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A pantomime (or "panto" for short) is a British and Irish genre of theatre. Pantos are fairy tale adaptations aimed at family audiences, full of slapstick comedy, songs, cross-dressing actors, subtle dirty jokes for the adults and double entendres. It's a soup of older genres, creating a composite genre which is traditionally played around Christmas even though the performances themselves aren't Christmas-y whatsoever.
This is a very British tradition — which (like most such traditions) baffles Americans; America used to have a somewhat similar tradition in Vaudeville, minus the association with Christmas, but that died out around the turn of the twentieth century. It's also not to be confused with actually miming things (as in Enemy Mime or Mime and Music-Only Cartoon). In America, the two words have become synonyms, but east of the Atlantic they're very different - if you told a Briton someone was miming, they'd think Marcel Marceau, but if you told them someone was pantomiming, they'd picture a middle-aged man in drag! Also see Mummers, another closely-related British theatrical tradition.
The History of PantomimesPantomimes are usually based on a relatively small pool of basic stories, mostly fairy tales and other Public Domain media. These include:
- "The Babes in the Wood"
- "Jack and the Beanstalk"
- "Snow White"
- "Sleeping Beauty"
- "Peter Pan"
- "Dick Whittington"note
- Robin Hood
- Mother Goose rhymes
- "Little Red Riding Hood"
- Robinson Crusoe
Pantomime began as a development of the Commedia dell'Arte or Harlequinade, in which the characters from that tradition were used as a Universal-Adaptor Cast to parody well-known stories. Victorian pantomimes often included a climactic "Transformation Scene", in which the characters were transformed into their Harlequinade analogues. This became increasingly perfunctory and was eventually abandoned as the pure Harlequinade died out and the characters became less recognisable to younger audience members.
Pantos are traditionally Theatrical Productions, but quite a few have been recorded for Live-Action Television, such as The ITV Panto. They have also featured on BBC radio; the most famous being Black Cinderella II Goes East in 1978, which featured the cast of I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again and was co-produced by Douglas Adams. In the U.S., there's Lythgoe Family Panto, which combines the typical building blocks of British pantos with the aesthetics of a Jukebox Musical.
Traditional roles in Panto
- The Dame, played by a middle-aged male actor in quite heroic quantities of dresses, makeup and enormous fake boobs. Often the most popular and publicised member of the cast, a Dame will often be a fixture in a particular theatre for decades. Usually the mother or aunt of the Principal Boy character (see below); in Cinderella two dames are often used to play the Ugly Sisters.
- The Principal Boy. Sometimes the titular character, (eg, Jack or Aladdin), often a Straight Man to the Dame. The principal boy was traditionally played by a young female actor as if they had escaped from the pages of Enid Blyton (think "Bob" from Blackadder II). Traditionally slaps her thigh a lot. These days, professional pantomimes will often have a male Principal Boy (sometimes so they can hire a popular young soap actor/pop star to put on the poster). Though it's somewhat debatable whether the Principal Boy, when female, really counts as "cross-dressing"; she tends to wear a costume mainly composed of a leotard, fishnet tights, and high heels, and often looks significantly more feminine and sexy than the Principal Girl. This is down to the Parent Service roots of the character; in the nineteenth century, putting an attractive actress in a mock-medieval doublet and hose was the only way of showing off her legs without causing a massive scandal.
- The Principal Girl, always young and full of wholesome charm. She will fall in love with the Principal Boy or the Prince Charming if she's the heroine. For added gender-bending hilarity, a boy may be cast in this role, but even with a girl it works.
- The Villain: Dastardly Whiplash types straight out of Victorian melodrama. Black goatees, cloaks, canes, top hats, devilish laughs. They may be Grand Viziers, wizards, witches, pirate captains or stepmothers — whatever they are, they're always played with delicious relish and the part every actor wants. Green lighting is usually present, as is appearing in a cloud of smoke from stage leftnote . They're always openly and hilariously evil. Think Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element, though these are both understated and subtle compared to a proper panto villain. Describing someone as a "pantomime villain" is an effective shorthand for saying they're cartoonishly, exultantly evil.
