Panto packed with surprises

Expecting the unexpected is par for the course for the members of ITSA Theatre Company, which is staging its annual Improvised Panto at the Half Moon Theatre in Cork from Dec 6-21. Now in its third year, this fun event is, to some extent, guided by the over-16s audience.

Panto packed with surprises

The cast is made up of Ciarán Bermingham, Laura Harte, Laura O’Mahony (who is also the director), Annette Roche and Dominic McHale. For the first time, the cast will be singing, accompanied by pianist, Paul O’Connor.

Given that the audience chooses which pantomime will be performed each night of the run, what sort of input does the director have? “It’s mostly about the cast becoming comfortable with one another,” says McHale. “Laura has plenty of experience at improvisation because she works with Snatch Comedy. She gets us to play games together during the rehearsal period. That helps us to know what weaknesses and strengths we all have. We run the show as many times as we can in rehearsals, just to get used to putting on an entirely improvised show. Laura calls the shots and introduces changes at every rehearsal so we don’t start relying on any routines. She constantly challenges us.”

The audience is given a list of nine choices of pantomimes. “We go for the one that gets the most shouts. Also, at the beginning, we get each member of the audience to write a secret on a piece of paper.

“During the show, a gong goes off and we go to the front of the stage and take one of the secrets from a hat. We then have to incorporate it into the show.”

This year, for the first time, the cast is going to allow the audience to decide where the pantomime begins. “They get to play the director by dictating the opening scene. I think that kind of input is valued because very often when you go to a show, it feels like you’re a bit of a passenger and not involved at all.”

Referencing topical issues is something that Bermingham excels at. “He’s always on the button and keeps the audience interested. We all have a different sense of humour. Laura O’Mahony is unique, Laura Harte can be quite obscure, and I’d be slightly dry. I go for the smart joke, the one that mightn’t get a million laughs straight away. I graduated with a science degree so I kind of bring a slightly technical side to the show.”

McHale says that the cast has “basic plot points that we need to cover to make the show a pantomime. Other than that, it’s up to the cast in terms of where we want to bring our characters and where we want them to end.”

McHale admits that it can be nerve-wracking to appear on stage without any rehearsed lines. “Once you get over that and you realise that the audience isn’t willing you to do badly, you relax. It’s kind of a comforting feeling. The audience wants you to do well. They know we’re making the story up on the spot... It’s actually very enjoyable to do. It makes you very resourceful as an actor.”

McHale, who is 26, combines acting with teaching biology and facilitating workshops for Graffiti Theatre Company. He doesn’t harbour any snobbery about pantomime work. “I want to make people laugh. That is undervalued at times. Hearing the audience’s laughter gives me satisfaction.”

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