James Long, Dawn Petten, Allan Zinyk, & Nora Pontin in Cinderella: An East Van Panto. Photo by Tim Matheson.
James Long, Dawn Petten, Allan Zinyk, & Nora Pontin in Cinderella: An East Van Panto. Photo by Tim Matheson.

For a theatre genre that appears to be a free-wheeling free-for-all to audiences, the traditional British pantomime (or panto for short) is surprisingly structured. Playwright Charlie Demers lets us in on a few of the secrets to writing a good one, as Theatre Replacement gets set to present Cinderella: An East Van Panto at the York Theatre this holiday season.

[pullquote]“Last year we did Jack and the Beanstalk on Commercial Drive and this year Cinderella takes place on Fraser Street. I want to give every sub-neighbourhood of East Van an opportunity to shine.” – playwright Charlie Demers[/pullquote]The first thing Demers says you need to know is that traditionally there five fairytales that make up the classic panto canon: Jack and Beanstalk, which the team tackled last year, Cinderella, this year’s show plus Aladdin, Puss and Boots and one other Demers admits to never remembering [Dick Whittington and His Cat].

“There are people who write outside those five, but I wanted to keep it inside that framework for the first few to see what we can do,” says Demers.

With five to choose from, Demers decided Cinderella would get the treatment this year given its recognizable connection to the Disney animated film. “It had been so long since I had seen the movie and I thought there would be so many sumptuous opportunities with the Cinderella story, like the ball and the king’s castle and Cinderella’s filthy house.”

Despite being influenced by the movie, which he acknowledges is a big part of pop culture, Demer’s adaptation is actually a combination of both Disney and the Brothers Grimm. “Cinderella is one of those stories where the Disney version is so engrained and the original Grimm’s collected version is virtually unrecognizable,” says Demers. “In the Grimm’s version there is no fairy godmother and no mice; the original Cinderella has more to do with birds and there is this huge section about Cinderella picking up lentils.”

Realizing that he couldn’t win with either the Grimm purists or the kids who grew up with the movie, Demers decided a mash-up of the two would make the most sense. “In our version she’s got both bird and rodent friends,” he laughs.

Along with the quintet of stories in the panto canon, Demers also points to a number of tropes that are a traditionally found in most pantomimes.  “Cross-dressing is a big part of the panto tradition,” says Demers. “There is at least one female character played by a man, and often a male character played by a woman. This year for example, Dawn Petten plays the Prince.”

Playwright Charlie Demers moves Cinderella to East Van
Playwright Charlie Demers moves Cinderella to East Van

In addition to the gender play, the panto conventions also include things such as double entendres aimed at the adults, original music (supplied again this year by Veda Hille), audience participation, and even a bisected steed.

“We were told every panto has a horse that splits in half and this year we’ve opted for a ‘ripped from the headline’ stand-in for the horse that I won’t spoil,” he says.

A liberal dose of political and localized jokes are also mixed in with the silliness to ensure the adults are entertained and setting Cinderella’s house on East Vancouver’s Fraser Street gives it a more contemporary feel and is perhaps more in line with Demers usual writing as a stand-up comic.

“Narrative comedy is always tough, trying to strike the balance between gags and advancing the story. One of the advantages of the panto though is its cartoonish sense of reality that allows the characters to set-up a punch line,” says Demers. “The other challenge comedically is that people are expecting a lot of local references. Last year I wrote a lot of Vancouver jokes and when I went back to the well this year it didn’t come quite as easy.”

While Demers hasn’t given thought to which show he would tackle if he was invited back for a third year, one thing will be keeping the shows based in East Vancouver.

“Last year we did Jack and the Beanstalk on Commercial Drive and this year Cinderella takes place on Fraser Street. I want to give every sub-neighbourhood of East Van an opportunity to shine.”

Who knows, Chinatown could very well be the perfect location for Aladdin next year.

Cinderella: An East Van Panto plays at the York Theatre (639 Commercial Drive) until December 28. Visit http://thecultch.com for tickets and information.

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