Panto twist on amphibious love story
By Clive Ramroop, Contributor
Mike Balser is the director and co-writer of The Frog Princess, an original pantomime production from the Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society (FVGSS). He is also the vice president of the society. The Other Press recently caught up with Balser during a rehearsal to discuss the production.
Without giving any spoilers, what can viewers expect to see in The Frog Princess?
You can see a strong female princess; the victim of a curse, but somebody who knows her own mind. You get to see a villainess and her son who are probably one of my favourite parts of the show, because they’re funny and clever; their timing is excellent. You’re also going to see some great music. You’ll get the modern references, and the stock characters that a panto always has, like the Dame and the Principal Boy (the girl dressed as a boy). And of course, the love story that’s always in there. Probably one of the most endearing things about this panto is the children’s chorus. This year, there are only six in the frog chorus, but they are adorable and really talented.
What prompted the idea of having the princess being the frog instead of the expected prince?
We wanted to do something a little different. We [with co-writers Cathy Wilmot and Norma Rushton] hadn’t even chosen a fairy tale; we were talking about writing a panto. Norma and I had written one in ’96-’97: The Princess and the Pea. We thought it was fun; “Let’s do it again!” We wanted a fairy tale that was fairly recognizable, something that people would see as a children’s story. But we didn’t want to do Cinderella or Snow White or the usual things. We were looking through the Grimm Brothers fairy tales and found this Russian tale about The Frog Princess. The actual Russian tale is different from the script we wrote… but we wanted to make it something more manageable and recognizable that we could put on stage. That’s why it was the princess; that’s what it is in the Russian story.
Would you give some background on your interest in the performing arts?
I’ve been interested in the performing arts since I was 11. My first play was in my Grade 6 class when I adapted a MAD Magazine movie parody for me and my friends to perform for our class. I went to Dalhousie University and took a theatre degree there… I was a professional actor for 10 years on the East Coast… and did children’s theatre and dinner theatre; all the stuff you have to do to be a performer and pay the rent, especially on the East Coast, but anywhere in Canada. I became a teacher, because it’s very similar to children’s theatre, except the audience doesn’t change. I found the FVGSS in ’95, and I’ve been coming back doing the pantos ever since.
For the FVGSS pantos, you’ve been a director, writer, and performer, while also taking on set design and lighting. Is there a single aspect of live theatre that you enjoy more than others?
All those things are interesting. They allow me to be creative and come up with ideas that work on stage. But the most important thing is the audience reaction, the interaction with the audience. When I direct, I like to make sure it’s something that the audience can follow that will capture them. I often say that a play—any play, but pantos particularly—is a roller coaster ride that has to have an “up” and a “down,” where things go slow, but things go fast. It’s getting that rhythm that’s playing with the audience as a director; just like being the Dame, doing improv and playing with reactions from the audience is as a performer. It all links together.
The Frog Princess will be playing from November 27 to December 8 at the Surrey Arts Centre. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, plus 2:30 p.m. weekend matinees. For ticket info, contact the Surrey Arts Centre theatre box office at 604-501-5566.
Tune in next week for Part 3 of British Pantomime 101!