Every holiday season, People’s Light turns our Haas Stage into an enchanting world where children from ages 5 to 105 gather to cheer for heroes, boo at villains, sing along to silly songs, and catch some candy. Our signature panto musical is always a well-known tale turned on its head, re-set in our backyard, ricocheting with references to familiar places, people, and things.
This panto tradition started 14 seasons ago. Kathryn Petersen has penned seven of the pantos we produced and is currently writing Little Red Robin Hood to debut in our 2019-2020 Season. The creative team of Pete Pryor and Samantha Reading have co-authored three pantos. Composer Michael Ogborn has written the original music and lyrics for most of our pantos.
Resident Dramaturg Gina Pisasale asked Kathryn Petersen (aka “KP”) how the panto came to People’s Light.
Gina Pisasale: 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.
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. I read it and it was really wonderful. People’s Light was doing an Outside the Box festival 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.
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. 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 collaboration was Treasure Island, then Cinderella, then Snow White in Follywood, and then Three Musketeers.
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 big man in drag is coming in, and he’s going to have a fabulous costume on 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]. So to really get it be a living shared event in the room, that 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 orgins 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.
Gina also asked Pryor and Reading 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 & Reading: 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 & Reading: 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 & Reading: The first day in the 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.