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May 16 2019, Cinderella Trophy Comment

…without really trying!

Dame Sam Allen!

By Sam Allen

From time to time people ask me, sometimes out of idle curiosity and sometimes out of sheer frustration, “What on earth do we have to do to win the Cinderella Trophy?” Or words to that effect. For the uninitiated, the Cinderella Trophy is the top prize in a competition run by the Somerset Fellowship of Drama. It runs from the end of November through to the beginning of March and it is predominantly for pantomimes. Every year in May there is a glittering award ceremony when trophies and certificates are handed out across a wide range of categories encompassing both on- and off-stage disciplines and skills. It really is a mini-Oscars for pantomimes in the county and every year up to thirty shows are entered.

Hold on! Before we start, what gives you the right to tell us what to do?

Well, nothing really. I’ve never won the Cinderella Trophy so you can happily disregard everything I say! On the other hand, I have been adjudicating pantomimes for almost twenty years so I have a fair idea about what works and what doesn’t. And, believe me, when you see panto at its very best, you know it is working. For the record, I have directed about ten village pantomimes over the past thirty years and three of those have won the Spotlight Shield for Best Village Panto and one was runner up. I’ve won the award for Best Director, having been nominated four times, I’ve been Best Villain and I have been nominated for Best Dame but, sadly, never won. I think my aspirations to be Best Principal Girl are fading fast, although I did get recognition for my role as the Hairy Godmother!

OK, we’ll give this a go. What do I have to do to win?

The simple answer is the most unlikely: don’t try! If you are putting on a pantomime to win gongs and plaudits, you are doing it for all the wrong reasons! You should be doing it for the great experience you are giving all the cast and the supporting teams and you should be doing it to give your audiences a fantastic fun evening. Any awards you may receive – or any nominations you are given – are the icing on the cake, but they are most certainly not the prime reason for putting on a show. Having said that, it is probably true that the shows the audiences most enjoy are the ones that will also win awards. It’s just a question of where your focus is.

OK. Understood. But seriously, what do I have to do to win?

All right. If you really want to win there are some things you should know. Firstly, follow the rules. Pantomime is based on the sixteenth century Italian Comedia del Arte and many of the stories are based on old fairy tales going back to, what we aficionados call, the year dot! And so inevitably the genre is full of tradition. And it is a good idea to understand the essential traditions while acknowledging that traditions evolve over time and they can be adapted to suit when necessary.

Pantomime Traditions

  • There is a lot of cross dressing! There are lots of historical reasons for this but, frankly, this is not a history lesson! Traditionally, the pantomime Dame is a man dressed as a woman in the most outrageous way. S/he is an essential element of any pantomime and so I will say more about this role below. The principal boy is usually played by a woman although in the seventies many professionals started using handsome young C-list celebrity male pop stars in this role and so it is nowadays not uncommon for the principal boy to be played by a boy. The principal girl is always played by a girl. Always.

  • As Stealers Wheel once famously almost sang: Baddies to the left of me, Goodies to the right. The villain should always enter and exit stage left (confusingly, that is from the right as viewed by the audience). The Goody (Fairy, Genie etc) always appears from stage right. Again there is a lot of history behind this relating to left (sinister) representing hell in theatre in days gone by. Don’t worry about the history but do worry about the tradition. This is one that most adjudicators hate to see flouted. You will lose marks! That said, purists say that the baddy should never cross the half-way point. Good luck with that on a tiny village hall stage. Adjudicators will take no notice if you contravene this one!

  • Audience participation is a crucial and unique part of panto. The audiences know their roles and expect to play them to the full. So there should be lots of interaction and the key players need to develop great audience rapport. Classic interactions include:

    • “Oh no it isn’t/oh yes it is” exchanges

    • A “behind you” ghost scene

    • Call-outs when the linkman or dame comes on

    • Call-outs if people try to lift a ‘special’ box

    • Boos and hisses for the baddie

    • Sweets for the kids

    • A House song often including kids being invited on to stage

You don’t have to include all of these, but you should include most of them, and maybe even add a few of your own!

  • Slapstick and knockabout comedy. Don’t forget pantomime is family entertainment so there should be something for everyone. Four-year-olds may not get the verbal gags, but they love a good pie right up the hooter! Don’t  we all?

  • Audiences love a few local and topical gags and the best scripts will allow for a number of local references throughout. (The trick is not to overdo it to the extent that outsiders feel excluded)

  • Song and dance: every panto should have some musical numbers and a lively chorus!

