Sunday, 18 March 2018

Life is a Pantomime

I love a challenge and I also believe that we all have the capability and opportunities to create our own challenges in life. As a photojournalist and a writer I'm always looking out for new challenges that 'fire the imagination' and that present me with the opportunity to do something a bit different.

At the end of 2016 I was staying with a group of friends in Pitlochry in the Scottish Highlands. I love theatre and in various ways have been involved with drama for much of my life. The purpose of our stay was to see several plays at the amazing Pitlochry Festival Theatre. It was during that visit that a comment was made about our local church in Annan and some problems it had been having with roof leaks. The conversation turned to how difficult it is for churches to raise money in this day and age of dwindling congregations. We had a discussion about the usual fundraising ideas but it was later that night that I came up with the idea of writing a play that could be put on within the church hall and may attract a wider audience.

The church has a good singing group and previously had a good drama group of which I had once been a member. It had several good musicians and was also rather go-ahead in its approach - something often lacking in small communities. We bandied the idea around and took it back to the minister and others. It was met with great enthusiasm and over the course of a few weeks I wrote the 'musical play' All Aboard the Ark and took on board - pardon the pun - the opportunity to direct the production. As the project developed it was suggested that instead of putting it on in the church hall which was rather restrictive in its layout we should use the church itself. This expanded the possibilities for a far bigger theatre-type production and that in turn led to a wider church-based community project.

Essentially, the play was the bible story of Noah's Ark told through drama and music in a light-hearted and humorous way. We had a four piece band, a backing choir of sixteen persons and a cast of eight with several incidental characters. As the project grew we had a costume designer and a sewing team, set designers and constructors, a technical team including lighting and sound systems along with special effects and a make up team charged with creating animal faces. The production ended up with a team of around 60-70 people with an age range of 8-80 years! As rehearsals got under way someone suggested that it was rather like a pantomime. It had never been intended as a pantomime but with a bit of tweaking it did become more pantomime in nature and ended up being billed as such. Unsure how many would attend such a production or if it would be well received the show was put on for two nights only. It was a sell out and after the first night's performance people were trying to get tickets to come back and see it again.

The project was such a success that I was asked if we could do it again and if I would write and direct another production. So it was that over the summer months of 2017 I wrote a sequel - Mercy Buckets in Noah's Park. Having told the story of Noah's Ark the previous year I wanted to explore how we actually treat animals and the world around us. This time I wanted to fully embrace the medium of pantomime because it appeals to a wide audience. I wanted to embrace the team spirit that we had created the previous year and to use the immense resources and talent that it had become obvious existed within the church community.

Mercy Buckets in Noah's Park is a moral tale about a modern-day safari park developed on the actual landing site of Noah's Ark. At first it seems that all of the animals and the visitors to the park are having a great time in an atmosphere of holiday sunshine. But all is not as it seems and behind the scenes the mad professor who runs the park is using the animals to conduct experiments for cosmetic companies, drug companies, food suppliers, government bodies and weapons testing - not to mention genetic research.

As in all good pantomimes the baddie eventually gets his comeuppance and good overturns evil. It isn't always like that in real life and although I wanted people to be entertained and to have a family night out with lots of singing and laughter - which they did have - I also wanted them to leave thinking about the planet that we all inhabit and how we treat it.

Mercy Buckets in Noah's Park was without a doubt the most challenging thing I've ever done in terms of writing and producing a full stage production. I enjoy the challenge of writing for the stage because you see your words come alive in unexpected ways. As a director you have clear ideas of how you want the production to look and feel but as you add in costumes, make-up, lighting and sound it starts to take on a life of its own. I love it when actors bring something of themselves to the characters that a writer creates. In some ways writing it was the easy part - producing and directing it was much more challenging! Thanks to a great team of wonderful people we got there in the end and have just completed a three night run attended by more than 450 people.

It made me realise that people are the most important asset that any community can have and although it may take a bit of persuasion, when everyone gets involved and there is an exciting goal ahead then giant beanstalks from little beans can grow!

Articles and photography copyright of Tom Langlands

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