Preparing a panto in lockdown – ginormous props and bags of laughter, says star Chris Casey
Originally from Lancashire, Chris is a professional actor and voice artist who now lives in Chesham – oh, and he’s a dab-hand at pantomimes, too.
Last year Chris played Buttons in our panto Cinderella and this year he’ll be back treading the boards as Chester the Jester in Sleeping Beauty.
This year The Elgiva’s pantomime will be a slightly different animal; COVID-19-related guidelines mean an adjusted script, reduced cast and a much smaller and socially-distancing audience. We’ve had to refit the dressing rooms to space everyone out and the cast have had to get used to bouncing ideas off each other virtually on Zoom, rather than the rehearsal studio.
We interviewed Chris last year during Cinderella’s run, so we were keen to find out what 2020 had meant for him so far, and what his views on what a post-lockdown panto would look like. Our production this year will have some novel challenges, but the vast experience that the people at New Pantomime Productions, our co-producers, mean that they, and the professional cast, are more than adequate to the task; in fact, the opportunities that come from the challenges are already causing the creative juices to flow.
However, all our panto preparation is coming at a unique time in the history of both The Elgiva and the Performing Arts generally. Actors are used to being on the stage, it’s a natural home for them, but suddenly, that’s all been ripped away and everyone is stuck at home. Like all of us, Chris has found 2020 difficult.
“You can’t really be an actor in lockdown,” he explains. “I’m lucky because I’ve been able to do some teaching, but other than that, there’s been nothing out there apart from the odd voiceover role for computer games or adverts which have been incredibly competitive, as you can imagine.
“After last year’s panto, the first job I had was the development of a new script for Proper Job Theatre Company up in Huddersfield, which we started just a week before the national lockdown came. We managed three days’ rehearsal, and then I had to come home – three days of creativity all year, which is really weird.”
“It’s important that as soon as we can do it, and do it safely, then we should do theatre…”
Chris remains thankful, however, especially as he has many friends in the profession who are a far worse position than he is, including actors who used to supplement their income by working in pubs or restaurants, but have now had to sign on because there is no work for them.
The fear that some of the smaller regional venues won’t be able to open again looms large over the profession.
“It’s great that The Elgiva is being so active in trying to keep open and doing things,” Chris says. “A friend of mine is the artistic director of a theatre up in Birmingham, and they think they won’t be able to open again, because they’ve just lost so much money. And the Government’s message that those in the performing arts should consider retraining to do something else? It doesn’t feel very supportive. In a time like this, performing and creative arts – Netflix for example – have played their part in keeping people sane. Theatre is the same, and it’s such a social occasion, which people have really missed; it’s so important that as soon as we can do it, and do it safely, then we should do theatre.”
Chris points out how much of a creative outlet theatre can be, especially for younger people.
“Children often need to find their outlet; sitting in the theatre and going away to these faraway lands can be an amazing experience. A key advantage of pantomime for me is when a child realises that theatres don’t have to be really stuffy spaces where you have to be very quiet and well behaved. Instead, you can go to them and shout, make a lot of noise and join in. It encourages them to be creative, whether that’s on the stage or tackling an equation. Art doesn’t have to be elitist.”
So has Chris been able to get creative during lockdown? Like many of us, he has found it hard, but has spent much of the time teaching and exploring the lovely countryside of the Chilterns.
“I have found lockdown to be creatively stifling,” he says. “When you’re doing the same sort of thing, day in, day out, and you just sat at home and the most exciting thing you can look forward to is the weekly trip to Tesco, it’s hard. I would have liked to say that I’ve done lots of creative things but I really haven’t; I’ve started a few writing projects half-heartedly, but but most of the time I’ve just been trying to work out how to earn a living and hopefully helping kids make the most of their education. I’ve done a lot of thinking – I think we all have this year, we’ve all become more self reflective.”
This means that Chris can’t wait to be treading the boards again.
“I’m desperate for panto! Just those three days I just did up in Huddersfield were a breath of fresh air just to be creative again. Fun Chris is always lurking – just stick him on a stage and he’ll start jumping around!
I’m particularly looking forward to working with Sean again – you never know what’s going to happen! I think we play off each other really well and each performance is something to look forward to. You never know whether he’s going to have hidden a balloon somewhere, or what line is going to come out of his mouth.”
What about the elephant on the stage – COVID-19?
“This year’s panto will be unpredictable as well because it’s going to be so different. There will be a smaller audience and we’ll have to reference the pandemic somehow, without labouring it, which we can’t do because we want to be taking people away from it, providing an escape.”
“Live theatre is about connection, not just with us on stage, but with each other as well…”
Chris is delighted that there will be some relief and fun for the audience in the laughter.
“I think there’ll be loads of kids – and parents as well – who are just desperate to have a bit of fun. It’s about connection, not just with us, but with each other as well. It will be a smaller audience, and socially distanced, but they’ll still be in a place where there’s somebody a few seats away laughing and having fun, and we’ll all be sharing that experience. That’s one of the most powerful things about about live theatre – sharing the experience, connecting with people – and how much have we missed connecting!”
This year’s panto will be a more intimate affair, with a smaller cast, but the feeling is that the challenges are going promote creativity.
“Having a structure can seem restrictive at first but actually it can be freeing – we’ll have to do some things in a certain way,” Chris explains. “We’ll be looking at rehearsals through those eyes, with a new way of doing things within certain rules. Simon Barry, the producer, has asked me to work as assistant director in the rehearsal room and think about being creative without signposting the rules. It will bring all sorts of creative ideas – what will socially distanced slapstick look like, for instance. Obviously missing each other on purpose? Using ginormous props? I don’t know what quite what yet but whatever it is I know it will be funny and give us opportunities with different styles of physical comedy.”
The last time Chris did Sleeping Beauty was 2012 and he welcomes the chance to revisit the story.
Chester the Jester is a part Chris enjoys. “It’s a great role for fitness,” he says. “Chester is on so much and so busy that I won’t need to do any exercise at all during the run, the calories just burn off on stage. Until then… Well, we start rehearsing properly in December, thinking up current gags and Sean and I will start working out the physical comedy – plenty of ginormous props and bags of laughter!”