We asked one of our directors some questions about Pantomime writing and directing. Here are Paul Barron’s answers…
Have you written a panto before?
I’ve written 3 pantos on my own and collaborated on another 3 so 6 altogether! Not that it gets any easier. It probably gets harder if anything because you find yourself constantly trying to do things you’ve not done before. With panto that’s especially hard as there are a really strict set of expectations that everyone has so sometimes you just have to give in and repeat some stuff!
Do you enjoy watching pantomimes as well as writing them?
Before I’d appeared in or written any panto, I think I’d only seen one and couldn’t really remember much about it! Bizarrely it was an Encore panto from years ago – ‘Goldilocks and the 3 Bears’ – that my nan and granddad took me to see at Castleford Civic Centre. If I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t choose to go and watch pantomimes, not yet anyway. I’ve got 2 young children so when they’re a bit older we’ll definitely go. I think, believe it or not, I still find it a little bit weird that you get to shout things out and join in – despite the fact it’s absolutely what we want the audience to do when we’re on stage! If I did go, the main reason I’d join in would be because I know how hard it is to be up there trying to get the audience to do it!
How long did it take to write Sleeping Beauty?
The script actually came together really quickly. I’ve got to be honest and say that Andy is a far more disciplined writer than I am and he had a huge amount of the script together before I even contributed anything. We sat down initially to block out scenes and work out the shape of the script and then Andy fleshed out the bulk of the scenes and the dialogue. It was then a case of sitting down with each other to tidy some scenes up. From start to finish, including embarrassingly large chunks of inactivity from me, I’d say it was about 2-3 months.
Did you have any disagreements while writing?
I wouldn’t say we had any disagreements in that time. We maybe both felt it could go in different directions at certain times but we sort of talked each other through to a happy medium. To be honest, the most we disagreed was when Andy filtered out what might have been some of my more inappropriate suggestions for insults. He was probably right to do so by the way! The process with panto writing is probably slightly different as it tends to be built around a pre-existing story, like ‘Cinderella’ or ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Personally, I prefer then to try and do something different with it but that’s not always possible. Occasionally the title comes before the story – that was definitely the case with ‘Drac and the Beanstalk’. I knew I wanted to write a panto based on horror themes but it wasn’t until someone suggested the title that it all started to make sense. With ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the writing has very much been driven by the pre-existing plot but the beauty of pantomime is you can occasionally have a scene that doesn’t need to make sense, as long as it’s funny. That’s when the shaping and plotting works round the jokes.
What role did each of you take in writing…did you meet up?
I actually find the mechanics of writing really difficult. There were times when Andy and I would meet with the intention of writing some scenes but I just can’t physically write in partnership like that. For me, there’s so much blankly staring at a screen waiting for inspiration that would be really awkward with someone else there! As I said, with ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Andy wrote probably 70% independently, then I wrote scenes separately to fit in to that structure and then we would meet to tidy things up. To be honest, I’ve already had to change the way I write. It always used to be best with red wine in the middle of the night – 16 month old twins have put paid to that. I’m hoping to get a bit more disciplined in future!
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Inspiration is a weird thing! Sometimes, it comes from my own tastes and hobbies. So, for example, one of the pantomimes was based on a video game (Kingdom Hearts – brilliantly insane, makes no sense, go try it!) and the other came from Star Wars and the challenge of whether it was even possible to set a panto in space like that. Likewise with a couple of others, the inspiration was the challenge of whether I could write a Wild West panto or a horror one.
In terms of lines themselves, as well as style and tone, quite often it’s just things you hear. I have a notes pad on my phone where I just jot down random things I hear or jokes that I think might work and then use them. Often, a whole scene can be built around the one joke. There’s nearly always some Morecambe and Wise element lurking in the script somewhere. For me, they are just the perfect example of how to engage an audience, play off each other and be funny at the same time – essentially what panto is!
Tell us your favourite character and why?
Favourite character is a tough one. My favourite character to write for would usually be the dame – only because I find it easier to ‘hear’ how she should sound. Also, all dames are pretty much cut from the same cloth so when you’ve written one, you’ve kind of written them all! That said, the dame openings are really pressurised. Writing monologues is difficult anyway because there’s no-one to bounce off. You’ve also got the added pressure of having to be pretty funny, get the audience to join in and almost be a warm up for the whole show. That opening dame monologue is probably the bit that always takes me the longest to write.
My favourite specific character from a panto I’ve written would probably be Bud from ‘The Good, The Bad and the Panto’. It was such a ridiculous, off the wall character that I could almost get away with writing anything that I found funny, regardless of whether it made sense or not! In terms of performance, Sarah did such a good job playing it that it really came alive. She made a bit of a rod for her own back really – trying to shake off Bud ever since! Or maybe embracing her inner Bud?!
What do you enjoy most about directing?
Do I even really enjoy directing? I’m not sure! There’s certainly as many bits that are stressful as they are enjoyable. If I’m honest – and this probably sounds really bad – the bit I enjoy most is making it up as we go along! What I mean is those moments where an idea just comes to me or one of the cast in rehearsals and we try it and suddenly an okay line or an okay scene becomes hilarious. The trial and error process is something that really appeals to me – that process of trying to find the little gesture or the intonation that’s really going to get us the big laugh from the audience rather than a titter. Writing and directing brings its own stresses because ultimately, if it falls flat it’s your fault on 2 levels!
What is your favourite panto joke that is not in this year’s panto?
A favourite joke? That’s tough again. I’m someone, as a writer, performer and an audience member, who finds dialogue between characters and set pieces more funny than individual jokes. I do like ‘I was so poor, I used to go to KFC just to lick other people’s fingers’ but to be honest it would be hard to pin it down to just one! What I would say is that a good joke book is every panto writer’s best friend!
Do you intend to write another?
At the end of each writing process, I always say I’m not going to write another and somehow then get involved in doing it. I think at this stage, I’m waiting to see if a really good idea comes to me. Just writing straight versions of fairy tales doesn’t really do it for me and besides that I don’t really know enough fairy tales! ‘Drac and the Beanstalk’ is a great example of where an idea is just so great it needs writing. I’m waiting for inspiration to strike – feel free to suggest anything!
What 3 words would you use to describe this year’s panto?
‘Sleeping Beauty’ in 3 words? I’m going with ‘Loads of fun’. Hopefully, that’s what we’ll have doing it and the audience will have watching it!
A big thank you to Paul for answer our questions. Look out for another Question Time soon!
If you would like to see our panto you can book your tickets here https://castlefordphoenixtheatre.ticketsolve.com/mobile/shows/873540298