Visiting your local theatre to watch and take part in a pantomime is a tradition that goes back generations for many families, friendship groups and schools alike. The magical, truly British performance discipline is an economical and cultural anchor point for many theatres, especially those in rural locations that don’t benefit from programming major UK tours. The income gathered over ‘panto season’ helps to keep buildings maintained, staff in posts and creative projects afloat. For many rural theatres, a pantomime run sees more audience members than any other scheduled performance and helps to establish new longstanding audience members.
Pantomime, as we know it today, is uniquely British and has been enjoyed by audiences here in Blighty since the late 1600s. However, it originated from much warmer, less drizzly climes – Italy; small touring companies would perform pieces of ‘Commedia Dell Arte’ on the streets from the back of carts. The pieces were comedic, used stock characters, well-known storylines and lazzis (gags) – sound familiar?
The threat of losing these much-loved performances this year could have a detrimental effect on rural theatres up and down the country. Ian Archer, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of The Courtyard, Hereford commented on Facebook:
“Covid-19 is having a devastating effect on arts and culture throughout the country and The Courtyard plays an incredibly important part of the social fabric and cultural life of Herefordshire. Throughout this pandemic, we have seen the need and value of arts and culture in our daily lives.”
As Ian said, the need for arts and culture has been highlighted throughout these uncertain times. The UK has taken to streaming services to get their theatre fix – but is it theatre if you’re not there, soaking up the environment, gripped to your seats, hanging on every word?
A theatrical experience is like no other – it’s an opportunity for shared experience and escapism. For many, pantomime is the first experience of this. I remind every group of actors of this when directing panto. Each performance could be someone’s first experience of the theatre – so regardless of the 9am call and how many drinks were consumed the night before – the performance has to be magical.
I spoke with Operations Director at JW Theatres, Alex Johnson, who said:
“There is a misconception that the arts are for the middle class, the arts are for everyone and should always be for everyone, however, this is simply not the case for a lot of people to whom pantomime is their one chance a year to take their family for an evening at the theatre and feel free from the worries they face in everyday life. We are on the brink of losing one of the great traditions of theatre. Pantomime season for many in the technical theatre industry is not merely a lovely couple of months work but is a chance to return to your home venue and work with those you quickly come to think of as your second family.”
Pantomime removes the social barriers that some art forms unknowingly put up. Good and bad performances often have the same outcome, happy people enjoying themselves and making precious memories. Without it, Christmas just won’t be the same.
Seasoned professional Ben Gambril spoke to me about his experiences of the much-loved theatrical art form: He said: “For me, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a trip to the pantomime. One thing which has always stood out for me is the joy on people’s faces when they’ve come out of the theatre. Panto is exactly what we need when theatres reopen as it’s two hours of pure escapism for all generations whether we’re willing Aladdin to rub the magic lamp, watching daring sword fights between Peter Pan and Captain Hook, or warning Snow White to not eat the poisoned apple. When I see grown men, standing up at the end and doing all the actions to ‘Superman; by Black Lace (sleep, kiss, ski, macho man etc), I think they’ve forgotten all about their worries and have fully emerged themselves in the magic of live theatre.”
Speaking about Pantomime on Twitter, Matthew Anderson, European Culture Editor for The New York Times, said: “If that’s (pantomime) the most important art form for the health of the sector, there’s something wrong in the system.” It was this tweet that prompted me to write this piece, I felt that Matthew may benefit from hearing some of the people involved in the art form. Here’s to hoping that he sees this piece and can understand British culture a little more…
Whilst some may not consider the art form to be sophisticated, life-changing or not the most important art form for the health of the sector, I and many others value it more than ever. The thought of a single Christmas without it is devastating – and an outdoor pantomime in December is simply not possible!
To quote and echo the great Oscar Wilde – “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
We can only hope that theatres are able to provide a traditional pantomime performance this season. I personally welcome a socially distanced audience, anything to keep the tradition going, but if not, perhaps we can support our rural theatres by purchasing a ticket for future performance.
Long live Pantomime!
Michael Jenkins is a seasoned pantomime performer and director | Twitter: @michaeltjenkins