With Aladdin putting wide smiles on the happy faces of Poole's panto audiences, in the latest of our occasional series looking at the range of different jobs and roles at Lighthouse, Head of Programming Tim Colegate lifts the lid on the lot of the producer.
What do theatre producers do? In short everything. If it needs to be done they’re the people to get it done. If something’s wrong it’s their job to fix it; if all goes well and everybody’s happy then it’s their job to stay in the shadows and join in the applause for those on stage.
Following Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and Happy Ever After, the special show created for Covid times, this is the fourth year in a row that Lighthouse has produced its own pantomime – a wonderful, thoroughly 21st century take on Aladdin. By the end of its run, more people will have seen this show than any of the others.
That hasn’t happened by accident – the curtain didn’t go up to reveal a ready made smash hit, far from it. Creating a panto that improves on the Best Panto Award-nominated Cinderella has taken months of hard work by scores of people, but it started with the producers – namely, Chief Executive Elspeth McBain and Head of Programming Tim Colegate.
The buck starts and stops with them.
“It’s fair to say that being the producer isn’t for someone who wants regular validation and acclaim,” says Tim, in reflective mood between shows.
“It’s nice to get a ‘well done’, but we leave the spotlight stuff to the actors. If the production is running smoothly, everything is as it should be and it’s being appreciated and is financially successful, then that’s probably the best indicator that the producer has done a good job. If not, then it very quickly falls back to the producer to fix it.”
Panto is the one show a year that Lighthouse makes itself. As a receiving house, for the rest of the year it curates a programme of available work, some of which it might have a hand in commissioning, but mostly it is made elsewhere. The decision to bring panto in-house was partly creative – Lighthouse has complete artistic control over the show – and partly financial, in that it retains the income it generates.
“The flip side is that we also pay for everything, so the risk sits entirely on our shoulders,” explains Tim. “On one hand it’s a riskier strategy than engaging an outside company to make panto for us, but the rewards far outweigh the risks – panto is possibly the safest bet of the year.”
The producers – Elspeth and Tim, supported by Programming Executive Ashton Corbin – engage a creative team to deliver the production. For the last four years the core of that has been writer/director Chris Jarvis, production designer James Smith, musical supervisor Darren Reeves, musical director Adam Tuffrey and choreographer Daniel Donaldson Todd.
Work starts on a production up to 18 months before the opening night. By the time each panto opens, the producers will have decided on the following year’s show and put a lot of practical planning in place in terms of scheduling performances, rehearsals and ticket pricing and sharing that information with the necessary teams. Attention turns to the more creative aspects early in the new year when script ideas start to take shape, which then inform the production design. There are sets to be hired and other elements that may need to be built.
As script meetings become more regular, attention turns to casting and pulling together a marketing plan, creating a mini-brand around the look of the pantomime. There’s always a lot riding on the outcome in terms of reputation and income generation, but this year the planning process has been particularly rigorous.
“Quite rightly there has been such a discourse in the industry around how to present Aladdin in a way that is culturally appropriate and, obviously, we want to get it right,” says Tim.
“The easiest thing would have been to do something less contentious, but we made a conscious decision to proceed and there’s no reason we can’t do it properly in a way that’s culturally appropriate and I think we’ve achieved that.
“Getting it right is hugely important to us because it’s ours, we make it and we hope it’s something everyone at Lighthouse can be proud of. That’s why panto probably takes up more time of the year than Elspeth and I would like to admit; that’s why we see the show multiple times, because ultimately it falls very much on our shoulders; and that’s why there’s a small grieving process to go through when it finishes and we have to say goodbye.”
Tim reckons he’ll have seen Aladdin 15 or 16 times by the end of its run on New Year’s Eve. Luckily, he loves panto…
“It’s growing on me!” he laughs.
“Of course we enjoy it. When you love it you are less inhibited and the creativity flows better and people are willing to put the hard work in so you get a better output. We’re really happy with how panto is working out.”
But what he’s most pleased about is the way the words ‘A Lighthouse Poole Production’ above the title of each pantomime have come to indicate a house-style.
“I think our panto has established an identity. It’s story-driven with a strong comedy element that Chris is great at creating. We have a great music mix and special effects that create a wow factor. I think people are starting to learn what the Lighthouse style of panto is, the word is spreading and we’re seeing it reflected in the box office, not just in takings, but in footfall. I don’t think that’s down to people being happier to come out after Covid, it’s because people are appreciating what a Lighthouse panto looks like and they like it and they’re bringing their family and friends.
“We feel like we’ve found our groove and it works for us, we’ve got the formula right and we’re sticking by that for Dick Wittington next year. The big challenge is how to improve on that, but we will, I promise.”
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:: Aladdin runs until New Year’s Eve. Dick Whittington opens on Thursday 12 December 2024 and runs until Sunday 5 January 2025. Tickets are on sale now at https://www.lighthousepoole.co.uk.
Photo by Jayne Jackson Photography