When The Cultch and Theatre Replacement first began thinking about how they might put on their annual panto with the pandemic complications, the initial idea was to create a “best-of” show. It seemed the ideal year to give audiences what they had been clamouring to see.
Little did Panto Come Home writer Mark Chavez realize as he started to put the show together, it would take on a mind of its own.
“As we started talking, it became apparent we were going to make another complete show,” says Chavez who is no stranger to Theatre Replacement pantos having written Little Red Riding Hood in 2017 and Snow White in 2018.
“We were still going to use some songs from previous shows, but [music writer] Veda Hille was going to write a couple of new numbers,” he continues. “I also realized the connective tissue linking the songs wasn’t going to be enough.”
Instead, Chavez retreated to his Sunshine Coast cabin to spend some time coming up with an entirely new panto story, albeit with a definite nod to the past.
“Originally, we weren’t going to have a major story but do some songs with interstitial sketches,” he continues. “But it would have turned into a bit of a sketch show, so we quickly veered into having an actual story.”
Calling it “definitely meta,” Chavez describes Panto Come Home as the story of a group of people who come together to put on a show in the wake of the coronavirus.
More specifically, it tells the story of Theatre Replacement’s two artistic directors, who sneak into the York Theatre in an attempt to cheer up a despondent Veda Hille. Calling on several panto friends to sing and dance Hille’s best past panto hits, things go sideways when the Phanto of the Panto arrives. It seems he’s been watching since the first panto premiered eight years ago and has a few ideas on how to make this year’s really work.
“There are some real self-referential moments,” says Chavez. “We brought in actors who have been in past pantos who play themselves, and it becomes another little nod to prior shows as well.”
The one exception, though, is Chavez wrote himself into the play as the Phanto of the Panto. It is a role he is savouring.
“The most fun you can have on stage is being the bad guy,” he says with a laugh.
It is also where Chavez feels most at home. While he enjoys being a writer, he does find the writing process solitary and lonely.
“I got into this business to work with other people,” he says. “I love coming up with story ideas, but when all that hard work is done, you can just play.”
And while he says that performing his own words can be challenging, especially given his background in improvisation, his intimate knowledge of the script helps.
“I know what drives the scenes because I’ve written them, so I know what I have to do,” he says. “I just have to nail down these lines I have written, so I don’t screw up my fellow performers or the lighting and other cues that are attached to each line.”
In addition to the challenges in weaving a new script with old songs, Chavez says working within the confines of the COVID-19 restrictions has also not been without its hurdles.
To be broadcast live from various parts of The Cultch’s York Theatre, the director and producers have choreographed everything to ensure the necessary precautions are followed.
“It’s a real dance, but it becomes second nature,” says Chavez. “It starts to feel very weird in a sad way if we get too close together, but Theatre Replacement has been very clear. They don’t just want to do it for optics; they really want to make sure we are all taken care of, and everyone is safe.”
Recognizing it is a key component to any good pantomime, to not have a live audience to boo, cheer, clap and laugh along with the actors on stage is also a bit strange. Chavez and the team have taken this into account, going as far as to write an “audience” character who gives clues to those watching at home as to what they should be doing.
“Not having a live audience is bad for comedy and theatre in general, but we found some really great workarounds and some fun ways to connect with the audience at home,” he says.
It also helps that Chavez wrote Panto Come Home as an online experience.
“It is made for streaming,” he says. “It is not a quick fix to the original show. While nothing will ever replace having a live audience, this is definitely a good stopgap.”
Ultimately, Chavez says Panto Come Home strives for something many are missing right now: community connection.
“And it’s also super funny,” he concludes. “The performers are great, and the songs are amazing. We’ve all brought our best because we’re also happy to be working.”
Panto Come Home streams live from The Cultch’s York Theatre in East Vancouver from December 17 through December 27 with various viewing price options. Visit thecultch.com for tickets and information.