‘Just a good time for ev­ery­body’

Diana Bishop writes a panto piece for the Nor­wich stage

The Day - - DAYBREAK - By KRISTINA DORSEY Day Staff Writer

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.”

SARAH GOR­DON/THE DAY

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.

SARAH GOR­DON/THE DAY

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.”

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