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How a Vancouver theatre company turned a small holiday panto into one of the city's hottest tickets

The East Van Panto now sells out for weeks — and even gets the hipster-heavy crowd doing the chicken dance.

The East Van Panto now sells out for weeks — and even gets the hipster-heavy crowd doing the chicken dance

This year's East Van Panto is based on The Wizard of Oz. The panto has become so popular that is sells out the York Theatre for weeks on end, and has become an instant family tradition. (Emily Cooper)

When Vancouver theatre artists James Long and Maiko Yamamoto set out to create the East Van Panto, they weren't entirely sure what a panto was.

As co-artistic directors of the groundbreaking company Theatre Replacement, the pair had been touring to top festivals across North America and Europe, but felt like they were losing touch with the hometown crowd, and wanted to create something fun for the holidays.

At first they considered creating an adaptation of A Charlie Brown Christmas, but copyright concerns quickly iced that option, and the idea soon morphed into creating a British-style holiday pantomime — traditionally a slapstick-heavy, family-friendly, holiday-time play that features songs, jokes, dancing and loud audience participation — but one for a contemporary and politically savvy audience.

"None of us had any idea what were the rules of the panto, so we got on the internet and we started surfing around, and realizing we had absolutely no idea what we were doing with this tradition," says Long with a laugh.

In this year's Wizard of Oz, a family of chickens is part of the act. (Emily Cooper)

"But we thought, 'Let's try it and see what happens.' And we got on Wikipedia and we figured out you're supposed to boo and you're supposed to hiss and you're supposed to cheer. And we brought a team together and threw it together, and a whole bunch of people came."

A whole bunch of people is a sleigh-sized understatement. The first year, the East Van Panto ran for three weeks at Commercial Drive's recently revamped York Theatre, and was an instant holiday hit. Word spread quickly, and what was meant to be a small neighbourhood event became one of the hottest tickets in town, more than tripling attendance numbers in five years.

Now in its sixth year, the panto now sells out almost every single day for a month and a half, including matinees on weekends, drawing audiences from tiny tots to grandparents who come to take part in the shows.

And take part they do. Each show is based on a popular tale — this year's is Wizard of Oz, and past years have included Cinderella, Hansel & Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves — and encourages raucous audience participation including yelling, singing and dancing. (This year they even get the entire hipster-heavy crowd doing the chicken dance.)

In past years, shows have included Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood. (Emily Cooper)

The hilariously goofy scripts are written by top Vancouver writers, among them comedians Charles Demers and Mark Chavez, as well as Siminovitch Prize-winning playwright Marcus Youssef; meanwhile beloved local musician Veda Hille puts fabulous spins on popular songs, from belt-it-out classic rock to this year's top Drake tracks. Many of the shows also come with walk-ons by local celebs, and feature neighbourhood kids who manage to cinch the coveted few spots — even though most don't come with much, if any, performing arts experience.

"We put them up there intentionally not being razzle dazzle kids," says Long, referring to how the child actors who charmingly sing off-key or mix up dance moves. "They bring soul to the show in their error, in their humanity, that is has become an integral part of the show."

The East Van Panto is also shamelessly political, and packed with pop culture references. In this year's Wizard of Oz, one actor plays a fit, selfie-happy Justin Trudeau, while the Wicked Witch of the West becomes the Wicked Witch of Western Canada — an oil-obsessed Rachel Notley. The Good Wiccan of North Vancouver is CBC's own Gloria Macarenko — which spurs the cast to sing an entire CBC tribute song to the tune of Macarena — while Dorothy's ruby slippers are ruby Fluevogs.

In this year's politically-fueled East Van Panto "The Wicked Witch of Western Canada" is an oil-obsessed Alberta premier. (Emily Cooper)

The Tin Man is a non-binary Tin Them; the scarecrow becomes a marijuana joint named Stoned Crow; and the Cowardly Lion is a BC Lions football player who is afraid of the ball. Played by a child actor, the dog Toto sings the Toto hit Africa.

But one of the biggest stars of the show is Hille who, along with drummer Barry Mirochnick, brings the house down with high-energy music every night and weekend afternoon. A longtime collaborator with Theatre Replacement, Hille was just as surprised by the show's overwhelming popularity.

"None of us saw this coming in any way — and for me it's been great because I do a fair amount of pretty serious work, so it's nice to be a goofball," says Hille.

Now throughout the year, Hille keeps an ear on pop radio to find the biggest spoof-worthy new tracks, as well as parent-friendly classics, then writes pun-heavy lyrics and folds them into the show. This year, for example, she knew Drake's megahit In My Feelings needed to be in the panto, and she also included the Rocky Horror classic Time Warp.

"One of the main mandates for me in choosing the songs for the panto is, 'What am I going to have fun playing for six weeks, eight shows a week?' It's this complicated process but I do try to make a really kick-ass set list so that Barry and I can have a lot of fun," says Hille, who folds up to 20 songs into each show, many of them medleys of multiple songs. 

"It's also just a wonderful gig to get to walk down from my home to the theatre and meet up with all these great people. A lot of my work can be very solitary, so it's nice to have this kind of warm community vibe in this season in particular. Plus, I'm super Elementary School famous now," adds Hille, who regularly gets stopped by fans along Commercial Drive.

"There's nothing like having 10-year-olds come up to you and say, 'I saw your show and it was really cool.'"

The musician believes the key to the show's popularity is its genuineness and its authenticity, especially in a season that can at times feel heavily artificial. The show's inclusivity also strikes a chord; Hille says they received a beautiful email from a non-binary youth who said how great it was to see Mirochnick wearing a skirt and still being a rock 'n' roller.

"I feel like we are all just trying to be the real in a weird world right now," says Hille, talking about what keeps the crowds flowing in. "Funny is the best. And funny with heart is the super best. People are really looking for things that come from people because there's so much that's manufactured now and there's so much that we're told is authentic and just comes out of a corporation. And that's not what this is," she says.

"It may not be the deepest work you've ever seen but it's just us putting on a show that we want our kids to be in and then to see. So maybe that's enough of an impulse to make everybody happy for a couple hours."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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