As the nights draw in and Shaftesbury gets ready for the colder, darker days, there is one event that’s set to brighten up the bleak midwinter. Even though the kids have just returned to school, a team of Arts Centre volunteers is already preparing for this winter’s pantomime.
‘The Nutcracker’ has been penned by Myra McDadd and she knows how to write a great panto. “It’s the sixth one I’ve done here and the fifth one that I have written,” said Myra.
Pantomime is a great British tradition and Myra says she’ll include all the elements that everybody wants. “Obviously, you will expect certain characters to appear. The Dame is usually a man dressed as a woman and Principal Boy is usually a girl dressed as a man. You usually have a ‘boo-hiss’ villain and a comedy double act. There are certain things like the ‘look behind you’ set up and slapstick that goes with it. And there’s also the ‘oh no he isn’t, oh yes he is bit,” she said.
If you weren’t brought up in Britain, then attending any pantomime could prove baffling. So much audience interaction comes from the intuitive responses to the panto traditions that generations of British children have grown up with. “It’s a bit like cricket isn’t it?” smiled Myra. “To the untrained eye it must seem very odd. It actually bears very little relationship to its Italian roots – something I think that we have taken and developed here and made it something of our own.”
With so much interaction in a panto, it must be easy for an experienced writer and director like Myra to see whether her script is a hit, judging from audience responses. “You feel very satisfied with what you have done if people really enjoy it,” Myra said.
Myra has adapted the traditional Nutcracker tale for this year’s Arts Centre pantomime. “The story itself is based on Hoffman’s fairy story ‘The Nutcracker And The Mouse Queen’. Tchaikovsky took that and created ‘The Nutcracker’ ballet. It’s actually quite a short story in the ballet. It just takes place in act one and the second act is given over to dancing. What I’ve had to do is contrive an act two and that’s been the most difficult. The story and characters are already there for the first bit and I’ve been able to develop them but I’ve had to carry it on and that was slightly harder,” Myra said.
As so many pantomimes have been written over the years, why did Myra create extra work for herself and write something new, rather than put on a show that was already scripted? “I’ve done adaptations of off-the-shelf stories before. But I’ve always fancied doing ‘The Nutcracker’ because it’s so much about Christmas. It’s fantastic, glittery and romantic. It is work but no harder than going out and scrubbing floors every day,” Myra laughed.
As Myra’s pantomime has been written for Shaftesbury will there be local references that residents will appreciate? “They will come into it. You leave a margin of flexibility for anything that’s newsworthy, interesting and for local references. But often you leave that to the discretion of the performer. They may introduce it, if it is something really topical,” Myra explained. So townspeople ought to be wary of this and avoid getting in the news? “Yes. No scandals here, please,” Myra laughed.
Away from the world of panto, Myra has written a number of serious plays that have engaged Shaftesbury residents over the years. “I wrote a community play, which was performed in the Abbey in 2003. It was called ‘The Miracle Child Of Caer Palladwr’ and it was set in and around the Abbey in 1156. That had a massive cast and crew of 80 people. I also wrote a play for St Peter’s Church, to help with their refurbishments, called ‘Mortal Flesh’. It was a different take on the story of Judas Iscariot, his relationship with Jesus and the betrayal. I’ve been writing for 25 years, all in all.”
So back to the panto – do you want to take part in ‘The Nutcracker’? Oh, yes you do! There is a read through taking place at 7.30pm on Wednesday, 26th September at the Shaftesbury Arts Centre.
“A read through is where we go through the script and people can takes turns to read parts,” explained Myra. “They would get an idea of the story and the characters. It gives them an idea of whether or not it is the sort of thing they want to be involved in and whether they want to be in the chorus or a main part.”
Myra hasn’t set a target for the number of people that she needs to recruit for the show. “Well, we don’t turn anybody away. The cast can end up quite large. If people want to be in it, they will get a part. It’s the one production where anybody, regardless of age or gender, can be involved.”
So what skills or qualities do potential performers need? “It’s enthusiasm,” responded Myra. “They have got to enjoy it. You don’t need a huge amount of stage experience or knowledge. You need a little bit of nerve, perhaps. There is a part for anybody and if you want to hide away in the chorus and just do your bit, that is great. Or if you want to do something more adventurous, that’s great too.”
How much time does a cast member need to commit to? “It can range from one night a week, if you are playing a small part, to three rehearsals a week if you are a main character and you have dancing and singing as well,” said Myra. “You can tailor it to your commitment, so if you can only do a couple of times a week, go for something that will fit into the rehearsal schedule.”
There will just be the one read through. “If you want to audition for a part, you fill out a little slip and then come along to our auditions. We will make a selection of who is doing what and we will have our first get-together straight after the next performance, ‘The Ladykillers’ is over at the end of October,” Myra said.