It was Christmas day with the family and I was telling my mum what I’ve been up to over the last couple of months. After covering “the cat”, “work” and “having two colds”, I was struggling. Then I remembered. Of course! The most exciting event to happen for months – and it had only happened a couple of days before Christmas. How could I forget?
“I was in a pantomime!”
As the words left my mouth, I realised it was a mistake. Don’t get me wrong; I was in a pantomime, but not one it would ever be easy to explain to my officially pensionable mother.
The fact is, I played Dandini in the first ever Twitpanto. The brainchild of Jon Bounds (whose brain, to be fair, has a lot of children), the Twitpanto took place on – where else? – Twitter, with a cast that included MP Tom Watson and Guardian writer Jemima Kiss, as well as the usual Brum Twitter suspects. See the full cast list here. (I told you it was exciting, didn’t I? Dandini is Prince Charming’s right hand man, no less!)
So how did it work? First you need to understand what Twitter is and how it works, which is where the idea of telling my mum all about it fell down somewhat. I’ll take it as read you at least understand the principles, because Twitter is notoriously difficult to explain, even to those who have “given it a go”.
Cast members were given an outline of our character (our “motivation”, if you will) and a script to follow – and we all followed a private Twitter account set up by Jon, where he could act as director and prompt without being seen by the audience. “As far as I know it’s the first time someone has attempted live drama on the microblogging service” said Jon on his blog “…and it might fail spectacularly (it’s very much an experiment).”
Those who wanted to watch the pantomime could follow Twitpanto in a number of ways, with varying degrees of success. You could just follow all the cast and then try and pick out the panto from amongst your Twitterstream, for example, or you could use Twitter’s search facility to look for #Twitpanto and keep refreshing.
Another tool, roomatic, did the job a lot better, allowing us to follow everything tagged with #twitpanto in real time and in reading order. But because of the sheer number of people using the tag, it was still very difficult to separate the cast – saying lines from the panto – from the huge amount of audience chatter and participation. This was solved when Matthew Somerville (Dracos) hacked the roomatic script and created a version with all the cast members highlighted in blue. It made it loads easier for everyone and you can read a final transcript on Matthew’s site.
As I sat watching the pandemonium unfold (or rather, scroll) on my screen, waiting for my cues amongst the rowdy #twitpanto stream, and trying to cut and paste my lines in time to keep the flow going, I did experience a strange, mild form of stage fright. Given that roomatic crashed a couple of times and I had to resort to following the panto by refreshing the #twitpanto search page, I found it nigh on impossible to improvise. It didn’t help that several of my colleagues were also following, watching my fingers hover over the ctrl+V keys and saying “are you on soon?”
So, did it “fail spectacularly”, as Jon feared it might? Of course not. Like every good pantomime should be, it was silly, chaotic, funny, rowdy and … well, tiring. It involved lots of audience participation – oh, yes it did! – and even made page 11 of the Birmingham Post (nothing to do with the Editor playing the part of Cinderella’s coachman, of course).
Being the last day at work, it was a great way to get into the Christmas spirit and, ludicrous though it sounds, I felt like I’d really been part of something big. I may not have been able to explain it to my mum (in fact I resorted to mumbling “it was on the internet” which turned out to be enough) but she gave me a hug and said “wow, well done!” anyway. And surely that’s what Christmas is all about.