Panto: Could Britain’s Hottest Holiday Show Draw New Audiences to Your Theatre?

SOUTHERN THEATRE   |   VOLUME LVIII NUMBER 4   |   FALL 2017

by Adam D. Howard

Setting: A theatre, anywhere in the British Isles, at Christmastime. A rowdy crowd of adults and children eagerly awaits the curtain. The children wave light-up toys frantically as they sing along with the music being pumped into the auditorium. Projections light the stage, and, if the set is visible, it is colorful and perhaps even cartoonish. As the lights go down, a hush does not fall over the crowd. If anything, the noise increases as a character takes the stage and addresses the audience with a greeting: “Hiya, boys and girls!”

Rather than sit in polite theatre-going quiet, the audience will invariably answer with a rousing “Hiya” right back. The audience will continue to interact with the cast – sometimes in planned events, sometimes in spontaneous reactions – throughout the performance. The actors expect and encourage this back-and-forth, and the “fourth wall” is nowhere to be seen, because we’re watching a panto. The modern panto, short for pantomime, is a beloved staple of the holiday season in the British Isles – which include England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland – and due to its popularity, it’s the financial life-blood of most professional theatres located there.

“For many British theatres, the income derived from pantomime season is vital to the financial stability of the venue,” says Chris Jordan, managing director of Jordan Productions, Ltd., based in Eastbourne, England, which produces eight pantos annually. “Most venues see their biggest audience numbers during panto season.”

While panto was virtually unknown in the United States until recent years, a handful of theatres and producers have begun bringing this British holiday tradition to the U.S. Not only does panto translate to an American audience, but it also represents a new option for American theatres to build an annually returning holiday audience and creates an opportunity for local writers to shine.

Stages Repertory Theatre, an Equity theatre in Houston, is one of a handful of American theatres that produce holiday pantos. At left, Maryann Williams portrays Dorothy in Stages Rep’s production of Panto Wonderful Wizard in 2016. Photo by Jon Shapley.

What Is Panto?

In the British Isles, the term “pantomime” is used almost exclusively in reference to these holiday-season performances. It rarely describes the kind of performance most Americans expect. No one in a black leotard and white face paint appears in these productions. Nonetheless, today’s pantos trace their origins to the traditionally silent pantomimes most of us think of when we hear the term.

The evolution of pantomime into a new performance style began around the 16th century. When English theatre troupes returned from mainland Europe after performance tours, it occurred to some of them that since they and their audiences all spoke the same language, they could finally speak on stage. This began with opening prologues, and gradually more narration, songs and dialogue were added to the performances. The fact that the “pantomimes” now contained words was ridiculed by the rest of Europe, but the name persisted, even though these performances are nowhere close to silent. In fact, pantos are some of the most raucous productions of live theatre anywhere in the world.

Holiday pantos in the British Isles typically are two-act comedies with contemporary music and stock plots. Rather than holiday stories, pantos take their content from fairy tales and other public domain works. The stories and characters are always familiar, and the audiences know the archetypes and major plot points before they even buy tickets. Local and regional references are added to every panto for the sake of the audience. Everything is funnier when the audience feels “in” on the joke.

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Pantos are family-friendly. That is not to say by any stretch that pantos are children’s theatre. They are written to appeal to all ages, with many bawdy or topical jokes that sail far above the children’s heads.

“Pantomime is a theatre form that is accessible for everyone, from a 2-year-old excited to see their storybook hero, to a gaggle of teenage girls lusting after Prince Charming, to the grumpy dad chuckling at the slightly blue jokes, to a 90-year-old granny enjoying the magic and spectacle of Cinderella going to the ball,” says British panto director Dorcas Wood. “There aren’t many other forms of entertainment that can tick all of these boxes and, with a guaranteed happy ending, you can’t go wrong.”

There is an expected relationship between panto performers and their audience, namely one of interaction and good-natured heckling. Antagonists are booed with every entrance, and a vocabulary of jokes and interactions that is familiar to all ticket-holders is part of the fun.

