Meet the little stars taking to the stage this panto season

‘Character’ is essential for the 162 children gracing Cork Opera House and Everyman theatre, writes Caomhan Keane

WC Fields said you should never work with animals or children, a maxim both the Cork Opera House and Everyman Theatre are flying in the face of this panto season. Between both venues, 162 children are hitting the stage and stealing the show in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Opera House) and Beauty and the Beast (Everyman) this

Divided into three to four groups, who alternate shows throughout the run, the groups are split up according to age, while children in opposing groups are matched up according to size, keeping the costume budget down and reducing the headache when some typhoid tot inevitably becomes a vector for the plague.

Auditions were held in September, with Beauty and the Beast director Catherine Mahon-Buckley drawing from her own pool of talent at the Cork Academy of Dramatic Art (CADA) and Snow White’s Trevor Ryan drawing from the rest.

While the ability to harmonise and hoof with the best of them is important, Ryan says character is what seals the deal. “We can teach them to sing and dance, but we can’t teach them how to have a personality, to come out with that smile or what have you, that just wins the audience over,” he says.

“With the children, it’s specialised,” concurs Mahon-Buckley. “A child that walks on that stage, who looks good and feels good, will be good. It’s about giving them that feeling like they have achieved something.”

Crisps, popcorn and fizzy drinks are verboten in the theatre and the parents are encouraged to give pasta to the children to help them keep their energy up throughout the run. But kids will be kids. How do they get them to focus on the seriousness at hand?

“We do fun theatre games and breathing exercises with them before the show and don’t bring them down to stage until just before they go on,” says Mahon-Buckley. If it carries on, we call the parents, but I always find if you reason with the rebellious kids, take them under your wing a little and make them feel really involved, they respect you for it and listen to you. Kids are actually far more receptive to rules than adults.”

While Mahon-Buckley and Ryan have had little problem with the stars of tomorrow, it’s the parents who cause what little problems arise.

“I meet the parents the very first day of rehearsal and I tell them that this isn’t just about the child taking part. It’s about the whole family,” says Mahon-Buckley. “It’s a big commitment at a busy time of year, so I am very clear with them as to what is expected. Of course, issues arise, and my door is always open if they want to let me know about any problems they have, but I warn them not to lie to me or make it hard for the child by making them try to keep up a pretence at a time when they have enough things to be thinking about. The child will inevitably hang them out to dry. I had one parent who told me, “oh, she was very sick”, without realising that one of my teachers was on the same flight with them to Lapland.”

For Ryan the warning is in place even earlier.

“When we send out the invitations to the stage schools, the fact that we demand 100% commitment is flagged from the start,” says Ryan. “The amount of rehearsal time involved, the time off from school required, it’s all spelt out for them in that first letter.”

The only excuse for missing a show is illness” Aside from the fact that they might pass it on to the rest of the cast, the last place a child with a stuffy chest and a sore head should be is under those hot lights” says Mahon-Buckley.

Even then, she has come up against pressure from parents.

“A mother turned up with her child and insisted they were fine and could go on, and sure wasn’t I only upsetting the child,” says Mahon-Buckley. “The child had chicken pox! Usually, in those scenarios, I’ll ask them for a doctor’s note giving the child clearance to perform.”

Committed to appear in every three-to-four shows, the Everyman and the Opera House do their best to ensure the season doesn’t pass by the kids?

“It’s like having a second family,” says Ryan. “The older actors make a big deal of them. They’re always bringing them in sweets and cakes and the the kids — or their parents — reciprocate.

“Santy comes in and there’s games backstage, but really the kids are only in every couple of days and the show is designed so that their appearances are well spread out throughout the show, so they’re not really losing out too much,” says Mahon-Buckley.

Their costumes are supplied. Children come in different shapes and sizes and it’s important they look good and feel good in the costume. While a make-up artist is on hand, Mahon-Buckley is amazed by how quickly the kids learn themselves.

“Audrey Robinson, our musical director, couldn’t believe when she arrived in and saw these three-year-olds with their vanity cases up on the desk applying their lipstick, watching what the make-up people are doing. We keep it basic, because of skin allergies, so it really is quite easy to apply.”

While some bridle at so much responsibility falling on young shoulders, Mahon-Buckley says the benefits of what they learn will be a boon to them later in life, whether they get a job in the arts, or not.

“It gives them great memories and great friends and a great time in the theatre, but working with people of all ages makes them more confident and more willing and able to speak up for themselves.”

Of those who have worked with Mahon-Buckley on the panto, Sarah Greene has been nominated for theatre’s biggest gong, the TONY award, Darragh O’Leary was one of the choreographers for the 2012 Olympics, while Keith Hanley won the first Voice of Ireland that same year.

Maeve Readman, from Snow White’s creative team (hair, wigs and makeup), starred as a junior dancer in the 2005 panto, Babes in the Wood. Molly Lynch, who also appeared in Cork Opera House pantos as a child, was an understudy to Katherine Jenkins in the English National Opera’s Carousel and is currently playing the role of Betty Schaefer in the West End musical Sunset Boulevard.

For some kids, appearing in the panto draws the line in the sand as to how much they are willing to sacrifice for their dream. “I saw one girl in the corridor who had been in the panto the year before, but hadn’t signed up this year and, when I asked her why not she said: ‘I missed too many parties last year. I couldn’t be giving them all up again.’ I looked at her and I said ‘Well said, girl’.”



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