Chris Rankin is best known as Percy Weasley in the Harry Potter movies, but now, Rankin is entertaining audiences through pantomime.
For American audiences unaware of the very British Christmas tradition, Rankin, who stars as the Fairy Godfather explains, “Pantomime is a family musical, traditionally, shown in theaters at Christmas. You all go to the pantomime from granny and granddad through to dad, who would much usually much rather be at home watching the football, and is sat there with his arms crossed on the front row.”
The shows are a cross between a Disney fairytale and a traditional fable, very much built on audience participation with viewers interacting on the skits and sketches.
With live theater out of commission in the U.K. and around the world, the British production company Panto Live took on the challenge of putting on a live pantomime experience for audiences to enjoy around the world with a production of “Cinderella” that can be streamed on-demand through Jan. 31 via the Panto Live site.
Director Charlotte Peters and Rankin break down the experience of putting the panto together just in time for the holidays.
With the theatrical experience non-existent due to the lockdown, when and how did you start planning this?
Charlotte Peters: The producers had the idea for this in September, and they were figuring it all out. Chris came on board before I did, and as always, we had a short lead time of six weeks from start to finish, including rehearsals.
You would normally have ten days of rehearsing and tech checks, but with this, we had that lead time to figure out the backgrounds and to get the creative team on board to put it together.
Rankin: It was a full team effort. With a panto, you are putting on a full-scale musical, in a matter of days, compared to what would normally be a matter of months for a Broadway or West End show.
When I signed up, Going Live and Panto Live contacted me back in September, and after the year we’ve all had as performers, I was fully expecting to have written off seeing a pantomime this Christmas. It was heartbreaking because it’s my favorite, and it’s what got me into acting in the first place. So, having to do it in this innovative way was special.
Charlotte, talk about the virtual backgrounds and how that all came together?
Peters: We were in a green screen studio where we used Unreal Engine, which is what’s used for shows such as “The Mandalorian.”
We created what we would use on stage through these environments. Having a green screen studio meant that there weren’t going to be glitches. At the same time, you had to think about costumes because there’s absolutely no green light, no green makeup and no green in costumes otherwise you’re see-through.
One thing that made this so great was the interactive element with audiences, how did that happen?
Peters: People were selected to be a part of our special virtual audience, so they knew they were going to be a part of a different experience. We also found a way to bring people in as we would do on stage. We didn’t know what to expect, but it worked out well.
How did the rehearsal process work for you, Chris?
Rankin: It was an odd experience, especially as somebody whose first love is live theater.
We had a passionate team of people who wanted this to work in any possible way they feasibly could.
We had some readthroughs on Zoom, with the internet going out and people being on mute, but we were lucky that as a bubble we could get together and rehearse in person before the live show started.
What were the secret tricks you used to make Chris fly?
Peters: I had this giant pregnancy yoga ball, which I’ve used before to make you hover. So, Chris was lying on the floor, kicking his legs in the air. It’s a basic technique, but the whole idea was to create a new world using accessible tools.
Rankin: It was incredible fun. None of us had ever done anything like this before. It was a case of turning up on the day and seeing what was possible. I needed to fly, so it was about seeing what would work.
Chris, what was your favorite part of the whole experience?
Rankin: Firstly, I am a panto fanatic. It’s what gave me my love of theater when I was 3 years old. I’ve been very lucky to be doing panto for over 16 years now.
It has been a fabulous experience to be back on a stage. When I was approached back in September, I don’t think any of us exactly knew what it was that we were aiming for. At the end of the day, they had this great idea and this great concept, but it was such a new idea and such a new way of doing things that they had all these great ideas of what they wanted to happen. It was such an exciting ride to go on.
It’s so different to “Harry Potter” and the place I grew up and learned my craft, we did a lot of green screens, but never in a live environment. It was a can-do attitude, and to make it work.
You have the feeling of watching a live show, but it’s not the same as being in a theater, but it’s as near as you possibly can get right now.