“Audiences love panto because it’s silly and funny and entertaining, and you have a chance to become involved with the action on stage (through call and response and sing-alongs, for example),” says Nicky Swift, a Liverpool-based panto actress. “They see people making a fool of themselves, and it is entertaining to an audience. Panto is a lot like reality TV. … It’s not high art, but there’s something quite addictive about it. We know we shouldn’t really like it, but we do.”

Pantos typically feature almost cartoonish sets and comic characters as well as a love story. Above, David Dobson plays Chester the Jester and Mark Siney plays Dame Nellie Night Nurse in Jordan Productions’ Sleeping Beauty panto in England in 2016. Photo by Martin Smith, www.origin8photography.com.

“Audiences love panto because it’s silly and funny and entertaining, and you have a chance to become involved with the action on stage.” – Nicky Swift, Liverpool-based panto actress

Panto as Business

The modern holiday panto may be full of laughs for the audience, but it is serious business for the theatre world. In the British Isles – as well as in Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, South Africa and other parts of the British Commonwealth – pantos are as much a part of Christmas as eggnog. With the holiday season comes the panto season. Virtually every theatre stages a panto.

Actors, directors, producers and artistic directors begin planning for their pantos months, if not years, in advance. Some theatres produce their own pantos. Others look to outside panto-specific production companies for scripts and directors. Still more theatres simply serve as receiving-house venues for outside panto companies.

A large and growing number of production companies produce pantomimes exclusively, including Qdos Entertainment in London. This company, which works year-round on panto productions, has produced close to 700 pantos in its nearly 35-year existence. It is responsible for casting actors, hiring writers, and employing directors, choreographers, designers and costumers for dozens of productions throughout Britain each year. According to Newsweek magazine, Qdos made more than $31 million from panto ticket sales in 2013. Other production companies based in England include Jordan Productions, Ltd., Evolution Productions, Shone Productions, LHK Productions and Imagine Theatre.

One of the keys to pantos’ success is that shows include jokes based on current events and usually have local connections. Jordan, the managing director of Jordan Productions, notes that each of his company’s scripts is updated specifically for each theatre every year to keep jokes current and to tailor dialogue to that season’s actors. The emphasis on topical, updated local humor provides opportunities for writers, who find work writing or updating pantos annually. The proceeds from holiday pantos also provide a guaranteed income for actors who are repeat hires in pantomimes every year.

The annual panto season typically runs from mid-November to late January. The droves of family audiences who attend pantos often put theatres’ budgets in the black.

“For many people, the pantomime is a traditional part of their family Christmas celebrations and often it is (unfortunately) their only trip to the theatre each year,” Jordan says. “For most venues, the houses will be near to capacity for up to 12 shows a week. That income, combined with massively increased ancillary sales (bar, ice creams, merchandise, programs, etc.) means that panto is a vital part of their annual programming.”

Massive production budgets, major dance numbers, spectacular effects and music are all part of the panto experience in Britain. Productions often rely on local, national and even international celebrities to secure audiences, and American actors have gotten into the game. Pamela Anderson, Henry Winkler and David Hasselhoff, to name a few, have all performed in major commercial pantos in Britain. A big name can earn as much as 100,000 British pounds (about $129,800 in American dollars in August 2017) for a run, as well as a percentage of sales.

Alex Newell (right) portrays the Fairy Godmother while Lauren Taylor plays Cinderella in Lythgoe Family Panto’s 2016 A Cinderella Christmas at Pasadena Playhouse in California. Photo by Philicia Endelman.

‘To be able to produce a good panto, theatres need to concentrate on the community around them, not just the theatre community around them. Pantos are always written for the people in a similar way to how Shakespeare wrote for the people.’ – Kris Lythgoe, Lythgoe Family Panto

What Is a Panto Like?

A show must include certain devices and gags for it to be considered a traditional panto. Productions vary from company to company, but the following elements can always be expected:

1. A familiar story.

It’s usually a fairy tale, such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk, or another public domain story, such as Aladdin, Mother Goose or Peter Pan. Because they use works in the public domain as source material, writers can take as many liberties as they like with the story, tailoring the performance to a theatre’s particular audience.

