No, sadly, we Fantastics are not in the UK. But if we were, if I suddenly had £10.000 and a few weeks off, I know exactly what we would be doing. We would head to some random small town and take in a local amateur production of a panto.
I heard of pantos about two years ago from our homeschool theatre group co-director, Mr. Fantastic’s partner in crime. Up to that time they had directed kids in shows that featured mainly historic monologues, the idea being that there was no lead so each child had an important part. Two that we did were “Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village” by Baltimore children’s librarian Laura Amy Schlitz and “We Were There, Too” by Phillip Hoose about children’s roles in US history. These were both excellent and I can’t praise them too highly. The kids, however, were getting older and looking for something different. They had tired of monologues and wanted comedy, slapstick, and general silliness. Pantos fit the bill.
A panto, short for pantomime but not the same as mime theatre, is a UK holiday theatrical production roughly based on a fairy tale like Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk. These have been extremely popular in England through the ages; even The Queen was in one. The earliest pantos were silent due to Parliament restricting spoken theatre to limited London venues and fairy tales were chosen because everyone knew the plots. The restriction was eventually lifted, but by then fairy tales, audience participation, and exaggerated visuals were a part of the genre. Fine Manchester theaters and grade school auditoriums alike became panto stages for big names and locals, and the tradition continues today. Apparently the well-known (to Brits at least – I had to look it up) tale of Dick Wittington and his cat are a popular English panto story that attracted the likes of Joan Collins. Those crazy Brits!
One of the defining, and perhaps to the uninitiated, alarming features of panto is the shouting of audience members to the actors. Audience members hiss the villains, warn the protagonist, and call out classic panto lines such as “it’s right behind you!!!” and “Oh, yes it is!!” to an actor’s “Oh no it isn’t!!”. Other panto details that have become standard over time include: a female playing a male lead, a man playing an older woman’s role, an animal played by an actor, a “messy scene” of slapstick pie-in-the-face style antics, double-entendre jokes to entertain the adults, and a chorus. It is a lot of fun once the audience gets the participation part – there are explanations and practice bits before and even during the performance. Sometimes I explain it to people as a family-friendly Rocky Horror Picture Show live theater experience.
See Mr Fantastic and Fiercely (next to him, with blue sash) below, cross dressing as a mother and son. The villain and animal also can be seen. That’s Aladdin in the green sash. The show was awesome!! The twins and Cleverly also had small roles. In fact, there’s Cleverly barely seen between Poppa and Fiercely. Wish I had more pictures.
This year our production is “Robin Hood and her Merry Girls”. It debuts next week- yikes! We still need several bow and arrow sets, an anvil, a tea set, and something called an ‘insultometer’, among other strange and interesting costumes and props.
Pantos have spread beyond the UK to the US in places like San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, heck there’s probably one near you wherever you are. We saw this professional Aladdin panto last year after our production, which was really fun since we had produced the same one. Of course, no two Aladdin pantos are alike – there are hundreds of scripts for each fairy tale and each theater company does unique adaptations, often referring to local geography and politics.
That’s all for now, fans, until next time: happy travels and happy holidays!!