An honest comparison of your school's panto options
Should we book a touring pantomime company to visit our school, or visit our local theatre?
Pantomime is a part of growing up, and a lovely traditional activity for the children at Christmas time which brings the school community together. And of course it is one that doesn’t have a religious context.
Teachers often wonder whether they are better advised to visit their local theatre or to bring a specialist company into their school. Even when they don’t ask us directly, we know it’s in the back of many teachers’ minds.
We are huge fans of children becoming theatre goers when they grow up, and good experiences on primary school theatre trips can only support this and help make the theatre feel a part of each child’s local community.
When it comes to which option is best for your school, we think there are three main areas to consider: production quality, price and convenience.
1. PRODUCTION QUALITY
Many years ago I worked for the Theatre Royal in Norwich managing the process of selecting and booking the shows that went on our stage. I recall spending a wonderful Christmas driving around the country looking at pantomimes in lots of similar scale theatres across the country as we decided what panto we were going to stage the next year.
I learned that the standard varies hugely from theatre to theatre, as I imagine it does from one touring company to another.
But there are definite differences between what a typical theatre can offer, and a typical touring pantomime company.
Clearly even the smallest local theatre has the opportunity to have what we term higher production values. They will have many days to set up their stage, typically in a purpose built theatre with sound, lighting, stage wings and a fly tower!
The theatres are selling to family groups rather than children only, and are staging more performances, so they are taking a lot more money at the box office - in fact the biggest pantomimes can take £2m or more. Consequently they are able to invest in larger casts and more elaborate sets and costumes. They can deliver a sense of spectacle really well.
In a school hall however, the spectacle is simply not going to work so well - even though the children might be excited to see some scenery in a room they are otherwise familiar with.
By contrast, even if your school is lucky enough to have a wonderful theatre facility, a visiting company will be creating a show intended to work in every school. They’ll have a few hours to set up rather than many days, so the facility won’t be used to the best of its potential.
But sometimes having a little less spectacle creates a little more creativity. The best visiting pantomime companies have to use different theatrical skills - ideally storytelling and charm - to engage their young audiences.
And the specialists in primary school pantomimes are of course helped by the fact that they don’t have to entertain the mums and dads! There are no sexy dance routines or double entendres - instead everything is designed to draw the children’s imaginations into the story, keep them engaged and delight them and their teachers.
The final big question is of course the quality of the actors and the creative team behind the show. The biggest and best pantomimes produced by venues such as Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre have top teams from West End musicals. Some small regional theatres sadly are at the other end of the spectrum.
A common perception is that the companies touring to schools get whoever is left over, but actually that is far from true. Because of our West End history and network we have some wonderful performers in pantos including actors who have played the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, Joseph in Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat and Trunchbull in Matilda. They love working for us for two reasons: the quality is high; and they get to spend Christmas and New Year with their loved ones as the schools are closed for the Christmas holiday!
Pantomime producing theatres typically charge between £15 and £45 per ticket depending on the scale and status of the production. There is usually some kind of discount meaning that teachers and chaperones go free. Then, unless the theatre is very nearby or parents are doing all the logistics, there may be travel costs - typically coaches.
Touring school theatre companies charge much less, often based on an all-inclusive fee. This can be many times less than the cost of a theatre visit, especially for large groups of children.
A visiting company can arrive after lunch, set up quickly, perform and leave at the end of the school day. The children are away from their lessons for the duration of the show and no longer, and the travel and risk assessment issues of taking the children out of school are avoided.
As for the local theatre, that depends on many more variables including exactly how local the venue is. Timings depend on when the venue has scheduled performances, with extra time around that for travel, arrival and departure.
ALL IN ALL...
So all in all there are good reasons for both booking a touring pantomime company like West End in Schools or for visiting your local theatre. The right choice for you depends on your priorities, what your local theatre offers, and whether this year you want the children to have a theatrical experience based on spectacle or on storytelling.