I recently conducted some research into the structure of different pantomimes I’ve watched in the past (sad I know!). I reviewed the programmes and compiled a spreadsheet of the different structures noting which scenes took place where and what parts of the plot they covered. From this I learn one thing: there is no fixed way to structure a pantomime script!
And yet, when I sit down and plan a script out, there are things which I consider. Not rules as such, but things to bear in mind. They include:
Full Scenes and Front Cloths
There are lots of different names for these, but essentially these are your building blocks for most pantomime scripts. The full scenes tend to be important locations in the story. The front cloths tend to be the bits in-between that join the bigger scenes together and cover large scenic changes. It’s not always that simple, but that’s the basic principal. Most scripts are structured so that a front cloth always follows a full scene and vice versa:
Example Structure for Aladdin Act I:
- Prologue – Egypt (Front Cloth)
- Scene 1 – Old Peking (Full Scene)
- Scene 2 – A Street in Old Peking (Front Cloth)
- Scene 3 – Widow Twankey’s Laundry (Full Scene)
- Scene 4 – A Street in Old Peking (Front Cloth)
- Scene 5 – The Imperial Palace Gardens (Full Scene)
- Scene 6 – A Mountain Path (Front Cloth)
- Scene 7 – The Cave of Wonders (Full Scene)
As a rule of thumb, events that take place over the front cloth tend to be comedy routines and short bits of plot or song. I like to write front cloths that are usually ‘on the way’ to a new location. So they tend to be roads, streets, paths etc. For some, multiple front cloths aren’t possible so I always write my front cloth scenes to take place in front of tabs or a show cloth if needed.
Pantomime Plot Structure
When I’m planning out a pantomime I always start with how the plot will evolve over potential locations. If you need some ideas on which locations to include, have a look at set hire companies like UK Productions or Senic Projects and check which locations they feature in their hire catalogue.
Popular pantomime locations include:
- A Village or Town Centre (Most panto scripts)
- The interior of a house or cottage
- A ‘workplace’ (such as Dame Trott’s Dairy in Jack and the Beanstalk, or similar)
- A forest or woods (Think Cinderella and Snow White)
- A ship – both in the docks and at sea (Featured in Dick Whittington, Peter Pan, Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island)
- A castle or royal palace (Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin)
- A specialist location (such as Morocco in Dick Whittington, or Cloud Land in Jack and the Beanstalk)
Don’t forget, you’re usually presenting the story in chronological order. So make sure that you’re planning out locations in the right order. It’s also about spacing out the laughs, the plot, the love story – when you’re a really good writer you can mould the three together!
Placing Songs in a Pantomime
Pantomime song placement can be the key to bringing your audience on a journey with you as a storyteller. Remember to space out your songs so that they are quite evenly spread throughout the production.
Another thing to consider is trying to make sure that you don’t get two similar songs back-to-back or too close to one another. Upbeat songs are best, and ballads should be used sparingly, deployed at specific moments to keep up the energy. Ballads can be a great way of letting us into the mind of one of the characters.
In my pantomime scripts, all song suggestions are entirely optional and can be changed/cut as needed for your production. For song suggestions check out:
- Opening Numbers for Pantomimes
- Great songs for Baddies
- Pantomime Dame Numbers
- Pantomime Finale Songs
- Great pantomime songs from the 2020/21 season
Key Scenes to Include
Usually the prologue sets up the story. It can be done by some sort of narrator, but more often than not, it involved the Fairy and/or Baddie setting out their stall. This is your chance to bring the audience into the pantomime world. Don’t forget – parents might still be opening packets of sweets and turning off their phones for the first minute or so!
Opening of Act I
This is usually a big, colourful musical number followed by successive introductions to the cast members we’re going to be spending time with in the show. Comic characters usually have some form of ‘opening spot’ where they deliver a comedy monologue which gives you a sense of what you can expect from that character to come.
This is the scene at the end of Act I where the main protagonist goes through some form of transformation kicking off the rest of the plot. Think about Aladdin discovering the lamp in the cave. Cinderella being transformed by the Fairy Godmother. Jack climbing the beanstalk into the sky. Some scripts have a couple of moments you could use. For example some Dick Whittington pantos use Dick’s dream of beaming Mayor of London as an opportunity to create a glittering finale to Act I. Whereas others use the ship setting sail for Morocco as the final moment. So there is wiggle room for some of the stories more than others.
Opening of Act II
This is your chance to re-engage the audience after the interval. There’s usually some kind of musical number to grab audience’s attention followed by a reminder of where we are with the plot. Think about Cinderella arriving at the royal ball. When Jack arrives in Cloud land. When Snow White is welcomed by the Dwarfs.
The ‘Slipper Fitting’
For the next important part of the plot, I use the nickname the ‘slipper fitting’. This is the easiest way to describe the wrapping up of the plot. Cinderella successfully putting the slipper on her foot, Jack cutting down the beanstalk, Dick Whittington being made the Lord Mayor of London. These examples can help you when you are looking at writing more unusual scripts like Rapunzel and Puss in Boots.
This is often the part of the show the children most look forward to. Back in the day, I can remember when some theatres would allow huge numbers of children on stage to sing with the cast. Nowadays it’s a couple of children picked by ushers, and everyone else in the audience joining in from their seats. It usually takes the form of a ‘sing-off’ between two sides of the audience, or a funny lyric/dance combination which makes the adults and kids look a bit silly when they do it. So you can really experiment here and change up the formula to fit your production and audience.
To wrap up this article, I’d like to emphasis that everyone writes differently! There is not necessarily a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to how to structure a pantomime script. This is a useful set of guidelines to make sure the action is spaced out well. The more you write and have your work performed, the better it will be.
To talk to me more about the structure of pantomimes, send me an email.