- The Comedian: Usually, there will be another actor in a supporting role who plays the main comic relief. They are usually dense but good-natured and act as The Lancer to the hero or make up a comedic duo with the Dame. They're often a family member of one of the principals — the classic examples are Aladdin's panto-exclusive brother Wishy-washy or Cinderella's friend Buttons. Sometimes the role is merged with...
- The Good Fairy: She's the Big Good. In a traditional panto she serves as the narrator and audience intermediary, who likes speaking in verse for whatever reason. If all hope is lost, she'll pull a Deus ex Machina, solving everything up with a fling of her magic wand.
- The Pantomime Animal: Traditionally a horse played by two people, one at the front and the other at the back. Jokes about being the actor stuck playing the arse end of a horse are probably Older Than Radio.
- The Chorus: No panto is complete without an all-singing, all-dancing troupe.
Traditional tropes in Panto
- Audience-Colouring Adaptation: Because many people know the stock pantomime stories primarily from panto rather than from the original sources, their knowledge of those plots may be slightly distorted. For example, many Britons probably assume that Aladdin's mother was always called "Widow Twankey" but that was originally a pantomime joke, based on the name of a cheap brand of China tea. Of course, this also happens in the other direction - if there is a Disney adaptation of a particular story, then songs, characters and plot details exclusive to that version frequently show up.
- Audience Participation: Panto usually has No Fourth Wall and audience participation is a treasured part of the experience. The classics are:
- The audience are expected to boo and hiss every time the villain appears onstage.
- The villain will be stalking a hero around the stage, requiring the audience to holler "HE'S BEHIND YOU!" at the tops of their voices. Usually, the villain will duck behind cover as the hero exaggeratedly looks around, then looks back at the audience and says "Oh, no he isn't." The audience dutifully hollers "Oh, yes he is!" in response. This can go on for some time. This tends to happen whenever a panto actor appears anywhere in front of an audience: British audiences are prone to collectively getting into spontaneous "Oh no he isn't"/"Oh yes he is" routines with well-known panto actors even during talk shows, quiz shows, panel shows, and other shows utterly unrelated to panto.
- Some productions go the extra mile and have the audience 'take part' in the final battle - the comedic characters will hand out massive sacks full of foam blocks to throw at the villain. Everyone gets a chance at this, even in theatres with an upper circle where the bulk of the foam will just gently glide down to the stalls.
- Any good panto will leave a pause for the regular jokes. "I didn't come here to be insulted!" (pause) Audience member(s): "Where do you usually go?" If the audience doesn't say the necessary line another cast member will.
- Big production - even the smallest amateur company will pull out all the stops for their pantomime. This is not a genre concerned with either realism or artistic minimalism. Sets are large and elaborate, the dame will usually have the most magnificent over-the-top dress (and change it every couple of scenes) and there is often a scene involving gunge, foam or other "messy" fun. Aladdin often features a scene in the Chinese laundry run by Widow Twankey, providing an excuse for filling the stage with suds. Or characters will randomly decide to do some baking, resulting in flour being thrown about. Elaborate lighting and abundant use of pyrotechnics abounds; the villains and other minor antagonists often enter from stage left to a barrage of green lighting and smoke, sometimes even with stage fireworks going off. Some theatres even employ strobe lights! During the Curtain Call, the already-elaborate costumes of the characters are replaced with the same, but outfitted in shiny gold, silver, electric blue and neon green.
- Camp: To the average person in Britain or Ireland, if you wanted to define "camp", you would probably say "like a pantomime". Friendly gay jokes are a bit of a tradition in the panto, too.
