The stage was unlit, the set was non-existent, but the presence was strong and eminent. There was a girl with tied back blonde hair and a mask covering the top half of her face embracing the stage. A man elegantly playing a keyboard while spitting out jokes while another man who sat four rows back with a notebook. It was four weeks into rehearsal and the air was calm. As more and more actors and actresses arrived, the laughter got louder, the wit seemed to have no end, and the environment was even more at ease. This was the place to be! The happiest place on earth! Am I at Disney Land? This is Pinocchio at the Galt Little Theatre after all!
It wasn’t just Pinocchio, but Pinocchio as a pantomime. Pantomimes (also known as a panto) take a normal theatrical fairy tale and put a spin on it. It innovates theatre. Throughout my life I’ve been told to be quiet, listen and behave, but finally, as an audience member, I can yell things out, hiss ruthlessly at the villain and cheer relentlessly for the hero. Yes, pantomime’s are innovative. With innovative we associate new. However, this innovation began in the Middle Ages.
As everyone was getting settled in, I stood at the front of the stage with the cast members who were scheduled to rehearse that evening. The mood was casual, so casual that I felt as if I was actually hanging out with my fairy tale friends from my childhood. During the conversations I asked Pinocchio a few questions. Hidden behind her mask, I felt like I was talking to Zorro.
Pinocchio is played by Cassaundra Sloan, who has performed in Beauty in the Beast, Jekyll and Hyde and Sweeney Todd. She is excited to perform in her first panto because it’s unlike any other form of theatre; the audience involvement plays an ample role in the production which creates a fun and lively environment. And she’s excited to perform on a real stage for the first time. Ah, the magic of a Panto.
“You’re interacting while performing,” said Cassaundra. “It’s a cool experience for you and them.”
Like every production, pantomimes have regulations that it must follow. The baseline of a panto is that it must be a fairytale, run during the Christmas season, have a certain variety of characters and take place locally. The different characters add an interesting element to the play. There is always the fan-favourite dame. Ohh the beautiful dame! The dame is always an eccentric character with exaggerated features. They’re always a slap stick comic relief to the show. And, in an unusually appealing way, the dame is always a man dressed up as a woman.
The animated Shannon Markle is the Geppetto behind this production of Pinocchio. Along with being the director, she also wrote the play which takes place in Cambridgia.
“Pinocchio is great as a panto,” she said. “The characters work well and the story can be made to suit the Canadian feel too- and a hefty dash of Italian flavouring as suits the story.”
Shannon has a broad background when it comes to pantos. She was 15 when she had her first taste of the Christmas tradition when she played a gargoyle in Aladdin. And she wasn’t finished there. Just over a decade later she wrote and directed a panto for the first time.
“I wrote and directed The Snow Queen, a Christmas panto, for GLT and it was a smashing success! Even more fun than I remembered from when I was a kid,” she exclaimed. “I had fabulous performers, a great backstage team and we put together a really fun show. I swore I would do it again – I just can’t believe it’s taken me 17 years to do it!”
After I talked to Sloan and a few of the other cast members, it was time for rehearsal to begin. The performers leaped onto the stage as if the floor around them suddenly became lava. Markle wasn’t at this particular rehearsal. She was sidelined with the flu so the stage manager had to run the show for the day. As casual as they were before rehearsal, they began the opening scene. The off stage camaraderie now present on the stage.
As they began rehearsing another scene, the producer, Warren Shaw, waved me over from across the theatre and into his office. From the beginning, the vibe this cast and crew had was obvious. Four weeks into rehearsal and everyone gets along like one big happy family. What else could Shaw and Markle ask for?
Shaw explained the magic of a panto and the momentous occasion it brings to the entire audience.
“It’s a type of entertainment or type of event that families can attend together because there’s something there for everyone,” he said. “No matter your age there will be something that you take from it. The kids like the fairy tale aspect of it; because it’s set in Cambridge, there’s local political humour that children aren’t going to understand, but the adults are. So there’s a bit for everybody.”
Shaw worked with Markle in The Snow Queen and said that he expects Pinocchio to be just as successful.
“The team that she has put together is outstanding,” he said. “I can’t imagine a better team and because of that it’s going to be a really good production. I’d like to see this team do a panto every year.”
I anxiously raced back to the theatre to see what the performers were up to. To my satisfaction they were working on an audience interaction piece. It was time for the blue fairies to get the crowd singing. One fairy went to the right side of the stage and said, “all of the kids on this side of the room sing with me!” After a few times through the jingle, the second fairy went to the left side of the stage and encouraged that side to sing. After she finished her jingle, the third fairy approached the centre of the stage, “all of the adults sing with me!” A few times through and then all the fairies sang together. This brought the reality of a panto to me – the audience really does get to be apart of this production!
As the cast played around with this scene, I wandered over to the open dressing room where some of the actors like to relax. In there I found Lindsay Quinn, who’s playing the villain – the evil fox. She explained the origin of the panto to me. The British panto was inspired by an Italian style of theatre called commedia dell’arte. This show was performed with the community, a peoples’ theatre, for the common man. The shows often contained young lovers, a buffoon, heroes and a villain.
Shortly after my discussion with Quinn the cast walked into the dressing room. They had an acoustic guitar and played a beautiful parody of Cat Steven’s song Father and Son to appropriately accommodate the show.
As I left the theatre that night, I couldn’t wait to see the real thing with – the stage is lit, the set completed and the audience singing back.
The show will run on Nov. 25, 26, 27, and Dec. 3, 4, 10.
“Pantos are such an interactive, audience friendly form of theatre that it is a great way to introduce your kids to live theatre. And heck, we are GLT! We’ve been doing this stuff for 78 years now!” – Shannon Markle