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Features / ‘It’s about teamwork, hard work and having fun’: go behind the scenes as panto returns to stage

It’s show time as the Islesburgh Drama Group hosts Ali Baba an’ Twartree Thieves

Photo: Islesburgh Drama Group

“THE WORLD is a complicated place with lots of folk struggling at home and around the world,” Islesburgh Drama Group’s Martin Summers says. “We hope those that come into the Garrison can be whisked away to a special place full of joy, fun and laughter.”

There will certainly be a bit of light relief at the Garrison Theatre in Lerwick over the coming week and a half when Islesburgh Drama Group’s latest panto – its 33rd to date – takes to the stage.

The all-but-sold-out run, which starts tomorrow (Wednesday), will be the culmination of months, months and even more months of writing and rehearsing, designing the set, picking the wardrobe, working on the lights and music.

This year the story is Ali Baba an’ Twartree Thieves, written by the group’s own Mandy Phillips and produced and directed by Morag Mouat.

Director Morag Mouat. Photo: Austin Taylor

It is truly a team effort; whilst there will be a cast of 26 who will perform on stage, there is at least that number behind the scenes helping within the backstage and production team.

Phillips said these people are often the “unsung heroes” of a panto, who help to create the magic for the audience.

“With such a large team it is very much like a family, with highs and challenges, but we overcome them to bring the show to the stage,” she adds.

Mouat said the script is read, “and re-read many times”, from March onwards to determine how the panto will be presented.

Discussions are then held with the set and lighting designers, before musicians and tunes are picked.

In June there was a reading at which the principal characters were cast.

Trustee of Islesburgh Drama Group and writer of the pantomime Mandy Phillips. Photo: Austin Taylor

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“The design of the set is required to be concluded at this time as over the summer all entrances, moves, comedy business, exits and positioning of the chorus needs to be determined by the director and a rehearsal schedule prepared for the months leading up to the performance,” Mouat said.

The first rehearsals started at the beginning of September, for three nights a week.

It is certainly not an insignificant task, given that people have the complexities of day-to-day life to deal with before even thinking about rehearsals.

As things progress those involved with the stage, set, lights, props, make-up and sound begin to get stuck in, with rehearsals – initially at Islesburgh Community Centre – moving to the Garrison.

Phillips said the Garrison, which is more than 100 years old, is the “perfect venue” for drama and gives local groups the chance to create high quality amateur productions in Shetland.

“We could not do without it,” she said. “The proscenium arch and backstage areas are essential for a production of this type.”

The panto also gives youngsters a chance to take what could be their first trip to a theatre.

Anyone who has been to a panto knows it can quickly descend into bedlam, with buoyant bairns given licence to be rowdy – but that is all part of the charm.

“Traditionally you have to be quiet and enjoy the show, whereas in pantoland we want to encourage audience participation and hope the bairns and the big bairns – those adults in the audience – will cheer the goodies and boo the baddies,” Phillips said.

Ticket prices have been frozen at 2018 levels, to help people in the cost of living crisis, and this year’s panto has been supported by the Shetland events recovery fund.

The drama organisation has been on the go since the 1950s, and Islesburgh and the Open Door group take it in turns to put on a winter panto.

This year’s run will feature a total of ten performances, including a matinee show, as well as a preview performance for community groups.

Photo: Islesburgh Drama Group

“We reach out to organisations providing safe spaces, those affected by the cost of living crisis and for those with additional support needs,” Phillips said.

Marketing coordinator Summers – who is playing Bob the Camel in the panto – added that Phillips worked on the script over the second lockdown, and also attended the National Operatic and Dramatic Association Summer School this year.

He added that theatre is a place where folk can make life-long friends – and in this instance, there will be cast members taking to the stage for the first time.

“It’s all about teamwork, hard work and having fun,” he said.

Explaining how things usually pan out on opening night, Summers added: “We arrive at the theatre usually an hour before the show, and everyone will be preparing for curtain up.

“The backstage crew will be doing their final checks and many of the cast will be following their pre-show rituals.

“We’ll hear the call ‘beginners on stage’ and we make our way downstairs. Once the musicians start the overture, it’s show time!”

The panto is taking place as the dark winter begins to envelop the day.

But the production has given the cast and crew something to focus on as the nights draw in – and hopefully the audience will also revel in being transported to another world for a couple of hours.

“We all know how dark and miserable our winters can be,” Summers said, “and for our group the pantomime provides a let out for us to come together, leave our baggage at the door and spend many a horrible night indoors working on a show that we hope audiences will enjoy from across Shetland.”

Ali Baba an’ Twartree Thieves will run from Wednesday 29 November to 9 December at the Garrison Theatre in Lerwick, with – at the time of writing – only two tickets left.

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