How to Make a School Pantomime Part 1: The Read-Through

How do you reimagine a beloved story? How do you take a tale (as old as time) and make it work for primary school children across the country, and fit into an hour’s pantomime performance in their school hall, and make it so magical that they will remember it for years to come?

Put it that way, and the task seems kind of big. But that’s what we aim for with every pantomime that we create.

All of West End in Schools’ pantos are made in-house, written, directed and designed by professionals from the theatre and children’s television industries. The journey begins in January, pretty much as soon as the last panto season finishes. It reaches its destination hundreds of times over in schools throughout November, December and the following January.

So far, it seems to be working.

This year’s shiny new pantomime is Beauty and the Beast. And last week we reached a big milestone in our panto journey: the read-through.

Our composer Alex introducing us to the new songs.

Our composer Alex introducing us to the new songs.

The Story So Far

In the theatre world the read-through is the first chance to try out a new script, test the story and hear the songs. But a lot had already happened behind the scenes for us to get to this point.

First Alex and Andrew went back to the original fairytale in order to get to the heart of the story and develop their own interpretation. Ideally they wanted to make some nods to everyone’s favourite memories from the film, but also add their own panto charm and humour.

Next came the treatment. This is the document that outlines what a show is going to be. In our case we received a synopsis which proposed a structure, included initial thoughts on the characters and story, and suggestions of where the songs would fit.

When it comes to Beauty and the Beast the story is pretty much in the title. The trick is in pitching it to audiences whether they’re in Reception, KS1 or KS2. It must be funny, lovable, fast-paced, entertaining, and accessible for everyone.

Luckily we have Andrew as the writer of all our pantomimes, whose experience ranges from Rastamouse to the newest Dennis the Menace TV series! And from the Treatment it was already clear what kind of flavour our pantomime would have. 

Our director Abi passed on some thoughts and suggestions to guide Andrew and Alex, before they developed it into a full draft, ready for...

The Read-Through

While a final performance in a school would involve the full shebang of props, costumes, choreography and staging, a read-through is more of an audio experience.

Our wonderful composer Alex played and sang the songs at the keyboard, some of our fabulous panto actors read the dialogue, and the rest of us ate cake. Oh, and read along, laughed and used our imaginations, of course.

Sat around the table we had Abi, our director and choreographer; Nigel, our producer; Roxy, our Production Manager; and the rest of us in the West End in Schools team. We're the ones who will help make sure that all of our pantomimes reach the schools by November.

In a humble (and British?) way the writers had labelled this script ‘Draft Zero’, but the key elements were all there: the message of seeing a person as they are on the inside, not the outside; a brave young girl standing up for her father; talking French paraphernalia…

We give all of our pantomimes a few modern twists. Here we’ve also made the story about friendship instead of romance, and we’ve ramped up the comedy to toe tickling levels. Without giving too much away some favourite characters include Madge, the poetic magic mirror, and Marcel, the feather duster who’s allergic to feathers.

Two of our panto actors, Craig and Lizzie, in action.

Two of our panto actors, Craig and Lizzie, in action.

That Panto Magic

After the reading of the script we had a discussion about the script and songs so far. Everyone in the room had a chance to offer their impressions and ask the writers questions. 

Do we need a pantomime dame? Is the baddie bad enough? Have we got enough classic panto humour?

We certainly aren't about to disappoint when it comes to classic pantomime features. And the piece is already in very good shape. But at West End in Schools we pride ourselves on making the best pantomimes that we possibly can, and so there's still a lot of work to do before this one meets its audience.

Alex and Andrew are currently refining and perfecting a new draft of the script so that we can put the show on its feet. 

The next step is experimenting with the design, the props, and how the story can interact with the children. Because the interaction is an advantage we get from performing in a school hall rather than a theatre. How many other stories will you see where the characters speak directly to the children, and ask them to step onstage and join in the story?

These are all questions for the next milestone on our panto journey: the workshop. Watch this space for part 2 of How to Make a School Pantomime!

If hearing about our pantomime’s development has sparked your interest, we’re already taking bookings for November, December and January – and our calendar is filling up quickly! Read more about our other pantos or enquire now!