Panto musical director Michael Calledine (left) and director Laurie Jarvis (right) run the chorus through some singing techniques. For this year's production of The Elves and the Shoemaker

Organized chaos

In 30 days the pantomime is going to be running through the dress rehearsal.

There are few better opportunities for a theatre novice to get exposed to the wonders of the stage than through the Capitol Theatre’s annual Christmas pantomime. Now heading into its 25th year, this year’s production of The Elves and the Shoemaker will once again not disappoint.

At the urging of his daughter, last year Nelson Star editor Bob Hall entered the world of community theatre for the first time. Because child actors need parental accompaniment, last year’s Honest John Probity is at it again… this time in the chorus. Leading up to the December show, Hall has decided to once again provide an insider’s look at the process that makes the final destination of the panto journey such a tremendous experience.

Here’s the second part of an ongoing series that will be exclusive to nelsonstar.com…

 

In 30 days the pantomime is going to be running through the dress rehearsal. In four weeks opening night will be days away. Four more Sunday practice sessions and it all becomes very real.

At this point the preparation for The Elves and the Shoemaker pantomime at Nelson’s Capitol Theatre can be described as organized chaos. A blur of dance steps and new songs that would seem like a jumble if you stumbled off the street and into one of the rehearsals.

Last year I was one of the principal characters who rehearsed twice a week — once with the other main roles on Wednesday and then Sundays with the entire cast and chorus. I actually thought I was a theatre pro with my 10 lines of dialogue. Then this past Thursday night I went to see Blithe Spirit at the Capitol and was blown away by the amount of lines spewed on the stage that night, especially by Geoff Burns who seemed to have hundreds. I have no idea how a part-time actor who is the Trafalgar Junior High principal by day could even pack that much dialogue into his brain. It was very impressive.

I digress.

Being in the chorus is tremendous fun. For starters I don’t have pangs of terror running through my body at night in anticipation of singing solo in front of 400 people. I’m just one of the villagers of Cobbleham (the town where this year’s panto takes place). And as one of the villagers my responsibility is to help fill the stage with song and dance during the big numbers. Much less pressure being one of the herd. As a bonus, the songs in this year’s production are awesome and familiar (that’s as much as I can reveal under my oath of panto silence).

The downside of chorus life is that there is little context. We are learning the steps and songs, but at this point it’s hard to see where it all fits in. Director Laurie Jarvis has explained it to us and we ran through the entire script on the first main rehearsal, but it still seems pretty random. In fact, the cast never really gets to see the whole production roll out until we watch the DVD months after the show is history.

These feelings are quite normal and when moments of doubt enter your mind, you have to throw your complete faith and trust to those working hardest to make the panto a reality. Of course providing the big vision — and the reason to always be confident it will all work out splendidly — is Jarvis. But as we slog our way through the preparation, we are putting our fate in the hands of three very important people who most will only see in the program in early-December.

For the second year in a row, young local theatre veterans Hannah Jarvis-Lingard and Frankie Defeo have been charged with choreography. When my daughter was four she took dance. After watching every Saturday morning session I always had a tremendous amount of respect for the dance teachers. Sure it was cute, but getting a group of 14 tiny tutued girls to move in the same direction was pretty much impossible. The panto chorus is a mixture of older kids and adults, but the task being undertaken by Hannah and Frankie is no less challenging.

Both Frankie and Hannah have been involved in local theatre and dance for many years. I’ve seen them on stage since they were my daughter’s age and they’re very good. Behind the scenes they need to bring different skills to the stage — part drill sergeant, part motivational speaker and part kindergarten teacher would seem to be the core requirements of a panto choreographer. We’re in good hands with these two.

The other key member of the team who is being asked to refine a crew with mixed musical backgrounds into a chorus that will tear the roof off the Capitol, is this year’s musical director Michael Calladine. I first met Michael during last year’s Showdown at the Hoedown pantomime. He was snake oil salesman Conrad Bilker and I was his trusty sidekick Honest John Probity. I think in the first rehearsal last year he was a little shocked with who he was paired with for the main singing numbers. Before we even started to sing our duet, he asked something about what key I wanted it in. I looked blankly at him. When I opened my mouth to sing, he quickly figured out why.

I don’t think it was planned, but putting a talented theatre veteran by my side was brilliant casting by Jarvis. Without his support during rehearsals and his confidence up on stage, I’m pretty sure my delivery of Honest John would have been a disaster. He made me look good. At the very least his chops and abilities took the attention off of me while we shared the stage.

Michael is new to the Nelson theatre scene, having just arrived last year with his family. He brought with him a heap of theatre background from Victoria and when I saw he was the going to be the musical director for this year’s show, it put me at ease. Now running his own studio as a voice and drama coach in Nelson, having him squeeze in helping all of us sound better is a treat. But, I’ll be honest… as good as he is, I still have no idea what key my voice produces at any given time.

One of the coolest things about the annual pantomime is that it’s a fundraiser for the Capitol Theatre. Cast and crew are volunteers giving their time to put on a production that has become a staple of Nelson life in early December. Without the dedication of people like Hannah, Frankie and Michael, it simply wouldn’t happen.

It’s a truckload of work for everybody involved, but anybody who has ever been through it will agree it’s a blast. We may helping ensure the financial stability of the cherished Capitol in the long run, but when the curtain closes in little over a month the experience we will take away is worth more than we can ever give.

 

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