Making an Online Panto in 2020
When I was training we were encouraged to reflect on our work and blog about it during after the process, this was something I continued to do for a number of years (on this very blog) but slowly petered out as children and workload took over. However, having just wrapped up a a live online, interactive pantomime - an experience that I feel will be unique in my career - I decided that it was a process worth writing about. There may be others out there who will be looking to do something similar and I hope this blog may prove to be useful to them.
Lost In Pantoland was produced by PACE (a youth theatre in Paisley that put on a traditional panto with professional actors every year) with support from Paisley Arts Centre, Renfrewshire Council and Creative Scotland. I was writer and director.
The idea that PACE originally came to me with was a panto that would be streamed live on Facebook and YouTube and also - crucially - Zoom. The actors would be able to see the audience and interact with them. The audience members on Zoom would pay for special interactivity tickets - this not only allowed them the possibility of chatting with the cast but also meant they were sent a special interactivity pack. This was a box filled with such things as Boo signs, magic wands and what have you, during the show they are encouraged to use the different items. I had built some objects into the script, but then the people at PACE felt the boxes needed some more items to make it worthwhile so they added a party blower and a glow-stick and it was my job to make them work in the script. This actually led to one of my favourite parts of the show where the actors were plunged into darkness only to be lit up by the audience at home's glow sticks. This sort of influence of one moving part of the overall concept of the show on the script was the first of many and it was a real challenge to be adaptable to make each part worthwhile and meaningful. Here's what the boxes ended up looking like (my son is dressed as DC villain Harley Quinn for reasons only known to him...)
The panto wasn't to be a traditional fare but an original story featuring all the usual panto tropes. I came up with the idea of the Dame and the Buttons character having to collect various items from different pantos (like Cinderella's glass slipper) and that was us ready to go. Due to the ever changing landscape with Covid, the funding for the project came very late. I started writing the 1st week of November or thereabouts, for a show that opened in December!
I will talk about the technical challenges we faced later (I could write a book about it!) But the most immediate issue I was faced with was how to rehearse safely with four actors. There were certain agreements reached between all parties, such as 4 metres distance between an actor singing for example, that would fundamentally change the way we rehearsed. The actors would have to be 2 metres apart at all times. We had the rehearsal room laid out in 2 metre squares and used this grid to move the actors around.
|Rehearsing the actors|
The other major consideration was the use of props. No two actors could use the same prop, so we had to make doubles of any that were shared. When it came to final rehearsals we used camera cutaways to make it look as though coins were being thrown across the room etc. There was one scene, where Cinderella had to try on the glass slipper and then give it to the Dame that meant I had to return to the drawing board. The scene that I had written required at least two of the actors to touch the shoe, but a quick rewrite later and the scene was redesigned to be as safe as possible with 3 different shoes being used.
Creatively this style of directing was far from ideal. I like to give the actors freedom in their movements whilst performing scenes whilst also having certain sections very tightly choreographed. I had to rethink my approach to directing and, in reality, it became like a chess board, as soon as one actor moved then the others had to adjust their positions. Hopefully we came up with something that felt natural, although I do still miss all the physical choreography that I would have loved to have added to the show!
Singing-wise we had far less songs in the show than normal, due to the 4 metre constraint and also because we didn't really want the show to go over the hour mark. There was an opening number that was going to be pre-filmed and then the actors would sing variations of the same song at the start of each scene, whilst on stage by themselves. We had a last minute change of character for Prince Pansy at Sleeping Beauty's castle - he went from a German with fake Jurgen Klopp teeth to a Zorro-style buccaneer in about ten minutes of rehearsal! So we cut his song as it didn't really fit and instead had a little bit of Spanish guitar and lots of sword swishing instead!
One of the most exciting parts of the show were the magic carpet rides that punctuated the scenes, these were brilliantly created in After Effects by PACE Chief Exec Grant Mason to create something that was in fitting with Fraser's designs but also had their own unique feel.
Our designer, Fraser Lappin is a well known model builder and we thought that it would be really interesting to use his model-boxes, photograph them and then use them as the background to the scenes. After a bit of discussion we agreed that green screen would be the best way to achieve this. The actors would be placed in a green box, the computer would then replace anything green with the background picture (so Fraser had to design his costumes and decide on props with this in mind, which is why we had a white christmas tree!). As there were three cameras we would have three backgrounds. One wide shot and then two close-ups from either side.
|Photographing the set backdrops|
We combined the green screen with some real-life scenery - such as stairs - and this combination worked really well.
|The Green-Screen Set|
By far the greatest challenge was getting Zoom to work in such a way that the actors can speak to the audience and it is all broadcast in real-time. We worked with Paisley-based Media Monty to achieve this. I have attempted to draw a diagram of our set-up... this is what I think was happening in the set-up, but it got so confusing that I may have missed something!
