Art seen: Make 'Em Laugh

Keeping a June-written panto fresh in winter is a tough task, writes Malachy McKenna

Malachy McKenna

I was an actor who wrote, but now I'm a writer who acts. My first play, Tillsonburg, won the Stewart Parker Award about nine years ago. It was set on a tobacco farm in Canada, and it's done very well for me. I trained at the Focus's Stanislavsky Studio when Deirdre O'Connell was alive, and I suppose it was through her that I developed a very good sense of space and structure, and what was required in the writing of a play, like let's not have 16 characters, three acts and a trap door. I would have become aware of all the practicalities of writing a play, the nuts and bolts of it.

Deirdre said to me that there were three rules, when writing, that she adhered to. Number one, do I believe, in the given circumstances, in the set-up? Number two, am I interested in all the characters? And number three, do I want to know what happens next? If your audience can say 'yes' to all three, from beginning to end, then you probably have something.

It is very strange to go from the quiet of writing alone to a rehearsal room full of people. I co-wrote the panto with Gary Cooke, so it made it slightly different. No matter what you put on the page, and how good you think it is when you're on your own in the room or if you're with another person, it utterly changes when you go into rehearsal. Good actors bring something of themselves to everything. I think you're only as good an actor as you are a person, so the more life experience you have always makes the thing so much better.

The panto this year is Jack and the Beanstalk. There was a lot of political stuff in last year's panto, Cinderella, because our brief was to bring something in for the adults and kids. The economy was much more upbeat last year and we had more fun with the state of the nation. We started writing Jack in June, and even then we decided we had to steer away from reality because people had had enough. People go to the panto to get away from stuff like issues with the banks.

We put the emphasis on silliness and total escape. My own son, who is four-and-a-half, came to the rehearsals, to the run-throughs, and he said, 'Oh, you need this, and you need that, and the giant must get killed', even though the consensus was to go with a softer giant so as not to frighten any little children. He and my daughter, who is two-and-a-half, are my biggest critics.

It is so good to go and see people laugh. But it is hard to write something in June that's going to hit the stage in December, to keep it current; you're always saying, 'This is funny today, but will it work at Christmas?' Probably not. So you have to be available to make it newsy -- like, Jedward were nowhere in June, and suddenly they had to feature prominently; Thierry Henry hadn't handled the ball against Ireland last June, and he definitely had to go in. This makes it alive and happening. People want to have fun, and they want their children to have fun. I know from my point of view, if my children are enjoying something then I'm enjoying it. People want their children to be happy.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs in the Gaiety Theatre 'til January 31st. See