RENEE LIANG, during her southern sojourn, is taking the time to hobnob with all kinds of writers, artists and assorted layabouts. One of the rarer species she found was a pantomime writer, Greg Macleod. Not only is Greg the writer of the Dunedin Xmas Pantomime for the third year in a row, but he’s also an actor, musician, closet painter and all-round creative genius. Definitely one of the Deep South’s better-kept secrets.

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R: How did you get into writing pantomime? I mean, it must be a great chat-up line at parties....

G: Panto and schmoozing don’t go hand in hand! Writing pantomime was born out of a need to have a play that we wanted to put on, the plays I had read either had too many characters (which did not work for our small budget), or they were meant to be funny and were not (well, I did not find them funny! Mind you I have a warped sense of humour). We first asked our directors to write, however, we found that they were very funny but were lacking in the story department. So I started by writing The Return of Robin Hood. We decided to tell re-treads of stories, a sequel so to speak, which gave a lot of room to create a story with the right amount of characters and not get too caught up in the original. I failed English in my last year of high school and I was not a reader as a child, so it is quite a strange thing for me to be considered a writer.

R: Your background is actually in acting? Have you tried your hand at writing other genres?

G: This is my first attempt at writing anything, aside from a few bad song lyrics. I did not plan to become a writer, it was born out of a need.

R: So do you think of yourself more as a performing artist or as a writer?

G: An artist. I like the word, I would love to be called an artist, however, I think people associate the word with painters, I do paint also, but I am such a distracted artist, I have all my fingers in all the pies. I get caught up with moments and ideas and find myself getting dragged along with a different discipline every month.

R: How do you go about writing a panto?

G: I start in labour weekend and I use a laptop. I spit-ball ideas with my wife...

R: ... spit-ball?

G: I watch the special features on DVD (I love it!). Batman Begins is a favourite movie of mine and a good example of someone clever making a retread – they used the term ‘spit-balling’ to describe how they arrived at answering all the questions of how Batman ‘begins’. I loved the concept and I use it with my wife, I make her question and then we fill in the holes together – a panto has to make sense, albeit ludicrous.

R: You said before that you start with an established story and then write a “retread” of it.

G: We spit-ball and then we create a rough framework of the story, through that outline the characters are born and I then try and type as quickly as possible to write the dialogue. I find a voice, accent or stereotype for each character and I read what I have written and use my acting skill to create the rhythm of the text. Anything that does not scan gets scrapped.

R: Someone (famous, but I forget who) once wrote that the only person who gets to play all the characters in a play is the playwright. So I guess that’s true for you. I notice you have a lot of local content in there as well – and a few “kiwi” things. Is that just a byproduct of the way you write?

G: I write a story – well, it is really a framework. I then give that story to the director and actors and tell them to make it their own. We workshop the script in a very short time and I find that the talented actors are much funnier than I could ever be and when they are improvising, some of the funniest lines are created. I record read-throughs to capture anything and print it. I like to work in an organic way and only have one rule – the story stays the same. Being a teacher, I know that the element of a good story is for characters to have a motive, even if it’s a silly panto motivation. Because I am a full time teacher and parent, I do not have all the time in the world to write, (I do it in a couple of weekends) I therefore like this genre, it allows for holes. I have a great respect for novelists and historical playwrights.

R: Do you pay much attention to “panto traditions”? I notice in Sinbad you had a cross-dressing character, and plenty of mild innuendo, and of course the bit where the kids get to yell and dance.

G: The only true “panto” I have seen was a Christmas Special on Television – Jack and the Beanstalk with a couple of English comic legends. I know that they revolve around a traditional fairy-tale and that men dress as woman, but I write something that I would like to see and hopefully mum and dad will enjoy too, as well as the kids. I don't write ‘panto’ as such I write a very short story and make someone dress in drag and throw a couple of local references and a few border-line jokes. Any play could have the potential to be a pantomime – I feel it is like a caricature of life.

R: Is your wife also a writer/performer?

