Catherine Mahon Buckley, pantomime writer/ director/ producer, is currently in rehearsals for her 28th show at The Everyman, Cork. Here, she tells us how the scripts, the audience and the kids have changed over the years
‘Theatre and the arts was very much part and parcel of our lives growing up. I was lucky that my parents worked in the creative industries. My father was a bank manager and also a musician and my mum was a designer. Creativity was encouraged in our house and I was about four years of age when I saw my first panto.
Growing up, I had very definite ideas about the panto. I had a picture in my head of the Fairy Godmother, for example, and that’s why, even after writing and directing 28 pantos for The Everyman, I’m very strong about keeping what I call ‘the line of the story’ pure. I don’t want to disappoint any child because the child within me would be disappointed.
I’m also wary of frightening children, particularly if it’s their first introduction to the arts as audience members. I was petrified of the giant in Jack & the Beanstalk when I was growing up so I was mindful of not scaring children when we first produced it in 1996.
Of course, the times change. What I did 28 years ago, I wouldn’t dream of doing now because I wouldn’t be working. I remember I used to have the actors running through the audience! You wouldn’t be able to do that now due to health and safety.
Children are different, too. The very first panto I directed was Cinderella, with Jim Mulcahy playing the dame. Jim was running through the audience and a little boy of about eight put out his leg and tripped him. When Jim stood up, the child said, ‘Come on, you little f**ker’. His voice was picked up on Jim’s mic so everyone heard it but Jim handled it so well. He started to cry and said, ‘I’ll get my big sister after you’. Of course, the child answered back and said, ‘I’ll take her on, too!’. The audience erupted but I’m sure the child’s parents wanted to climb under their seats.
I’m proud to say that I’ve never repeated a script but you must remember that every five years you have a new generation coming up, with new lingo and new ideas. So you’re looking at modernisation, pace and then you’re always bringing it back to where they are at.
We also have to be very aware of the fact that we’re living in the digital world which is faster and our attention spans have dwindled. And we really need to be training children how to be attentive and how to concentrate. Activities play a part in this, and one thing the panto hasn’t lost is this inter-human activity that goes from the cast to the audience. It’s a wonderful form of conversation — children love it and the children in us adults love it, too.
I think you’re never too old for a panto. Okay, maybe at 15, if children aren’t into theatre, they go through a phase of ‘that’s so childish’, but if they’ve been introduced to it they will come back to it another time.
I was amazed last year by the number of young adult people — even 18- and 19-year-olds — in the audience, but as someone said to me at the time, all the nightclubs were closed so it was a night out for them!
We’re in rehearsals at the moment with Cinderella but we’re already talking about the title of the next one. The whole process could take the entire year.
First of all I come up with an idea and then I will workshop the idea with young people before the script is even written. Along with writing and directing pantos, I run the Cork Academy of Dramatic Arts and I will ask the older children between the ages of 10 to 16 questions like, ‘How would I express that in today’s world?’ and ‘What names would you give these characters?’
Children love being involved, and we should be tapping into them more often. Remember, our heads are filled with business, mortgages and whatever; their heads are filled with creativity. Every child has that and it just needs to be developed.
When we have the ideas and the storyline, we start thinking of the characters. Then, when we have the first draft, we meet as a team — the choreographer, the musical director, myself and my husband, Ted, who’s brilliant on music. We always weave popular songs into the script, changing the lyrics so that the songs fit.
During our first meeting we make a list of, say, 100 songs that would be suitable. Then we meet again and we give each of these songs a number of stars, before eliminating the ones that didn’t get four or five stars. Then we look at where to place the chosen songs in the script.
It’s a long process and we could be on the eighth or ninth edition of the script by the time we get to opening week. I then continue working with the show for another eight days after opening night.
We’re constantly testing the script because things that could seem hilarious on the floor of the rehearsal room can die a death on stage. And you have to be big enough, strong enough and able enough to say ‘cut’.
At the end of the day, the audience is there to be entertained and that is our function. The show comes first and I always remind people, ‘It’s not personal’ when they’re suddenly told that the song they spent hours rehearsing has been cut.
We’re still in rehearsals with this year’s Cinderella and the script is a little different. For a long time I hated her being a wimp because I see men and women as equal and I didn’t want her to be this poor little thing waiting for a prince to save the day.
So this time she’s an entrepreneur who’s trying to make a mark in the world of business, even though she’s living at home with very difficult people.
I was inspired by the story of actress Joan Crawford when I wrote the script. She reportedly adopted her children because she wanted the limelight but then, when they got older, she didn’t want them because they were showing up her age. So she kept them from growing up. I took that little bit of a storyline and developed it. And in this Cinderella, it’s the stepmother who’s after the prince!
This year our ugly sisters are called Kourtney and Kim. I didn’t pick those names, the children in the academy did. Our Kourtney and Kim are teenagers who are into their social media and they’re at that stage where they can’t be bothered, you know, ‘talk to the hand’ kind of stuff. I think everyone will identify with them.
I’ll always remember the last Cinderella we did in 2017. There was a scene where the ugly sisters had made a huge mess of the place and then the cook, played by Ciaran Bermingham, came in and said, ‘Oh my god, who messed up this place?’ He wasn’t expecting three children in the audience to stand up and tell him it was the uglies. They told him what they did, why they did and how they did it!
The next person on the stage was Cinderella and she said, ‘Oh my god, look at this mess. Who did it?’ And Ciaran clapped back, ‘Ask the three in the audience’.
It just goes to show that you need to be a very special performer to play a panto. You have to be able to act, sing and dance but, more importantly, you have to be able to work with the script and work off-script as well.
And the adults love it as much as the children do. In fact, sometimes the adults in the audience are worse than the children for answering back — they forget themselves!
I have a strong motto: keep the child in you alive and you will stay young. And isn’t it wonderful to forget yourself for two hours of entertainment?”
As told to Katie Byrne
Cinderella runs at The Everyman, Cork from December 3 to January 15;