Pantomines during Covid: ‘It will be a miracle if we get to the end of the run’

Despite the ever-shifting and sometimes barmy guidelines, theatres are determined to keep the Christmas show on the road this year

It is tech week at The Helix Theatre, where TheatreworX are busy putting the final touches on Little Red Riding Hood, their 2021 pantomime, which opened to the public last weekend. The cast may be stepping onto the stage under lights for the first time since last Christmas, but it has taken months of planning to get this far, explains the show’s director, Claire Tighe. “To be honest, it was a big decision to decide to do the show at all this year, whether it was worth the risk, but we decided that if we stripped back as much risk as we could, made everything as controlled as we could, we would have a better chance of getting the pantomime up, so that’s what we did.”

Still, Tighe and the company are “holding their breath” for the season, as coronavirus cases soar and pre-Christmas lockdowns are rumoured. In the days after we speak, the public health guidelines relating to children’s activities shift so many times – pantos for everyone except kids is the barmiest suggestion – that pantomime producers start scratching their heads. As Kate Canning, manager at the Mill Theatre in Dundrum, Dublin, says with exasperation “the children are the panto. I don’t know how a panto can go on without them.”

Eager to prove how safe theatres are these days, Tighe talks me through the risk-containment strategy for Little Red Riding Hood, typical conditions for those working in the performance sector these days. “We asked everyone involved to share their vaccination status, and to agree to be antigen tested twice a week. We also decided to have understudies for all the leads, so that if any of the principals were to go down we could still do the show.”

The company also decided not to host school shows, opting to record the show instead for schools audiences. So, should public health regulations curtail the run, “we will at least have something in the can for audiences”. TheatreworX produced an impressive online pantomime last year but, Tighe says, “what we really want to do, what we are looking forward to, is seeing the kids in the audience, doing the show live.”

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She describes the pantomime process in these trying times as "like trying to get a toaster through a car wash"

In order to get there, however, there were more difficult decisions to make. “We decided that it was too risky,” says Tighe, “to include a child cast in the show this year, and that was a heartbreaking and really personal decision. [Performing in the pantomime] is a huge opportunity and a big highlight for kids growing up in the industry, hoping to make a life in industry. But we would usually have four teams of 10 children under 12, and four teams of four teenagers rotating through the season, and with that amount of children coming in and out, we would be opening the cast up to too much risk, so we decided not to offer the roles out this year.”

This echoes the experiences of the producers of the seasonal spectacular at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, which has a long tradition of staging a family Christmas show. Recent gems from the theatre’s repertoire were available to view online last year in archived recordings as the theatre remained closed due to public health guidelines. For the audience attending Pinocchio: The Greatest Wonder of the Age, a musical version of the fairy tale by Paul Boyd, the show will be a welcome return to the tradition of live performance – albeit with facemasks and vaccination status required for the over-12s.

However, the theatre has been working hard to ensure that the show can go on at all, as the Lyric’s head of development and marketing, Claire Murray, explains. “The rehearsal room is closed to everyone except the creative team and rehearsals have been socially distanced, as much as possible, until we get closer to opening night.” Still, there were some sacrifices to be made during the planning stages.

“Our Christmas productions usually include a children’s chorus who join the professional cast on stage,” says Murray. “It was decided very early on to reduce the overall size of the cast, and not to include a children’s chorus. Two understudies have also been brought on board, in the event that anyone in the cast gets sick or is unable to perform, but we have stringent precautionary measures in place to help prevent this from occurring.”

Still, if the pandemic has taught us anything it is to prepare for the unexpected. In the event that the show can’t go on, the Lyric will issue refunds to audience members. When the theatre closed in March 2020, however, “we encouraged our audiences to donate the price of their tickets back to the theatre, which many of them did, and this was a real lifeline. Two-thirds of our income is still wholly reliant on our audiences and self-generated income, so cancelling performances and refunding tickets would have a detrimental impact.”

A toaster through a car wash

Back at the Mill Theatre in Dundrum, Canning explains how financially vulnerable small venues in particular are this year, as they try to navigate the constantly shifting public health situation. She describes the pantomime process in these trying times as “like trying to get a toaster through a car wash”. However, the scale of the Mill Theatre’s annual pantomime – which has always featured seven actors and a runtime of 55 minutes – has made planning logistically easier than it might be for some of the larger venues.

“The fact that we run for under an hour,” says Canning, “means that we can run with no interval or bar, so we can turn an audience over quicker, in terms of hygiene.” Even so, there have been compromises and adaptations to make concerning public-health guidelines, both in and out of the rehearsal room. Like TheatreWorX and the Lyric Theatre, they have “employed two understudies for the first time, just in case,” while actors have been masked throughout rehearsals: they won’t be mask free until they step onto the stage.

Canning says that the theatre is currently selling tickets at 100 per cent capacity, as per government guidelines, but that they do not expect to sell out as they usually would. Audiences are nervous about Covid but also about making a financial commitment to a show that might not go on. In recent days, as public speculation suggested all sorts of scenarios regarding children’s activities, people were cancelling tickets. “All corporate bookings are completely gone as well,”she says, although the theatre has replaced those shows – three shows a day for a single company – with an online streaming offer. On the plus side, Canning says ironically, ticket returns and slower sales will mean that “there will be some sort of social distancing in the auditorium”.

As the situation currently stands, children will be allowed to attend the pantomime, although parents are also being asked to limit social contacts, throwing the onus back on individual families to assess the risk. Yet Canning is being pragmatic when she says “it will be a miracle if we get to the end of our run”. Even if they do, “it is very unlikely we will come anywhere near to making our budget”. Still, she remains in a positive frame of mind. “Budgets are not the point this year anyway. We are just determined to get the shows up on stage, to support all the creatives and performers in the industry.”

The recent announcement by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media of €2 million in grants to support production costs should thus be extremely welcome news, but Canning points out that small local venues like the Mill will not qualify under the current criteria. “The guidelines are very strict. You need to have a turnover over 300,000, so smaller venues who are really struggling anyway, will get no form of compensation through that scheme. We are obliged to refund tickets to audiences, and we cannot absorb the loss if everything is cancelled on us.”

Back on the Helix stage, meanwhile, the word pandemic is now taboo. Despite the fact that pantomime has been the news story of the week, Tighe is determined to stress that the TheatreworX show “is a 100 per cent pandemic-free panto. Everyone is sick of it. So there will be no mention of social distancing or hand-washing or mask-wearing on the stage. The whole point of panto is that it is light entertainment, an escape from reality.”

Pinocchio: The Greatest Wonder of the Age runs at The Lyric Theatre until December 31st. Red Riding Hood runs at the Helix theatre until January 9th, 2022. Cinderella runs at the Mill Theatre from December 9th-January 9th, 2022