 

So, how do I go about getting the basics right?

1. Follow the traditions

So, if you want to please the adjudicators, get the traditions more or less right. Don’t get too uptight about it, though, because everybody likes a bit of quirky originality!

2. Choose a good script

If you want to please not just the adjudicators, but also the audience, your cast, your technical support and everybody else who is involved, then I cannot emphasise this next piece of advice strongly enough: choose a good script! This is so important that I have expanded upon it below.

3. Create some magic

There may not be much you can do about your venue in terms of stage size, audience capacity and so on. But there is always loads to be done in transforming a local village hall into a place for wonderful entertainment: decorate the entrance, make sure the seats are reasonably spaced and comfy, play some background music, show people to their seats, provide refreshments.

4. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse

There is nothing worse than an under-rehearsed show. Actors who constantly forget their lines become embarrassing and the audience starts to squirm. One of the things people say that really gets my goat is: “people love to see other people from the village get up and make a fool of themselves”. No they don’t! People loved to see a well-rehearsed, slick and clever show. And the best ad libs are rehearsed beforehand too! And from a trophy winning point of view? Fluffed lines will lose you points.

5. Play to your strengths

Every society has some things it can do better than others. If you have two brilliant singers – give them the ballads. And the flip side to that is to make sure you downplay your weaknesses. No great dancers? Keep the choreography simple. Someone who is physically funny but not great at verbal delivery? Build up the knockabout and cut out some of the dialogue. Challenge people by all means. But if someone isn’t a great singer, give them a short comedy number that they can deliver with panache. That’s a sure-fire way to develop their confidence in singing as well as pleasing audiences and adjudicators.

6. Get the balance right

The rhythm of a pantomime and the balance between comedy and pathos, dialogue and music is hugely important. Even if you are blessed with a plethora of brilliant singers, keep the music short and keep the action rolling along.

7. Keep up the pace

Panto should be a non-stop feast of fun from curtain up to curtain down: no long pauses between scenes, no embarrassing hiatuses while waiting for missed cues! Keep the action going by playing music during scene changes or when the chorus is leaving the stage. And keep the variety going: contrast a sad or frightening moment with a quick-fire comedy section straight after. And don’t spend twenty minutes on the house number! It should be just long enough for the cast to change into their finale outfits and not a second more!

8. Don’t over-run

There is nothing worse than a show that goes on and on. Panto is designed for kids, after all, and their attention span (and bladders) are not as well developed as adults! As a guide 75 minutes for Act 1 and 45 minutes for Act 2 are good targets to aim for! If your show starts at 7.30, the audience should be on their way home by 10.00! And if it’s gongs you’re after remember if the show over-runs, you will lose points!

Choosing the script

There are a number of points to take into account when choosing your script:

  • Choose a script that matches your resources. If you have only a handful of good actors, avoid scripts that need large casts!

  • Think of the staging – can you perform each scene on your stage; can you manage quick scene changes (alternating from front of curtain to full stage perhaps); can you cope with any special effects that are needed; are the lighting requirements within your capabilities?

  • Think of variety and timing (see above)

  • Is there enough for your chorus to do?

  • Is the spacing right between songs and is the number of songs good.

  • IS IT FUNNY?

  • Is the script out-dated (styles change over time)?

  • Is the script original/quirky/interesting?

  • Is the storyline simple enough for a four-year-old to follow? Keep the story simple and use it primarily as a vehicle to hang all the gags, songs and other nonsense on.

Get it right when you are choosing the script and it will repay you. Get it wrong and it can be very hard to recover.

Music and dance

Every good panto has a musical element. The songs you choose can vary but in my opinion there should be something for everyone. Songs from the shows, songs from the charts, songs from the nursery, they all have their place. Work together to get a good balance. Live accompaniment is undoubtedly best but backing tracks are better than nothing! Even if you have brilliant singers, keep the songs short – one verse and one (or two) choruses is usually enough! Include comedy songs for the comedy characters and some romantic solos and duets for the romantic leads. Chorus numbers should be uplifting and as a very minimum should open and close each act. (Having said that, a short prologue is perfectly acceptable). And a word for anyone using backing tracks – use definite endings; don’t fade out!!

And dance! You do not need to have a chorus of Darcy Bussells, but you do need to have movement for everyone. Your choreographer should take ability into account when creating each dance. And make sure you choreograph the principals too!

