I was shocked to see a newspaper article declaring that panto was dead. What? How could this be? Considering that I was struggling to find time in my schedule to fit in all of the pantos on offer in London – and occasionally struggling to even get tickets – I wasn’t sure just what sort of death they were describing. I mean, come on, panto is so popular that it’s even got a fully-rampant adult genre, with three shows (at least!) in London this December, and even two spoof pantos (“Peter Pan Goes Wrong” and the “Jack and the Beanstalk” at Southwark Playhouse).
Looking closer, the article claims that it’s the lack of trouser roles, the “end of the dame,” and the movement away from “traditional” stories that mark the death knell of the “traditional” panto. (Being that this article was in the Telegraph, this was, unsurprisingly, blamed on political correctness gone mad.) Now, I’m obviously no expert on what “traditional” panto looks like – I only saw my first one in 2005 – but I hadn’t noticed a fall-off in dame action, and (unlike CAMRA’s hysteria about pubs closing) I haven’t noticed a single theater call off producing their annual panto in the last eight years. What was this article really going on about? Was there a shred of truth to their claims? In the spirit of inquiry, I decided to attend a talk hosted by the London Comedy Forum on the future of panto after a Friday night performance of Greenwich Theater’s Puss in Boots.
Speakers at the talk were Chris Abbott, author of Putting on Panto to Pay for the Pinter – a history of panto’s “golden years” (or just the 1950s and 60s, depending on how you see it), speaking for pantos past; Simon Sladen, webmaster of “The National Database of Pantomime Performance,” speaking for panto present; and Andrew Pollard, author and dame of Greenwich’s panto for the last 5 years (I think!), on behalf of Panto Future. Well, actually, he was speaking about the present as well, about the reality of creating pantos, dirty things like budgets and marketing (apparently cost of cast heavily influences how he structures his plays). And between the three of them they were a panto knowledge powerhouse. So what was their take on this subject? (I’m afraid I’ve had to muddle the answers into one voice, as I didn’t bring a tape recorder. But there was one there, and if you want, you can probably get a transcript.)
First attacked was the question of whether traditional panto is dying because of a dearth of Puss in Boots (and Dick Whittingtons). The speakers noted that there has always been an evolution in Panto stories, and that, in fact, one now “traditional” panto was originally written (around 1900) as a role for a famous male comedian. Both Snow White and Peter Pan became done as pantos after the Disney movies came out, and, they said, there is no way to escape the effect of Disney on the Panto consciousness; while Disney had no Widow Twankey in Aladdin (and truth be told neither is there one in the original story, in The 1001 Nights), the addition of a princess and a flying carpet to the Panto tale has come in response to audience expectations in the post-Disney era. Oddly, Andrew credited Disney for making his Puss in Boots possible, thanks to the raised profile the character has received courtesy of Shrek. Who knew? But the emphasis was on panto evolution; there isn’t a fixed repertoire, it is continually changing as new stories rise in the public consciousness. Lots of things have changed in the past fifty years, such as the end of scenes with water fountains and the ones that have acrobats diving through curtains (I’ll have to refer back to Abbot’s book for the proper titles of these things – I’d never heard of them before).
Next up: the supposed end of breeches/trouser/”principal boy” roles. Historically, many plays had women in men’s roles; but these days, people get their flash of leg in other ways, i.e. with Pamela Anderson as the Genie in Wimbledon’s Aladdin a few years ago. Dancers are also dressed in somewhat scantier clothing than before; and overall the accessibility of sexy fun in the theater is just much, much more than it was even fifty years ago. The numbers show that, while smaller theaters may be doing breeches roles less, that the number of people who see them per year has not been decreasing (as the tradition is continuing in the larger productions). Is it a matter of kids being uncomfortable with cross dressing, or parents wanting to shelter them from it? The consensus was no: kids saw C-Beebies, parents saw Little Britain; it’s still very much a part of British popular culture. This argument simply didn’t hold up to the numbers. Andrew said that casting in “expected” genders made for the ability to do stronger love scenes, but it’s not not being done because people won’t accept it.
Finally, what about the panto dame role? There was a general acknowledgement that this was a problem, that there were less dames in panto, but this was seen as due more to a lack of talent than a lack of desire. Pantos were being driven by celebrity casting, and the people who were taking on these roles were not familiar with the kind of skills that made a successful dame. (But later, anecdotally, I was told that some people who have done dame roles simply aren’t asked to come back. There may be more to investigate here.) Oddly, in America, where the panto is being introduced bit by bit, some uptake has been had in daming by casting a former Mrs Turnblad (the male-played mother role from Hairspray) in one of these roles. The group bemoaned the lack of training opportunities for people who want to do panto – apparently it’s generally ignored by acting schools, with only 5 or less UK theater programs offering panto as part of their curricula. In fact, when they did Aladdin at the Young Vic (the first panto I ever saw), they had to bring in “experts” to help make the panto funny – apparently skills such as timing and jokes and “magic” (and keeping children’s attention) do not come ready-bred out of RADA.
Looking at the discussion, what I heard overall was that panto was a lively, continuously evolving tradition, that takes on new forms and new technology as society continues to change. But what is decreasing is the quantity of locally produced and staffed shows. Only four major theaters in the UK write their own pantos – Hackney, Greenwich, Salisbury, and York. What is happening is that panto is becoming a corporate product, built by companies who aim to put butts in seats and turn a profit doing this. So while panto is alive and well, I think there is an argument to be made that there is a movement away from “traditional” pantos – written in a local theater with locally pointed jokes and a cast that evolves with each other and the audience year after year – to more of a cut and dry business. And I think it’s these shows that could both be drying up dame talent – because a skilled cross dressing comedian is rarely a famous actor as well – and choosing more “Disneyfied” story options. But we all agreed, when asked, “Is panto dead?”
“OH NO IT ISN’T!”