Panto director Laurie Jarvis directs traffic during the mass auditions two weeks ago.

The panto journey begins

When I showed up at the Capitol Theatre last September with my then-10-year-old daughter Ashley, the butterflies were slamming hard into my stomach wall.

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 first part of an ongoing series that will be exclusive to nelsonstar.com…

When I showed up at the Capitol Theatre last September with my then-10-year-old daughter Ashley, the butterflies were slamming hard into my stomach wall. As part of the job of a small town newspaper editor, I had been forced to face my public speaking fears over the years and moderated several political forums. Though not something I relished, it was part of the job and something I knew plenty about and that made it tolerable.

This was different.

I love local theatre. But it’s sitting in Row F at the Capitol that seems like the perfect fit. Yet there I was, tromping up on stage with mostly strangers. The only thought running through my head was: this is for Ashley, this is for Ashley, my little sweetie is going to have a positive childhood experience and I don’t want to dash her dreams.

The year before my painfully shy wife brought Ashley to the same pantomime auditions. Knowing nothing about it, she thought she would just watch as her daughter did her best to make an impression. Director Laurie Jarvis called parents and kids up on stage for a little get-to-know-you session, which my wife actually enjoyed. Then Jarvis asked the people to start acting like chickens. My wife promptly walked off the stage and right back to the mini-van. Ashley cried, Janice felt like a horrible mother, but we all agreed that this was not mom’s thing.

So there I was. Not as shy as my wife, but certainly had never entertained the prospect of singing or dancing in public. But I was determined and it paid off. After a while it was actually kind of fun. When I sang, I tried to block out my own voice. When I danced, I imagined nobody was watching.

Turns out it was enough and we made the final cut. Apparently so impressed by my lack of rhythm and “interesting voice” I was even cast in the principal role — mind you still minor — as Honest John Probity in Showdown at the Hoedown.

When we returned to the Capitol two weeks ago for the first audition, I entered the historic theatre in a much different frame of mind. Hec, I might have even had a bit of swagger. After all, I’m now a theatre veteran with an actual show on his permanent record. Knowing many of the faces — both crew and potential cast — was also comforting. It just felt right.

Then we got back up on stage. Whoa! Where did those butterflies come from?

Clearly it never gets any easier once the lights are on you and others are watching. Downplay it as much as possible in your mind, but once you go public it’s damn frightening.

Adding to my sudden anxiety is that the parents and the kids in the group were good. Like, really good. Some of them I knew, others I didn’t. All of them were great.

In total, well over 100 people tried out for this year’s show. In both the first group (parents with kids) and the second group (teenagers and adults without kids), the stage was much more cramped than last year.

It seemed like record numbers. I got a little self-absorbed for a second and figured it must have been my influence. I wrote about last year’s show quite extensively so I figured people must have read it and realized if a newbie like me can pull it off… well pretty much anybody can. Turns out, it probably had nothing to do with me.

“The last few years we’ve had pretty consistently over 100 people coming out for auditions,” Jarvis told me a couple days ago.

After we finished, I knew I did a much better job than last year. Still, was it enough?

WAITING FOR THE PHONE TO RING

Ashley and I waited anxiously for the rest of the afternoon, hoping to hear the phone ring. A call came in around suppertime and all our ears perked up like a German Sheppard. Ashley ran to the phone and handed it to me. To our relief it was Terry Brennan from the Capitol letting me know I had a callback on Monday night. I played it cool: “Nice. Thanks Terry.” But when I hung up and gave Ashley the nod, there was a scream and a big hug. That moment alone made all the torture of putting myself out there on the stage worthwhile.

When I got to the callbacks I was impressed with who had made it, but couldn’t believe who wasn’t there. Some of the faces I figured were a lock were not in the group being considered for a principal role.

“It’s a tough one because I want people to know about it and I want people to come out and have a good time,” Jarvis explained. “But it makes it really, really hard for us because it’s impossible to take all those people.

“It’s been running long enough now that people know it’s a really fun thing to come and participate in. So that makes me feel really good… I wish we had a theatre twice the size.

“Everybody has something to bring so when it gets to this point it becomes this process of who fits with the specific show of this year.”

I felt bad for those who didn’t make it to this stage of the process.

“I’m always sincere when I say, come back,” explained Jarvis. “Just because you didn’t fit that specific grouping of people that we needed this year, it doesn’t mean you are not doing a fabulous job. It blows me away at auditions.”

After the callback session, justice was served for last year’s Honest John. A couple days later, Jarvis left a wonderfully upbeat message on our answering machine that once again confirmed to me what a wonderful gift she is to the local theatre and this community. We made the chorus. With the wealth of talent at callbacks, it would have been ridiculous to make me as a principal and I’m extremely pleased to just be part of the scene.

THE FIRST GATHERING

Last Sunday the real work began as those lucky enough to be part of The Elves and the Shoemaker assembled for the first time. Though everybody was pretty pumped about being there for real, there was a different mood than the week before.

“At the auditions people are really going for it and then it all kind of pulls back in the first few rehearsals,” said Jarvis. “It slowly builds, but at first it’s a bit of slogging through learning the tunes, learning the choreography, learning the blocking. Once that part is known, then the fun starts. We’ve got hard work over the next four or five weeks until we get really familiar with the material, then we start to play.”

And for some of the newbies, it must be pretty foreign. In those first few rehearsals last year, I had no idea what was going on. Having only seen the outcome from the audience, I had no clue where the journey was heading and how the final destination would come together.

“I hope that people just have faith that we have a fabulous team of people who know what they are doing and know how much fun it is,” Jarvis said. “We know how good it can be so they just have to trust in the process.”

On that first Sunday the chorus sat in the audience while the principal characters ran through the script. This is done so we all have an idea of the plot. Even though the 15 main characters sat on the stage, they were already putting plenty of enthusiasm into their lines as they read off the paper for what was likely the first time for many of them. It was minus the singing, dancing and body language, but I felt I should be paying to watch it.

“Hopefully that is a sign of good casting,” Jarvis told me with a smile after that first rehearsal. “People are already feeling comfortable in the parts they have been put in. I would like to think the depth of people we had to choose from helped with what we have seen so far.”

As for the show itself? I have been sworn to secrecy on some of the details. Now that I am part of the theatre cult, I vow to keep my silence on the surprises. But it’s the pantomime… you don’t have to stretch too far to get the gist.

“The story is basically always the same, but for me it’s the process,” Jarvis said of why she has been the director of the Christmas panto for a large majority of the last 25 years. “I know how much fun this is and I am always excited to say ‘guess what, you are going to have a really good time.’”

Even though I too know more about the process and what to expect in the end, I can’t wait for what comes next. Off to the second rehearsal this afternoon!

Bob Hall is the editor of the Nelson Star. He can be reached at editor@nelsonstar.com

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