In Praise of Panto
When you think of Christmas, what springs to mind? Tinsel? Trees? Red cups? Family size tins of Quality Street?
When I think of Christmas, I think of work. For actors, the festive season is a cornucopia of casting opportunities, which let’s be frank, for the majority of us is not the case the rest of the year. Why? Well, because panto is still as much of a Christmas stalwart as mince pies, having a squashed Satsuma in the bottom of your stocking and falling asleep in front of the Queen’s speech.
Panto often gets a bit of a sneer from a lot of folk who are quick to label it as tacky, cheesy and full of sometimes questionable celebrity turns. In fact, I just this moment walked out of our Green Room as someone read a review of another pantomime saying it’s talented lead actress should hot foot it back to ‘real theatre’ asap. Because apparently, panto isn’t ‘real theatre’. Plus, after that story about Stacy Solomon appearing in panto this year with a script in her hand was in the papers I can see why people often toss it to the theatrical wayside. So, I want to tell you about what panto is REALLY like, because I believe it deserves a lot more respect than it currently gets.
In an age of ruthless arts cuts, for a lot of theatres up and down the country panto acts as a sort of financial goldmine. Because of this enduring tradition, many regional performance spaces can just about afford to stay open for the rest of the year. Keeping theatres open and in use as active arts spaces for communities is SO IMPORTANT, so hey, thanks panto for providing money to do what the government won’t.
A lot of this is due to the huge influx of kids that come in to watch the show, either with their schools, brownies, beavers, nurseries or families and for many kids, panto is their first (and sometimes only) experience of live theatre. Just this week, I had my friends in with their three munchkins to see the show, none of whom had ever been in a theatre before and they were utterly enchanted with the whole thing. Imagine, if after that wonderful experience they had, where they witnessed magic and giants and beanstalks and genies actually happening onstage AND they got to shout out at them too, they go forth into their lives with respect for and joy in the arts? Again, pretty important if you ask me.
Not only is it the kids who delight in panto year after year however. Panto is unique in the way in which it is truly has multi-generational appeal. Seeing families sat together, all enjoying live theatre as a unit is pretty special. Not to mention the groups of elderly folk we get in from local care homes who break my heart when they wave up at us whilst we sweat our glittery backsides off in our 14th MegaMix of the week, and to see those groups from special needs colleges and schools clapping along as we belt ourselves hoarse. When you see how much joy you are bringing to people from all different walks of life, panto feels worth the slog.
And my god, it is a slog. Panto is hard work. Companies generally do two shows a day, with one day off a week, from November-January which works out as about 12-14 shows a week-as a comparison, West End shows generally play 8 times a week. Rehearsal time is short (we had one week to put the show I’m currently in together) so you are flung in at the deep end, learning an entire show- lines, blocking, choreography, fight sequences PLUS all magical effects. We do morning shows for schools (belting out ‘Defying Gravity’ at 10am whilst laced into a corset and magicking a beanstalk growing as a group of boisterous little boys BOO you is no mean feat lemme tell you.) and lots of companies actually do three shows a day on weekends. We throw ourselves at these shows, because due to the nature of panto, the performances require energy, big voices, larger-than-life characters, and lots of big, heavy costumes to get in and out of. Everyone is permanently knackered and a bit run down.
Because we are run down, we get poorly. It’s winter, and all colds, coughs, sore throats and blocked noses run rife. Having audiences full of primary school children probably has something to do with this, plus not being able to nip said bouts of germs in the bud. Often there are no understudies, or if there are, they are not really ready to be thrown on at a moment’s notice, due to those chronically short rehearsal periods I mentioned. So, even if you are lucky enough to have an understudy, they can only really go on if you are on death’s door. So, you battle on, steaming and drinking hot honey and still giving full out performances twice a day. Plus, company members often spread colds and the like round as we spend so much time together- not only doing the show but sharing cramped dressing rooms, digs and socialising together. And you do socialise together, because you are all away from your homes and your loved ones at Christmastime, so you bond together in a way that’s different from other performing jobs, and a way that’s different from colleagues in other professions.
All over the country, in the late hours of Christmas Eve and again in the early hours of Boxing Day morning, actors will be travelling for a few precious hours with their loved ones on Christmas Day. My company has two shows on both Christmas Eve and again on Boxing Day, which is pretty typical. So, accepting a panto contract means sacrificing lots of the festivities and fun that come with this time of year.
And then, let’s look at the actual acting of panto. Despite what people think, it is not easy. It is a skill and has to be done correctly. Yes, the characters are larger than life, and in fantastical situations, but what people don’t realise, is this: It has to be played truthfully. Yes I’m growing a beanstalk, but this Fairy believes she is growing a beanstalk so therefore I must play it like that. I can’t just simply stand on stage and gurn and shout my lines out, believe it or not. There is as much skill in being a good panto performer as there is in any other area, style or genre of theatre. We have to play truthfully, whilst adhering to the traditions of the genre, all the while thinking on the spot to react to audience interactions and participation. It is not a show we can just ‘phone in’.
Also guess what? Panto is paid! Imagine! Actors being PAID to do an acting job. And not only is it paid, but it’s also paid pretty decently actually. I mean, you will only earn the astronomical wages if you are a ‘name’(even if you do read your lines off a clipboard…) but in a ruthless industry where we are so frequently treated unfairly, asked to work for free or for very little money, being employed and being paid for it is wonderful.
So, the next time you hear someone slag off panto as a genre, or roll your eyes at a billboard for one, or dismiss it as ‘just panto’, just bear these thoughts in mind. That hundreds of actors in the UK are sweating glitter from their pores, working their baubles off to keep this most British of theatrical traditions alive, and to entertain everyone, from the youngest babe in arms to the wrinkliest Gran in town. Panto may be silly, but that doesn’t make it unworthy.