2. Audience interaction.

A “Goodie” character, such as a Good Fairy, a Friendly Servant or Mother Goose, usually introduces the play. These characters typically narrate the play from the beginning. Specific greetings are often scripted in. For example:
JACK: “Hiya, boys and girls!”
AUDIENCE: “Hiya, Jack!”

3. Standard gags.

One typical panto gag is having a character address the audience while another character hides behind the first actor. For example, in a Peter Pan panto, Captain Hook might address the audience about his plan to drown Tiger Lily as Peter sneaks up behind him. The audience, being familiar with the genre and a bunch of good sports, will know from centuries of tradition to shout out a warning, to which there is always the following reply:
HOOK: “Where is that Peter Pan?”
AUDIENCE: “He’s behind you!”
HOOK: “Ohhhhhhhh, no, he’s not!”
AUDIENCE: “Ohhhhhhhh, yes, he is!”

This kind of standard interaction may be hard for the uninitiated to imagine. But it’s not too different from standard American vaudeville shtick such as:
VAUDEVILLIAN: “I knew this sailor who was soooo fat…”
AUDIENCE: “How fat was he?”

With roots in the morality plays of the Middle Ages, pantos adhere to some ancient traditions. For example, the “Goodie” character always enters and exits stage right, and the “Baddie” character, such as Captain Hook, the Evil Fairy in Sleeping Beauty or the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella or Snow White, always enters and exits from stage left or through a trap door in the stage floor. The entrance of the “Goodie” is nearly always greeted with a response the audience was taught in the beginning of the show, and the “Baddie” is always booed by the audience with great delight. All of these traditions have medieval roots, whether or not the audience realizes that.

4. A man in a dress.

When women were finally permitted to perform on stage in England after 1660, most of them were not interested in playing the older characters, instead opting for the Juliet and Desdemona roles finally available to them. In pantomimes, the roles for older women, or the “Dame” roles, were played by men – and this tradition continues today. The “Dame” in a panto is always the most comedic of roles, depending on lavish and absurd costumes. There is no pretense: The audience knows it’s a man, and it’s all part of the fun. Dame roles are coveted for their prestige, comedic flavor and the opportunity they provide to shine onstage.

5. Music.

Pantos include song and dance. Sometimes music is written specifically for the production, but usually pantos make use of recent hits and/or music appropriate to the situation. Peter Pan may sing Sondheim’s Not While I’m Around as he watches over Wendy and the Lost Boys, or the stepsisters may sing Blondie’s One Way or Another as they attempt to dance with the prince. Traditionally, the show ends with a sing-along for the audience, often with lyrics provided via a drop, song sheets or a projection. Actors trained in musical theatre tend to do a panto every year in Britain, since the performances are heavily musical.

6. Slapstick comedy.

Action may drop for a long scene, while the servant/clown characters perform a comedic bit. These scenes of back-and-forth banter evolve from the same comedic ancestors as Abbott and Costello.

7. Love over comedy.

The romantic characters’ plot floats above the rest of the story. The prince and princess fall in love despite the antics of the characters around them. The lovers, like the innamorati of commedia dell’arte, have minimal interaction with the comedic characters.

8. Local and topical humor.

Local rivalries and political references abound. Here in the U.S., a “Dame” character might say, “Get your hands off me! Who do you think you are, Donald Trump?” Points are also scored with the audience based on regional rivalries. For example, the panto at Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston, “has at least one Dallas joke in every production,” according to Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin. Similarly, if a panto was set in Cleveland, OH, it would make sense to that audience for the panto to dress villains in Pittsburgh Steelers uniforms. The booing would be that much louder!

9. Action onstage and off.

There’s a lot going on at a panto: prizes hidden under audience seats, audience members brought to the stage, sight gags, actors breaking character, audience participation, and constant feel-good entertainment. Balloons drop from the ceiling. Children can buy light-up toys in the lobby that add to the atmosphere of the show. Audience members heckle and get heckled right back.

10. Candy.

Traditionally, during Act Two of a panto, candy is thrown to the audience, because … why not?