Comedy

If I don’t leave a panto with a smile on my face, then I know it was a poor show. Comedy is the very essence of panto and the dame is the centre pin around which much of it revolves. Jokes should generally be quick-fire and readily understood. There should be a level at which kids understand them and a level aimed at adults, but make sure it does not become crude. Double-entendres should always have a perfectly innocent interpretation so any naughty innuendo is entirely in the heads of the audience.

I said I would say a bit more about the dame. The dame is generally best played by a man of mature years who is constantly on the lookout for female companionship. Politically correct it is not – but that is part of the fun. Just beware modern sensitivities! The dame is NOT a female impersonator. A deep voice is fine! And attempts at femininity should fall woefully short! It is perfectly acceptable for a dame to heave up a sagging bosom in a way that would be totally unbecoming in a real woman! And funny references to the fact that she is actually a man always get a laugh! Both the dame and the linkman should have lots of interplay with the audience. Good audience rapport will always impress adjudicators.

Visual comedy is extremely important. After 15 years of Only Fools and Horses, the scenes most people will recount as their favourite are the chandelier falling, Del Boy falling through the bar counter, and Del and Rodney emerging from the fog as Batman and Robin! All visual comedy scenes! It terms of the Cinderella Trophy, there are points to be gained from great slapstick. Unfortunately, many societies don’t choreograph it and work it through in detail, having an ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ attitude. A word of warning: points will be lost with slapdash slapstick.

One more point: try to make the ‘brokers men’ roles as funny as possible. They need every bit as much attention to detail as the dame and linkman. Too often they are seen as lesser characters and they lose out as a result. Avoid this mark-losing mistake.

Supernatural opposition and special effects

I have lumped these two areas together because they are often one and the same thing! Every pantomime should have a ‘wow’ moment. Something the children will remember for years and have the grown-ups saying, “how did they do that?” It may be the transformation scene in Cinderella (I have seen some wonderful dress transformations), the flying carpet ride in Aladdin, an under-water UV scene in Dick Whittington, a growing beanstalk or an explosive sword-fight. But there should be something that we will still be talking about weeks later. (A word of warning: don’t burn yourself out in one year. If you have four or five good ideas, spread them out over a few years. This is one area when you really can have too much of a good thing!)

That said, the best pantos include a wonderful juxtaposition of good and evil and you really should maximise that clash and get the audience cheering the goodies and hissing the baddies! Effective lighting, pyrotechnics, confetti cannons and sound FX all help to build this dramatic tension.

Costumes, props and other paraphernalia!

Pantomime should be appealing to the eye, colourful, sparkly, kitsch and over the top! So the costumes should be larger than life, just like the characters they will adorn. The romantic leads should look sweet/sexy/adventurous (take your pick) and the comedy leads should look ridiculous! It is a tradition that the dame changes costumes for every scene, each more outrageous than the last! Hair, wigs, makeup and props should all contribute to the effect. It is a good idea to pay close attention to footwear. Too often being shoddily shod ruins the look!

Props should be larger than life too! Make everything slightly bigger and more colourful and you won’t go far wrong. And make-up is a true art-form. The dame needs to be as outrageous as the principal girl is beautiful. But the real challenge comes with animal faces and animal costumes. At best they can be spectacular. But that takes careful design and practice. Don’t leave it to the dress rehearsal! And, of course, a pantomime horse or cow can add a bit of extra fun.

Lighting and sets

Lighting should enhance the action creating darkness as well as light to give scenes depth. Good lighting can greatly improve a show; bad lighting can mar an otherwise splendid performance! Work hard on getting the cueing for lighting changes and sound effects spot on. Similarly, sets should be appropriate and noteworthy without dominating. Fast, quiet, scene changes score points. Clumps, bangs and delays with surely lose them!

And lighting designers, set designers, costume and make-up designers need to work with the director at an early stage to get the overall colour and ‘feel’ of the show consistently right. Teamwork is the key.

Have fun

Panto should be enjoyable for everyone. Yes, it is hard work. Undoubtedly there will be stress and worries. But ultimately, it should be about everyone having fun. If your cast is happy and smiling, that will be infectious and your audiences will be smiling too!

OK, OK, I understand all that. But seriously, just tell me what I have to do to win!

