Technology and Tradition in South Hill Park's annual Panto

This year, South Hill Park in Bracknell celebrates its fortieth anniversary as an Arts Centre.

The Wilde Theatre has presented many a pantomime title since 1973, but 2013 will be the first time Snow White has been staged at the venue. I met up with Ron McAllister (Chief Executive and Composer), Emma Donald (Live Broadcast Co-Producer) and Julian Hirst (Dame and Director) to find out more about this year's show.

McAllister has written the music for the pantomimes alongside collaborator Bart Lee for the last decade and he explains that one of the reasons for not doing Snow White until now has been the matter of the dwarves. "It's taken us a while to find the concept for the show and we struck on a few ideas this time which made us feel it was the right time to do it."

Bracknell's Snow White will be unique in that it is dispensing with the dwarves completely, but that's not the only new thing about this year's approach as the show has been designed to use a revolve.

"I've worked on a revolve before as an actor," Hirst explains, "but I've not actually directed a piece on a revolve before and it just means that the whole piece becomes much more fluid between scenes." After last year's Jack and the Beanstalk relied on front-cloth pieces to mask the scene changes, this year's revolve will ensure, as Hirst puts it, "that the front of house activity won't be governed by the scene changes, it will be governed by the entertainment."

Although the cast won't be rehearsing on the revolve, they will have a two-day technical period to get to grips with it after a rehearsal period comprising two weeks in the rehearsal room and one week in production. So with this year's Snow White featuring a new approach to both narrative and design, is innovation important to South Hill Park?

"It is," says Hirst passionately, "but also what I think is really important is that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater and we keep with the traditional elements. My approach to the Dame, for example, is very much rooted in the sort of Norman Evans, Les Dawson tradition of Dame. I'm not a glamour puss and I think there is that great tradition of 'Look, it's a man with a wig on!' and that's the fun of it."

Pantomime and innovation go hand in hand as the genre constantly seeks to acknowledge the past, whilst embracing the present. One way South Hill Park actively practices this is in its live streaming of the pantomime.

"We streamed last year to children's hospices, hospital wards and respite homes and a few inclusive schools and we had glorious feedback," explains Donald. "One child had never seen a pantomime before and was wowed by the whole thing, but the staff had to explain to him why the man was dressed as a woman! It brought a phenomenal amount of joy to a lot of children, who'd never been able to get out to see a pantomime."

But with pantomime thriving on its liveness and the constant interaction between stage and auditorium, how does this work when broadcast to television sets across the country?

"We were very lucky that Julian pre-recorded a message to the online audience, which went out just before the show started," explains Donald. "We addressed them all and told them that they were an incredibly important part of the audience and he could hear them shouting back. The feedback we got was that there were a lot of responses and they did do all the 'Oh no you won't' / 'Oh yes you are'. The atmosphere was brilliant."

This year South Hill Park is extending its broadcast to care homes, nursing homes and residential homes to bring the magic of pantomime to as many people as possible. "It's a huge part of our programme," says McAllister. "The pantomime's seen by over 16,000 people live in the venue itself, and through the live streaming we're now reaching people that wouldn't be able to physically be here with us in the venue."

There is a real sense of community at South Hill Park, not only in terms of the loyal Bracknell audience, but also in terms of the pantomime's cast and creative team. 2013 marks the second time Hirst will direct and play Dame at the venue, having appeared in South Hill Parks' pantomimes many times before. Technology, he tells me, also plays a role here.

"I have an iPad,“ Hirst explains, “so I am able to stick the iPad at the back of the room and watch myself back." Although employed as the director, Hirst sees his role as a member of a non-hierarchical team, preferring the term "facilitator.” "It's a shared creative process,“ he says. “If Snow White wants to give me some feedback about my performance, then I'd really encourage that because that's what it's all about."

A supportive and shared community, in which audience and cast freely communicate with one another across the footlights, is vital for a successful pantomime. "We're very lucky here in that the Wilde Theatre is just such a beautiful intimate venue,” beams Hirst. “You do feel you can make eye contact with people in the back row of the stalls and have that interaction."

"That worked very well last year in the live stream," adds Donald. "The performers knew the lovely intimate Wilde Theatre so well and it really helped. As they ran around the theatre, they peered into all the cameras and spoke directly to their online audience, just sort of off the cuff, and that was a fantastic, fantastic thing."

McAllister reveals that one of his favourite aspects of the season is seeing familiar faces in the audience, especially families who have grown up and brought their children to see the pantomime for the first time. Community, tradition and technology are very much at the heart of a South Hill Park pantomime. As Hirst rightly states, “If you can make it magical and make them feel involved, then they'll want to come back."

Snow White runs at the Wilde Theatre, South Hill Park, Bracknell from 30 November 2013 to 4 January 2014. The production will be live streamed on 12 December at 10:15AM. You can find more about this year’s live broadcast on South Hill Park’s SHP LIVE web site.