Want to get our stories Straight to your inbox (see what we did there)? Sign up for our newsletter here.
Because the East Van Panto has a decade-long history of creating West Coast holiday memories, it makes perfect sense that Veda Hille has little trouble coming up with her personal all-time favourite moments.
In the beginning, she recounts, there was Jack and the Beanstalk, which updated a centuries old British fairytale for Commercial Drive with references to Nick’s Spaghetti House, Libby Davies, and Aldergrove (which exists only because Langley needs some place to feel superior to). In the music director’s chair was Hille (turning songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” into “Somewhere East of Cambie”). And that’s where the local indie-pop queen remains today, decidedly stoked about this year’s East Van Panto take on The Little Mermaid.
But before we move forward to the 10th edition of what’s become a West Coast holiday-season classic, let’s revisit the ghost of pantos past. As those who’ve seen editions over the years are well aware, audience participation is not only a major part of the fun, but pretty much expected.
During Jack and the Beanstalk local celebrities were invited to shows, where they’d be hauled out of the audience to become part of the entertainment.
“My favourite memory from that one was when Nardwuar was our celebrity cameo,” Hille says in an interview with the Straight. “It was insane. He got Miko [Yamamoto], who was playing Jack, out crowd-surfing, and gave a complete history of the punk rock New York Theatre gigs. It was nuts—one of the most overwhelming but wonderful things that has ever happened. I was improvising punk music on a Lowery organ.”
Sound chaotic in the best of ways? Of course, that’s a thread that’s run through every East Van Panto since, with Theatre Replacement overseeing re-imaginings of fairy tale classics from Hansel and Gretel to Cinderella to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
“The first Panto was easy, and the stakes were pretty low,” Hille recalls. “We were just effing around. Because we didn’t really know what we were doing, we were just having a lot of fun, is my recollection. From there it’s sort of ratcheted up every year a little bit until we got to the grandiose seven-week show we have this year.”
Directed by Meg Roe, and starring Panto alumni Dawn Petten, Amanda Sum, Mark Chavez, and Ghazal Azarbad (and newbie Andrew Wheeler), The Little Mermaid starts with Ariel (Sum) busking on New Brighton Beach. After falling for a teenage mer-person (Azarbad) she ends up chasing love under a sea populated by everyone from a possibly unbalanced evil octopus to a talking trash crab with a thing for JJ Bean cups. In between the laughs, the script by Sonja Bennett makes clever observations on everything from sexuality to the ruination of planet Earth.
The work that goes into getting any East Van Panto off the ground starts months and months before opening night. Bennett began working on The Little Mermaid script at the beginning of the year, turning in a completed version in late June. Hille then, over the summer, started thinking about how to rework songs.
In the past—along with drummer-guitarist Barry Mirochnick—she’s riffed on the best of everyone from Destiny’s Child and Lady Gaga to Kraftwerk, Billie Eilish, and Lil Nas X. If the songwriter has learned something over 10 years of doing the East Van Panto, it’s that it pays to pick one’s hits carefully.
“I’m always on the lookout for what will be the big songs of the year because I try to stay contemporary when I reference things,” she says. “Obviously there’s going to be a little Kate Bush this year—I managed to get two songs in, one of them, actually, before the Stranger Things episode. I have a very particular set of things I’m looking for in songs.
“What I’m looking for, number one, is a song that I want to play for seven weeks,” Hille continues with a laugh. “Selfishly, I put that first. But it also has to have a certain amount of recognition for the audience so that it’s fun. I’ll try to put some deep cuts in, but usually I try to get things that I know a bunch of the crowd is going to understand and think is funny. Also the chorus, or main hook’s lyrics of the song, has to be able to be turned into a pun that fits the script.”
Hille reports that the East Van Panto, at some point in the process, always starts to seem overwhelming.
“It can be pretty intense,” she says. “I just brought my theatre bed to the theatre because I don’t leave very much over the next two weeks. It’s a very all-encompassing thing. Right now I have an inflatable mattress, I just bought myself a feathery pillow, and I have a bit of a chenille obsession, so I brought my nice chenille and a sheet. On two-show days you’ll find a dressing room full of actors on various makeshift cots. Everyone ends up doing their best to rest because we have to give a lot of heavy, happy vibes.”
Hille chuckles that, early on each run, it’s all a bit like being in “Panto jail.” On that front, she doesn’t lack for East Van Panto memories.
“I was just thinking about how much older I am than when we started Panto,” Hille says. “When we started, I didn’t need a bed. But now, I gotta have somewhere to lie down.”
Well, you reached the bottom so you must have liked what you read. Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more stories.