Write a Brilliant Pantomime with Billy & Wolfy

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Writing for children

Billy is probably right.  Being a child prodigy can be a pretty bad training for being an adult.  It was not easy for Wolfy Mozart.  But, in a way, all children are prodigies  They are often more perceptive and intelligent than us adults.  Hence these rules for writing pantomimes for children.

Rule 1:  Give them a story with real emotions to portray.  Don't underestimate them - remember they will probably be better at understanding emotions than you are.  There is an age, up to about seven, where your actors will not understand much but even then a story will help.  After that, expect them to understand everything.

Rule 2:  Don't give them adult jokes.  This can at times be an irresistible temptation.  And will probably get a laugh - but it is a form of child exploitation.  They are a horrible temptation that I never totally avoided.  The only answer is to revise carefully and cut out most such jokes (about politics, local affairs, sex and so on).  If you want a rule of thumb, go through the script and leave only three or four such jokes.  They are unjustifiable really, but panto writers need to satisfy their egos just occasionally.

Rule 3:  Don't write cute.  The appeal of children comes from their ability to be themselves.  You will not be able to do it for them.  Let them be naturally cute or not cute at all.  Adult idea of cute is awful (and harmful to the children - if I can be pompous for a minute.)

Teaching children how to act

Children don't need to be taught to act.  They do it naturally.  The basic trick is to give them the opportunity to do it and to make sure they know they are allowed to do it.  This does not mean that you don't show them how you want it done.  Remember actors are acting mostly to please the directors.  If you leave it to them, and expect it all to come from "inside" they will not have a clue what to do and, come the performance, this fact will be obvious.  Show your actors what you want.  First they will imitate you, then they will grow into it - and, if they are good, they will grow beyond what you showed them.  Some will, some won't.  All children are not brilliant actors (thank goodness!) but all children can enjoy it if you show them how.  Imitation is how children learn - to deny it them in the field of creativity is a form of moral cowardice.

Avoid the tradition of gender swapping

I've mostly avoided gender swapping when working with children.  The Dame character has always been played by a girl and, unquestionably, the principal boy by a boy too.  The only exception I've made is with the ugly sisters in Beauty and the Beast.  Boys relish acting as horrible sisters.  Especially if they have some horrible sisters of their own!

Some practical points 

Be willing to sacrifice your script to please your actors.  If you have two children that both want to be the fairy godmother - then have two fairy godmothers.  Be prepared to bend a lot to keep your actors happy.  But don't go to the point of destroying the plot.  (As I keep saying, plot is number one.)  In practical terms, I have found "twins" to be an excellent ploy where 2 friends want to be together or there is rivalry for a part.  Twin wives, witches, fairies all are excellent devices.  In the same vein, be ready to throw away lines the actor hates even if you love them.  Also be willing to create an entirely new character, if it is needed to make a child actor happy.

The chance to be a star is something that every child needs.  Give your cast the opportunity to be beautiful and brave.  Children also relish wicked parts.  These give them the opportunity to be wicked without any consequences.  It is wonderful for them.  This is another reason for making the plot serious and the emotions real and for avoiding adult jokes.  Don't make the villains totally comic, this destroys the plot and eventually destroys the play.  

You need to let children be funny too.  That is good for them as well.

Don't expect young children to hang around behind the stage.  The best place for young children and maybe older ones to wait for their entrance is in the audience.

Maybe try and make groups of people (seven dwarves for example) always talk in the same order.  I've never done this but often meant to.  Certainly the time when they say "their" lines is often a worry for children.

Don't make too much of learning the script.  Most kids take it in their stride, particularly if they are expected to. An expectation that all the lines will come, is often all you need.  Try to avoid getting parents involved in teaching their children the script - it is almost always counter productive.  (Probably because the ability to learn by heart decreases as we get older and most parents teach their children nothing but anxiety - the worst enemy.)

It is perhaps a fault in me, but I always feel the less parents have to do with it the better.  The social and political rivalry and the determination that their child should be the best can make life a real misery for the director and destroy a show.  I never really mastered the art, but you can expect parent management to be as much of a problem as child management.

Ultimately you have to love the children and make it a joint enterprise between you and them to produce a marvelous show.  If you don't do that let someone else write and run the show.  And always remember that the children must be the stars not you.


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