G: She produces theatre. She will not go near a stage but enjoys the background work. She worked at Fortune Theatre as Assistant Marketing Manager and is also a teacher (same goes for me too). I love to laugh and that is what I want this whole experience to be about – I want children to laugh at actors falling over one another and adults to laugh at the jokes they know their children do not understand.

R: Yes, I agree, panto is a very interesting genre in that it has to appeal to kids and adults alike. Do you find the show then changes in rehearsal and even between performances? Are your cast influenced by the audience reaction?

G: It should change. When an actor is on fire and reading the audience, that is when the magic happens, kids are calling out not to distract, but because they are so involved with hating the baddie, they’re on their knees shouting. It is wonderful, most of the theatre I am involved with as an actor is very closed, there is no blurring between the audience and the stage, if someone opens a lollie wrapper they get scowled at. It’s is probably as close to the Renaissance as I will get.

R: How did you start out?

G: I started in musical theatre at school. Jesus Christ Superstar changed my world! I was cast as Judas and I realised that I loved portraying other people, I loved finding out what makes a person tick. I have always been observant, for example, I play a game with my wife where I try to predict what someone’s voice will sound like on a television game show - before they speak. She thinks I am mad but can't help but rate me out of ten.

R: What was your time at Toi Whakaari like?

G: I lasted ten months at Toi Whakaari, I leant a lot about myself there and I learnt that I did not want to be a full time actor. I had just started a relationship with my wife and I was psychologically torn between Wellington and Dunedin and the course relied upon one hundred percent present-ness, mind, body and soul. So when they began to analyse my gait and try and break me down I was a little resistant. Upon reflection, there were some fantastic tutors like Miranda Harcourt at Toi, but I was not happy with all that went on – I came out of there a little worse for wear, my confidence shattered and disillusioned with the acting profession. I lost enjoyment and developed a whole lot of anxiety! Since being home I have worked with a range of professional and amateur actors and have fully repaired my passion for what I do.

R: I think I’ve read of various famous actors saying the same thing about NIDA in Sydney... What are your current projects?

G: Sinbad the Musical (long term plan to produce a similar Disney style production for young and old) and another that is top secret!

R: Beauty and the Beast looked like an impressive production. Does it get much better than playing the lead in a big budget musical like that?

G: The Beast was great! There is nothing more fun than dressing up in a costume designed by WETA Workshops looking like a grumpy dribbling ox.

R: ...and trying to sing through it?

G: It’s all in the way you hold your tongue.

R: Does that mean you got latex-molded into it?

G: I had to glue my face every night and stick bits of rubber to my forehead and jaw.
The best part was taking it off in seven minutes and then trying to appear as the ‘handsome’ prince! I think I became very well acquainted with a product called mysotrope alcohol - I remember only small parts of the night after involuntarily inhaling that solvent.

R: hmmm! all kinds of potential disasters spring to mind! Like, kissing Belle with a bit of latex still glued on...

G: Or Gaston...

R: Is that the stuff used to dissolve glues?

G: And skin.

R: I guess the acting profession is well known for its occupational hazards.

G: They generally happen after the show!

G: I am really a Music Theatre man, I can’t wait to get a drama role that I can sink my teeth into.

R: And you also sing in a band?

G: The Oxo Cuban Big Band. It’s a 10-15 piece, we played the New Year Carnival in Dunedin.

R: You really are a Jack of all trades! So, the panto of yours that was published...That’s very impressive... it’s hard enough getting a play published if you’re a NZ playwright, let alone a panto!

G: Not quite published, I have submitted it to an online publisher who are based in England. I Googled ‘pantomime scripts’ and they were the first hit, I emailed them my script Not so Snow White, they are going to publish it once I have sorted out the music rights. They reviewed it and said it was a fresh take on Snow White for societies to produce. So, who knows?

R: Any “last comments” ... maybe advice to any budding panto writers out there?

G: When in doubt include a chase scene with chase music, create a nanny character and find a hairy man to play her...and finally – add “it’s behind you” (how’s that for corny!).