Catherine Mahon- Buckley is marking her 25th year as the director of the Everyman’s panto, writes Marjorie Brennan.
Given the creative and logistical challenges, putting on a pantomime is no mean feat — but doing it 25 times requires a completely different level of commitment and endurance. According to Catherine Mahon-Buckley, who this year celebrates a quarter of a century at the helm of the annual Everyman Theatre panto in Cork, it helps that her energy levels aren’t exactly average.
“I can’t sit down, I’m hyper. Even when I was a child, I was awake all night, my mother said I would be buzzing. I could manage on 20 minutes sleep. I went to bed last night at about 2am and I was up again at 5am and I’ll be working until 10pm tonight.” While Mahon-Buckley says she likes to “live in the now” her job also requires an obsessive level of planning and organisation.
“Cinderella will go up on December 1 and we will already be thinking about next year’s panto. When I started off doing it, we might be talking about it in October but it is a different world now, it’s all forward planning. It’s very busy and constant.” This year’s Everyman panto is that timeless classic, Cinderella, which coincidentally happens to be the first one that Mahon-Buckley worked on 25 years ago. She had been running her own drama school, the Cork Academy of Dramatic Arts (CADA) for a few years when her husband came home with an interesting proposition.
Mahon-Buckley started CADA in her mother’s front room with two students. Now based in purpose-built studios on Pine St near Shandon, it has an enrolment of hundreds. They provide a core troupe for the panto every year, with 150 students each making an appearance on stage at some point during a run.
“We have five teams, then they are divided by age. We would have the four to seven-year-olds who perform together, then eight to 10-year-olds, then 11-13-year-olds, then the older teenagers. There wouldn’t be more than eight on the stage at any given time. Most would do 12 performances,” says Mahon-Buckley.
Allowances also have to made for the tender age of some of the participants. “The younger ones we would put on stage in the first hour because they can’t sustain it. On the night, they mightn’t want to go on, or there might be tears or tantrums. They have chaperones and their own room, it’s like a playdate for them,” she says.
Rehearsals begin early in October, and those participating must give up all their weekends. Mahon-Buckley acknowledges it is a huge commitment but one that has huge benefits for the children and teenagers involved.
“I meet with the parents of all the children in the panto and we have a chat about what is involved. Of course it is about having fun but it also about learning a craft, and discipline. I tell them that the birthday parties and all that go out the window.
“You are teaching them about dedication, commitment and hard work.” Mahon-Buckley says she has had many pupils who have performed in the panto for well more than a decade.
“Being in the panto is such a wonderful memory for them to have. We have children who are in the panto for 10 to 15 years. They say, ‘it wouldn’t be Christmas if I wasn’t in the panto’.
“They might stop around the Junior Cert or Leaving Cert and they are heartbroken. They often come in and work backstage when they get their holidays, just to be involved.” While a child’s participation in the panto can also be time-consuming for the parents, Mahon-Buckley says it offers them precious time for connection as well.
“It is great for children because they are engaged, energised and listened to but it is also quality time with the parent, when they are in the car, bringing them to the theatre, and collecting them. Then they come in, they are made a fuss of, they perform and go back. I used to love it when I was a child, being brought out at that time of night, there is really a different aura. You are made feel special.”
Mahon-Buckley says she has seen a lot of changes in the 25 years of directing the Everyman panto, especially in terms of audience expectations.
“The panto is fast-paced, physical work, you would need to be very fit to work on a panto now. The sequences also have to change all the time, you have to keep the excitement level up, include popular songs and dance moves, and weave in topics for the parents as well. But you have to be very careful, people like tradition as well. Children will feel very cheated if you don’t give the real story, but you can tweak it a bit.” She is also careful to make sure that all the material she uses is family-friendly.
“I am not big into the smuttiness, I’m sorry. I’m dealing with an audience from 2 up to 92. But the children do love burps, farts and all of that kind of humour, which is normal,” she laughs.
While we hear a lot about children’s shrinking attention spans and dependence on screens, she says sometimes it is the adults who are the problem.
“What annoys me is when I see people taking out their mobile phones in the theatre. It is so rude. I’d love to ask them ‘what did you come for?’ They are not engaging and they are not present for their children. They are missing out on what are valuable memories for the child — and the parent.” She believes that most people, however, embrace the panto as an opportunity to switch off and escape.
Audience interaction is traditionally a much-loved element of the panto tradition, although Mahon-Buckley did have to make one change in this regard along the way. “When we started off, the characters would go down into the audience but I had to stop it because they were getting carried away. I always remember we were doing Cinderella and Jim Mulcahy was playing one of the Ugly Sisters. They were going through the audience and this child, about seven, put his foot out and tripped him up. Then he said, ‘serves you right, you f**ker’.”
Mahon-Buckley roars with laughter at the memory.
“Jim played a blinder, and started talking back to him, saying ‘I’ll get my big sister to take you on’ and all that.” Mahon-Buckley never repeats a panto within a five-year timeframe.
“Every five years, there’s a generation change… you’re really introducing a new audience, as well as maintaining the old audience. The top ones are Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk. Babes in the Wood is a traditional one but I only did it once because the storyline doesn’t appeal to me. We’ve done Mother Goose, and Beauty and the Beast is another hugely popular one, though neither of them are the traditional ones. I have never repeated the same script.”
She also encourages the young people involved to contribute to the development of the panto.
“We workshop it together first because they are so creative. As we get older, we get weighed down by the complexities of life — but they are so open, they are like sponges. When we did Jack and the Beanstalk, I had a major problem about the giant. I didn’t want to frighten the children, as it might be their first introduction to the theatre. So I workshopped with a group of children and I asked them what they thought and we came up with this giant, a 17-year-old hip-hop fan who was a vegetarian and wouldn’t eat anyone. The audience absolutely loved it and all the children wanted their picture taken with the giant.”
If there is one thing that Mahon-Buckley says she has learned over the 25 years of panto, it’s the importance of staying in tune with that creativity and imagination which comes naturally in childhood.
“There’s a child within us all and I would say to anyone, don’t lose it. The child has all the adventures, everything is new or awe-inspiring. When we lose that as adults, what have we left? Panto is a celebration of that feeling.”
Cinderella is at the Everyman Palace Theatre, Cork from tonight until Jan 13. www.everymancork.com