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Carolyn Johnson, director of Panto Wonderful Wizard, chats about all things Panto and Stages!
Carolyn, you're a Panto pro at this point! What do you love about Panto?
I love that there is a particularly direct exchange of energy with the audience in a Panto. In more traditional theatre, you don't often get to engage audience members and allow their input to significantly shape a performance. In addition, Pantos are, simply, pure exuberant fun. I love so many genres of theatre and the fact that, as an artist, you can make people think, or consider an alternate reality, right from the safety of their seat. But there's nothing like just making people laugh. We may slip in a more serious idea or two, but for the most part, Panto is about tapping into the kid in each of us, reminding us what it's like to just let go and enjoy. I rarely laugh more than when I'm involved with a Panto -- whether I'm onstage or in the rehearsal room.
Why is Panto important?
There are so many ways to answer this, really. There is the historical perspective; Panto was really the forerunner to vaudeville, and it's fascinating when you think about where it fits in to the development of theatre as we know it today. It was heavily influenced by the Italian commedia dell'arte and has slowly evolved in England, over the last 300 years or so, to become the art form that is performed each year at hundreds of theatres in the UK and elsewhere. I highly recommend you Google it. There's a ton of terrific information out there. The form of our Pantos differs somewhat from what you'd see in England, as we necessarily have to take into account American (and, in this case, Texan!) culture and the comparative lack of familiarity with Panto here.
In addition, I always try to remember that the Panto may be a child's first experience of The Theatre. That's terribly exciting and important to me. We are, hopefully, planting the seed to grow our future theatre-goers. And the fact that Panto is meant to be accessible to all ages and types means that it casts a much wider net than many other plays. It is truly theatre of and for the people. That's huge.
What is different about Panto Wonderful Wizard?
Well, The Wizard of Oz is one of the few stories I can think of that is so indelibly imprinted on audiences. I mean, who doesn't have a childhood memory of that movie?!? There is such a strong visual and emotional world that was created in that film and it is so beloved. We have to keep that in mind in creating our unique version. You just have to recognize that anything we do up there is a going to draw comparison to the version everyone knows. That can either work to our advantage or disadvantage, I suppose. I choose to think it's a good thing.
What's your first Stages memory?
Hmmm...The first time I walked into Stages, I was attending the play, Elizabeth Rex, soon after we moved to Houston from Chicago. I loved the production and hoped I'd get to work at Stages at some point. The first show I did at Stages was The Great American Trailer Park Musical, back in 2006ish. That was a really special production. Great group of people, good casting, clever show, great audiences. It ended up running for nearly 10 months, so it was a significant period in my creative life! It was just one of those lovely experiences that comes along once in a great while...
What's your favorite moment at Stages?
When I played the evil stepmother in the first Panto at Stages, Panto Cinderella, there was a performance early on that had a large percentage of kids -- 3rd graders, I think. I entered the stage and the expected booing started and grew -- and then one particularly exuberant little boy in the second row stood up in his seat and leaned forward, shouting, "WE HAAAATE YOU!!!" It was one of the most visceral reactions to a character onstage that I've ever encountered. He was so committed. So funny. I nearly laughed aloud onstage. I tell that story often. Not polite, I suppose. But, I didn't get the impression he'd yell that at, say, his schoolmates. I was The Evil Stepmother, after all.
Another very different favorite moment was on the opening night of End of The Rainbow earlier this year. Playing Judy Garland was such an unforeseen gift; so challenging, and I really wasn't sure what the response would be to this very private thing we'd created. I was really nervous. But, finally allowing an audience in to the show was just incredible. I had no idea what to expect, and it was simply an overwhelming night. I'll never forget it.
Photo: Carolyn Johnson in Stages' first panto, Panto Cinderella (2008).