‘You have to invest big-time if you want to do it [panto] right – but the investment has paid off tenfold for Stages Rep. It’s been a win-win for us on every level. Our panto is a Houston tradition.’ – Kenn McLaughlin, Stages Repertory Theatre, Houston

Panto’s Place in America

There are perhaps a dozen theatres in the United States regularly producing panto. Productions run the gamut from low-budget community theatre to student productions to Equity theatre shows to big-budget commercial spectacles. They all follow the British format in varying degrees, presenting a slapstick adaptation of a fairy tale with current and local humor and contemporary music. And all of them have seen success with their shows, just as the British have.

Stages Repertory Theatre, a professional Equity theatre in Houston, is preparing this year for its 10th annual panto production. The idea for doing a panto production came from one of the theatre’s board members, a native Brit who loved the humor of panto. Kenn McLaughlin, the theatre’s artistic director, took a trip to London to see some panto productions and quickly fell in love with the genre himself. The theatre’s first panto production was Cinderella, which Stages Repertory will reprise in 2017.

Stages Repertory’s original panto audience was the British expat community in Houston, McLaughlin says, but the show attracted a wider audience quickly. The audience now includes season ticket-holders as well as people who might never have come to Stages Repertory for its regular season productions. A song written for that first production helped explain the genre and attract audiences, McLaughlin says.

“We had written for that particular production a sort of educational song [about how a panto audience might behave], The Rules, which was really fun and was all about how there are no rules – just open your heart!” McLaughlin says. “It really just set the tone. It was like a magic charm.”

Stages Repertory’s audience base “has expanded significantly because of our pantos,” McLaughlin says.

“It is a grounded, classic tradition that is incredibly accessible for audiences,” he says. “It allows us to keep our adult audiences engaged in rather high-end, sophisticated humor with their kids in the room. We have families who come back every year to take pictures with certain actors, and now some of those who were kids in the beginning are bringing their kids. It’s not just children’s theatre but theatre as a communal event with their families. It’s exactly why we do theatre; it’s the core of it. It breaks so many barriers.”

Although staging a panto as the annual holiday show at Stages Rep required a large initial investment, McLaughlin says it was well worth it.

“You have to invest big time if you want to do it right – but the investment has paid off tenfold for Stages Rep,” he says. “The major regional theatres in America have defaulted to A Christmas Carol and A Christmas Story, and they can’t afford to give them up! So much of their economic model depends on it. Our panto is our Christmas Carol, and it’s certainly our cash cow.”

He encourages other theatres to consider adding pantos to their seasons.

“It’s a great place to use experimental designers, and it becomes an incredibly fertile greenhouse for theatre makers,” he says. “It’s been a win-win for us on every level. Our panto is a Houston tradition.”

Waterworks Players, a community theatre in Farmville, VA, began annual holiday panto productions at about the same time as Stages Rep. Mary Jo Stockton, a member of the theatre’s board of directors who grew up in Scotland, proposed the idea. The theatre presented its first panto, Puss in Boots, in 2006. Stockton says audiences quickly caught on to the genre.

“I thought we were going to need plants in the audience to make it work for an American audience but, as a native Brit, I was amazed at how it seemed to come naturally,” she says. “The kids just loved it and had no trouble figuring out what to do. We’ve been doing it for 10 years now, and kids in our community have grown up with the tradition so they know what to expect.”

Shows, which attract both children and adults, have included Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and May the Farce Be With You.

One of the newest and most successful entrants into American panto is Lythgoe Family Panto, owned by Kris Lythgoe (son of American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance producer Nigel Lythgoe) and his wife Becky. Since their Los Angeles-based company was founded in 2010, they have produced 12 pantos based on familiar stories, featuring well-known TV and film stars and familiar pop songs by artists such as Katy Perry and Bruno Mars.

Lythgoe Family Panto doesn’t have its own venue. Instead, it partners with existing theatres on the shows. Lythgoe’s pantos have been presented at theatres in Salt Lake City and Houston, as well as in California at Pasadena Playhouse, Laguna Playhouse and The Lyceum Theatre.