- Guest stars - a trope dating back to the late 19th Century in the UK, whereby if more than one major panto is running in a town, they will often compete for custom by playing one-upmanship with the quality of the cast. Once the realm of respected actors (and Sooty), this particular aspect took a bashing during The '80s and The '90s when soap actors, Wolf from Gladiators, reality TV stars and Frank Bruno all decided to get in on the act; fortunately, most theatres seem to be a little more discerning nowadays, but the occasional Big Brother contestant still slips through the cracks. This can be very lucrative work, which is why Australian soap actors decamp en masse to England in time for the season. Julian Clary, Christopher Biggins, BRIAN BLESSED and John Barrowman are guaranteed to be in panto every single year. We've even taken the liberty of getting a few actors from across the pond, including Henry Winkler, Dirk Benedict, David Hasselhoff (yes, really.) and Mr. T. In some productions, the guest stars can turn into the Spotlight-Stealing Squad, but only if they have the chops to hold the attention of a panto audience.
- The Harlequinade: Although a full-blown Transformation Scene is only seen nowadays in self-conscious recreations of the early pantomime, the term is sometimes used to refer to a dialogue-free slapstick interlude. Sometimes this is replaced with a more serious mime or dance section.
- Local and topical in-jokes. Some pantos have a script written specially each year. Others are available pre-written with [insert topical joke], [insert local joke], [insert name of celebrity famous for being fat] written in. Often jokes are at the expense of an area of the city known for being posh, or run-down; or a rivalry with a local town (see Springfield v Shelbyville). Sometimes (especially from the villain) they're just broadsides at the area in general. There will also be plenty of Actor Allusions, especially if the show has a notable Guest Star.
- Innuendo. While Pantomimes are ostensibly aimed at children, much of the humour is composed of sexual innuendo intended to go over the children's heads. ("I do declare, the Prince's balls get larger every year!") Periphery Demographic features heavily here. It isn't unusual to find work outings booked to a Panto with nary a child to be seen. Frankly half the people there with kids have only dragged them along as cover.
- The Intermission: Like most productions, most pantos have an intermission roughly halfway through, and it stays true to its Victorian roots. Sometimes, the minor cast may stay on stage to perform the shout outs - in addition, this is usually the time staff at the theatre come around to sell pots of ice cream, so it's definitely worth sticking around for.
- Improv: You just can't work in panto if you're not prepared to improv occasionally. Where other productions might stop the show, panto just soldiers on. The Fairy Godmother's wand breaks? She gets another one from offstage and then claims that she always carries a spare. Need to cover an extra-long costume change or a technical hitch? Get the Dame to go out and ask the audience how they're doing. A child in the audience shouts something hilarious to the heroes that would derail the plot? Tell them the show can't end yet because people paid for their tickets! The Villain and the Dame actually trying to make the other corpse? Pretty normal. After all, panto runs are often fairly demanding (two or three shows a day for six weeks to two months), and the cast and crew need to let off steam somehow, so a little extra japery is usually allowed for as long as it doesn't disrupt the running of the show. (In many theatres, backstage pranks during panto constitute a whole secret tradition of their own.)
- Shout Outs: Usually prior to the sing-along, during the interval or after the bows. Basically, someone in the cast (usually the Dame) takes the opportunity to read out the names of the groups in the audience. There's always a Scout troop, a primary or secondary school class, a Boys'/Girls' Brigade or a company outing in the audience; normally there's more than one. There's also often shoutouts to people at their very first panto (usually either little children or baffled foreign cousins - cue laughter from the audience and cast members joking that they must be having an interesting evening) and people who've been coming for decades.
- The Singalong: Also called the Songsheet. After the resolution of the plotnote , the victorious heroes will teach the audience a song. Often the audience will be split in half and ordered to compete against each other. This virtually always ends with something along the lines of 'For the first time in Panto history, it's a draw' to avoid hurt feelings on either side. Often, a deeply embarrassed parent or two will be hauled onstage in order to demonstrate the latest dance craze for the rest of the audience to copy.
- Sweeties: treats are often thrown into the audience from the stage at some point. Sadly, this tradition is being phased out in many places because of health and safety (to be fair, a fun-sized chocolate bar in the eye can be painful, and theatres would rather not be sued by irate punters). Some shows will have a variation — in Aladdin, the Widow Twankey might throw comically oversized laundry into the audience instead, or in The Little Mermaid, the auditorium might be filled with bubbles.
It's behind you!