Writing can often be a lonely task. And writing a pantomime alone, in the summer, feels all kinds of weird. Setting out with a solid synopsis of the play and dramaturgical support from Hopscotch’s Thomas McCulloch and panto extraordinaire Johnny McKnight, I was raring to go – and the opening monologue and the first few pages poured out of me like a dream, but I soon found myself running out of steam (hey, that rhymes!).
The idea had lived in my head so long and I knew it was good and exciting but the actual getting-it-down-on-paper bit felt hard. I think Jack and the Beanstalk is the most plot-driven thing I’ve ever written and I knew I had to get through a set number of events in each scene. My focus on making sure I was hitting all the story beats meant I forgot about the fun! I knew my first draft was lacking that extra special hilarity and banter that really makes panto! But, as Jack and the Beanstalk director Andy McGregor later said to me – it’s hard to be funny when your sat alone at your computer in your underwear on a Wednesday.
For me, then, the first draft was about getting the story down on paper and getting the
structure and essence of the play and its characters right. I felt pleased that I had a robust
draft and was now ready to add in all that panto magic to make it come to life.
The chance to undertake research and development (R&D) on Jack and the Beanstalk was
such a gift.
Not only to hear the words out loud and get a sense of the play in real time but to get feedback from the director and actors about where the action fell flat or where characters needed more development. Going in knowing, myself, what I think the script needed, it was great to have this confirmed: basically everything could be ‘MORE’ – more extravagant, more fantastical, more over the top! We started by reading the script and discussing the play generally before doing a scene by scene dissection – this was difficult at times, to be investigating the work in such detail, but the team were all full of such fantastic constructive criticism that I went away with lots of ideas of how to enrich and improve the material that I had.
After the first day in the room, I went away to rewrite the first two scenes and the next day we were able to read the new scenes (they were so much better!) and then even put them on their feet. Andy McGregor, director, got the chance to try out some staging and it was invaluable for me to see how the actors’ performances lifted and enlivened the piece.
We had lots of fun in the rehearsal room exploring comedic motifs and panto moments. It
was great to explore typical pantomime conventions and hear what other people thought were the integral pieces of pantomime: the dame, the villain, the fairy godmother, the pantomime ‘horse’ – or in our case ‘cow’, repeated call-and-response (‘oh no you’re not’ and ‘he’s behind you’), drag, or gender reversal, slapstick physical comedy, singing and dancing, and so on. While pantomime is a long held UK and particularly Scottish tradition, stemming from mask and music hall, some say it can be traced back as far as the 16 th Century Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte or even the ancient Roman midwinter feast – Saturnalia – in which everything was ‘topsy turvy’ and men dressed as woman, and vice versa.
Drawing on the traditions and history of pantomime while stretching and subverting them is really exciting – particularly as this Jack and the Beanstalk challenges gender norms with a female Jack and a Women in STEM theme. Working out how to translate the thematic STEM ideas into the world of pantomime has been a great challenge as I try to achieve the perfect balance between the fairy-tale magic at the heart of the panto and the real world science we’re passionate about exploring.
Especially, as a school tour, I’m really keen to get lots of participation into the play as the
audiences will have to help Jack achieve her mission!
Now, on to draft two, full of the ideas – and importantly the energy – of the rehearsal room
which will help infuse this next draft with more fun, festivity and frivolity!
Written by Isla Cowan.
Jack and the Beanstalk, is Hopscotch Theatre Company’s 2022 touring pantomime production, touring from November 2022 until January 2023.