Pantomime: Starting a new script

Last year I was given the chance to write and direct my local Amateur Dramatics group’s yearly Pantomime. We did Treasure Island, and it went very well. It was a fantastic experience for me, and the first time I’d written and directed in many years. My one regret is that I didn’t record any of the journey. I don’t often feel the need to broadcast my experiences, but in this case it would have been helpful – for myself, if for no one else.

Well, it seems they’d like me to write and direct again (formal decision pending), so I’m preempting it all, and I’ve already started on a second script. That’s what I want to write about on this blog. At this stage I don’t want to talk about the specifics (for instance I feel weird actually naming the story I’ve picked at this point), it’s more the process I want to talk about and remember.

I’ve already made a fair amount of progress with the plotting (which is the bit I like and do best – it’s the actual writing I hate), so here’s a flashback to what I’ve done so far.

The inspiration came from the idea of combining a traditional panto with a modern genre. Kind of like “What is you combined Cinderella with A beautiful mind and it turned out the whole thing was in her head” – Not that idea specifically (it would be way too downer for a village panto), but suffice to say it was a combination that got me excited. I think that is the key. You need to get a buzz off the potential of the idea. No matter how much it turns into trash later. A story with a genre I like, combined with a complementary category of twist/idea that I like.

Next I started a fresh notebook, which is a must for me. Last year I discovered something personal about my writing style. I need to write by hand with a pen in a book. And I need plenty of white space to fill with thoughts. Tried on laptop, and didn’t do it for me. I can of course write that way, but it ends up being turgid. I block up quicker, and the typing is enough of a distraction (even though I work with computers every day) that I didn’t disappear into the writing. It’s just a me thing, but important.

Next came a lot of free form ideas – pure lists of associations. Fantasies of what we might do. We could have horses, jugglers, wouldn’t it be great if there was an animated griffin. What if the main character could do a bank heist. Just lots of random ideas. All written down with no judgement. I also added constraints I should consider. We have a more female cast than male. We have fewer performers in the middle age bracket. We hope to have more kids this year. It can’t be too long. We have restricted space. Last year scene changes were an issue (I put them in bad places). I also started to free form add idea for visual things that might work, and things that might be funny. What if the character Buttons was called zippers, or if the Ugly sisters pronounced there names “Oooglay” to cover it up. (No it’s not Cinderella – just examples). Last year as I wrote I had a section in the script I called the cutting room floor. I put any jokes I found in there. By the end there was tonnes of rubbish that never made it in, but it was good to have that pile to go to, and pull stuff out.

OK – so as I free formed over a couple of days, some ideas started to crystalise. Particularly around how it would be possible to pull of the main idea of combining two genres (Beautiful minded Cinderella – but not that).  I drew a lot of mind map/tree maps (ideas lined to other ideas) on how things might flow, and came up fairly quickly with two possible halves to the story. At this stage very general. Here’s the kind of thing I’m talking about – First Act Cinderella as normal, but in first half have one or two moments outside of reality – include some item that is incongruous to the genre, or one scene that is repeated identically – End with loosing shoe on steps. Second half Cinderella all up and excited, but no one has heard of the ball, and it’s her welly that is missing. – I’m not doing Cinderella, and my outline was more detailed/better – but not much.

OK… From that point I could see where there was meat and where there wasn’t. I could see that it desperately needed a clever device to satisfy my idea. (how do we transition Cinders into madness for example). So I put some effort into the guts of that. In my case I needed to work out how a heist could be pulled off (can’t talk about this without giving away that much). I did plenty of thinking, but the most useful exercise was drawing a map of location in question, and filling in lots of extraneous detail. I don’t intend for the map to be part of the show, but it did give me ideas about what was in that location that I could use, and from that came a breakthrough. In the Cinderella idea I think the equivalent might be a map of where she lives, and maybe a days itinerary. 5am Woken up by rooster, 15 mins by herself to get up. Probably no water in the house, so just pulling on clothes, or maybe sleeps in clothes. First down into the kitchen, so cold. Sticks already collected the night before for the fire. Maybe hoping the coals from previous night remain. When fire going then first task to draw water from outside, probably a well. Would need shoes, would need bucket. etc. This exercise is a fishing trip. Have to see what jumps out, but no guarantees. I’m thinking in this example maybe Cinders morning depends so much on what gets done the night before, maybe one of the people she imagines in her head says he’ll do the work for her, so she can go to bed, then in the morning it’s not done at all. That kind of thing. The output is a mechanism to drive story.

In the real script I collected 3 or 4 mechanisms over a couple of weeks. Next came characters. The mechanisms suggested a collection of required characters (so in our example Cinders would need someone to say he’d help out with the nighttime tasks – so maybe that’s the Buttons character). Also the story has some required characters (Cinders, prince, sisters etc). Then there are some character ideas that I think would be funny (someone who says nothing understandable, someone who smells). I had enough story structure that I could make a list of cast members, and importantly compare it to a very rough and impossible list of who we have in our Am Dram group. For instance we currently only have 4 men. This again give a very rough map of where we were. From this I could see where we looked good and where we were lacking.

I repeated the rough skeleton exercise for scenes and scenery. I made a rough draft of scenes needed to carry the story as it was, stage sets, major props etc. I also compared that to the list of funny things I’d like to happen (panto cow, someone getting bucket of water on head etc), and panto things that we needed (sing along with audience, ghost scene, trap door moment etc).

So far the process has felt a lot like sculpting. Very general shape (the silhouette). Then mark in major details (head, hand, legs, arms). Then create a palette of detailed ideas (skin textures, eye shapes, hair effects) – but not married to any of them. Now I’m at the stage when I need to start making solid decisions; those eyes, with that kind of hair etc.

Hmmm… This is where I’m at. I need to make some solid high level decisions, so I can start to build. But I’m still clawing away with a few more ideas, in the hope that one of them will unify the whole thing. I’m also at a stage where making a decision will involve getting rid of bad ideas. Some of which I’m already invested in, but which might not be the best. This is a part I’m not good at. Listening to my inner editor.

I’m also very aware that in the writing ideas will come out and the whole thing will flex and change. At this point I only have very basic ideas around character motivation, and I’m a huge believer in that (what do people want). I also know that characters must be able to react freely. So everything to this point is bubble gum and tape that might well get thrown away. But I need it to make sure I have a general map and will hit enough of the stuff that I need to make it happen.

OK… enough for now. More when I get there.




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