We had 3 Zoom sessions running. 1 was the main hub for all the images that the audience were to see. So it was connected to the video mixer that was connected to the 3 cameras, another laptop that played back previously recorded footage and was also receiving a feed from the second Zoom session. This 2nd session was so that we could spotlight different families when the actors wanted to talk to them, we had an operator who would find the family mentioned - spotlight them - and then the video editor would cut to that input so the audience could see them, we could also mute and unmute the audience from this account. The third zoom account was an unmanned account that was constantly in gallery view and was put on a large tv facing the stage. This allowed the actors to look at the screen and respond to what they were seeing from the audience at home. A problem that we weren't 100% successful in solving was the inevitable delay of running a zoom session and how to best manage the sound coming back from the computer onto the stage. I think if we had in-ear monitoring then we could have fixed this entirely, however our sound-engineer managed to get a good balance and there was only a slight echo on the actors voices but nothing too distracting as they spoke to audience members. All the actors were close-mic'd and we had another laptop running Qlab to trigger the sound effects live.
On top of this set-up we were also sending the signal out to Facebook live and Youtube. These feeds were all run off of 4G dongles, which did a great job, however they let us down on Christmas Eve for about 7 minutes - that was a LONG 7 minutes, but a quick reboot later they were up and away! I think due to the programme itself the quality of the stream on Zoom wasn't quite as high as Youtube and Facebook (it isn't, after all, designed for this sort of thing) but it was more than good enough for families to stream onto a large screen and it look pretty decent.
We had our Zoom account set up so that the operator on the 2nd account could mute and un-mute everybody (once they had given us permission at the start of the call). One thing I had noticed watching other shows on Zoom was that there was an inevitable moment of silence between this process. So when the audience were umuted to Boo and then muted again our actors had to make sure not to say any lines as they would be missed by the Zoom audience. That's why, if you watch back on Youtube or Facebook (where this silence doesn't occur) the actors do an extra long laugh, or cry or whatever, as they are waiting for the sound to return to Zoom. That was one of countless little things we discovered as we made the show. Having now seen the Green screen technology and understanding Zoom better, I am sure we could do so much more - but let's hope we don't have to and we can get back into theatres instead!
Each camera had it's own background, the static middle camera with the wide-shot had the main model shot as it's display and the two manned cameras at the side had a tighter, more blurred background to give the sense of a 3d space. We worked hard on eliminating shadows throughout, and ended up reblocking some scenes to try and stop the actors from creating too many dark spots on the screen. We learned that darker background pictures worked better as it meant if there was a shadow that the computer wasn't picking up as green then the speckles created weren't as noticeable as they were on bright backgrounds.
If you are thinking of doing something like this then another consideration is a space away from the performance (with decent internet) for the director to sit. Luckily we had a little room upstairs from the theatre that we ran a God-mic to. This allowed me to watch the show during our technical and dress runs on a laptop and experience it the same was as the people at home would. I could then use the mic to quickly communicate notes to the actors and technical team.
In the end this over-all set-up allowed us to have the actors do their thing, whilst being able to watch the families at home interact with their boxes, talk to them and also broadcast to a wider audience on the web - we also had a bit of fun with the green screen, although once I saw it in action I knew that we could have done so much more (it's always the way)!
On top of this we also had a whole host of pre-recorded material. This served a number of functions. It allowed us to include the young people that are normally the heart and soul of a Paisley panto, bring a little bit of Paisley into an international audiences living room (the number of posts we had about people loving seeing Paisley again was amazing) and also allowed the actors to change between scenes and allow the stage crew to reset the stage.
We filmed most of the material on day 3 of rehearsal. This was a big ask for the actors but they did brilliantly. We had various cameos from ex-Pace members such as James McCardle and Scott Reid and it was great fun devising the physical comedy that I love - but on a high street!
Here's the before and after:
So there we are...
There were a LOT of pieces to juggle in creating this piece of theatre, but the hundreds of positive comments from audience members across the Globe made it all worthwhile. We were all working in areas that we had never ventured before, from the Media Monty folk who were new to live theatre to getting myself clued up on Zoom and what it was capable of. It wasn't all perfect of course and it certainly wasn't easy, but everybody in the very small team (on a very small time-scale) really pulled it out of the bag and made an online theatrical experience that was, as far as I can tell, unique in its approach.
Here's the trailer that gives a flavour of the show and it's available until the 5th of January on the PACE Youtube and Facebook pages.