Creating 'Jack and the Beanstalk'...

Pantomime is the most magical of all theatrical genres. Fairies fly, pumpkins transform into carriages and beanstalks grow up through the clouds. Although we marvel at the spectacle presented to us annually upon the pantomime stage, rarely do we think about how it all came to be and how those flecks of glitter made their way from page to stage.

Design is a fundamental aspect of any production, but even more so in pantomime where narratives demand the impossible occurs and fairytales are brought to life. This year’s pantomime at the Harrogate Theatre is Jack and the Beanstalk, possibly the most demanding of any designer as it calls for a giant, a cow and a beanstalk. I caught up with the creative team behind this year’s show to find out more about the creative process.

Phil Lowe has been a member of the pantomime creative team at the Harrogate Theatre for the last six years, one year more than Nicola Downing, who has been the pantomime’s wardrobe supervisor since 2008. This year, Lowe and Downing are joined by Richard Foxton as the production’s designer, who, although new to Harrogate’s pantomime, has worked at the theatre before and designed many pantomimes for the Mercury Theatre, Colchester.

As Downing explains, pantomime preparations usually “take between four and six months”, with preparations for this year’s Jack and the Beanstalk beginning in June when co-writer and director Lowe began discussions with designer Foxton.

Once the title has been decided, the team work through a series of scenarios from which designs are drawn and the script written. The two creative aspects of production develop side-by-side, with both aspects influencing each other.

“Because I write and direct, I’m covering two posts at the same time,” comments Lowe. “I can relay ideas to Richard [Foxton] at any point of the design / script process. It means we can also pick up on ideas that Richard has for design and incorporate them into the script. It sounds corny, but it’s totally collaborative.”

Collaborative working is vital for a successful pantomime. As Lowe explains, “You need a great team or it simply won’t get done.” For Downing, “collaborative working is an essential part of the theatre” and having trained at the London College of Fashion and worked at the Royal Opera House, Downing has experienced her fair share of creative teams.

As part of her design process, Downing researches “where necessary; through books, the Internet and even the fashion of the period” with designer Foxton drawing inspiration from artists and illustrators such as Carl Larsson, Arthur Rackham, Ivan Bilibin and Natalia Goncharova. But whereas the design team turn to books, artworks and online resources, co-writer and director Lowe’s influences lie elsewhere. “I’m just a big kid,” he tells me, “and I totally let that influence me and my work. I want the panto to look how I want it to look; how I wanted pantos I saw as a kid to look.”

The team each describe Harrogate’s design style slightly differently. For Foxton it’s “a traditional storybook style with plenty of glitter”, with Downing adding “where anything is possible!” Co-writer and director Lowe, on the other hand, prefers to use just one word: “Epic!”

But an epic production presents itself with epic challenges. For Lowe, the biggest challenge is making his big ideas fit into Harrogate Theatre’s space. “Just on a practical level, the venue can’t squeeze some of my ideas in,” he explains.

Although Lowe wants “four pyros at the end of every song” he understands budget constraints mean his every wish won’t be answered. But that doesn’t seem to bother him. “The best thing?” he ponders, “I get to go back to—and indulge—my youth!”

For Downing as the production’s wardrobe supervisor, the most challenging part is “getting the right materials and cutting the designs to match the characters in the show within a tight time frame.” But when all the hard work is done, Downing says she is extremely proud of her “costumes and finishing touches” having seen the “designs turn from a flat page to a costume ready to be fitted on an actor.”

The creative team is an incredibly close knit team of individuals. “We always love each other and never disagree and actors never, ever are unhappy,” Foxton jokes, “especially not with their shoes or wigs. I always bear in mind that it’s only theatre and no one is going to die, so a compromise won’t hurt.”

Are wigs and shoes often a bone of contention between cast and creative team? “Fortunately, disagreements are rare because everyone is working to the same end,” explains Downing. “I actually see my job as making sure the actors are happy and comfortable when they go on stage. Wardrobe is really the place where most actors tend to express their needs and their nerves about the whole production and I see my job as making them more relaxed.”

So with opening night just around the corner, what can audiences expect from this year’s Jack and the Beanstalk?

“A good night out, glitter, songs, ice cream and more glitter” says Foxton, with Downing promising “colour, glitter, laughter, a Giant and damn good costumes!” Put simply, “it’s terrific theatre;” concludes Lowe, “slick, funny, colourful, warm and packed with magic, sparkle and adventure.”

But just how will they do the Giant and beanstalk? Designer Foxton is keeping tight lipped, “Come and find out!” he teases. With 22 performances already sold out, it seems the panto lovers of Harrogate are planning to do just that!

‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ runs at the Harrogate Theatre from Friday 23rd November until Sunday 13th January 2013.