Ann E. Wareham, artistic director of Laguna Playhouse, an Equity theatre in Laguna Beach, CA, says she decided to add a panto to the season after being approached by the Lythgoes.

“I had been on the hunt for both a holiday show and something that could perhaps become a holiday tradition at the Playhouse, and I was really delighted by the pantos I had seen at Pasadena Playhouse,” she says. “So, we decided to give it a go here.”

Laguna presented its first Lythgoe panto in 2015. She says the panto has met its budgeted goal both years it has been presented, and “our audiences are loving it. The Lythgoes are terrific at helping educate audiences about panto – what it is, both today and traditionally – and our audience has certainly gone along for the ride. … Both young people and grown-ups alike respond to the multi-generational humor and music.”

Kris Lythgoe writes the Lythgoe Family Panto shows, which have ranged from Aladdin and His Winter Wish (starring Ben Vereen, Jordan Fisher and Ashley Argota) to Peter Pan and Tinker Bell – A Pirate’s Christmas (starring Sabrina Carpenter and John O’Hurley) to A Snow White Christmas (starring Ariana Grande, Neil Patrick Harris and Charlene Tilton, shown on this magazine’s cover, in one iteration). Lythgoe notes that adapting the shows for an American audience has been key to their success. Including songs kids recognize and casting well-known actors also adds to the magic.

“Primarily, it is a story kids know, with pop songs they know. And when you add talent like Ariana Grande, Ben Vereen and Sabrina Carpenter to the shows, they really come alive,” he says.

Theatres that would like to produce pantos need to keep in mind that these shows are designed to appeal to a wide variety of the public – not just the traditional theatre audience, he says.

“To be able to produce a good panto, theatres need to concentrate on the community around them, not just the theatre community around them,” Lythgoe says. “Pantos are always written for the people in a similar way to how Shakespeare wrote for the people.”

Panto’s Future in the U.S.

So, is it time for panto to take its place alongside A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story and The Nutcracker as a holiday tradition in the U.S.? We saw a British invasion of pop music in the 1960s, followed by an infusion of mega-musicals on Broadway in the 1980s. America in the 21st century seems ready to give a big “Hiya” to Britain’s favorite holiday show.

Ben Vereen (center) stars as the Genie in 2013’s Aladdin and His Winter Wish, presented by Lythgoe Family Panto at Pasadena Playhouse in California. Photo by Clarence Alford.
Adam McNab (right) is the Beast and Lucie Downer is Beauty in Jordan Productions’ 2016 production of Beauty and the Beast in England. Photo by Matt Usher, www.matthewusherphotography.com.

AUTHOR PROFILE

Adam D. Howard is an American-born, British-trained actor-singer-writer and an assistant professor of musical theatre at Texas Tech University. He is the writer-director for West Texas’ first panto, which will be presented at Lubbock Community Theatre this holiday season. Read about his personal connection with panto below.

How I Became a Fan of Panto

I was pursuing a master’s degree in performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2008, when some British friends dragged me to the annual Christmas panto presented by students. My classmates seemed to think that I’d be horrified at this lowbrow art form, but that attending was somehow compulsory, the way New Yorkers feel about Times Square: It’s garish, but you might as well see it since you’re here. When I asked them what to expect, they acted embarrassed, hemming and hawing, and couldn’t explain what I was in for. The panto in question was Mother Goose, and the first character onstage was a traditional Good Fairy character who immediately greeted the audience. I thought I had been tricked into attending a piece of children’s theatre. The antagonist was The Devil, and he was immediately booed by the audience in what I would come to know as perhaps the strongest of panto traditions. As an American steeped in theatre etiquette, I was appalled at first. By the time the devil sang Disco Inferno, I was both booing and laughing at the same time. Within a year, I was music directing a panto in Glasgow at the Citizens Theatre. A year after that, I was in the cast of the Rock n’ Roll Panto at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. The absurdity of every production I was a part of – and the sheer willingness of the audience to be a part of that absurdity – caused me to fall in love with this performance style for its complete lack of snobbery, its infectious energy and its almost Muppet-like sense of play.

– Adam D. Howard

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