Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Snow White Interview with Kris and Bonnie Lythgoe

Kris Lythgoe and Bonnie Lythgoe

Beginning December 12th, Pasadena Playhouse will transform its courtyard into a Winter Wonderland as families gather to celebrate the joy of the holidays. Family members from 1 to 91 will then experience A Snow White Christmas, a traditional British Panto produced by Lythgoe Family Productions that debuts this month at the Playhouse. Filled with magic, comedy, music and audience participation, it is the kind of show that director Bonnie Lythgoe and her son, Kris (who wrote the show), grew up with in England. Putting up a show at any time of the year is hectic but it can be especially crazy with the extra demands December brings. Still, between rehearsals, production meetings, costume calls, and even picking cast members up at the airport, Bonnie and Kris were able to take time to tell us about their new production.

Thank you both for allowing us to see into your magical world today. Let’s start with the basics. What is a panto and how is it different from what we know as musical theatre?

Bonnie: A panto is a fairy story; the kind we all read when we are kids and now, when we are grown up, it’s our fairy stories coming to life. A musical is a different kind of story, like Les Misérables, which isn’t quite for children. It’s more intense. A panto is much more lighthearted and is really more of a family event. And the very big difference is that in musicals you go in and you sit and you watch the musical. In a panto we involve the audience in the show.

In what way do you involve them?

Bonnie: For example, the first thing that happens in A Snow White Christmas is that Muggles, (he’s a kind of comedy character), will come out and look at the kids and say, “Hi gang, do you want to be on my team?” and they’ll answer and he’ll say, “I didn’t hear you.” All of a sudden the kids will chime in louder and say, “Yes we do!” It’s like that all the way through the show. We get them to do things like boo the wicked queen, which they would never do in a musical. Without them we can’t do panto.

It’s truly what we think of as an interactive experience then.

Bonnie: Absolutely. We also use today’s music; songs that are current – like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry – so the kids can sing along. At the end we have a song sheet and we introduce the kids to the characters. Muggles will come out and ask them if they had a good time? Did mummy and daddy come with you? Who did you like the best? We actually make sure that the children feel really part of the whole show. 

It sounds like great fun.

Bonnie: Yes, in the UK it’s tradition as we go into the Christmas holiday time that you go to the panto, and every show in the UK is nearly sold out. It’s something we all do with our families and then after that we have Christmas and celebrate our holiday. I used to drag my two sons with me while I was working and I’d sit them in the orchestra pit and then I’d go and choreograph or direct a show and they grew up loving it.

Kris, as one of those kids in the orchestra pit, what was it like for you being part of it as a child?

Kris: It was wonderful growing up around the theatre. My father actually wrote pantos as a hobby so it was very much a whole family involvement. My dad would write them and my mum would direct them. I would sit in the meetings and experience it from my dad’s point of view; then I would sit in the theatre every day either in the orchestra pit playing with the pianist or with the musical director, and watch it all come to life. It was unbelievable for me.

At what point did you decide to begin writing your own pantos?

Kris: I think it was when my son, George, was born. He was born 5 years ago and we’ve been in Los Angeles for 8 years now. I love everything about L.A. and Pasadena but, for me, after I finished taking my son to places like the Petersen Museum and Travel Town and Kidspace Children’s Museum, there wasn’t something that the family could go and enjoy in the way of theatre. And I missed it. I always had a passion inside me to write but I didn’t know where that passion would take me. So the inspiration definitely came from my son. 

What was the first panto you wrote?

Kris: It was Cinderella, which is kind of known as the golden egg. It’s the rags to riches story and the most popular fairy tale amongst panto people in the UK so we went with the Cinderella story to see if it would catch on. Then last year we did Snow White and we actually did Cinderella again so all in all this is going to be our 4th production.

Is this a tradition that you hope to continue in Pasadena?

Kris: Absolutely. We signed a 10-year deal with the Pasadena Playhouse to bring panto to the Playhouse every Christmas and next year we’re already planning to do Aladdin. As mum said, pantos are always based on fairy tales everybody knows and loves. Peter Pan is another one.

Bonnie: Peter Pan was my very first panto that I saw when I was 3 years old. I can still remember how magical it was.

Are your versions based on the same stories we know?

Kris: We stick to something like JM Barrie’s book and script for Peter Pan and it’s the same for Aladdin as well. Everyone knows Aladdin from a Disney perspective and they do an amazing job, but the panto is very different from the point of view of characters. In the panto version Aladdin has a brother, which of course isn’t in the Disney version. So there’s quite a bit of difference in the fairy tales. 

