Darren’s the Panto King – Oh yes he is!

Words by:
Jean Rush
Featured in:
December 2014

Lincolnshire born and bred, Darren Maddison is producing pantomimes all over the UK. Jean Rush spoke with him at the Spalding headquarters of Polka Dot Pantomimes.
With an impressive West End career behind him, at a very early age, Darren Maddison is now a leading producer of pantomimes and Christmas shows, and the hub of this flourishing theatrical business is in a small market town. How did this phenomenon come about?

“I’m from Spalding,” explained Darren. “I grew up here, and went to Birmingham University to study drama and theatre arts. As soon as I graduated I went straight into the Rocky Horror Show for six months in the West End and then on tour. I carried on as a jobbing actor, did a cruise ship, a season at Legoland in Windsor for their opening year, A Christmas Carol in Sweden followed by a thriller – that was good fun – and then back to the Rocky Horror Show.”

Just a minute, Sweden? How did that happen?

“I was working at the Key Theatre in Peterborough; it played there for a couple of weeks, then went to Sweden for about four weeks at Christmas. I was Peter Cratchit and the Ghost of Christmas Present. There were only eight of us in the cast, so apart from Scrooge we all took several roles,” he said.

I asked Darren about the circumstances that led to him embracing a life in panto. “I started in panto as an ensemble member at the Key Theatre for three or four years. I then went down to Essex and appeared in panto, at the Thameside Theatre in Grays. I was the comic there for seven years and now it’s one of the pantos we produce, so it’s nice to go back as a producer,” he said.

Eventually Darren turned his attention away from being in the spotlight and made the move into management.

He said: “I had always been interested in how shows are put together and I wanted to develop that and go into the production side of things. The first one we did was in Spalding in 2005, a collaboration between us and the am-dram company SADOS. In 2008 it was decided we should go fully professional and in 2009 we decided to tender for theatres. That year we had three and this year we have twelve productions.”

In 2014 Polka Dot Pantomimes is presenting productions in three Lincolnshire Theatres: Cinderella at the South Holland Centre, Spalding from 10th December to 4th January, and Aladdin at the Guildhall Arts Centre, Grantham from 11th December to 3rd January, transferring to Stamford Arts Centre from 8th to 11th January. Darren also has nine other shows in production around the country over the Christmas and New Year period.

A great advantage of these productions is that they engage professional actors and dancers in the leading roles, and recruit the ensemble from local schools.

Darren explained: “The thing about pantomime is that it’s a community, so it’s really nice to involve as many people as possible. We don’t just audition in dance schools; we like open auditions. We try to keep that as our ethos because otherwise some who perhaps can’t afford to go to dance school don’t get the opportunity.

“We do make it a condition that the parents chaperone, and ninety-nine per cent of them are very happy to do that. We have a dedicated child welfare officer who handles all our child licences, liaising with the council.

“We obviously have to make certain that the children’s health and safety is paramount and have to conform to the rules as to the number of hours they can work, and how many days off they have.”

The auditions are advertised across social media, and audition posters are sent out to local schools.

“Before the auditions we send out an audition pack with all the information, including any costs, such as shoes and tights which the performers have to buy. What we don’t want to do is surprise or shock them, so by the time they come to the audition they’re aware of what’s involved,” said Darren.

“We do appreciate the commitment they are giving us. The children get a great experience from it, but the parents have to give up part of their Christmas for us as well, so we try to make it as easy as possible for them.

“The next time we see them is at rehearsals. They have four or five days before the principals arrive, and they then work with the principals. Before that we work during half-term or on weekends. When the principals join we only rehearse the children on evenings and weekends, so they don’t get any time off school until the actual performance. Education has to come first.”

Meanwhile the professionals are of course auditioned separately, and are mostly already working in various productions around the country. This makes it difficult when the publicity launch takes place several weeks before rehearsals.

When we attended the Cinderella launch in Spalding there was no Prince or Dandini to take part in the photoshoot, as they were on tour. That’s just one of the many factors overcome by Darren and his team, who seem able to be in several places at once during the panto season.

“In each of our productions we have a dedicated director, choreographer, company stage manager, and deputy stage manager,” said Darren, “and then Helen (Helen Wright is co-director and equal partner in the business) and I will literally go up and down the motorways and check that everybody’s happy throughout December. What we tend to do is give people four or five days to rehearse and then we’ll go in and watch a run through, give notes and offer any advice.

“As much as we plan everything there’s always some last-minute thing we haven’t quite worked out with costumes or special effects, but on the whole it’s just making sure everything is OK. Christmas Day is our only day off, so we make the most of it. October half-term is when it really kicks in, with long days.”

I asked if the scripts, scenery and costumes are hired and was surprised to learn that they are mostly homegrown, and the multi-tasking Darren Maddison writes all the scripts.

“Each production has its own script and I try to make it suitable to the location, with topical references, local jokes, and up-to-date songs,” he explained.

“In terms of costumes and scenery, last year we employed a production manager, so we actually have a warehouse unit in Spalding where he is making the scenery. This year we are hiring in three sets and he’s making the rest, so each year we build up a larger stock of scenery, costumes, special effects, props. The idea is that in a couple of years’ time we won’t need to hire anything.”

I asked Darren what the most popular pantos are these days?

“Ten years ago you’d see a lot of Mother Goose, Robinson Crusoe and Babes in the Wood. Now I think people are set on seeing the top six. Peter Pan is probably the bestseller, which has taken over in the past five years, then Cinderella, and I’d say Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” he said.

As well as the professionals and the child performers, Polka Dot gives a chance to students training for the profession.

Darren said: “We have some professional dancers, whom we audition at performing arts colleges, and some of the professional students are taking on lead roles. I went to university because at that time university was free. Drama school had to be paid for, and my parents couldn’t afford it. I did have a good training, although with hindsight I could have had better performance training at drama school. But university was very theoretical, I am now reaping the benefits of that.”

I asked Darren if he misses performing: “No, I get the same buzz and satisfaction from watching a production and knowing I’m part of it. I did a panto or Christmas show for seventeen years and the first time I had time off and didn’t have to do three shows a day I loved it.”

But a few years ago Darren had to take over when Neil Couperthwaite, who was playing Peter Pan in Spalding, was injured.

“Neil cracked a rib on Boxing Day evening and had to go to A&E, so I took over the next day for the last few performances. I got to the theatre at about eleven-thirty, I think the show was about one-thirty; they hoicked me up into the harness and flew me about the stage a bit – no rehearsals, straight in,” he said.

“The worst thing for me, though, was because it was local, and having been a teacher of drama and running the youth theatre I felt the pressure more. If it had been somewhere else, where nobody knew me, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so nervous. I enjoyed it in the end. Neil, by the way, is directing two of our shows this year.”

In 2011 Darren and Helen took on something even more scary when they faced the Dragons in Dragons’ Den on TV. Although Polka Dot Pantomimes didn’t get any investment, the publicity has been a big advantage, with many new managements showing interest in booking their productions. There’s a huge amount of competition in the field: this year eighteen companies applied to provide a show for a theatre near Blackpool.

Although Darren no longer has time for teaching, his Limelight Youth Theatre in Spalding is a thriving concern, providing opportunities to train in the performing arts for anybody between the ages of four and twenty-one, and regular amateur productions.

If anyone deserves to put his feet up on Christmas Day, it’s Darren Maddison!

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