Write a Brilliant Pantomime with Billy & Wolfy

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How to shape the scenes

Just as the complete pantomime needs shaping, so do the individual scenes within it. A good analogy is with a piece of music with themes coming and going and being repeated in slightly changed forms.

Lets move from the sublime to the ridiculous. Here are two rules:

1. Everyone should come in running and go off running

2. The situation must change in the course of a scene. That is, each scene must add something to the story and/or to the audience’s understanding of the story

Rule 1 is to be broken frequently in the letter but hardly ever in the spirit. Rule 2 should never be broken at all.

More about the rules

Rule 1 can more acceptably be put as "anyone who comes on must have a good reason for coming – anyone who goes off must have a good reason for going".

Rule 2 is that each scene must change the situation. Think of the beginning and ending of the scene. A scene should begin with a high point and end with a higher point. As the plot winds up (that’s until the last of the action scenes), the tension should be higher at the end of every scene than at the beginning. Towards the end, when the tension is being resolved, the requirement is not so strong. Ends of course have to be real resolutions of the plot with the "Oh thank goodness it’s all worked out" factor. "Oh thank goodness she’s escaped", "Oh thank goodness she’s married the prince" or whatever.

Here are some scene shapes to aim for and others avoid.

Scene shape charts

Here are three good shapes:  Remember the highs may be action or emotion or comedy or some combination of the three.

1. Good beginning – average middle – dramatic end. A good shape but watch for boredom mid-scene. 2. Medium beginning – work down and up to a dramatic ending. Probably the best shape. Drama can reduce a little at the end unless the plot is winding up fast. 3. Slow beginning – a little bit slower – works up to a climax. Can be a good shape if it follows a big action scene.
Here are three bad shapes:
1. Slow beginning – dramatic middle – slow end. If you write one of these, see if you can stop in the middle at the high point 2. Dramatic beginning – fizzling down – and out. Maybe start earlier in the action and build up to the drama you have placed at the beginning. Nothing much happens at any time.  Throw it away!!  Or if you can't, at least give it a surprise ending.  Have the scenery fall down or something!  "Exit pursued by a bear" says Billy!

Special scenes

A few things about specific scenes.  Mostly random thoughts that don't fit anywhere else:

Opening scene:  Try to start with a bit of a bang and try to get the plot moving before the scene ends.  A song is nice, getting the whole cast on at the start (a tradition in commercial panto) is probably more bother than it's worth, particularly if you are managing a cast of children.

Scene 2:  I've always used this to introduce the comic characters and to do such explanation of the plot as is necessary.  I tend to use a talk to the audience by the Dame character.  It works well, but there is nothing sacred about this scheme.

Slapstick scene:  I love slapstick scenes and so do the cast if you are working with children.  Adults are harder I imagine because they are more self-conscious and so the audience is not naturally on their side.  Traditions are the food scene and the wall paper scene.  Food is probably psychologically best because it contrasts effectively with the magic element of pantomime.  Costume people and stage hands hate slapstick as it is mess to clear up.  But if you can, include it.  It is worth its weight in gold.

Community Songs:  The audience love a good community song and the best time for it is after the action is over and before the final scene.  It has to be a song that the audience will know, so a good idea is to give new words to a well known tune - Clementine or something else that is easily singable.  The words should be relevant to the audience and the occasion - by this time there is no need to keep them relevant to the plot.

Final scene:  Keep the final scene short and sharp but be sure to give time for everyone to take their bow and have their applause.   A reprise of the best song is often a good way to end.

The dangers of writing a "masterpiece"

There is of course a danger in trying to write a masterpiece.  The traditional advice has been "if you write something that you feel is particularly fine, put it in the desk drawer for three years.  Then take it out and throw it away."  There is a danger in being too "poetic".  If you've aimed for a masterpiece, read your piece through (preferably aloud and recorded) and be ruthless about such things.  Seek a second opinion, and heed it if  the holder of it thinks you are going over the top.  But don't aim low "man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's heaven for?" as Billy would, no doubt, have said, if Browning hadn't said it after him.

Writing verse

It's fun to write in verse but the danger is you take a couplet to express every thought:  Consider these two pieces:

We are the fairies of the wood,

We're always kind and always good.

We've come here in the darkest night,

To help save beautiful Snow White.

We are the fairies brave and bright

We've come to save our dear Snow White.

Neither has much merit!!  But the second is half the length.  So watch for make-weight lines that are used only to make a rhyme and cut them out.  Billy Shakespeare had a knack for keeping verse tight, so try looking at Richard II if you don't like my samples. 

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