When Mark Chavez was a kid growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he liked to write. He was always creating stories, and along with his brothers and sister, he would put on plays for the family. He also read a lot and was particularly taken by Norton Juster’s 1961 children’s fantasy-adventure novel, The Phantom Tollbooth.
As he explains to the Straight from his home near the PNE, that book made him realize that he could create “whole worlds” through writing.
“That was a bit of a clicking moment for me,” he recalls.
A few decades later and that youthful realization has led to a multifaceted career for Chavez as a Vancouver-based comedian, actor, screenwriter, and playwright. The 43-year-old’s most recent project, Panto Come Home!, shows that he can still create whole worlds, even if these pandemic times require that they fit onto computer screens.
“It sucks that we can’t have people to the York,” Chavez blurts, referring to the Commercial Drive theatre from which the family-oriented musical comedy will be livestreamed. “But saying that, it does offer a bunch of hurdles that are creative boxes to get out of. We have this great film team that has come on; we have a four-camera stream where we’re able to perform in and around the whole theatre. We’re able to choose where the audience is looking—the major difference between film and theatre—[and] we get to pick what they have to look at, so we don’t have to be scrambling around behind the scenes to do what we need to do. So it’s offering us a bunch of opportunities to be creative, and as artists and theatre makers, that’s a boon. We can lean into that.
“The live-theatre experience won’t be the same until we have people back with us,” he adds, “but I think this is a good stopgap. We can give them an entertaining show and feel a bit of connection until we can do it live again.”
Panto Come Home! is the third pantomime Chavez has written for Theatre Replacement artistic directors James Long and Maiko Yamamoto, who last year won a huge national theatre award called the Siminovitch Prize.
“They’re a humble duo that are a huge deal,” Chavez raves, “and you would never know by talking to them. They’re just both feet on the ground, doing their thing. They’re doing this fun show, and they make their avant-garde work, and they support the young artists that are coming up. They’re about community as much as they are about making cool, interesting work.”
Chavez’s previous assignments for Long and Yamamoto involved writing the East Van Panto shows Red Riding Hood in 2016 and Snow White & the Seven Dwarves in 2017.
“When they first came to me, they said: ‘We want you to write this and do whatever you want,’ ” he says. “And Veda Hille, who does all the music, is a major part of the creative process. So she wants to do certain songs; I want to do a certain fairy tale. We meet; we talk about it. I give her the script; she writes some songs, and I take what she’s done. It’s a great little process.”
Chavez approached the creation of Panto Come Home! a little differently, as it isn’t based on a particular fairy tale but is a “best of” production, using the most popular tunes from previous shows.
“They needed someone to tie these songs together and kinda create a little sketch show out of it’,” he explains. “But it turned out being much bigger than any of us had planned, because I wanted it to still have a story, and I wanted it to still be a panto. And Veda wound up writing new music, even though she was supposed to just do old hits. So it’s turned into its own little show.”
The basic plot sees directors Long and Yamamoto sneaking into the York Theatre, finding an unhappy Hille there at her piano, and attempting to cheer her up by calling some old friends to sing and dance previous East Van Panto hits. Then they have an uninvited visitor called the Phanto of the Panto, who kind of “scrambles everything around”.
“He wants to be the star,” Chavez posits, “and he bullies them into making a show that he wants to do. And then through them we find out that, you know, he’s... Well, I don’t want to give it away. It’s just how do they deal with this kind of villain in their midst while they’re trying to create a panto?”
Although the East Van pantos have always been designed as fun family entertainment, Chavez believes that their attraction extends far beyond the kiddie crowd.
“I do some kids programming aside from the panto,” he points out, “and everything I do, I write to entertain anyone. I kinda do it to entertain myself, or to entertain my peers. Children, I think, latch on to that, so the only thing you kinda have to do is to just make sure you’re not being crass—and that’s a good comedy rule anyway. So we’re not necessarily shooting for a particular age group. I think anyone can enjoy it.”