Pantomime: More than just glitter and sequins.
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
Testing Ben Humphrey trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and is currently the Associate Director of the Worcester Repertory Company as well as an lecturer in voice and performance at the University of Worcester. He has recently directed Sleeping Beauty at the Swan Theatre in Worcester. Ben takes a look at what makes pantomime one of the most important art forms in the UK.
As we head towards the final few shows of Sleeping Beauty 2017 - 18 it's time for me to get on my high-horse and shout loudly about the incredible art form that is Pantomime. At this time of year I am reminded of a conversation I once had with an actor acquaintance who, when I asked whether they would be in a pantomime at Christmas, snorted with derision and stated in no uncertain superior tones "No. I have a 'no panto' policy." There is still an industry snobbery to pantomime that worryingly starts in training and often re-enforced in the working world. Another (now very well known actor) who I trained with at The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School once said "I didn't train here to end up working in a pantomime." I'm not saying every actor should do pantomime. Indeed, not every actor can. It's incredibly hard to do well and vocally, physically and mentally exhausting. But every actor should have an understanding and respect of what pantomime brings to their industry.
For over a decade I have appeared in professional pantomimes, firstly as a 'male lead' and for the last six years I have been the Pantomime Dame (Dame Ginny) at the Swan Theatre with the Worcester Rep. It's fair to say it is a large part of my life. I appear in other things throughout the year and regularly voice commercials, cartoons and radio plays as well as lecture and direct, but I consider pantomime to be one of the most important things I do. And here's why.
1. It is the life blood of professional theatre in the U.K.
There's no getting away from the fact that without the art form of pantomime many theatres and theatre companies across the country would not exist. The economic boom that professional pantomime gives to the industry is unlike anything else in our respective seasons. For any actor who isn't involved in pantomime but works at a theatre that produces one, there is a strong possibility that your job wouldn't exist without it. So whilst you may operate a 'no panto' policy, just thank your lucky stars that your theatre doesn't.
2. It is the largest employer of directors, designers, stage managers, musicians, actors, choreographers and dancers in the U.K.
At any one time the vast majority of individuals in our industry are out of work. This is a sad but true fact that makes it a hard life to lead. The only art form in the professional performance world that comes close to redressing this sad statistic is pantomime. No other form of work provides as many jobs, in as many venues, to be seen by as many people in the U.K. The industry is often said to be feast or famine. Pantomime is undoubtedly the feast.
3. It is a part of people's Christmas tradition.
One of the greatest joys I experience year on year is the returning audience members who have made pantomime a part of their Christmas tradition. Only last night I sang happy birthday to two members of a family (Happy Birthday Megan and Joe!) that have been coming to see the pantomime at the Swan for as long as I've been in it. I do it every year and I get to be a part of their celebration! Then there's the lady that makes the trek from France to see the pantomime...every single year! She comes over on the ferry on a Friday night, watches the show on a Saturday and goes back on the Sunday. That's commitment. Or the lady who, due to long distance relatives, only gets to see her grandchildren once a year and includes us in that tradition. We get to be a part of something special for people.
4. It defies audience demographics, development and expectation.
A huge amount of time, money and effort is spent on audience development these days, which is essential if live theatre is to survive. One of the biggest challenges (especially in regional theatre) is getting a wide range of people to see your work. It is sometimes an uphill struggle to get a wide ranging demographic to the theatre. Pantomime blows all of our expectations out of the water with people who would never normally come to the theatre turning up and seeing a live performance regardless of age, gender, religion or race. That's amazing.
5. It is often a child's first experience of live performance.
Those of us who have experienced a good live performance know how special it can be. There is nothing that can compare to it and the offerings of reality TV and Saturday night specials can never really compete. Pantomime is often the first time a child will experience a live performance environment. So those of us backstage, on stage, and front-of-house have a responsibility to make that the best experience possible. If we get it right we can foster a lifelong love of live theatre. That can only be s good thing for all of us.
Pantomime is a hugely positive part of our industry and we should do everything we can to make it the best experience for audiences as well as production teams. Of course we're not all going to like the same performance styles and genres. If we did then the industry would be very dull. But let's not deride or look down on an art form that contributes so much to so many people.