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creative:impact - Theatre Nova stages a very British family holiday tradition--the panto

Theatre Nova

Raucus, fun, and steeped in tradition, a panto is a theater tradition that has entertained generations of Brits during the holidays. Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis, co-author of Theatre Nova’s production of "A Almost British Christmas" talks about the over-the-top characters and the slapstick comedy of this family-friendly holiday entertainment with "creative:impact" host Deb Polich of Creative Washtenaw. 

Deb Polich
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, 89.1 WEMU's David Fair and co-host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explore the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.


R. MacKenzie Lewis has composed, arranged and served as music director for dozens of Eastern Michigan University Theatre productions. He is a lecturer in the School of Music and Dance as well. He's the music director and co-executive director for 8th Wonder Productions at the Cherry Hill Theatre in Canton, Michigan. He has also served as music director and performed with the Performance Network in Ann Arbor, Northville’s Tipping Point Theatre, the Williamston Theatre in Lansing and the Plaza Casino in Las Vegas. 

Credit Eastern Michigan University / emich.edu
Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis

He directs ENCORE, a musical theatre troupe touring secondary schools and performing at numerous area locations. He has also composed and arranged music for EMU's marching band, jazz ensemble, wind ensemble, and symphony orchestra. Aside from his university responsibilities, Lewis music directs, composes, orchestrates and arranges music for various theatres, bands, orchestras and musicals.

Some favorite projects have been:

  • orchestrating and music directing the National Tour and Off-Broadway premiere of The Berenstain Bears LIVE! in Family Matters, The Musical
  • music directing and orchestrating Gypsy, at the Hangar Theatre in New York, for which he won a Broadway World Award for Best Music Direction
  • associate music directing the workshop of Romance in Hard Times with William Finn at the Barrington Stage Co.
  • composing music for Mockingbird, Wings of Ikarus and Jason Invisible-all of which were commissioned and premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

He also composed the musicals Video Games: The Rock Opera, Irrational, and Soaring on Black Wings-a world premiere with Ben Vereen. Lewis keeps himself busy writing and music directing for several local theatre companies and performing with his big band, Accidentally Hip, throughout the Metro-Detroit area and recently in the Las Vegas production of Ain't Misbehavin'.

In between moments of chaos you can catch Ryan practicing harmonica or mowing the lawn at his home with his beautiful wife Kate and their son Jack.


  • BA, Music Education, Eastern Michigan University
  • MA, Music Theory and Literature, Eastern Michigan University


  • CTAR 106 /MUSC 106 Introduction to the Performing Arts
  • MUSC 107 Music Appreciation
  • MUSC 118 Music Literature I
  • MUSC 128 Music Literature II
  • CTAC 124 Foundations of Speech Communication

Accompaniment/Musical Direction

  • CTAR 379 Styles/Musical Theatre Performance
  • CTAR 461 Musical Theatre Acting
  • CTAR 471 Musical Theatre Workshop
  • MUSC 477 Opera Workshop


Theatre Nova

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Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis

"An Almost British Christmas"

"The Story of Pantomime" by the Victoria & Albert Museum


Deb Polich: Welcome to another edition of creative:impact on WEMU FM. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your solo host for the show until David returns for from his medical leave. Thanks for listening, and we as we welcome creative guests and explore the impact of the arts and creative industries in Washtenaw County. You know, a few years ago during the holidays, my husband Russ and I went to England to visit my daughter, Lindsey and her English wife, Anna. Anna wanted us to experience what she explained as a very British family holiday tradition called the panto. And, you know, as much as Russ and I know theater, we didn't know anything about pantos. We went to Peter Pan, starring none other than David Hasselhoff in the lead role of Hoff the Hook. It was a blast. What's a panto? Our guest musician and composer, Ryan MacKenzie-Lewis, knows, and we're going to welcome Ryan to the show right now. 

Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

Deb Polich: Yeah, sure, absolutely. We're glad to have you. So you and Carla Milarch, the artistic director of Theater Nova in Ann Arbor, wrote A Very British Christmas, which is a panto that is opening on December 3rd and runs through January 2nd. Before we get into your creative process, how would you describe a panto? 

Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis: Pantos are, like you said, a very British tradition they came out of the 16th century commedia dell'arte. It is always done around the holiday times here, and it usually features some beloved classic story that is loosely retold in a very funny and slapstick, family-friendly way.

Credit Victoria & Albert Museum
Left to right: photolithograph of the actor-manager John Rich as Harlequin, from an etching of 1753, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Vignette of Joseph Grimaldi the English clown as Scaramouche, 19th century, England. Museum no. S.1381-2009.


Deb Polich: Absolutely. You mentioned commedia dell'arte and that kind of theater, which I was familiar with, is very physical, and it has rather formulaic plots acted out by stock characters easily identified by their costumes, characters like Harlequin and the Maiden Columbina and the sad clown Perreault, which some people may be familiar with. The Brits made this into their own form and kind of own the panto. The three pantos I've seen were familiar. Peter Pan, Treasure Island, and an English fable called Dick Whittingham. You mentioned that the stories are usually familiar. Is that how you and Carla started yours? 

Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis: Absolutely. Yeah. So, we have written, I think, six of them now.

Deb Polich: Oh my gosh.

Credit Carla Milarch / Theatre Nova
Theatre Nova
Performers for 'An Almost British Christmas'

Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis: Yeah. And so, yeah, it always a sort of familiar stories. We actually did Dick Whittingham one year and sort of changed it to D.J. Whittingham. And that's kind of some of the, you know, usual twists and turns that pantos take. And this year, it's a take on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which I'm assuming most people are familiar with. And, yeah, it's very physical. So, we have three actors in the show that do all the parts. So, they are constantly.--if they're not on stage singing or doing their scenes, they're offstage doing quick changes. They're running around the building. And, yeah, very physical. And it's, like I said, it's Rudolph, but, you know, we have our own take on it, and it takes some twists and turns like pantos want to do. 

Deb Polich: Yeah. So you, you know, as commedia dell'arte said, pantos usually have stock characters or character types. Do your three actors encompass all of those and what are they?

Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis: Absolutely, yeah. Most pantos have the tradition of a dame role, as they would call it in England, which is a man playing a female character in drag, which is usually always very over the top. And there's a lot of audience participation, especially with that dame role. And there's usually always a pants role, which is sort of the opposite of that, which is a female actor doing a male actor role, usually like a young boy protagonist role. So, we have those very stock characters in there and, you know, have a lot of other tropes that are in there. Usually, there's always very topical things, very topical humor, very topical jokes. If there is political people, you know, who are in the news, we'll usually try to drop them in to the stories as well. 

Credit Victoria & Albert Museum
Left to right: Miss Rosie St. George as Boy Blue in Little Bo Peep, Miss Maud Boyd as Robin Hood, Ada Blanche as Robinson Crusoe, The Sketch Magazine, 27 December 1893, England. Museum no. 131655.


Deb Polich: So, you mentioned the audience. And these are really interactive. So, how do you encourage the audience to participate?

Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis: Well, one good thing about being able to write these pantos for an American audience is we can tell them through the story what they should be doing. You know, in England, when you go see a panto, everybody kind of knows what to do. Everybody knows the response is when the villain comes out, everybody boos and hisses. 

Deb Polich: Right. 

Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis: And so, because we don't have that tradition here and people usually don't know what to do, it's nice that we can write it in, and the characters and the actors can basically tell the audience, "Hey, here's what we do, and here's how you do this sort of thing." So, rather than having, you know, just long exposition of like, here's how a panto works and have it be very boring, we're able to integrate it right into the story and have a lot of the interaction where, you know, it's not awkward when the actors talk directly to you and ask you to respond. And, usually us American audiences, you know, just kind of like to sit there and view things. 

Deb Polich: Right. That's how we're trained.

Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Deb Polich: So, as the show goes on, does the audience get more and more into it and understand what they're supposed to be doing? And, actually and with that question, does it sometimes change the course of the show? Is there some improv that comes from the audience? 

Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis: Absolutely, yeah. Usually, it takes them a little bit to warm up to, you know, really understand that it's okay to interact, you know, to boo when the villain comes on. And, yes, it does totally change the course of the show as it goes on. And, usually, all the actors that we cast for these shows have to have some improv background and be really quick on their feet and be able to adjust to what's happening with the audience. And, sometimes, we have to write, you know, alternate scenes, you know, if it goes this way, we do this. If it goes this way, we do that. And so, yeah, it's the whole team, the whole creative team and behind the scenes team and on stage team kind of have to really be on their toes where every show because a lot of times they're different every time. 

Deb Polich: And every show is its own unique show, you'll never see it twice. This is creative:impact on WEMU eighty nine point one FM. We are learning about the panto theater tradition from our guest, Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis. He is a musician, composer, and the coauthor of A Very British Christmas, Theater Nova's production in the panto tradition. You know, after seeing and loving Hoff The Hook and Peter Pan, Russ and I wondered why that panto really hadn't across the pond to the U.S. It's so much fun. We didn't have the gumption, though, to produce one like you and Carla have. And so, what inspired the two of you? Where did you guys reach to that you knew about pantos? 

Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis: First of all, I'm sad that I didn't get to see David Hasselhoff in that personally. That sounds amazing. 

Deb Polich: It was. 

Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis: Yeah, several years ago, I think six years ago, well, I had written two pantos for Eastern Michigan University. They had done two pantos, and so, I got to really dive into the style and sort of understand what was going on with it and all those little things that make them so magical and because they do every year in England and they're so popular and so really diving into to what, you know, what made them so special. And so, that was a nice intro to that. And then, Carla had this idea to let's write a panto for Christmas. It would be great. It'll be like, "It'll be easier to be no big deal." And so I was like, "Okay, Carla. Sounds great." So, she lied to me about it being easy and good. But, yeah, it's, you know, it's such an interesting process because we usually start with the idea in the summertime and sort of bat around some ideas of like, "Oh, this could be wacky. We could do this and this." But because one of the the key things in pantos is there's so much pop culture, so many pop culture references, and so many topical references. It's hard to really write them before, you know, October, because we're trying to get so many topical things. And if things are happening in the news, like, you know, we've done for the last six years. So, there's a lot of like Trump jokes and Trump characters and, you know, other politicians that are in the news and stuff. So, it's an interesting thing to be able to have this crunch time where you have to get all this in and writing new songs for it and parodying songs. So, it is kind of a crazy path that we go on every year.

Deb Polich: So, we've got just a minute or so left, but tell me about the music. That's what you do. Is it based on a familiar music, or do you write something new for the show all the time? 

Credit Carla Milarch / Theatre Nova
Theatre Nova
Performers for ''An Almost British Christmas'

Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis: Combination of both. So, one of the traditions are having popular tunes where they'll change the words to it. So, we use a lot of, you know, pop tunes and older tunes that the audiences already know and change the words to fit our story. And then, I do write songs for the shows every year. I think there's three or four songs this year that are original tunes, and sometimes, those are mixed in with the popular tunes. So, it's nice to have the flexibility to "Hey, this song would be funny to parody this," you know, in this way and having the freedom to do that and and then also being able to write music specifically for the show each year. 

Deb Polich: I imagine there's a lot of singing along. That's Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis. He is a musician, composer, and the coauthor of A Very British Christmas, a holiday production in the panto tradition, running December 3rd through January 2nd at Ann Arbor's Theater Nova. Ryan, thanks so much for joining us. 

Ryan Mackenzie-Lewis: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

Deb Polich: Learn more about Ryan in A Very British Christmas, including ticket information at WEMU dot org. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, and until David Fair returns, your solo host for creative:impact. This is your community NPR Station, eighty nine point one WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti. 

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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