Steffanie Davis has spent a decade living on Commercial Drive, and plenty of years working in local restaurants. So seeing herself plastered all over East Van Panto posters in her very own neck of the woods is definitely a little surreal.
“My face is everywhere right now. I feel very much like the Big Brother of Vancouver,” Davis, who’s playing Belle in this year’s production of Beauty and the Beast, laughs over a Zoom call.
“But I’m gonna see all those families that I used to serve and have these daily conversations with, and feel just the community joy that our weird neighbourhood lifts up in a way that other neighbourhoods in Vancouver completely don’t.”
Hot off starring in Someone Like You, Arts Club’s East Van retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, Davis finds herself in another hyper-local production, even with some of the same team behind it. Someone Like You playwright Christine Quitana and director Jivesh Parasram have joined forces as co-writers for the 2023 and 2024 seasons of the East Van Panto, with sound designer Mishelle Cuttler also helping out.
“I feel honoured to have the privilege to work with them two times in a row, back to back,” Davis adds. “It’s been a delight.”
In the Quintana and Parasram retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Belle has her heart set on becoming a financial planner. The Beast, as played by Jason Sakaki, is from the West side—a stubborn UBC Sauder student who’s convinced he’s always right.
The two get thrown together in what Sakaki describes as a deeply “East Van nerdy” scenario, right down to the classic castle setting being replaced by a magical Fujiya. Instead of talking furniture, there’s a cast of adorable local kids playing sushi and skunks; and Belle’s father is the kind of old-school artsy guy who’s dime a dozen on the Drive.
“There are some jokes that will fly over the audience’s heads for sure,” Sakaki says, “but if you are a true East Van resident, you just absolutely live for the panto.”
As is tradition, many of the classic trappings of the fairytale are stripped away or reworked to better fit the locale. One pivotal change is removing the romance from the story: Belle and the Beast, rather than embarking on the Disney standard heteronormative love story, instead spend the show fostering a deep friendship that reflects Sakaki and Davis’ fondness for each other.
“Younger children might not necessarily identify with the story of a romantic relationship, but every single person can identify with the love you feel for a friend. So I think that it’s a much better way to tell the story,” Sakaki says. “I’ve been more devastated by friendship than I have by romantic relationships in my life.”
Another notable decision is highlighting diverse perspectives and casting.
“It’s 2023—we can have new kinds of people telling these stories,” Davis says. “Personally, as a plus-sized woman, I never imagined myself playing princess… I would have people come up to me and be like, ‘One day, you’ll make a great Mrs. Potts.’”
She points out that stories with universal appeal can benefit from being told through diverse lenses.
“Christine and Jiv have done a beautiful job of writing these characters, and making them just as unique and not traditional as our own individual selves,” Davis continues. “There’s something cool that kids are going to come see the show and see people playing these parts and hopefully have them loosen their systemic ideals of what a princess looks like, or what a prince looks like.”
It’s both Davis’ and Sakaki’s first times performing in any kind of panto, meaning the pair are stepping into the legacy of a show that has more than a decade of loyal patrons (and some long-time contributors).
“I think I’ve seen every different company’s panto in the city,” Sakaki muses. “And I’ve been going to the East Van Panto for probably the past five years.”
Director Anita Rochon, who helmed Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood, is back in the chair this year, alongside long-time composer Veda Hille, who puts a Cultchian spin on pop classics old and new for the production. Working alongside some of the stalwarts has been invigorating, Sakaki adds: “There’s quite a variety of perspectives in terms of what tradition is, and also what new traditions we’re going to make.”
For Davis, pantos have a huge amount of childhood nostalgia attached. Putting on a show that’s family-friendly means entertaining the adults, and also trying to create that same sense of wonder that she felt when she was young.
“I grew up going with my grandparents to the panto every year, out in White Rock,” she says. “Getting to do it now—and my grandfather is going to come see the show—this is kind of full-circle for me.”
Beauty and the Beast
When: November 22 to January 7, various times
Where: York Theatre, 639 Commercial Drive, Vancouver
Admission: From $20, available here