PANTOMIME: UNCOVERED – PART TWO
In Pantomime: Uncovered – Part One, we met the Grand Dame of Panto, Christopher Biggins. Most big Pantomimes rely on “names” – in this case Biggins and David Hasselhoff – to pull in the crowds. But panto is a big beast, and each show only as good as the whole of the cast and crew, who work their collective socks off to make the whole experience sheer and utter magic. For every big name Dame, there’s a Tinkerbell just starting out, or a Wishy Washy with years of tumble-drying behind them.
Every Captain Hook needs a great first mate: Hailing from Torquay, Steve Laister plays Starkey, sidekick to David Hasselhoff’s Seafaring Pirate. Fortunately for us, Steve will do anything for a Slush Puppy….including an impromptu interview!
The Comedy Relief
So Steve…what first got you into Showbusiness?
“Yep. I was a semi-professional snooker player and the snooker lads bet me a coke that I wouldn’t enter a talent show. So I did…”
Is this is your first panto?
“Qdos have asked me for about five years to do it, and I always said no. I gave in this year. And I’m so glad I did – I really love Southend! I’ve been really lucky with the cast…I mean David Hasselhoff and Christopher Biggins. ****ing hell!”
Is it what you expected?
“Yes. Exactly. There’ a fantastic camaraderie between the cast and the crew and the punters are really good fun. The two set pieces I brought with me, The Twelve Days of Christmas and A Troup of Drummers have both worked really well. The only tricky thing is that I have to stick to the script (a big smile). But if I start throwing The Hoff and Biggins off, I’d get into a lot of trouble!”
And when you’re not doing Panto?
“I do standup, I’ve done game shows in Vegas, and I write – we’re just about to tour www.thecurtainfalls.com set in 1976 when Variety was still the thing. We built the dressing room on stage, and a separate stage in the auditorium. It’s hard, convincing a venue to take a chance on new work, because venues don’t trust you. It’s a tough business. In the past, I’ve even re-mortgaged my house and lost everything.”
Crikey. So, if you could revisit a moment in your life, speak to yourself, and give yourself some advice, what would that be?
“Easy. It would be my first pro gig. I was entertaining the troops in Germany. I was host of a Variety show. Me, a showband, and two strippers who turned out to be two belly-dancers who refused to take their clothes off. The band were completely foul-mouthed…and very funny. I got hung out of a hospital window five stories up by a squaddie because the band was taking the mick out of his girlfriend. And he said “if you or that fat b****** take the **** out of my girlfriend again, you’re both going out of this window.” And I was hanging upside down in my Dinner Suit, five stories up, and I literally wet myself. So my advice to myself? Don’t take that gig!
Seriously though, advice to myself? “Try harder from a younger age. (A pause). And don’t give up. I think I was a bit lazy when I was younger. I had lots of ideas, but didn’t follow them through.
That first pro gig is why nothing scares me now! Last year, I did an after-dinner speech at a naval base for a submarine crew that had been at sea for two years. They only came back because the captain crashed into a mountain and nearly killed them all. I had all these seamen heckling me while I was eating my dinner, before I’d even started. I managed 22 minutes – and they all came up to me afterwards and said “that was amazing. The last guy only lasted eleven!” Apparently they have a sweepstake on how long you’ll last before you die or they kill you.”
Is there any particular aspect of panto you find challenging?
“Honestly, no. Going home. That’s the only bit I won’t enjoy. Everyone says, you go into a depression, because you lose that sense of camaraderie. To go back to doing gigs, driving around the country on my own? It can be very lonely.”
Thanks Mr Laister, but the clock is ticking…and no, it’s not a crocodile! There’s a very important person we still have to see, and without her, the Panto ship would completely run aground!
The Company Stage Manager
Hi Maria. Can you tell us about you and what you do?
“Sure, my background is Stage Management. I did a Technical Theatre course at Drama School as a mature student – so rather than start completely from the bottom, I took on tour management. I’d take small scale theatre – the sort of theatre that you can set up in a small venue – out in a van to maybe a school or community centre. I love that kind of work, but I came to realise that I wouldn’t get into commercial theatre unless I went in as an Assistant Stage Manager, from a lower role. Back then I thought I wanted to be a DSM.”
And a DSM is…
“Deputy Stage Manager. They’re the people who call the show, so they have the script or score in front of them, they cue the lights, the flies – it’s also called the Book Cover.”
And what was the show?
“That was Footloose – first the tour and then West End at the Novello Theatre. I then became a Tech Swing – that’s where you cover all the deputy positions; technical, lighting number 2, sound number 2 – and I realised that I preferred that. That’s good for me now because I have an understanding of all the different departments, so no-one can make something up! On the small scale tours you have to do everything, from the laundry to focusing the lights – you name it! I did one tour with just two of us putting up the set, then she did the sound and I went onto lighting – the cast did the props – and then we’d sound check, rehearse, do the show that night and then after the show the two of us took the whole thing down, the set, speakers, packed the van….basically everything! I think everyone should do that. It frustrates me a bit on big shows when people straight out of Drama School might come in as an ASM, and they sometimes take all that for granted, how hard it is. It’s easier on a big commercial show.”
And after Footloose?
