Seán Spillane, the backstage technician at the Everyman theatre in Cork, has worked in the shadows of the Christmas panto for 20 years, though this year he feared he would not be doing so.
With theatres ordered to shut by 8pm under the latest pandemic restrictions, the Everyman has two performances daily at 2pm and 6pm, with the curtains closing at 7.30pm.
Nevertheless, Spillane is putting his best “the show must go on” confront forward.
“We’re just happy that the panto is going ahead,” he says.
Pantomime is entertainment for children but, as Spillane points out, it’s bread and butter for the crew and for the Everyman, which relies on box office sales for 80 per cent of its funding.
The Covid-19 curbs have affected not just the children in the audience, but those who would be on the stage, too. Usually, up to 80 children from CADA Performing Arts grace the stage over the time of a Christmas run in the 650-seater Victorian theatre. This year, the panto has been shortened in length, and there will be no children on stage.
“The panto is not the same without the children,” says Spillane, but acknowledges it is nevertheless better than last year when the panto was shown online.
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“Not the same thing at all,” he says. “There was no air. A live audience is crucial for the performers for the simple reason that the cast feeds off the audience. The louder they are, the better the cast will perform.”
Spillane (61), from Ballyphehane, got started in his role as knew the theatre’s technical manager, who asked him for a hand. He then went on a Fás course which led to a placement at the Everyman, which was supposed to last for a associate of years.
Twenty years later, his job is to ensure that every show runs smoothly with health and safety measures adhered to and the technical crew working to make the theatrical experience magical.
Pantomime is pure magic from the point of view of young children in the auditorium, waving their flashing wands and being entertained by everyone from the dame to the villain. But this year, the panto is missing the contribution of children performing.
Spillane says that in normal years, “it’s easy to identify the kids that are going to stay in the business and go on to work in the West End. There are the ones who are there for the fun and games but then when you see the talent of some of them and watch them progress, you see them getting better roles until ultimately, they’re in the ensemble. Marion Goggin, who is playing the female rule [Jasmine] this year, has been in CADA Performing Arts since she was eight. She’s 18 now, having come up the ranks.”
Former child performers who started out under Catherine Mahon-Buckley’s direction at CADA Performing Arts include Sarah Greene, who won acclaim for playing Helen McCormick in the West End and Broadway productions of The Cripple of Inishmaan.
Behind the scenes
Spillane’s behind-the-scenes work for the pantomime has him responsible for a crew of four. He has to make sure that sets are built correctly and that “trucks”, bringing the various parts of the set on to the stage on wheels, are rolled on and off safely.
“A lot of the work is done in the dark. I have to make sure that nobody is in the way. People don’t realise what goes on backstage. The cast’s costume changes have to be very quick. Props are left on the side stage to be brought on stage,” he says. “There is just so much going on.”
For example, the magic carpet in Aladdin “levitates” about six feet from the stage floor. “There are two people behind the black curtain whom you don’t see. They move the carpet to the left and right. I’m on a kind of chain with a hoist. I press a button to bring it down slowly. That’s all part of the magic. And the lighting and smoke makes it so realistic looking.”
Spillane sees former child performers coming back to the pantomime every year with their own children in tow. “They’re usually in the back row and you can hear them screaming with excitement.”
As for the children that, one hopes, will be back in the pantomime in December 2022, Spillane says they “have stars in their eyes. They might be barely able to sing and are more inclined to put their fingers in their mouth. But they’re excited in their tutus and dazzling costumes. It gives them the ego to go back on stage. They are not afraid of it. Now I have seen children crying on stage but the next year, when they come back, they’re more into it and don’t want to leave the stage.”
Aladdin continues at the Everyman until January 16th
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