famous celebrity, telling me, on a daily basis that they were too good for panto, and indeed too good for that particular town, and really, they should be in the West End for Christmas.  I remember thinking at the time, that with that attitude they didn't deserve to be in the West End full stop!

Actors moan about the schedule. Performers are like owls...we come into our own in the dark.  9 or 10am shows are a killer.  Then there's the fact that instead of working for our regular 3 hour day, come panto time, we might have to do a 9 hour day.  Let's ignore the fact that there are plenty of people that would kill to do a 9 hour day...but performers are a funny breed, they moan when they're working and they moan when they're not.

When I opened The MTA, I was adamant that my graduates would not only be taught how to perform in the panto tradition, but also that they would appreciate...ideally even revere panto and all that it stood for.  The dream was always to build up the number of performances so that they would have a little insight into the gruelling schedule that most modern production company demand from their performers at Christmas.  This year I'm thrilled to say that we're up to 19 performances.  As I write this my 2nd years have just done their first 3 show day...with another 2 lined up.  So 9 performances in 3 days just like....panto!  They will learn how to land the lines for a school audience, then change the show and its nuances for the adult audiences later on in the day. They've already learnt that feeling of the show coming down and arriving back into the dressing room to hear their DSM call the half.

Before every MTA panto season starts I literally preach to the students the responsibility they have, to ensure that every child (and every child within each adult), leaves that auditorium feeling some Christmas magic.  We have the potential to make a 'dream come true'.  Whether the theatre is filled to the brim with just over 200 screaming school children, or whether there are 10 brave souls that have opted to give us their money in their search for entertainment we have a professional obligation to deliver the goods.

After each show they can chose to keep the magic alive a bit longer by their characters meeting the children.  As with all of my MTA was based on a bad experience - this one was based around the well known performer who was headlining a panto that I was involved in, who turned down a young girl's request to have her photo taken with the 'star'.  In that instant a dream could have come true...but instead the performer turned around to the family and told them that it was their 'down time' and they preferred not to be interrupted.

We don't really do hard work in theatre...I'm sorry but we don't.  Speak to manual labourers, breaking their backs for hours on end for peanuts, or speak to the professionals saving lives hour after hour. We just sing, dance and act a bit for a limited number of hours per day.  We do this (mostly) because we love it.  That's not hard work people...that's a bloody privilege. I used to see my parents coming home from work (both of whom had hard, working class jobs)...both knackered from the rigours of their day.  They never moaned, they just got on with it, as they needed to pay the bills, and they chose to pay for my brothers and myself to have a certain sort of life.  Part of that life for me, was to take me to the see the annual Swansea panto (which back then played from November through to March).  My mum very often would have put in overtime to have saved up to take me to see this 'magical world'.

Every time I see the audience arriving in a theatre I wonder what sacrifices have been made to enable that particular bum to go on that particular seat. Sure there are people that can just afford it, but not all.  The MTA's panto does a pay what you can rate for every local school child, to ensure that every child in our area at least has the opportunity to see 'the magic'.

So I attempt to teach my graduates to appreciate the art form, to stay true to the magic, as children are so precious, what an amazing gift to give them, and finally regardless of how many people are sat in that give them 150% because you don't know what sacrifices they've made to get themselves there.  I guess in other words, I'm attempting to put out a generation of performers that will change the lives of the next generation of theatre goers.

We have no fancy sets, no amazing tricks, we have talent and we have imagination, and judging by the children's faces when they eventually get to actually meet our cast at the end of the show, that is still as magical today as it was 40 years ago when I was growing up.  As a trainer of professional performers, I have an obligation to remind them of their responsibility.  At Christmas, more than any other time, we can all make magic, so let's revel in that and not moan or belittle that gift eh?

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