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5 Years of East Van Panto: Q+A with Theatre Replacement’s Co-Artistic Director James Long

Co-artistic directors of Theatre Replacement, James Long and Maiko Yamamoto, are getting ready to bring their fifth East Van Panto to Vancouver audiences. This year, it’s an outrageous take on the classic story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Long answers a few of our burning questions about this year’s production, and offers up his reflections on Pantos past.

At this five year milestone anniversary of the East Van Panto (congrats!), we’d love to know, what was the initial spark that led to the co-creation of the very first Panto? And at that time, did you know it would become the beloved holiday tradition that it now is?
James Long: We had no idea it was going to be so beloved by so many people, and we could not be happier. The whole thing came from wanting to make something our kids would want to watch. Theatre Replacement’s work isn’t exactly kid stuff—too many words and too much concept, which is bloody boring for kids. Once we started having some of our own kids (with our respective partners) we wanted to make something for them to enjoy. Even better is now we make it with them on stage. Pure joy.

What is it about Mark Chavez’s writing that works so well for this project?
JL: It’s whacked! I wish I could share some of the absurd lines he has spun up this year without spoiling… just listen to his take on “Frosty the Snowman” at the start of the second act. Plus, he is a genuine collaborator, which is not common in writers or comedians who are normally solo ventures. He comes out of comedy a duo, so he is able to handle input (both good and bad) and make gold out of it.

The casting is always so great. Can you tell us about this year’s new cast members?
JL: New folks are Ming Hudson and Amy Rutherford. Ming is straight up made of funny bones and is a brilliant Snow White. And Amy, who we’ve only recently gotten to know, is so skilled at jumping from character to character, and freaking funny. It is a real skill to be able to be funny to a five-year-old and an 85-year-old at the same time. They’ve got it.

How long does it typically take to get the Panto from script to stage?
JL: It’s fast! Ask Anita the director who has to make magic happen in about three weeks. It all starts in the bottom of the green house beside The Cultch. Six days on, one day off; six days on, one day off; move to the York Theatre and work it up on the stage for a week. Kids have been coming in for evening rehearsals all the way along—15 at a time! Production meetings started months before. Marina Szijarto has been making a million costumes next door and moves her whole operation to the York with the actors. Half-way into week four, the first preview happens. We get two of them and then it’s time to open. 46 (or so) shows later and it’s all gone!

What makes your relationship with East Van (as “place”) so special and how is place so important for Pantomime?
JL: East Van… what is East Van? It’s so many things at the same time. There was a time when west side folks were afraid to cross Main Street! East Van is home. You can make fun of East Van. You can celebrate East Van. You can wear it like a badge. You can miss what it used to be. For some, it’s the only place you can afford to live in the city. For far too many, it will never be affordable again. East Van still has some fight in it. It welcomes new people every day. I’d say it’s the soul of the city.

We’d love to shine a light on the musical element of the Panto. Can you tell us about working with Veda Hille and the other musicians? What are some new highlights for this year?
JL: Veda is a genius. Straight up. This year’s opening number that combines Lorde and Beyonce is the best thing I have heard in a long time. She has been in from day one and I hope she never ever stops putting all this music together for us. And like us, her normal body of work is so different from what she does here. But here she gets to be a goofball, which is plain good for the soul. Added to this is the gift we have in Ben Elliott and Todd Biffard who make up the orchestra. So skilled in both bringing in ideas and realizing what Veda has dreamed up. Highlights? Veda’s hit on the 80’s and 90’s this year with some Chumbawamba, Madness, Salt-N-Pepa, Eminem. So much of the fun in the first read of the show is hearing what Veda has come up with and the ridiculous/genius lyrics she has paired. And then getting to watch the audience play the recognition game during the show. It is pure fun.

How has your initial vision for the Panto changed over the past five years and/or how has it grown?
JL: The vision has never wavered from the original goal of bringing a whole bunch of amazing fun people together to make something fun. The beginnings were so simple. If we didn’t have the remarkable partnership we do with The Cultch to do it at this scale, we’d be doing the same thing for our kids in somebody’s basement.

Can you tell about one of your most memorable moments from the past 5 years?
JL: One is impossible! Here’s eight: 1. 
Watching Allan Zinyk do what he does every single rehearsal and show. Allan is a genius; as funny and generous and creative as any superstar and we bow down to it every day. 2. Watching Josh Drebit blast through the stage door at the York Theatre, through a cloud of smoke, as a rapping alley cat in Cinderella. 3. Watching all the little kids in the audience recognize how cool Cinderella could be when you throw in some feminist chutzpah. 4. The amazing choreography paired with the Lady Gaga number in Hansel and Gretel. 5. Standing backstage with my daughter right before going out on stage to dance in front off 350 people and then bowing to them at the end while holding her hand. I could have never imagined that happening. 7. Nardwuar the Human Serviette taking over the whole show in a cameo appearance and crowd surfing—pure East Van. 8. Some little kid from the audience dressed up as Batman trying to save GingerBrad after the evil witch fired him in Hansel and Gretel. A show-stopper; completely unexpected.

Please describe this year’s Panto in just three words.
JL: Joy on speed.  Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 10.17.41 AM

East Van Panto: Snow White & the Seven Dwarves runs November 29-January 6, 2018, 2017 at The Cultch’s York Theatre. Get your tickets here. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Theatre Replacement is an ongoing collaboration between James Long and Maiko Yamamoto. Whether working together or apart, they use extended processes to create performances from intentionally simple beginnings. Their work is about a genuine attempt to coexist. Conversations, interviews, and arguments collide with Yamamoto and Long’s aesthetics resulting in theatrical experiences that are authentic, immediate, and hopeful. www.theatrereplacement.org