A panto is “absurd and joyous”

Local topics, slapstick comedy, music, dance, audience sing-alongs – all with laughter and family fun

By Jacob Fehr

FROM November 29 to December 9, Lighthouse Theatre in Port Dover will put on Jack and the Beanstalk—The Panto. But what’s a panto? The Maple Leaf sat down with Derek Ritschel, Artistic Director for Lighthouse Theatre, to let him answer that question.

“It’s not Shakespeare, I’ll tell you that,” Mr. Ritschel joked.

He explained that a panto is a kind of theatrical entertainment popular in Great Britain. Pantos include references to current events and local topics, slapstick comedy, music, dance, and audience participation, and are usually based on fairy tales and nursery stories. They subvert and “destroy” stereotypes with humor, often involving male actors playing female roles and vice versa, he said.

Pantos are typically performed at the end of a year to celebrate its conclusion. Mr. Ritschel emphasized that they bring family members together for “intergenerational laughs” because they are designed to appeal to all ages and to provide families with a shared activity around the holidays. He said tickets for pantos in England usually sell out quickly because families buy their tickets together.

Dame Edna in a British panto of Jack and The Beanstalk.
Dame Edna in a British panto of Jack and The Beanstalk.

Mr. Ritschel thinks pantos are “absurd and joyous.” They’re intended to unite families by providing everyone with something fun to enjoy, he said. And as he put it, there’s “nothing more powerful” than bringing families together through laughter.

“[A panto is] such a feel-good event, and now we’ll have it in Norfolk,” he said.

In his opinion, Jack and the Beanstalk is “terrific” material for Lighthouse Theatre’s first panto because it is funny and full of tropes to subvert. He thinks it will be a great introduction to the style for local audiences. “It’s a strong opener,” he said.

Lighthouse Theatre is fully producing the show, which will be split across two 45-minute acts. It was written by Ken MacDougall and will be directed by Jonathan Ellul. Mr. Ritschel said Mr. MacDougall has written pantos for decades and wrote this panto’s script specifically for Norfolk County. The theatre’s team has helped shape it too.

Mr. Ritschel stated he first contacted Mr. MacDougall in January 2022, meaning the play has been in production for nearly two years. “We want this panto to be something that Norfolk is super proud of and rallies behind,” he said.

He praised the panto’s cast, who he said are all accomplished Canadian theatre actors. “These guys know panto—they know comedy,” he said.

The show’s cast includes Lighthouse favourites Allan Cooke (A Pack of Thieves), Katie Edwards (Rum Runners), and Eliza-Jane Scott (Come Down From Up River). Actors Lori Nancy Kalamanski and Cyrus Lane will perform in Port Dover for the first time.

“I was stunned when Cyrus Lane signed on to be in the first panto at Lighthouse,” Mr. Ritschel said. Mr. Lane’s prior roles include recurring appearances on CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries. As for Ms. Kalamanski, Mr. Ritschel said she is “one of the funniest comedians you could possibly want.”

The theatre’s office and carpentry staff are working together on the panto’s set. They collaborated to construct props and paint set pieces. He said that with a break between the end of Lighthouse Festival’s summer season and the panto’s debut, the whole staff wanted to collaborate “hands on.”

“That’s the beauty of theatre—it’s the most team-oriented kind of process,” he said.

Sir Ian Mekellen appeared in a panto of Mother Goose.
Sir Ian Mekellen appeared in a panto of Mother Goose.

Mr. Ritschel has plans for more pantos to come, including Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, but whether they happen depends on how their first panto does. “It’s now up to the audience to show up or we can’t do it again,” he said. “It’s an expensive gamble.”

Nevertheless, he predicts Jack and the Beanstalk—The Panto will be a hit, and tickets for future pantos at Lighthouse Theatre will be the hardest to get. He hopes to make holiday pantos an annual tradition for the theatre.

“Let’s all have some fun to close this [year] out,” he said.

To learn more about or purchase tickets for the panto, visit www.lighthousetheatre.com/event/jack-and-the-beanstalk/. Tickets can also be bought at the box office in the Main Street lobby at Lighthouse Theatre.

Originally published on November 1, 2023

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