‘Just a good time for everybody’
Diana Bishop writes a panto piece for the Norwich stage
After teaching high school for eight years in Illinois, Diana Bishop hopped across the pond for a bit, teaching at an American school in England and Scotland from 1977 to 1980.
It was there that she first saw a performing arts genre beloved by the Brits but relatively unknown in the U.S.: panto.
These musical comedy stage productions are always based on fairy tales and boast broad humor. They’re performed during the Christmas season but aren’t typically holiday themed. While the shows are different each year, certain conventions remain, such as local references.
“Living (in Great Britain) for three years, panto is hard to avoid because every big or little theater does one, and they’re on TV,” Bishop says. “It’s an ancient
art updated. It goes way back to Roman pantomimes, and then commedia dell’arte. … It sort of solidified into the form we have now. It’s just a good time for everybody, and everybody gets to be a noisy kid (thanks to the audience interaction that’s encouraged). The supposedly stuffy Brits just eat it up. I thought, ‘Wow, this would go in the United States, too.’”
Indeed, she says that “it’s not the typical Christmas fare that we’re used to.”
At least until recently: audiences in this region are now becoming familiar with it.
Last year, Bishop, who lives in New London, spearheaded the idea of presenting a panto here. The result was “Cinderella at the Christmas Ball: A Panto,” which was written collaboratively, with Bishop doing a basic draft that was expanded upon primarily by Faye Ringel and Jim Kenney.
The show premiered in December 2017 at the Norwich Arts Center’s Donald L. Oat Theater, and word of mouth was apparently good. Tickets sold more and more as the run went along, and its last weekend sold out, Bishop recalls.
With that positive reaction in mind, Bishop set about writing a new piece for 2018. “Snow White & the Several Dwarves: A Christmas Panto” starts its run Dec. 14 at the NAC’s Donald L. Oat Theater.
Bishop connected with NAC through her friend Mary Kay Kelleher, who is on the NAC board and who directs and plays the Queen in “Snow White & the Several Dwarves,” and through Ringel, who was music director for last year’s production.
As the title “Snow White & the Several Dwarves” would suggest, the current show features Snow White (played by Melanie Scott). She is abandoned in the forest and rescued by the dwarves. But the story also boasts other characters, including an effusive, emotionally overwrought cook and a butler who once had dreams of being
an entertainer; they are among the few people left around the alienating Queen. (George Blair plays the butler, and John Lamar the cook.)
There is also the magic mirror (played by Dale Magnuson), who's a catalyst for change. The mirror says, “People need to see their true selves by looking into me,” and the mirror eventually helps the Queen.
“When I came to write the play, I didn't want bad things to happen to the Queen because she was a baddie. I wanted her to come from the dark side to the light. I wanted her to be transformed and redeemed,” Bishop says. “It turns out there's a very strong anti-bullying message in the whole play, too, and that's in keeping with our director and Queen, who has been working with Bully Busters in Norwich for several years.”
Familiar holiday songs will be performed as part of the production but with newly penned lyrics. “Walking in a winter wonderland,” for example, becomes “Living in a panto storyland.”
Talking about panto in general, Bishop says, “It's the perfect first theatrical performance for children because the audience is encouraged to interact, there's a lot of ad-libbing with the characters and the audience, and there are certain set pieces.
“For instance, when the actors onstage supposedly are unaware of some looming danger behind them, the audience shouts out, ‘Look behind you!' The baddie will say, ‘I didn't do that,' and the audience will say, ‘Oh, yes, you did.' … So kids don't have to be constrained too much. If they happen to blurt out something, it'll be right in keeping with the spirit of the show.”
From teaching to theater
After her years teaching, Bishop worked in information technology at Electric Boat from 1981 to 1995 and then in computer support at the Coast Guard Academy from 1995 to 2013. She is retired now.
Bishop has long been involved with local theater and has acted, including in productions at the Coast Guard Academy.
She and Kelleher studied with playwright Michael Bradford when he was teaching solo performance classes through the Garde Arts Center years ago, Bishop recalls. They met Denise Abercrombie there, and the three women formed the Stage Left Ensemble. They performed various pieces around the region, including Jane Martin's “Vital Signs,” which they did in Willimantic, at the Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich, and — at the request of author Wally Lamb, who teaches writing at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic — at York, which Bishop calls an amazing experience with the best audiences ever.
Bradford also produced two performances of Bishop's solo cabaret show, “Great Big Woman,” at the Branford Mansion at UConn Avery Point in 2002.
Before the panto, Bishop hadn't felt moved to write plays. After collaborating on 2017's production, her ideas began percolating last December, and the script came pretty easily, she recalls.
A panto, she says, “is just a simple, happy evening. We can all use that right about now.”
George Blair, right, as Muggles, hands a bouquet of flowers to John Lamar, as Cook Dumpling, during a dress rehearsal of “Snow White & the Several Dwarves: A Christmas Panto” at the Donald L. Oat Theater in Norwich.
Melanie Scott, as Snow White, talks with a horse character named Harry Trotter in a rehearsal of “Snow White & the Several Dwarves: A Christmas Panto.”