Is the panto past its sell-by date?
Today's children are used to a faster pace of life than before. So can 'old-fashioned' entertainment such as pantomimes still manage to keep them captivated?
ANY child worth their salt would take a magic carpet over a mobile phone any day, which is why the traditional Christmas panto still manages to hold today's tech-savvy kids spellbound.
But things have changed in panto land. The boom in professionally produced on-screen children's entertainment means that modern kids, jaded by high quality DVDs and explosive computer games, have extremely high expectations of the Christmas panto.
"You really do have to work. There's a joke that the panto is one of the better diets around -- they say you'll lose a stone over the two months of the run from sheer hard work, sweat and tears!" says Garry Mountaine, the Dame in this year's Gaiety Theatre extravaganza 'Aladdin'.
Child audiences today are a formidable bunch. Technologically sophisticated and used to fast-moving screen entertainment, they can be fickle and easily distracted if things aren't up to scratch.
They're also pretty handy with their phones, says John Lovett, Dame at the Tivoli's all-star Christmas production, 'Beauty and the Beast'.
"What I have noticed since I started is the amount of kids from age seven and eight up who take pictures with their phones and have them on constantly, which is a distraction, so you have to compete against that," says Lovett, who this Christmas performs alongside household names like Martin King, Derek Mooney, Mark Cagney, Brian Ormond and Pippa O'Connor.
"Because they're used to watching computer-enhanced movies you have to match that level of energy onstage, more so than you would have years ago."
Children love the panto and the Dame but, observes Lovett, all the same, their attention can wander. During last year's Tivoli panto run -- 'Cinderella' -- Lovett did two matinees in one day, a feat which involved an eye-watering 18 costume changes.
The pace has to be snappy and the production must be brighter and more spectacular to match the expectations of its demanding young audience.
"You have to keep the jokes rolling or you'll lose them," explains Garry Mountaine. "There's also a lot of special effects nowadays -- we have a magic carpet which is pretty good and a star box for when the genies appear," he says, adding that modern pantos are more technically orientated than those of his childhood.
"There are a lot more scene changes, a lot of spectacular costumes -- the Dame herself has seven changes alone."
If anyone can trace the gradual changes which have overtaken the genre, it's Jim Mulcahy, who is one of Ireland's longest serving dames. This year he plays the Dame in Cork's Everyman Palace Theatre production of 'Sinbad and The Sea Pirates'.
"Children's DVDs became popular. They were very sophisticated and the music on them was very good.
"We had to be much more active and much wider in our selection of music, while the performance has to be far more colourful and spectacular and have much more slapstick," he says.
Mulcahy gives, as an example, the way the relationship between Cinderella and her Ugly Sisters is portrayed.
Years ago, he recalls, when the Ugly Sisters were nagging Cinderella, they'd usually restrict the action to finger-wagging. In more modern times the duo learned karate and used some moves on Cinderella.
"There is a downward pressure to keep children interested. Before, I think children would sit and watch, but now their attention span has shortened to seconds rather than minutes."
At one time, he recalls, it was possible to sing a nice slow melody during a pantomime, but "if we did that now they'd get very bored very quickly". As a result, modern panto music incorporates songs familiar to the audience, from the charts for instance, while references to popular TV programmes are very much part of the script.
"We focus on what the children are hearing and seeing in the media. We would mention TV and games, for example."
It's important to make the panto relevant to the audience's lives says Mulcahy.
"For example the Dame wins the Lotto and goes to Dublin to collect her winnings."
The story is a crucial element of the production, believes Declan Mangan, who has written more than 40 pantos and been Dame more than 40 times in the Killorglin, Co Kerry, panto -- this year it's 'The Three Little Pigs'.
"The storyline has to be very up to date and very interesting now, more so than 30 or 40 years ago, when you just wrote it and expected them to be interested.
"Now you have to think about twists and turns and about putting in exciting bits to keep them involved.
"We now make reference to 'The X-Factor' or 'Ireland's Got Talent' or whatever's current."
Modern pantos make a gargantuan effort to involve the audience, agrees Mulcahy.
"Over the last 18 years there has been increased audience participation. People want to get involved in the show and I think that's a great thing."
As part of this the Dame and the cast are constantly coming up with new ways to interact with the children, like addressing the audience on a constant basis.
"You really have to get involved with them, and work harder to hold their attention," says Mulcahy.
John Lovett's Dame-isms include mingling with the audience or directly addressing children or adults in the theatre.
"You can slag off the other cast members, and even the audience, in a jocose way to make the Dame look even more stupid than she is," he explains.
The mischievous Dame will even pick on a daddy or two and flirt with them -- or even, more embarrassingly, with a male teacher -- and the kids absolutely love it, according to Lovett.
"We also use pop tunes quite a bit so all the songs we sing are familiar. We use songs by Lady Gaga or from 'Glee' so the kids join in."
The interactive fun with the cast is one of the panto's greatest attractions.
"For a lot of them, this is the only bit of live entertainment they get during the year. So, when they come to the panto they lap it up!" says Garry Mountaine.
for more information:
- 'The Cheerios Beauty and the Beast' panto opens in the Tivoli Theatre Dublin on Dec 20, with previews from Dec 14 continuing until Jan 16. www.panto.ie
- 'Aladdin' is now running at the Gaiety Theatre Dublin until Jan 30. www.gaietytheatre.com
- 'Sinbad & The Sea Pirates' at the Everyman Palace Theatre Cork continues until Jan 9. www.everymanpalace.com
- 'The Three Little Pigs' at the CYMS hall in Killorglin Co Kerry from Jan 23-30 and at Siamsa Tire in Tralee Co Kerry on Feb 5 & 6. Website www.killorglinpanto.com will be in operation from January 1.