Q&A: Laughing along with DADS army
Days before the Covid-19 crisis forced everyone into lockdown last year, the Dalton Amateur Dramatic Society (DADS) marked its 21st birthday with a production of Peter Pan. For this week’s Q&A, the group’s Rebecca Blenkiron recalls past highlights – and looks forward to treading the boards again early next year
Just before the pandemic, DADS celebrated its 21st birthday with Peter Pan. How did the society come to be formed?
DADS started in 1999 with Cath Stanwix, from Gayles, having the idea of starting a village pantomime. It started with a small meeting in the supper room at Dalton Village Hall and it went on from there. There was only a small stage at the back of the hall that was about two inches high.
David Brooks then built a brand new strong stage with sliding green velvet curtains and storage units underneath. After two years it had to be extended again because the shows got bigger.
The stage now boasts scenery boards, curtains, lighting and sound equipment. It has come a long way in 21 years.
We used to have lightbulbs placed in cut-out paint tins as our lighting system. LED light bulbs have made the process a lot cooler too.
Are those who were involved in the early days still part of DADS – how has the society developed over the last 20 years?
Of the original cast from our very first panto to our 21st, only one member remains, Stephen Longstaff. He appeared in the very first Dalton Panto aged 12, playing them all, from the front end of the cow, villains, comedy boys, scarecrows to countless comedy Dames. He is now part-time professional, playing Dame Dolly at the Darlington Majestic Theatre’s spring pantomime Rapunzel at the end of this month.
We have had a lot of very dedicated members over the years, taking on numerous responsibilities to make the show happen – Pam Braithwaite, Richard Osbourne, Teeny Cox, Jane Ratcliffe, Alan Hutchinson, Lena Russell to name just a few, but the list goes on.
Over the 21 years we have had a lot of different members, lots of local children getting involved which we always encourage.
Some get the bug and stay around for years – Adam Wallis (co-director of Peter Pan) and I started aged 10-12 possibly, it was a long time ago.
But whether in your teens or your 60s, we are all very much a family. That can also be said for our audience. We get tremendous support from audience members, some of whom have been coming along from year one. Panto gets in your veins and ends up in your heart.
What can you tell us about the very first production Hickory Dickory Dock – did everything go smoothly?
I wasn’t there for that one, so this answer’s from Stephen. Hickory Dickory Dock was the first Panto at Dalton and a huge success. It all went very well. Back stage is only very small so it was a squeeze.
Cath Stanwix was director, making sure everyone knew their lines, Alan Braithwaite was stage manager, with Jack Blackburn, David Brooks working the lights as well as an entire cast – it got a bit cramped but that added to the atmosphere of the show.
One night the stage lights blew and the whole show had to be done with the house lights on, Sean Lovegreen was heard to shout: “Do not adjust your sets, normal service will resume shortly.”
What’s the best thing about putting on a panto?
From the perspective of a director/producer it can be incredibly stressful. But then the end result has you bursting with pride – it is all worth it.
We work incredibly well together as a team, a bit like a dysfunctional family at times. There is always a laugh and a joke. Individuals get the opportunity to audition for different roles each year to develop their skills in different areas as all parts in a panto are so different.
It’s lovely to watch the younger children grow into bigger roles year on year. But far and away the best part about putting on a panto is laughter. Night after night we tell the same jokes, we repeat the same one-liners – and still, they are funny.
The cast have heard the same joke a hundred times when the night of the performance finally comes round, and we are still giggling backstage.
When do you start preparations/how long to does it take to put a show together?
Normally our preparations begin around late September, early October, in the local pub (obviously). We start by reading through a few different scripts to choose which we want. Then we go to our read-through where we decide who will audition for what roles. Once our parts have been allocated, we start to learn our lines – which takes literally months.
We meet once a week from October to Christmas and then twice a week thereafter. Once we start to approach show time we quite often meet on Sundays and then Saturdays too.
January is time to put up posters, sell tickets and learn our songs and dances. Once we get into February, we need to start thinking about painting sets, sewing curtains, picking costumes, so it’s all hands on deck.
