Creating the fairy-tale escape

As Christmas Panto season gets underway, Teodor Reljic sits down for a chat with MADC’s own artistic director Marylou Coppini, who has this year also taken charge of scripting duties for the company’s annual panto – Cinderella

Marylou Coppini (inset) and double the dame(s): Michael Mangion (left) as Dulcey and Jean Pierre Busuttil as Duda
Marylou Coppini (inset) and double the dame(s): Michael Mangion (left) as Dulcey and Jean Pierre Busuttil as Duda

How excited were you to get back to scripting panto, and why did you think Cinderella was a particularly good one to attempt?

Yes, very excited, in fact. As artistic director of MADC, I have assessed and sometimes tweaked the scripts of other panto writers and so I suppose I looked forward to the satisfaction of getting back to doing the job myself... though I had forgotten that tweaking other people’s scripts is much easier than creating your own! But in the long run, I enjoy a challenge, and my fingers are crossed that I’ve succeeded in giving the actors something good to work with – and with the director’s input I’m almost positive that it really is a super pantomime!

I thought Cinderella was a particularly good title to attempt because it was time we returned to the fairy tale scene and since it’s been a number of years since it was produced, why not go for the most popular story of all? As an actress, I also looked forward to re-moulding the colourful characters in this story – evil stepmothers, ghastly nasty stepsisters, handsome princes, fairy godmothers, and so on – and also, if the truth is to be told, I’m also an incurable romantic and what story is more romantic than Cinderella?

What would you say are some of the fundamental ‘rules’ of writing panto, beyond the most obvious, established conventions that form an integral part of the panto tradition?

I can tell you that the fundamental rules that went through my mind as I tussled with this script over the past months were to make sure that the script flows smoothly, while having lots of variety and music and magic and also integrating fun moments for audiences of all ages. Another thing to watch out for is making sure characters are well developed, making them seem as authentic as possible.

 

And speaking of tradition, how would you describe the history of the MADC panto in particular? What kind of role would you say it has played in the Maltese theatre scene all these years?

The club’s first production was, in fact, a pantomime at the Manoel Theatre in 1910. But after that the club’s pantomime was shelved for quite some time because, apart from two world wars (!) I suspect, the British services in Malta used to put on their own pantos which meant this particular niche was filled for English-speaking audiences of the time.  I remember as a tiny child being taken to see my first pantomime, probably put on by members of the Royal Navy, at a theatre on Manoel Island in the early fifties (the building still stands). And it was not until the Ariel Players (from the Royal Airforce) started to put on pantos at the Manoel in the mid-seventies that the MADC decided to take over from these after their departure from Malta.

Rachael Tedesco Triccas as Cinderella
Rachael Tedesco Triccas as Cinderella

Cinderella in 1979 was the first of the current series of nearly 40 annual MADC pantomimes up to the present day. The role this tradition has played in the Malta theatrical scene has been tremendous. I think it is safe to say that the numerous pantomimes in both Maltese and English that are now taking place every Christmas in Malta have all branched out from the success of the MADC pantomime tradition. Apart from planting the seed for numerous pantos, it is also important to remember that for most children, panto is their very first theatre experience!

Given how panto tends to also respond to topical prompts – while of course remaining lighthearted throughout – how did you choose to tackle the satirical element of it this time around, given the tumultuous events that occurred this year?

As you say, panto is a lighthearted romp aimed at all the family. Troubles should be left at the theatre door and audiences should relax by enjoying two hours of silliness. While panto has always had elements of  social commentary, it was never the vehicle for hard-hitting satire, so we pepper topical jokes along with the rest. Having said that Panto is also a time when we pull each other’s legs – including our own!

What do you make of the local theatrical scene in general? What would you change about it?

The local theatrical scene has widened enormously in the past ten years and it’s good to see numerous new small groups vying with established companies to produce plays of a high standard and experimenting with lesser known venues instead of the Manoel and Spazju Kreattiv since these two are now concentrating more on music and new works by local playwrights.

However, for a number of reasons, I believe that currently the number of theatre groups is seeming to have grown at a far greater rate than that of paying audiences so the whole atmosphere has become quite cut-throat, with producers now not only ‘fighting’ over good leading actors (mostly males) but also over our limited pool of patrons!

While panto has always had elements of social commentary, it was never the vehicle for hard-hitting satire

More needs to be done to attract people to the theatre – including visitors or foreigners who live in Malta – to support our productions. Decent, affordable late night transport would help enormously!  Since Valletta has permanently become the capital of culture in Malta in any year (not just 2018) we need to nurture this in every possible way, not least among them by providing accessible transport to major towns and villages late at night.

What’s next for you?

My duties within the management committee of MADC take up a lot of my time but it’s a challenge I enjoy, and which has become easier with the increased number of experienced directors and actors making it all a bit easier to tackle! For us, a successful season means six productions including an annual Panto, Shakespeare and One Act Play Festival – all of which involve numerous cast members and backstage crew. On a personal level, I am looking forward to a nice part in an upcoming play at the Manoel next year. You aren’t rid of me yet!

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