Don’t be alarmed if you visit PwC’s offices in January and spot a member of staff dramatically slapping their thigh. Or if a male associate has a trace of pan stick foundation on his collar. Or even if somebody suddenly shouts out It’s behind you. They are probably rehearsing for the professional services firm’s annual pantomime, which this year was Hansel & Gretel.
The PwC Annual Pantomime started 31 years ago, when two PwC colleagues thought it would be fun to put on a small pantomime that poked fun at their bosses. Today, their ‘fun’ idea involves 200 PwC employees, eight shows in one week at London’s Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre, a regional tour and 8,000 excited children. It also has the dual benefits of working both as an employee engagement programme while also being part of PwC’s corporate social responsibility agenda.
‘This is a way of tapping into a group of people who enjoy drama, singing and music and creating something that genuinely has an impact on local communities,’ explains Stephanie Howel, senior reputation and communications manager at PwC.
‘There are 36 in the cast and 26 in the orchestra, but in total 200 PwC employees are involved, doing everything from costumes to make up to lighting. We use two or three professionals [to help with the staging] but we do everything else in-house. For example, the team make 270 different parts of costumes. We hire our set but PwC staff help build it, work the rigging and do all the lighting.’
Howel, who joined the troupe 16 years ago, starred as a witch this year. ‘I spent the whole show trying to capture and kill two children,’ she says. ‘I initially joined as a way to meet people and build a network, but I’ve stayed with it. We even get members of our alumni coming back to take part.
‘It is unusual for a company like ours to have an amateur dramatics group, but it is a really nice fit. It also flattens the hierarchy: we had an 18-year-old apprentice in the cast this year, as well as one of our partners, Brian Henderson, who played a dame. It doesn’t matter who you are, we’re a meritocracy.’
There are also cameo roles in each performance for PwC’s executive board. ‘They usually play a mayor, town cryer, or even a narrator. Our chairman Kevin Ellis has been involved for quite a long time,’ says Howel. ‘We’re also a global business, and Pantomime is very British. It is quite funny when our Canadian or South African colleagues, for example, turn up for the auditions, and the call goes out Who wants to read for the Dame? and all the men stand up.’
The troupe starts rehearsing in September, every Wednesday night and Sunday in the run up to the week-long show. Most of those involved in the cast or orchestra are London-based or have clients in London, purely for logistical reasons. But colleagues from around the country do get involved, and the size of the cast reflects the enthusiasm of PwC colleagues.
‘It is all voluntary,’ explains Howel. ‘PwC allows us the time off to do the show but all the rehearsals and preparations are in our own time.’ The PwC Pantomime is staged at the Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre.
There are eight shows over a week in January, including two matinees, of which three are charity performances. And every year the show is taken on tour, visiting a different regional office. This year it was Swansea in Wales, where four performances were staged. More than 8,000 children were invited to the performances.
‘The firm works with a lot of local schools in Southwark and Bermondsey [close to its London headquarters] and we invite children from these, and the same thing happens in the regions. But we also work with charities to invite children and their carers.’ One of the performances in London is signed so that children who are hard of hearing can enjoy the festivities, while another is described for those with visual difficulties.
‘We invite them to come up onto the stage before the performance, so they can touch and feel the textures and meet the characters, so that when they watch the show it is really a multi-sensory experience for them. Many PwC employees also get involved on that day, helping the children. There is a community team of volunteers who receive special training,’ explains Howel. ‘We collect the children and then bring them home afterwards. Many have never seen live theatre before, so to be able to offer them something a bit different is fantastic.’
Tickets are sold for the non-charity performances. Colleagues invite clients. There is an alumni evening, and different groups within the business use it as a way to develop their networks. ‘Our secretarial network, for example, invite colleagues from other professional services firms,’ says Howel. The ticket sales pay for the children’s transportation and refreshments. There is also a collection at the end of each performance for charity. ‘We pick a charity that is linked to the show. This year [being Hansel & Gretel] it was Gingerbread, which provides support for single parents. Last year we put on Jack & the Beanstalk, and chose Beanstalk which is a literacy charity.’
But while the cast may have hung up their costumes for this year, work is already starting on next year’s shows. The joint executive producers Emily Newell, who is a PA within PwC, and Rachel Washington, a senior manager working in tax, are currently interviewing for next year’s director. ‘I have directed the show in the past,’ says Howel. ‘And you learn a lot about leadership and about bringing people along with you.’ Those involved in the Pantomime ‘develop soft skills, a lot of which are directly transferrable into our careers’.
Next month, the script will be selected. For the past few years, it has been written by a pair of PwC alumni, who have been involved with the company for 25 years. But until rehearsals start again in September, a Panto Singers group has been formed. ‘We get together to have a sing song,’ says Howel. ‘There is a PwC choir, but this is a bit different.’