A finger points at an illustration of Cinderella on a computer screen

How we animated #Pantoverse with My Pockets

By | Blog, Panto, Shows, Uncategorised

Middle Child have asked me, Peter Snelling of My Pockets, to write a blog post on what it is like to create the digital content for their Christmas show, Pattie Breadcake: Into the Pantoverse. They have also said that what whatever I write, to be honest.  They have, to be honest, asked me this more than once. In fact, it might even be eight times. I don’t really know why I am resisting doing it. I don’t always like unpicking a creative process: I’m sometimes a bit lazy and sometimes I feel weird about putting things on the internet that will be there forever, like the terrible photo of me taken in 2004 that never goes away.

Anyway, I am going to do it now. I’ve made a cup of tea, I’ve got a salted caramel Hobnob snack bar, I’m going to keep writing until it’s done. Hello, if you are still reading; this is everything I know about making a piece of digital content for a Middle Child panto.

Animator Peter Snelling holds up a hand drawn picture of Pattie Breadcake

First of all Paul [Smith, artistic director] rang me up. I think it’s weird how people get to a point where they ring each other up. I met Paul at one thing somewhere, then somewhere else, then saw a Middle Child play and emailed to say I liked it, then asked him for a favour on something, then he rang me up to ask if I could animate a panto.

Over the years as an organisation that only wants to make creative work we have had times when we’ve been on the brink of running out of money. So I find it almost impossible to say no to creative projects. As My Pockets has become more established it’s something I need to address. I know that Elvis had the same problem with food. He’d been hungry once and so when he reached a point in his life where burgers were freely available, he found it impossible to not eat them all.

Not that Middle Child is just another burger that Elvis is stuffing into his mouth. Paul ringing felt more like an invite to a gastro pub. So we started to think about how to turn the panto into something that would work online. Our animations at My Pockets take ages to make. We create about 10 seconds a day. The conversation was in November and the panto needed to be the length of a play, so there was no way we could make it in the normal way. This year we have been experimenting with software that tracks your face and moves a kind of animated puppet along with it, then you wiggle the arms and legs with a mouse and the animation is made. It’s much quicker than the conventional way of doing it and felt like the perfect solution.

A pen in a hand, drawing all of the various panto characters on white paper

Next we needed to design the animated puppets. For me this is the fun bit. I’ve always loved drawing; I like the way it is so quick, that you can do it anywhere, that it needs no technology.  I also don’t think I’m very good at it, which is liberating. I think wanting to be good, or thinking you are good can be really limiting to creativity. It can get in the way of just saying what you want to say. Why is it that those blokes that joined Oasis after Bonehead left are much better at playing guitar, but somehow can’t make the same noise?

I think it’s because being good is not as important as… I’m not sure what it’s not as important as, but I know that if you ask me to draw a vase of flowers with a 2B pencil, the results are always very disappointing. But when I drew Pattie Breadcake in 10 seconds after reading the script I was like, “Yes, that’s her!”

In fact almost all of the characters were drawn first time in seconds, immediately after reading the script. I felt guilty about it and drew each one a few more times afterwards to try and justify my fee, but the first ones were all the best.

A finger points at an illustration of Cinderella on a computer screen

I know that the Middle Child panto is loved by lots of people and that it has this kind of anarchic energy. It’s alive and so the quick drawing seems right. It seems like a performance.  We made a few adjustments. Cinderella went from being in a pink princess dress to a tracksuit with headphones, while her face also went from being pink, to green to orange. But really I think that the spirit of the drawing and the spirit of the panto were so well matched it was pretty easy. I think finding creative people who share your spirit is the key to making things that work.

So the fun part was now over. Now I had to bring in the drawings, colour them in Photoshop and make them work with the animation software, against the backdrop of Natalie Young’s set design: photographs of an actual model box! Then I had to perform the whole panto, wiggling my head around in front of my webcam to capture all the movement, lip syncing to the audio files recorded by the actors over Zoom and mastered by Ed Clarke, with music composed by James Frewer. And then export it all, which took a whole weekend of checking the blue bar creeping across my laptop screen. Don’t waste your life watching the blue bar.

