It’s a Saturday afternoon in Strathcona and rehearsals are under way for Jack & the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto. Opening night is less than two weeks away, and the show has the honour of being the premiere production at the freshly renovated York Theatre, the Cultch’s new venue. No pressure, right?
Well, if the cast and creators feel any, it’s not evident inside the basement of the Russian Hall. As they rehearse the second act, a few things emerge: this is a panto with some pretty significant twists. It’s hyperlocal, political, and hilariously weird.
At one point, an actor is tucked inside a large chicken costume, carrying the titular character around on his shoulders. Together they’re draped in a long trench coat, but the chicken’s beak cannot be contained. There’s a lengthy and impressive ode to cheeses of the world, funny new spins on classic pop songs, and a human harp. Sly social criticisms, clever in-jokes, and silly pratfalls spill like clowns from a car.
“I’ve been dreaming of writing a panto since I heard what a panto is—about six months ago,” jokes playwright Charles Demers, joining director Amiel Gladstone and musical director Veda Hille in an interview with the Straight as East Van Panto breaks for lunch. Demers, who works primarily as a comedian and author, says that when Theatre Replacement called and asked him about creating a panto, nobody had much familiarity with the subject.
“So Wikipedia was a great help,” Demers says with a laugh. “And YouTube, actually—there are a whole bunch of pantos on YouTube. But I always loved all the ‘Fractured Fairy Tale’ stuff on Rocky & Bullwinkle and all that kind of stuff growing up, the fun, twisted versions of public-domain fairy tales.”
With that in mind, the East Van setting, and the panto tradition of creating something aimed at kids that could also appeal to grownups, there was little deliberation about what fairy tale the group wanted to tackle.
“Pretty early it was Jack and the Beanstalk. The idea that there was this poor single mother and her kid and the fact that they were dealing with real-estate issues felt so relevant immediately,” Gladstone says. “It was interesting how much we could pull out from what was happening in East Van right now.”
“I always feel agitprop works a lot better if it’s funny,” Demers adds. “That’s one of the reasons I like doing comedy or that I like writing humour. Among its many things, it’s a play about gentrification, what’s happening in a very changing neighbourhood and what it means to love a place and hate a place at the same time. I feel like you can do that with comedy and this big, broad musical wackiness in a way that doesn’t end up being heavy-handed.”
While some of the comedy comes from pressing issues in the ’hood, with a new joke in one form or another landing almost every five seconds, the creators are confident that Panto offers something for everyone, particularly kids.
“I have a five-year-old now, so I’m really mostly watching the show from a five-year-old’s perspective,” Hille says. “As long as there’s enough pratfalls and farting, we’re totally covered. But I love the range of the script; the grownups will be laughing quite hard as well. And I’ve always felt you don’t have to talk down to kids, so even if they don’t get the joke, they always get the status dynamics, they understand that someone is important and someone is scared, and that stuff can get played through with language and physicality.”
For Demers, who is about to become a father for the first time, the challenge of writing something with children in mind couldn’t have come at a better moment.
“I will become a dad at some point, literally, during the run of the show, so it’s been a real treat for me, a sort of easing into the hot tub of parenthood,” Demers says. Everybody bursts out laughing.
“A hot tub,” Gladstone repeats with a smile. “Wow.”
“It’ll be a very relaxing time,” Hille teases him. “It’s super sexy being a parent. He’s following my example of parenting.”
“Yeah, I only know hip, cool parents,” Demers jokes. “Hot tub of fatherhood, but mothering is not a hot tub, from what I can tell.”
“Motherhood is more like an exercise wheel,” Hille says.
The funny, joking friendship between Demers, Hille, and Gladstone makes it easy to understand why the panto is firing on all cylinders, even with only two weeks until opening. All three give props to the collaborative nature of their working relationship, though it’s perhaps Demers, who typically works in solitude, who’s most grateful for the experience.
“There’s so much precious talk about ‘Oh, here’s the thing in my head’ and then you put it out there and see if the world can kind of approximate it,” Demers says. “That seems like a recipe for always being disappointed. Instead, it’s a lot more interesting to bring an idea and put it in contact with someone else’s idea and then it turns into this new thing and becomes better than anything you could have done on your own. What I’m launching here is a defence of art by committee.” Everybody laughs. “The author must die.”
Sounds like the next panto’s already halfway there.