Pantos also often have celebrities in the cast too, don’t they?

Bonnie: Yes, we love to have a star. In England we bring over an American star, like Patrick Duffy who was wonderful as Baron Hardup in Cinderella for me in London. For Snow White, we have Neil Patrick Harris playing our Magic Mirror and he is amazing. Charlene Tilton from Dallas is our Wicked Queen, and Ariana Grande, from the Nickelodeon show Victorious, is our lovely Snow White.

You also auditioned children to play the seven dwarfs in this production. What kind of an audition process did they go through?

Bonnie: It was really interesting. Hundreds of children came along and one of the things I noticed is that the difference between British kids and American kids is that here talent is readily available. You have more confident kids here. And it’s not an easy audition. I make them dance first, and then I make them read, and I am really professional with them. I make them all have their scripts and they go home and learn them. I quite like the thought of having kids as dwarfs. I think it’s good for young people to understand theatre and work with professional people. If you use children in shows you have to adapt them to what the show is all about. I work with them before the rest of the cast even comes in to get them up to scratch so that they are believable. I don’t let them get away with anything. They’re playing the part of a dwarf so they’ve got to be really real. I want the children who come to watch Snow White to really believe in the characters they’re playing. 

In a way it’s a little bit like a So You Think You Can Dance audition isn’t it?

Bonnie: [Laughing] Yes, well you know I do that in Australia. It’s very much like that and I think really because I’ve always taken auditions and booked people into shows, I want them to be good. And these kids are really good. They’re really fun.

Your company is all about providing family entertainment. What do you hope to accomplish with projects like these? 

Kris: Our biggest drive really is to introduce families to theatre. There’s great theatre obviously here and the talent is unbelievable in L.A., but a lot of it is not affordable theatre. We do $99 tickets for a whole family and that makes it affordable for them to come.

It was very evident to me years ago, and it actually stems from television. When American Idol first came over, my father used to say the reason he believed the show was so successful was because it’s one of the few television shows where three generations could watch it together and get different aspects from it. You’ll see a young kid sixteen years old who used to flip burgers on the show singing a Peggy Lee song that the grandmother still likes and everyone can watch it together – grandparents, parents and children. That’s something we’re trying to replicate in theatre. We’re trying to open up theatre doors so that families can come together. It’s a safe environment for grandparents to be able to take their grandkids for a Christmas present,

Why do you think it’s so important to introduce children to theatre at a young age?

Kris: I think you’ve got to establish with kids that theatre is not a strange place. It’s something that they can come to and enjoy. And hopefully it will benefit theatre in the long term because when they’re older they will think, let’s go see Anything Goes or Grease because they’ve already been to the theatrical environment and it’s not foreign to them. They’ve already seen what can be offered in the theatre.

Do you think it also stimulates their own personal creativity?

Kris: 100%. I’m on the board of Save the Arts in LAUSD. We do a big concert performance every year where we basically strive to stop the budget cuts in the arts across the school district. We all know that money is tight but it’s so frustrating when you hear that the arts are the first to be cut because not every child will become a scientist or a mathematician. Kids need the ability to express themselves in other avenues. I can’t tell you how important it is.

One of the things my mum didn’t tell you is that she was also head of a stage school when I was growing up. She was kind of like the equivalent of Julliard so I grew up seeing kids coming through that school that wouldn’t go to a normal school. It was almost like the Fame academy. You would see these kids growing up from 7 or 8 years old to 18 and they would develop these skills that if there were no arts they would just be lost souls. So I think it’s imperative that kids are introduced to theatre.

Your new partnership with Pasadena Playhouse seems to be a good fit for you.

Bonnie: When you do a panto you want the right theater. We all fell in love with the Playhouse the minute we saw it. I think it’s the most beautiful place. 

Kris: And the people are great here. Sheldon Epps and Charles and the whole team have been so supportive. We invited Sheldon to come and see Snow White last year at the El Portal. He did and within a week he came back to us and said, I want this show at the Pasadena Playhouse. He believes, like we believe, that families need theatre. And it really is a beautiful theater. It’s got such a magical feel to it and it’s an absolute honor and a privilege to be here. It truly is.

Bonnie: We hope everyone will join us and start a new holiday tradition with our Pantos at the Playhouse. We all want something special in a holiday time and at Christmas and I think the best thing is to be able to bring families and friends to see a show that everybody will love; to come in and have two hours of beautiful moments where the adults can go back to childhood and children can just be who they are.

A Snow White Christmas
December 12 – 30, 2012
Lythgoe Family Productions @ Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101
Tickets: (626) 356-7529 

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