A screenshot of the animation software, with a picture of the Evil Queen being motion captured by Peter Snelling in another image box

I’ve finished my cup of tea. I’ve eaten my sugary snack. Now I’ve got to do some terrible Zoom call on a project that I’m not entirely sure I really want to do. Maybe this will be the one I’ll say no to. Maybe now is the time to make a break for freedom.

Working with Middle Child has been a real pleasure. It’s been fun and creative. And they have been so supportive, it’s a breath of fresh air. I can see why their shows are so great; it’s because the people and the company are great. I hope that our animated show helps to plug the 2020 gap of panto anarchy that people will be missing. I can’t wait to see what people think of the Pantoverse.

Pattie Breadcake and four animated panto characters are sucked into a vortex, against a pink background. Text: "An Interview with Finn (Age 5)"

An Interview with Finn (Age 5)

By | Blog, Panto, Uncategorised

Five year old Finn, the son of Middle Child’s general and production manager, Emily, is a regular fixture behind the scenes at our annual, rock’n’roll panto.

You can often find him sat in the middle aisle during tech rehearsals, making his way through a bucket of pick and mix while his mum works on the show.

Finn is as much a part of our panto as having a dame is these days, so we’re missing his beaming little smile as we work on an online, animated Christmas show this year instead.

Who better then, we thought, to speak to ahead of the release of our panto-inspired YouTube production this Saturday – Pattie Breadcake: Into the Pantoverse.

Give Finn a listen, right, as he’s interviewed by his dad, Matt, or read the transcript below.

An Interview with Finn (Age 5)

Matt: What’s your name?

Finn: Finlay

Matt: And what do you do?

Finn: Go to school and play with my friends and play with Lego.

Matt: What’s your favourite thing about Middle Child panto?

Finn: Watching shows.

Matt: Why do you like watching the shows?

Finn: Because they’re funny.

Matt: Who’s the silliest character?

Finn: Pattie Breadcake

Matt: So you get to see behind the scenes, what do you like about that?

Finn: Playing with the light and sound. And playing with Paul.

Matt: Can you describe what Mummy does on panto?

Finn: Bosses people about!

Matt: What are you missing about panto this year?

Finn: Watching the shows.

Matt: Anything else about watching the shows?

Finn: Playing with the light and sound.

Matt: So if you could be any panto character, who would it be?

Finn: The crab

Matt: Why would you be the crab?

Finn: Because he’s funny.

Matt: What would you like to say to all of the children who might be listening to this?

Finn: Come to Middle Child, it’s good.

The Little Mermaid - Hull Pantomime - Sarah Beth

Christmas, coronavirus and… panto in Hull?

By | Artistic Director, Blog, News, Panto
The Little Mermaid - Hull Pantomime

By Paul Smith, artistic director and joint-CEO

Somehow it’s already that time of year. You know the one? Where we dust off the rat puppets, cobble together an under-rehearsed yet well intentioned finale and let our dame, Marc Graham, run wild on Hull audiences. But it’s not quite the same this year, is it?

Nothing’s quite the same. Instead of excitedly planning this year’s family Christmases or work parties we’re sat wondering what’s going to be left

It’s just Christmas” some people say, but really it’s about more than that isn’t it?

It’s about seeing family and friends. About seeing kids’ faces light up. About belting out some Wizzard with strangers on Whitefriargate, while dressed as a Christmas pudding. And for us at Middle Child it’s about panto. Usually it is, anyway. But not this year. This year we haven’t said a word about panto.


That much loved tradition that is, frankly, a bit odd, but a lot special. Where else in this stressful, anxiety-inducing world do adults and children alike come together to share in such unbridled joy? To cheer and boo, laugh and cry, hope and dream together, all while watching a dame dressed as a milk bottle tearfully sing to two actors bent double in a cow costume? 

We love panto. 

For us it’s what all theatre should be: totally devoted to its audience, woven into the fabric of local communities and able to magically transport us away from the real world, into one of magic and wonder. 

But this year it is the very nature of panto that makes it so challenging to realise. The things we love about it have become a barrier to it happening at all: being together in a space with loved ones and strangers, being noisy, being close, singing along, dancing together, avoiding the dame’s eye contact, being dragged up on stage, flashing our wands, rustling our sweets, elbowing granny to wake her up and reliving our favourite moments together in the interval.

