Training Triple Threats
Thirty-five Wellington performers from Year 8 to Year 12 are preparing for our second annual Pantomime: “Dick Whittington and his Cat”. This is an event which is designed to bring the whole of the Wellington Community, and greater Shanghai, together to share in something that is fun, entertaining and a quintessential British tradition.
At Wellington, we very much believe in training performers in three streams; Music, Dance and Acting, believing that “Triple Threat” (as it’s called) performers have a better understanding of themselves and the Arts and that each discipline is intrinsically interlinked with the other.
Many of the best specialist training schools around the world follow this train of thought and believe that a great Actor should have an understanding of Dance and Music, a great Dancer, an understanding of Acting and Music and a great Singer or Musician an understanding of Acting and Dance. We support this ideal by integrating these elements with the Performing Arts and Music programmes at the College.
This form of curriculum will aid the pupils in any future career path by teaching creativity, communication, team building, physicality, self-confidence and cultural understanding, as well as for those with dreams of pursuing a creative career these building blocks will offer a strong head start.
So what is Pantomime?
Pantomime is a uniquely British form of theatre which has a basis which could be traced directly back to Italian Commedia dell’ Arte and even back to Roman theatre. It often involves a social comment. The tradition takes familiar fairy tales and children's stories - Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington and His Cat, Snow White - and injects a bit of music hall (British Vaudeville) style, contemporary references and audience participation to create a raucous, noisy entertainment that's fun for everyone in the family.
Drawing on the 15th and 16th century traditions of Commedia dell’ Arte, Panto has a number of stock characters and other conventions which can be seen in most productions. These always include:
- The principal boy The male juvenile lead - for example Dick Whittington, Aladdin or Cinderella’s Prince Charming. He's usually played by a young woman.
- The Panto Dame - almost always played by a man in drag, the panto dame is a comic, and camp, female character. She's usually an older woman but in Cinderella, not only the step mother but also the Ugly Sisters are panto dames. In Aladdin (at more than 200 years old, one of Britain's oldest panto stories) it's Aladdin's mother, a poor laundress known as The Widow Twankey. Popular comedians and occasional famous leading actors with a sense of fun often do a winter turn as a panto dame.
- A side kick or "chorus" figure - There is always a secondary character on stage who speaks to the audience, encouraging them to shout and clap or comically commenting on the action. In Cinderella that character is Buttons, her father's (Baron Hardup) servant and her friend. In Aladdin it is Wishee Washee, the hero's brother and in Dick Whittington it is Jack.
- Lots of audience participation - When you go to a panto, you can't help but be drawn into the traditional shouting and carrying on. Villains are hissed, misfortunes are bemoaned and several key lines - "Oh yes it is!" - "Oh no it isn't!" and "He's behind you!" are shouted out by one and all at the appropriate moments.
- Contemporary references and jokes - Pantos are family shows but there is usually enough innuendo of the nudge-nudge wink-wink variety to keep the grownups happy.
We choose to do a yearly pantomime as it is a very good form of theatre to develop singing dancing and acting (the “Triple Threat” performer as mentioned above). It is less stressful for the pupils than the full musical we produce every summer and it is often through Pantomime that pupils take their first steps into theatre. It also allows performers to have a greater creative input than in a book musical which needs to be exactly adhered to for licensing reasons.
This year’s Pantomime is Dick Whittington, which is an old English tale about a young man who becomes Lord Mayor of London.
A poor boy from Gloucestershire, Dick goes to London to seek his fortune, but he can't find a job. Dejected, he turns round to go home. On the way he meets a cat, which he calls Tommy, and before he's gone very far, he hears the church bells of London calling him back - they seem to be saying "Turn again Whittington, Lord Mayor of London!"
He returns to London and meets Alice Fitzwarren, the daughter of a rich merchant, who gets him a job working in her father's shop.
The villain of the story is King Rat. One night, he organizes a burglary at the Fitzwarrens' shop, and steals money from the safe. The next day the theft is discovered, and Dick is blamed. He's sacked from his job and runs away to sea, with his cat. Alice, Jack and Sarah join him on board the “Saucy Sal”. King Rat is on the same ship and causes the ship to sink.
All cast wash up in Morocco and meet the Emperor and his dominating wife.
Eventually everything works out for the best (as it always does in Panto) and they all return to London where Dick marries Alice and all live happily ever after. Dick later becomes Lord Mayor of London.
Michael Larsen-Disney is the Director of Performing Arts at Wellington College. He has had a long international career as an actor, singer, dancer and director in mainstream commercial theatre and now utilises his skills, knowledge and academic background to educate the next generation of students and performers. Michael was educated at the Victorian College of the Arts and the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, Australia, and later at Bath Spa University (Cert Ed) and the Liverpool, Institute of Performing Arts in the UK, where he completed his Master’s Degree in Contemporary Theatre Practice. Michael has previously held positions as Artistic Director of the Wessex Academy of Performing Arts UK, where he ran BTEC and Degree programmes (BA Hons) in Music Theatre and Acting and, more recently, at the British International School of Jakarta in Indonesia where he was Director of Performing Arts.
Parents can Impact a Performance too
Over the last months there have been many discussions about issuing some guidelines and advice about how an audience can impact on a live performance and what could be negative or dangerous to our young performers:
During a performance we ask parents not to use mobile phones. The reason for this is that any active mobile phone can and does interfere with the radio microphones, amplification and backstage talk-back systems. Not only can this have a negative impact on what’s on stage, but can lead to safety issues if the talk back system is compromised. Even sending and receiving a text or taking a photograph with a mobile phone can interfere with the systems. This is not a unique problem for Wellington, but is recognised worldwide, which is why there is an announcement to turn off phones at all major theatres.
Flash photography of any kind can be dangerous and can distract young performers. Any flash can temporarily blind a student, which raises safety issues on stage (trips and falls). It is also very distracting and can actually make young performers more nervous! Flash photography also destroys the illusion created by the lights and distracts and annoys other members of the audience. Please avoid using flash photography!
Leaving the theatre during a performance can once again distract the performers, who firstly wonder who is leaving and then why. Whilst we realise there are moments when there is a genuine reason to leave the theatre, please be aware of the impact this could cause.
Talking during a performance except if interacting with the performance (as with Pantomime) causes confusion and distraction to the performers and also breaks the concentration of others in the audience.
Videoing a performance can also cause disruption to people around you or behind you (Particularly if it’s with and IPad). Please consider the rights of others to see the show without distraction. Videoing can also be against the licencing rules of the show and jeopardise our ability to produce further productions and plays.
We take photographs of every production which we are happy to share with parents. These are done with professional cameras and actually capture the scenes better than any flash photography.
Surely it is better to watch the performance live instead of through a camera or mobile phone?
Please do come and support your children and our community, but please be aware of the impact your presence, both positive and negative, can have on a performance and the safety issues raised.