Consider it Christmas in July, as Halifax’s Neptune Theatre gets ready to present a remount of Cinderella.
Modelled after the traditional British pantomime, or “panto” as it is often referred, this light-hearted family fare filled with silly jokes, music, and oodles of audience participation is usually seen during the holiday season. For Neptune’s artistic director Jeremy Webb, who also wrote and directs the show, though it made perfect sense to bring Cinderella back for the summer, following a successful run last year.
“There really is nothing seasonal about the show, with no references to Christmas itself,” says Webb by telephone as the company was about to begin its first rehearsal.
“And then when it was so incredibly popular, as in sold out, we also knew lots of locals who hadn’t managed to get a ticket, and it seemed like a good idea to remount it while everyone was still available and fresh.”
The first foray into panto territory for Neptune Theatre, it was a theatrical style Webb originally met with some resistance.
“For years, I’ve been saying to my predecessors in this job ‘let’s do a panto, let’s do a panto’, but I don’t think they really liked or got the genre,” he says. “So when I got the job, I rubbed my hands with glee because I knew what great family entertainment a piece like this can be.”
Webb would eventually find himself having to loosen his grip on the word “panto” though as a relatively unknown term for local audiences. What is now called a “musical comedy for the whole family” Cinderella still maintains much of the tried-and-true formula which has made them such a popular institution elsewhere.
“I call it ‘panto-lite’ because it’s not a 100% pure brilliant panto, but it has a lot of the trappings,” he says.
That winning recipe is what Webb describes as “bad joke, bad joke, song, bad joke, song”.
“Plus we choose pop songs that everyone knows, and add lots of local references,” he adds.
One of five such scripts Webb already had in his portfolio, Webb chose the Cinderella story for his first production at Neptune as it was not only in the “best shape of the lot”, but also ticked a huge diversity box for him and his company.
“I wanted to start with a show that had a strong female lead character, which fit in with what I was planning on doing with programming for the theatre in general,” he says.
Joining Webb on the phone is Samantha Walkes who reprises her role as Cinderella from last year’s production.
Returning with many of the company members from last year’s production, minus three who were unavailable due to other commitments, Walkes herself was not initially expected to be back when Webb first put the call out to his cast for this remount.
“I wished him well, and I said I hoped that Neptune would continue its journey as a leader in Canadian theatre in casting people of colour,” she says. “And then things happened the way they happen, and God kind of managed it so that I was able to do this production again, which I am very excited about.”
Walkes’ enthusiasm for reprising the title role is evident, not only in terms of the reaction she received with last year’s production, but in what it has meant for her as a member of a community.
“I didn’t realize how much this role would be a freeing piece for the African Canadian Nova Scotia community,” she says. “I was excited to reconnect with the role again, knowing that it had become a bridge, an olive branch if you will, to the African Nova Scotia community.”
And while Webb and Neptune Theatre continue to champion diversity on its stages, Webb says he had no preconceived notions of casting anyone in the role, until he saw Walkes’ audition for another Neptune show.
“I was just observing the auditions [The Color Purple director] Kimberley Rampersad was running, and when I saw Samantha I went ‘holy [crap], she could be my Cinderella, she’s amazing’,” he recalls.
While Walkes would ultimately accept the role, it didn’t come until after first quizzing Webb on his reasons to cast a person of colour in a role traditionally played by a white woman.
“I must have passed the interview because she accepted the gig,” says Webb with another laugh.
For Walkes, her “interview” with Webb had more to do with ensuring she would be working within a safe space.
“You know a lot of times as a person of color in this industry you are told to sit down, stand up, move that chair, stand in the back, and I just wanted to make sure that this script was in keeping with the integrity of the show, but also making sure that it reflects who he wants to cast,” she says.
It was, and continues to be, a responsibility Webb obviously takes seriously, with the two reaching an agreement to work together on Cinderella, viewing Webb’s original script through a modern lens.
“I’m not the only person of colour in the cast, so I really wanted to look at it with fresh eyes to ensure everyone was represented in the script,” she says.
“I think it’s important to recognize that internally, within an organization like this, it is my job, as that privileged person in a perceived position of power, to actually do something about it,” adds Webb. “If I don’t, then no one else is. I don’t want people on my stage that look like me, I’ve seen enough of me on this stage.”
It was also important for Walkes for the children in the audience to see diversity, especially given how much interaction there is between what is happening on stage and those watching.
“They get to create this magic with me, they are a part of what is happening to me, around me, and so they feel just as important and significant to the story,” she says. “And having Cinderella be a person of colour means everything to them. It means we’re unlocking all of the potential in that child, no matter where they come from.”
In addition to having an opportunity for audiences to see themselves reflected on stage, Walkes also found herself attracted to a show that could also reach across generations.
“We finally have a show that people can bring their grandparents, their grandson, granddaughter, they can bring the entire family,” she says. “It can be multi-generational where everyone can participate and there are jokes for everyone, there are things for the kids, and things for the adults”.
“It’s got some incredibly silly moments the kids and the parents will love,” adds Webb. “Perhaps I shouldn’t be the one to say this since I wrote and directed it, but I’m really proud of Cinderella. I’m really proud of how popular it was, and that so many people thought it was worth seeing and spending their entertainment dollars on.”
And while Walkes recognizes the panto tradition dictates there will be plenty of silliness in a show like Cinderella, there is also substance behind it.
“I think many people see the flyers for the show and think it is just a lot of fluff,” she says. “But there is also an important and timely message given what is happening in our world right now, where everyone gets to rise up, and we get to celebrate family and the people we see on stage.”
Cinderella opens at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall on July 24 runs through August 18. Visit neptunetheatre.com for tickets and information.