It’s about connecting with other human beings through a story that is ridiculous and silly and soppy, but full of searing hope and belief.

It’s everything we’re already missing.

So why haven’t we said anything about panto? Why haven’t we been bombarding you with posters and trailers and ticket offers?

Nigel Taylor dressed in yellow with a blue baseball jacket and fish hat with his hands on his hips

I guess you know why.

In every good panto there’s a moment where all looks lost and we have to dig deep to believe we’ll get to the ending we’re all hoping for. 

We’ve been stuck on that plot point for a while now, hence the silence. Honestly? We didn’t want to say it out loud. That panto can’t happen for us how it usually happens and has happened for the last eight years, from our beloved Fruit to the last two brilliant years at Jubilee Central. 

We’ve had an inkling for a while now.

The nature of our show is proudly intimate. It matters that you (yes, you) are there with us. If you shout out we will hear you. We will respond. Your voice matters. You being in that chair matters. So, frankly, right now a live panto simply isn’t an option for our humble show. The production usually ‘pays for itself’ and without your support, there is no panto. We don’t use celebrity casting to bring in audiences. We rely on word-of-mouth. We rely on the hard work of our incredible local cast and crew. We rely on you, coming together and having a great night out. 

So I guess this is us saying it out loud. 

Panto can’t happen for us how it usually happens.

But that’s not the end of the story. Like all good panto heroes we’re refusing to accept defeat when the odds seem stacked insurmountably against us. We’re trying to find a way up the beanstalk, to the ball, through the enchanted forest. But there are challenges lying in wait and the ending is truly uncertain.

So what we want to do at this point is be honest with you. Tell you how it really is.

We aren’t going to be able to bring people together in a space to do panto this year.
We’re really sad about that.
Like, really sad.

But, we’re trying to do something else. Something digital.
Which, as I’ve said before, isn’t what we do, so we’re linking up with some brilliant people who do.

It’s something that we think could be really special.
It won’t be the same.
But we really do think it could be really special.

Thing is, we’ve never done anything like it before.
And we’re excited about that, but we’re also a bit scared.
Will it work? Will you like it? Will the internet be able to handle Pattie Breadcake?

Marc Graham as Hull panto dame Pattie Breadcake, in a sparkly top and pink dress, with blonde wig and crown.

And then there’s the virus, which is making it even more difficult.
Giving us even more to overcome.
Causing unpredictable twists and turns at every stage and in every detail.
Making us ask what happens if we tell you what we’re trying to do but then, for whatever unforeseeable reason, it can’t happen like we hope it can happen.

So this is where we are. 

We would like to make three promises to you:

1/ We are trying really hard to bring you something special this year to combat the gloom. Something you can enjoy for free from the comfort of your own home which will help us celebrate Christmas together again.

2/ We are doing all we can to make it happen, even if we don’t know what is around the corner. 

3/ As soon as we can, we will tell you more.

All we ask, is that you keep the faith and don’t give up hope. In us, in panto and in being together again.

This story isn’t over yet.

Big love and stay safe.

Paul x

Lindsey Alvis, in a stripey top, holds her daughter on a bright day at the seaside.

Returning to work from maternity leave in a pandemic

By | Blog
Lindsey Alvis, in a stripey top, holds her daughter on a bright day at the seaside.

By Lindsey Alvis, executive director and joint-CEO

I haven’t written like this before: put down my thoughts and feelings in a blog post for others to read. And I am not really sure why the urge to do this now, but I wanted to try to articulate how the last few months have been. Perhaps as catharsis for me, and also to share with those who’ve found themselves in a similar position.

When the pandemic hit I was nine months into maternity leave after having my first child. Let me be straight up and say that growing, birthing and raising a child has been one of the hardest things I have ever done: physically, mentally and emotionally. Women do not get enough credit. There, I said it.

Anyway, I was just starting to emerge from the cloud of the newborn stage, finding myself slowly and surely. Being at home on maternity leave has been a strange experience, as I am used to being part of public life. It’s work but not as you know it and requires a whole different skill set. In actual fact, I was barely at home, filling my time with groups, play dates, NCT catch ups and basically anything to get me out of the house.

