By Nathaniel Hanula-James | Intermission Magazine
Friday, November 24, 2023
“There are no mimes in pantomime.
So said Derek Ritschel, artistic director of Lighthouse Festival, in an interview with Intermission. Next week, the company opens Jack and the Beanstalk, a production Ritschel hopes will inaugurate a new tradition in the Port Dover and Port Colborne communities that Lighthouse serves: an annual holiday pantomime.
Although the pantomime — or “panto,” for short — is a thriving tradition with a long history, especially in the UK, it’s relatively little-known in Canada. According to Ritschel and Jack and the Beanstalk’s director Jonathan Ellul, the confusion of mime with pantomime is a common misconception. “I would say that 85 per cent of our audience has no idea what a panto is,” said Ritschel.
But if a panto isn’t the Marcel Marceau-show, what the heck is it?
“It’s as though the Muppets were going to do their version of Jack and the Beanstalk, but we got hold of the script,” said Ellul. “In terms of the humour, I always think panto must have been the precursor for all those Bugs Bunny cartoons. It’s a heightened telling of a familiar story, and it’s going to go every which way.”
In other words, a pantomime takes a well-known fairy tale, throws it in a blender, and adds a healthy dose of zany hijinks. A traditional pantomime features a “pants role,” or a young male hero played by a woman, as well as a “pantomime dame” in drag. (Though the latter role is “more Miss Piggy than RuPaul,” said Ellul.)
Panto hallmarks also include a good fairy, an over-the-top villain, original songs, a slapstick chase scene, contemporary references to the local community, and plenty of audience participation. (A classic example: yelling “THERE’S A MONSTER BEHIND YOU!” at a dim-witted character who just won’t take the audience’s advice.) Theatregoers can expect all this and more from Lighthouse Festival’s Jack and the Beanstalk.
If the experience sounds overwhelming, fear not. The level of panto knowledge required of a first-time audience member is none whatsoever. “We’re going to be setting up those things within the show,” Ellul assured me. “The audience member who’s never seen [a panto] will be able to fully partake.”
There’s no question that Jack in the Beanstalk’s audiences will be in good hands: Ellul and Ritschel have assembled a dazzling team of Canadian comic talent. The cast of seven includes Eliza-Jane Scott as Jack, Cyrus Lane as the Villain, and Lori Nancy Kalamanski as the Fairy. “It’s been amazing for me to watch how they’re feeding off each other and coming together as an ensemble,” Ellul confided. “It’s been amazing to watch seven individual clowns develop.”
According to Ellul, once playwright Ken MacDougall knew the casting, he tailored the script to fit the voices and talents of each actor. Even so, Ellul continued, “the script is very much a blueprint. There’s a setup and a joke, with the caveat that, if you’ve got a better one, let’s hear it in the rehearsal room. [The actors] didn’t waste a second.”
On the day I spoke to Ellul and Ritschel, comic genius had struck twice. Eliza-Jane Scott had “realized that Jack didn’t have a moment where he kind of encapsulated everything,” Ellul told me. “So she went home and wrote a song based on a line that was in the script and summarized… everything that [Jack] had been through. She sent it as an email and I was listening…on my phone in a restaurant. I was laughing so hard I was in convulsions, all by myself — I looked like a crazy man in hysterics in the corner.”
Meanwhile, Ellul continued, Lane had completely rewritten the lyrics for the Villain’s big musical number, “and made it current and topical.”
Pantomime’s embrace of improvisation means the show will keep transforming even after it opens. “The panto is like the ultimate playground for theatre,” said Ritschel. You get to interact with the audience and feed off [their] energy. If the audience gives you something that night, it’s going to be a different show.”
Unlike in more serious theat-ah, “the greatest gift that can happen is that somebody’s cellphone goes off in the audience,” Ellul added. “These [actors] will stop and say, ‘you better get it.’”
Ellul and Ritschel took care to stress that all this fairy-tale funny business isn’t just for kids: this Jack and the Beanstalk has jokes for all ages. In fact, one of Panto’s superpowers is its ability to get every generation cackling.
“I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than seeing three generations of a family laugh together in a theatre,” said Ritschel. “That doesn’t happen in other genres.”
Although this is the first time Lighthouse Theatre has staged a holiday panto, Ritschel and Ellul hope this is only the beginning of a new tradition.
“The best thing I could hope for,” said Ellul, “is that people come out with a seed planted…‘Next year we’re bringing the grandparents, too.’”
Panto “doesn’t care where you’re from,” insisted Ritschel. “[It] doesn’t care what other theatres you go to. It doesn’t care what your age is. Doesn’t care what your background is.”
So what does pantomime care about?
“Joy,” said Ritschel. “Don’t worry about anything else. Just bring your joy.”
Jack and the Beanstalk opens at the Lighthouse Theatre in Port Dover on November 30 and runs until December 9. In Port Colborne, the production opens at the Roselawn Theatre on December 13 and runs until December 17. You can learn more about the show here.