Fair enough then. Down to brass tacks. Here are the guidance notes and marking regime that adjudicators use to assess each show:

Adjudicator Guidance Notes

Within each of the eight categories below, each aspect is to be marked out of the appropriate maximum mark (shown) to arrive with the average mark then awarded to the category. Any aspect not represented in the pantomime being marked should be left blank on this page. A pantomime that has no supernatural element should be awarded a token mark of 3. A more detailed description of each element is available in the Additional Guidance Notes – Nominations Summary and adjudicators are requested to note the qualities sought.

Direction (20 marks)

Choice of Script

Creativity

Pace

Acting

Stage picture & use of space

Music (20 marks)

Accompaniment

Choice of Music

Chorus singing

Principals’ singing

Original Words & Music

Comedy (15 marks)

Stand-up

Knockabout

Slapstick

Set gags

Running gags

Stage Management (10 Marks)

Design of set

Properties

Continuity of scene changes

Noise of scene changes

Lighting

Sound

Cueing

Special effects (sound & visual)

Dance (10 marks)

Attack, variety, originality

Chorus movement

Junior movement

Principals

Costumes and Makeup (10 marks)

Dame

Other Principals

Chorus

Children

Headgear, footwear

Animal skins

Face Painting

Hair, wigs, masks etc

Tradition (10 marks)

Villainy:

Mr or Mrs Nasty

Young Villain

Vocal Control

Rapport with ‘Good’

Control of audience

Romance:

Style of Principal Boy

Style of Principal Girl

Unity of love scenes

Supernatural:

Good Fairy

Male Goody

Young Good Fairy

Rapport with ‘Bad’

Control of audience

Entertainment Value (5 marks)

Discretionary score if a show has that extra sparkle

Additional Guidance Notes – Nominations Summary

To assist discussion at the Moderation Evening, it may be helpful to keep a private record of nomination gradings or to record them on page one and keep a copy. It may also be helpful to have to hand a short resume of the reason for your grading (though reading out an extract from your Report to the Society is usually suitable for the purpose).

Please grade your nominations (against normal, Somerset, expectations):

8 (good) – Recommended, deserves a mention;

9 (very good) – better than that, very high standard;

10 (outstanding) – rare!

NOTE TO ADJUDICATORS: The selection of winners and runners-up for the four main trophies will be indicated by:-

(a) the overall marks awarded, which will usually take precedence over any other consideration

(b) the Moderator views and

(c) the resultant discussion of relative script difficulty.

List of Awards

Society Trophies

Cinderella Trophy by C&J Clark Limited: awarded to the overall best production.

Bridgwater Shield: awarded to the runner-up to the overall best production.

Spotlight Shield: awarded to the best overall production by a non-theatre group.

Fellowship of Drama Shield: awarded to the runner-up to the best overall production by a non-theatre group.

Pint Pot Award – for a big show on a small stage

Individual Awards

Best Amateur Director

Musical Director

Eddie Bowker Award (Outstanding Performance of the Year)

Dame of the Year

Principal Boy of the Year

Principal Girl of the Year

Bradford Trophy (Best Performer aged 16 or Under)

Best Villain

Best Animal Act

Music and Dance

Best Theatre Musicians (Accompaniment)

Best Village Musicians (Accompaniment)

Best Chorus – awarded for singing, dancing and script contribution

Best Male Singer

Best Female Singer

Romantic Duet of the Year

Solo accompanist of the Year

Best Dancing

Dancer of the Year

Comedy

Comic of the Year

Linkman of the Year

Comedy Duo of the Year – inc. Brokers’ Men & Ugly Sisters

Best Comedic Scene

Stage Management

Best Theatre Stage Management

Best Theatre Design

Best Village Stage Management

Best Village Design

Best Lighting

Best Sound Effects

Best UV Scene

Best Properties

Best Special Effects

Costume & Make-Up

Best Original Costumes

Costume of the Year

Make-up Award

Supernatural

Supernatural Goodie of the Year – including Good Fairy (male or female!) and Genie

Young Performers Awards

Adjudicators will be alert for any Junior performance that merits nomination for a specific award, eg Young Comic; Young Soloist; Young Fairy; Best Junior Chorus; Best Junior Group; etc Not all categories will necessarily be awarded.

Promising Young Performers

Performers aged 16 and under who impress the adjudicators with their contributions over and above chorus etc

Miscellaneous

Any aspect of a pantomime worthy of an award but not mentioned in the above lists.

The Moderator will rule independently on:

Best Original Script (Cup) and

The Moderator’s Award (Trophy) and Adjudicators’ Awards (certificates) may go to any aspect of pantomime that merits recognition but is not catered for above.