I love my child and adore being a mum, but I am a social creature and desperately need adult interaction to keep me sane. I honestly did not think I’d be the kind of person to sit in a circle singing along to incy wincy spider, or spending hours discussing poo, but needs must.

All that changed when we were locked down. Suddenly we were at home all day, every day. I do need to say here that I am aware of our privilege: my husband and I have both remained in employment and we live in a safe and secure home, for which we are incredibly grateful. I understand that the realities of the pandemic are much harder for many people. But it has been a stressful and traumatic time, filled with anxiety about the future, particularly concerned for my child’s grandparents, and with no respite from the routine. With absolutely no breathing space, mental health suddenly had to become a secondary concern.

My husband worked from home too, so we were locked in together in an endless cycle of meals, naps, washing and cleaning. We did enjoy happy playtimes but, I don’t know about you, I found myself lacking in motivation and really fatigued.  Ironically, I missed those baby groups more than I can ever say, and those parent friends who’d often sat with me in shared exhaustion, sometimes too tired to even talk, always with cake to keep us going. The first time we participated in an online baby group during lockdown I cried, sad that we could not just sit in a room together, our babies getting to know each other whilst we exchanged the latest poo drama. The simplest of activities from before.

And then, all of a sudden, it was time to go back to work, albeit on part-time furlough and working from home basis. What an overwhelming and exciting thing. To go back to work. To be a professional. To drink a cup of tea undisturbed. To go to the toilet whenever I wanted. To talk shop. To grown ups. For a living. Again, the privilege. It was exhilarating. It was also really hard. I was sad that my child was no longer a small baby, that we were moving into the next stage of nursery school and independence. That we wouldn’t be together all the time. That I’d miss stuff. Important stuff.

On the first day we had a team catch up via Zoom. Don’t tell them but I was so happy to see their faces and hear their news. I really have missed being part of a small, dynamic and creative team. Then it was straight back up to speed: our landlord was auctioning our beloved building, Darley’s, so we had big decisions to make, and the small factor of a full board meeting. We also decided to apply to the Cultural Recovery Fund – and I am delighted to say we were successful.

All this didn’t really give me the chance to take things in my stride on my return and in truth it’s been a whirlwind of meetings, decision making, funding applications, planning and strategising. All whilst getting my family into a new routine and juggling a seemingly endless list of things at work and home.

It’s been and still is a lot but, time away from work has taught me how much I value the company I work for, the role I do and the team I work with. I have been extremely lucky to have had such great support. Our marvellous general manager, Emily, and I went through our pregnancies together – our babies were born a week apart – so I had someone every step of the way who really understood what I was going through, checking in with me after midwife appointments and picking up hot chocolate on the way into the office.

Our time opening Us Against Whatever at Liverpool Everyman whilst five months pregnant is one of the highlights of my career – the sheer ambition, achievement, and exhaustion of it. Safe to say our digs were well stocked with biscuits. I had a great maternity cover in Rozzy, an absolute star, who has been particularly supportive during our handover and will no doubt take over the world.

I also work for a flexible and supportive organisation that is open to ideas about new ways of working, responding to the needs of new parents to ensure we don’t move away from the industry, and has, championed by our artistic director, Paul, recently become a member of PIPA (Parents in the Performing Arts). Then there are wider Middle Child family who are fellow parents: Mungo, Ali, Matt B, Ellie and Matt P. Between us we’ve had four babies in the space of six months, and they are always on hand with advice, support and care.

I am trying to take it a step at a time. I am trying to be honest with the board and co-chief exec about how I am doing. I am trying not to be hard on myself. I am finding new ways of working. I am listening. I am being flexible and understanding with myself. Time away has clarified my vision and I am bringing that to the table. I am prioritising my passions and the things I want us to take forward, like finding a brilliant new home for the company in our home city of Hull and working creatively with new parents.

Making work in the current climate is daunting to me and the safety of artists, audiences and staff is of the upmost importance. I am seeking advice and asking for help. I am also carving out small amounts of time off, resting my mind, processing, recalibrating. I am running, occasionally. I am sleeping, child permitting.

All of these things are important because none of us have lived through this before. And none of us know what the future will bring. Protecting our own mental health is crucial to protecting ourselves and the ones we love. Speaking of which, it’s time to sign off, incy wincy is calling.