Show time is usually February half term or early March, although we have had to postpone due to snow before.
Of the shows DADS has produced, do you have a favourite or one that sticks in the mind – and why?
I have asked our current members on this one for their opinion too.
Stephen Longstaff: “My favourite panto was The Wizard of Oz where I played the Scarecrow. It was full of innuendos and brought the house down every night. It wasn’t the typical traditional panto but you could see the cast were enjoying it just as much as the audience.”
Ann Myers: “I have liked all five of the DADS pantos I have been in since I moved to North Yorkshire. I enjoy all parts of being in a panto, seeing a very high standard of acting and singing. However challenging some of the music and dancing is at times, we get there in the end. I enjoy being with people, mixing with the local community and especially like-minded panto people.”
I have had many favourites. One year (a few moons ago, maybe aged 13) I was singing Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever” and totally forgot the words. My best friend was sat in the front row and started singing along with me so I could join in.
Playing Belle in Beauty and the Beast was fab – I loved the singing and learning to waltz. Peter Pan was my first male lead role and I “believed I could fly” – a personal highlight.
What’s the best thing about being a member of DADS?
Having the forum to mix and interact with local like-minded folk is brilliant and we make life-long friends. We meet each other for six months of the year and then when it comes around for the next six months its like a big family reunion.
Needless to say, the first meeting often isn’t that productive. We live in a small community but people travel from near and far to be a part of DADS and also to watch our performances.
Ultimately, we love to entertain to a local crowd. Panto is our way of letting our proverbial comedy juices flow. For me, the ultimate gift is being on stage on the Saturday night, being far too warm and covered in far too much make-up, thinking of all the people you need to thank for helping to make the show happen. Owing so much thanks to so many is very humbling indeed.
How has the group been affected during the past year or so?
We were extremely lucky as we performed our last show on Saturday, February 22, 2020, just before we were locked down. As a group we got the full experience from read-through to post party clean up. So, it is almost as if this year hasn’t happened for DADS.
Not being able to get together and put on a show has been a downer for us. We just love to get up there and make people laugh. We bounce of each other and we have missed that.
However, we have spoken a few times via Messenger to lift spirits and recognise that we are still DADS and that there may be light at the end of the tunnel, to meet again – sometime.
Are you optimistic for the future – have you started planning for a 2022 show?
We definitely recognise how special DADS is, a small amateur dramatic society, in a little village in North Yorkshire, and we manage year in year out to sell over 300 tickets to our performance.
We are lucky beyond doubt that we have brought in so much talent over the years. So, I am very optimistic for our future. We are always on the look out for younger members of our community who want to join in the fun.
We haven’t started planning 2022 yet, we might think about that in September. I have no doubt that my fellow cast members are sat at home champing on the bit to get started, with our 22nd birthday in 2022.
It is a big community pantomime. Where else could you find an age range from nursery school children to 90-year-olds sitting down and enjoying a night of humour and entertainment.
Hopefully we will be able to go ahead this coming February with a panto to beat all pantos.
Assuming you are able to put on a show early next year, are you confident audiences will come through the doors?
We have faith. By February 2022 I hope we will be able to return to normal. Our main problem will be space as we have a notoriously small backstage area.
There is a lot of bumping into one another, and this is part of the charm.
But it does mean we have a lot to take into consideration. Luckily, we have time to see what other shows and pantos do this Christmas season, to follow their lead.
We also have a wonderful audience who visit our village hall every year. They have been coming for the last 21 years so I believe, if it is safe, they will come. Panto has to be done in person; virtual panto just won’t work. How can you boo and hiss at Captain Hook from your sofa?
Where can people find out more about DADS?
We’re on Facebook. We are Dalton Amateur Dramatic Society or @DaltonPanto. There’s not much going on at the moment but when we have decided our next performance we will be announcing it there and keeping everyone up to date on our progress.
Also if anyone is interested in joining us this year just message us on there. Everybody is welcome, not just for on stage but for make-up, set design, backstage, music and lighting. We welcome you.