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From West Coast foodie culture to SkyTrain issues, Theatre Replacement’s Hansel and Gretel: An East Van Panto is packed with local Vancouver flavour. (Tim Matheson)
From West Coast foodie culture to SkyTrain issues, Theatre Replacement’s Hansel and Gretel: An East Van Panto is packed with local Vancouver flavour. (Tim Matheson)

Marsha Lederman

Is ‘mixing up’ the East Van Panto a good idea? Add to ...

It’s Easter weekend and I’m thinking about Christmas. I’m thinking about traditions and how we come not just to appreciate them, but to rely on them; how unsettled we feel when something changes and we have no control over the change.

I’m thinking about the theatre – and one Vancouver franchise that pretty much instantly became a holiday must-see.

Since its inception in 2013, the East Van Panto has represented my own personal kickoff to Christmas; it is the way I have spent the last three Christmas Eve afternoons. As a regular attendee, a fan and an East Vancouverite, I feel a great attachment to the show.

So when I heard about a change coming to the panto’s creative team, I felt a little personally affronted and frankly distressed. Forces beyond my control were messing with something I have come to associate with the holidays, family and the neighbourhood that is my home.

Quick description: The holiday pantomime is a British tradition; a silly show that riffs off fairy tales with music, contemporary references and audience participation – there’s booing and cheering and yelling.

The East Van Panto, which was the inaugural production at the renovated York Theatre on Commercial Drive, has each year taken a classic story, set it in East Vancouver and filled it with local references, corny jokes, clever musical numbers set to popular songs played live onstage by Veda Hille, and all sorts of goofy hilarity that appeals to both kids and adults on different levels.

In 2013, Jack and the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto drew laughs over Vancouver’s crazy real-estate market and love for marijuana and backyard chickens. In 2014, the panto took on Cinderella with wicked step-hipsters, a Toms shoe for a glass slipper and a B.C. Ferry (fairy) godmother joke that brought the house down. Last Christmas, it was Hansel and Gretel, set in Stanley Park and poking fun at Vancouver’s foodie culture.

The show is always so much fun and the performers are fantastic – Allan Zinyk and Dawn Petten in particular.

(Full disclosure: Each performance includes a guest cameo and I have participated in past years.)

Theatre Replacement, which produces the East Van Panto, put together a brilliant team to create the work in its inaugural year: playwright Charles Demers, Ms. Hille as musical director and Amiel Gladstone directing, all of whom returned for year two. Mr. Demers and Ms. Hille were back again in 2015, but there was a new director – Stephen Drover.

Mr. Demers, a writer, comedian and performer, lives in East Vancouver and has created a hilarious insider’s take on the neighbourhood along with Ms. Hille, who also lives in the neighbourhood.

But this year, Mr. Demers will not be back.

And that has rocked my little East Van world just a little bit. What will this do to my beloved panto, over which – I realize probably illogically – I feel some ownership?

“We’re hoping to mix it up a bit,” Theatre Replacement’s co-artistic director James Long explained when I asked about Mr. Demers’s departure. “We’re going to keep people on their toes,” Mr. Long, who has also performed in the panto, continued. “We just want to keep it fresh.”

Mr. Demers – Charlie to his friends – confirmed he was not writing this year’s panto but didn’t want to be interviewed about it.

When I asked Ms. Hille about losing her co-creator this year, she said the hope is that the East Van Panto continues for many years and the idea has always been to change things on the panto’s creative team now and then. She suggested there might be a year when she needs a Christmas off. (Heaven forbid, I think.)

The East Van Panto has been a success – critically and commercially, increasing its audience year over year. With all the demand, a week was added to its run in 2015.

I am all for artistic experimentation, but I worry about messing with this kind of success. The East Van Panto is a delight; it hasn’t felt at all stale. And isn’t it a relief for once, as a theatre enterprise, to have a solid show that’s a pretty much guaranteed commercial success and offers box-office stability?

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Ms. Hille told me. (I was worrying.)

Both she and Mr. Long say they hope Mr. Demers will return to write the panto in future years.

The 2016 playwright will be revealed in April when the Cultch (which operates the York Theatre) makes its season announcement.

My (very early) Christmas wish is for continued inventive panto zaniness – and success.

In the meantime, goodbye Charlie – at least, for now.

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