“I got a job as Stage Manager on a musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for UK Productions. It toured, came into the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, and then I did the next tour. Weekly moves – we started in Blackpool with the whole team, our Production Manager, the Set Builder and his two assistants, two Carpenters…and then when we got the set out there were a few less people, and then at the next venue even less, and that next get out there was just me and a carpenter…and then at the next get-in, he said to me “You need to listen REALLY carefully to everything I do today. Because next week it will just be you!” So I spent nine months touring and getting the set in and out. And then I realised, actually that’s what I love doing. The people who just do that are called Production Carpenters, but some companies will have them at the start and then they get the people on the tour to do it, which is a bit cheeky because you’re knackered all the time! So, the next tour I did for the same company, as Stage Manager, but the Company Manager pulled out, and they asked me if I wanted to be Company Manager. And I said “No!”. Because I’d never understood why anyone would want to become a Company Manager! It must be the worst job in the world…was what I used to think!” (She laughs)
“It’s just that a lot of Company Managers I’ve known are permanently stressed and angry – or just completely bonkers. And then they asked if I would be Company Stage Manager, which is a combination of the two jobs. And I still said no…but then the company owners were parting company and they just didn’t have anyone else. I didn’t have anything else lined up, so I said no….but did it anyway! That year, I just had to say “Goodbye, life” and live, eat and sleep that show!”
So how does all that compare with Panto?
“I love Panto! I normally tour weekly, so I have so much paperwork to prepare….it’s lovely to be in one place for five or six weeks!”
Any challenges compared to the tours?
“Well….there are a lot of children. (She smiles again). And pyros – pyrotechnics.”
So basically, you’re working with children and explosives?
“Yes…and audience participation! But it’s been really good. It’s just so different from any other form of theatre.”
You mentioned that you were a mature student? What did you do before Theatre?
“I taught swimming. I started working at a Leisure Centre at fifteen…and I worked in Leisure until I was twenty-one. Went to America, taught swimming there, which was great…but you can’t watch people swimming up and down for the rest of your life!”
After Panto, what’s next for you?
“I go straight into another show after this. Anything Goes – it’s a co-production between the Sheffield Crucible and Stage Entertainment. When the show leaves Sheffield, the cast will stay the same, but the whole technical team will change. The show comes down to Wimbledon for a tech week. Whereas the Crucible has a thrust stage,Wimbledon is a proscenium arch, like here, and we tour pros-arches, so we have to re-space the show. It’s a big cast, I think twenty-eight. The leads are Debbie Kurup (The Bodyguard) and Matt Rawle, who I worked with on Cabaret. It’s a long tour, and that takes me right up until October.”
Do you wish you’d got into Theatre sooner?
“No…I don’t actually. I was a really good athlete when I was younger, and I wish maybe I’d followed that up more. But then I wouldn’t be doing this. I never thought I’d do anything like this: In fact, I remember there being school productions, and I wasn’t involved at all – I had no interest in it them. I don’t think I even saw one. I was a bit of a tearaway at school. But my best friend is an actress and her first job was the tour of Blood Brothers, and I came back from America and I flew up to Scotland to see her in it. I’d temp for a week, then go up there to see my best friend. I was spending loads of time backstage, and I was hanging out with a girl who worked on the show, and I remember saying to her “What do you actually do?!” – and she was the Deputy Stage Manager. And I thought wow, what a cool job! I spoke to my friend who said, Maria, you would be brilliant at Stage Management.”
So that was your lighbulb moment I guess?
“Yes, I think so. Organising things, looking after people…and that’s basically what it is.”
Has anything strange or peculiar ever happened to you during a show?
“Well, once the Fly-man just disappeared…I won’t say where we were, but there was a strong smell of weed! And we got to the end of a number, and the cloth was supposed to come in and there’s a scene in front of the cloth so we can change the set around, and he’d just wandered off… so I just had to walk on and stop the show! And then another time, a very well know performer had parked right in front of the fire exit, so there I am in my headset in the middle of the show driving round and round the car park trying to find a space for her very expensive car!”
What’s the best thing about your job?
“I get to see so many places and meet really interesting people. And it’s never the same. Not one day. I’d never want to do a 9 to 5 job! I’ve done some crazy things though. I was a postwoman…I drove an ice cream van, but nothing office based. That’s the only downside of being Company Manager. There is a lot of admin, paperwork. On the road, you can be looking after up to sixty people, and the Company Manager pack alone is a sixty page document…you’re looking after the technical rider, payroll, haulage, schedules. It’s insane.”
Any advice for someone starting out – a good first step for someone who wanted to do your job?
“Go to a local theatre, like this…try to get work as crew. Offer to work for free. Or write in – ask for some work experience. Obviously there are health and safety considerations, but some companies will let you do it, they may be able to get you to sign a disclaimer so you can be backstage. And it’s tough, because careers advisors don’t know anything about getting work in the Entertainment Industry. One of the first things I did after studying was with my Production Manager, giving talks to careers advisors, talking about how I got into Drama School. We basically spoke to them how we would talk to a Drama School student. Most are really interested, but you can meet the odd one who says, “Theatre…yeah, that’s great, but what do you wanna do as a job?”
Maria Baker’s next project, Anything Goes opens at the New Wimbledon Theatre on 29 January.
So, there we have it. There’s an awful lot more that goes into a pantomime run than just flying carpets, ugly sisters and ghost gags. The costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props…stage door-keepers, child chaperones, box office, cleaners,
And finally, a special mention for the front of house teams across the land, who perform miracles on a daily basis during the Panto season! What the audience doesn’t see is the frantic sweeping, mopping and hoovering that goes on between shows, and yet somehow they still manage to look polished, preened and smiling while they tear tickets, find lost children, sell ice creams and help great-great-grandma to her seat…So by the time you arrive, everything is, well….magical. And that’s just as it should be.
Niall R Palmer
Panto may be over, but on the subject of men in tights…you may want to keep an eye on the Vaudeville Theatre this summer where, from 1st July 2015, David Suchet (yes, Poirot himself) will be swapping the moustache for the mascara as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest.