Brad Fitt: Pantomime Practitioner and Producer
Simon Sladen speaks to producer and pantomime practitioner Brad Fitt about his theatrical career.
Described as one of the best Dames in the country by The Sunday Telegraph, Brad Fitt’s Dame has brought panto joy to audiences in Cambridge and now Shrewsbury, where this year record sales saw a third of all pantomime tickets sold by October. A respected pantomime practitioner, Fitt has been writing, directing and performing in pantomime for over a decade, but spending the festive period in a fat suit and watching out for ghosts behind him wasn’t always on the cards.
Fitt’s career has seen him perform almost every role in the theatre. “I trained as a stage manager and I was a stage manager and a company manager for about ten years,” he tells me. It was in this role as company manager that Fitt met and worked for Christopher Biggins and it was Biggins who introduced him to the world of pantomime.
The two worked on five pantomimes together at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, where Fitt often wrote “bits and pieces” for Biggins and contributed “the odd joke here and there” to the script. When Biggins finished at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, it fell on Fitt to continue the tradition.
“The then chief executive asked me if I would write the following year’s pantomime, which I did,” Fitt explains. “Having never written before, I gave it a go, but it was slightly easier as I used to write stuff for Chris [Biggins].” After Fitt had submitted his script, the chief executive invited him to take on even more pantomime responsibilities. Not only did he want Fitt to write, but he also wanted him to direct the show as well.
“I sort of fell into it,” Fitt tells me. “I said to them that I didn’t want to be a director as I wouldn’t know what to do and they said ‘Well you must know in your head what happens?’ So that’s when I started writing and directing.”
Having written and directed the Cambridge Arts pantomime for three consecutive seasons, it was soon time for Fitt to take the next step, this time into the spotlight. “I had sort of got known in Cambridge for writing and directing and the then chief exec asked myself and the choreographer if we would consider being Ugly Sisters.” Cinderella’s choreographer, Scott Ritchie, was keen on the idea, having been a successful performer, but Fitt found himself in an all too familiar situation. He’d relished writing and directing, was performing now the next thing to tick off on the list? “I’d never been on stage before,” he says, “I thought it was a terrible idea.”
Fitt trained at the Bristol Old Vic and although his stage management course required him to act in small project pieces, he had never “properly” acted before, let alone in front of a paying audience.
“I’d never been on stage before, I’d never done anything like it before,” he tells me. “They asked me and I kept saying ‘no’ and the only way I said I’d do it was if we auditioned.” Fitt had written a short scene between the Ugly Sisters and Cinderella and so he and Ritchie auditioned along with the potential principal girls.
2007’s Cinderella marked Fitt’s first pantomime with credits as writer, director and performer. I ask him whether the experience was even more nerve-wracking, knowing that he’d be confronted with the audience’s reaction first hand?
“It was terrifying!” Fitt recalls. “I remember we made our entrance from the back of the stalls and we were either side in these little vestibule things. We could hear Buttons doing his bit and it was the first time we’d done it and it was a full house of 700 people!”
However, once onstage Fitt relaxed and all was fine. “I was never nervous from that point on,” he chuckles. “I think the good thing about being Dame is that you’re so far removed from yourself. You’re sort of hidden by so much stuff, the costume, the make-up, it’s like being a different person in a way.”
Last year Fitt’s Dame debuted at the Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, having spent ten years being involved with the annual Cambridge Arts Theatre pantomime. He has fond memories of the theatre and its audiences, but it was time to move on. Fitt doesn’t write the productions at Shrewsbury as he now works for Evolution Productions, where producer Paul Hendy writes the script, but Fitt still plays Dame and directs.
Fitt explains that performing and directing is often difficult to juggle, especially when directing one’s own scenes. However, the dual role is made even more difficult as a director’s job is never done...
“When you finish and all the other actors go off to have a coffee and run through their lines in another room, you’re onto the next thing,” Fitt says, before admitting that he’s often the last to learn his lines for this very reason.
Although Fitt no longer writes for Cambridge, he is still the pantomime writer in residence at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon where 2012 marks his fifth for director, choreographer, producer and performer Simon Fielding. This year’s pantomime is Peter Pan and although Fitt began writing in March, he admits that he’s not the most disciplined of writers.
“I’m terrible!” he laughs. “I’m a terrible procrastinator, so I’ll do anything other than writing. I’ll sit down at the desk, then I’ll open a drawer and think ‘Oh that needs sorting out’, then I’ll go outside and feed the chickens, I’ll take the dogs for a walk, I’ll hang the washing out; I’ll do anything other than write!”
This will be the first time Fitt has written Peter Pan and as a self confessed pantomime traditionalist, he felt it important to retain the genre’s stock character of Dame.
“I’ve got Mrs Smee,” he explains. “She’s the Nanny in the first scene and then becomes Captain Hook’s sidekick once they go through the window.”
Having written traditional titles Aladdin, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Dick Whittington for Basildon, the theatre’s 2012 production was decided by a public vote. When Fielding asked the Towngate audience which pantomime they’d prefer to see out of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan, Peter Pan always received the biggest cheer.
Fitt is full of admiration for the team at Basildon, where Fielding, who he met whilst working in the West End about fifteen years ago, always plays Principal Boy. “Simon’s playing Peter Pan this year,” he tells me. “He’s an absolute firecracker. He’s fantastic. He’s so passionate, so excitable and has got so much energy on stage. He’s also very modern with his song choices—it’s nothing I ever know! I have to go on YouTube and listen to it!”
Having written a number of pantomimes over the years, I ask Fitt what the golden rule of pantomime writing is?
“You can have humour in it and you can have all the elements, but the story has still got to be there,” he says. “Because children know it, and if it doesn’t make sense then it sort of jars. You have to have that storyline running throughout.”
Fitt knows what he’s talking about, as the reviews for his productions show. But he’s not just a man of pantomime; he is also an experienced producer and is currently working on a number of exciting projects at Curve, Leicester.
“About three years ago Iain Gillie, Executive Producer at Curve, asked me to come up to Leicester and I did a bit of work for them and I sort of worked on and off for them for about a year or two,” Fitt explains. Prior to this, Fitt had previously worked as associate producer at Stanhope Productions in London’s West End, producing, amongst other shows, Summer and Smoke with Rosamund Pike, Epitaph for George Dillon and Fiddler on the Roof at the Savoy starring Henry Goodman. It was during this period of his career that he met Iain Gillie, who is now executive producer at Curve, Leicester.
Having worked on a series of individual projects for the theatre, he is now a full time producer for Curve, with future projects including Piaf and Hello Dolly. Does he ever have time to rest?
“This year I haven’t booked time off because we start rehearsals with Piaf on 28th January, so there’s only a couple of weeks after finishing panto and that starting. After that we go into Hot Stuff the Musical, then we go in to the autumn season and then it will be panto again.”
Having also penned this year’s festive show at Curve, Santa’s New Sleigh, and with rehearsals for Jack and the Beanstalk at Shrewsbury beginning on Monday 26th November, before opening on Thursday 6th December, Fitt has an incredibly full year ahead of him. As he starts to pack his script and get ready for the season ahead, I ask him about pantomime’s enduring popularity.
“I think with pantomime, it’s one of the few things that, if it’s done right, the whole family can enjoy: grandparents, aunts, uncles, family members, children, young children,” he says. “Quite simply, panto’s one of those festive treats for everyone.”
Brad Fitt directs and plays Dame Trott in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ at the Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury from Thusday 6th December 2012–Sunday 13th January 2013.
‘Peter Pan’ written by Brad Fitt plays at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon from Wednesday 5th December 2012–Sunday 6th January 2013.
For more information on Curve, Leicester, visit: http://www.curveonline.co.uk/