Oh no it isn’t. Oh yes it is.
I’ve been involved in amateur dramatics for many years now, generally veering more towards the amateur than the dramatic. And for about ten years or so, with the odd break, every January I can be found acting (at least in a sense) in one of the truly British theatrical forms, pantomime.
Pantomime is certainly not cool. There are odd pantomimes here and there that are acclaimed by the critics, but that acclaim is generally within a context of surprise. As in, who knew pantomime could actually be good? It is hard to take seriously. It is a Christmas show aimed primarily at kids. The professional pantomimes more often than not star D-list celebrities. It can be a bit, well, tacky.
And it is frankly a bit odd, particularly I imagine to the outsider. Pantomimes are generally based around fairy tales, yet are populated in part by women dressed as men (especially playing the ‘hero’ role) and men dressed as women (particularly as the ‘Dame’, a motherly comic role, and quite distinct from any sort of drag artistry).
There is lots of audience participation and a fair bit of ad libbing and addressing the audience directly. While not everyone is cross-dressing, everyone is singing, dancing and telling bad jokes, sometimes with a little bit of a risqué tinge. Oh yes, and as I reiterate, it is primarily for kids.
And kids love it. Panto might not be fine art, but it often the first experience of theatre a child has, so plays a vital role in the continuing patronage of theatre.
It also upholds one of the last surviving English folk traditions. Yet, at its best it is not a stale museum piece, but as vibrant and relevant as any newly penned satire. Pantomimes are written and rewritten over and over again, and so include jokes and references to current affairs, and can (indeed should) adapt to more modern tastes and sensibilities, whilst maintaining its traditional framework – the good guys always win, the bad guys always lose, and nobody dies. Within that framework, anything goes.
Panto is also, at its best, a pretty sneakily complex form. This isn’t a straight play. The audience interaction, be it the actors addressing the audience directly, making asides to the audience mid-scene or encouraging the staple “He’s behind you!” shouts when the villain creeps up on stage, make it a far less passive spectacle than your standard live entertainment.
This, along with standard tropes (from characters, to plots, to lines) and self-referential scripts, means the show works both as a story, and as a commentary on the story itself. The audience is watching a show that knows its a show and isn’t afraid to say so. It’s positively Brechtian, I tell ya.
I find it fascinating that panto on the surface appears to be somewhat disposable and low-brow as an art form, and yet smuggles in incredible levels of complexity and nuance, breaking down the fourth wall, working on a number of different levels, and toying with and subverting traditional and archetypal story forms. It shows that art can be challenging without the audience realising. Theatre can be anarchic, raucous and experimental, yet not be completely unintelligible, or antagonistic.
There can’t be too many art forms that regularly encompass political commentary, gender commentary, surrealism, slapstick, subversion of standard storytelling, audience participation and intertextuality, yet are still a whole lot of fun and manage to avoid any pretension whatsoever. If only this paragraph could have avoided such pretension…
There are jokes for the kids, and jokes for the adults that go over the kids heads – and panto was doing this years and years before Pixar started pulling off the same trick. So, when it is executed right, panto is perhaps the most inclusive form of theatre, appealing to the very youngest to the very oldest.
And it is a lot of fun to be involved in. The group I’m a member of is church affiliated, but has a community feel far beyond that. I get to spend time with a broad selection of people, of different ages and backgrounds, who I would probably have never ever met without the common ground of pantomime and other amateur productions. I hope it has, in some small way, broadened my horizons a little.
I’ve also learnt how to build sets, paint sets and finally stand in front of 200 people and make a fool of myself. It may not be cool, but it sure is character building. It also feels kind of good to be playing a small part in the continuation of a fun tradition, to (hopefully) offer people a fun night out, and (again, hopefully) provide a pretty good introduction to theatre to kids who would otherwise never experience it. And one things that is pretty cool is that I’ve made a fair few friends in the process too.