What is Panto?

In the UK a Pantomime, or “Panto” as it is usually affectionately called, is a form of interactive theatre, performed around the Christmas season for the entertainment of millions of families.

Many of the stories are based on popular, even if slightly skewed, Fairy Tales. Children love to see their favourite stories and characters played out on the stage, they particularly enjoy the physical comedy and the over the top characters. Everyone is encouraged to “dress-up” as their favorite character, and if there is one thing kids love, it’s dressing up in costume! The adults certianly get enough innuendo and double entendre of the “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” variety to keep them rolling in the aisles. Panto is guaranteed to give the whole family a rolicking good time. To the uninitiated, however, the humour, insane plot and the cast with the extremely silly character names may leave you absolutely flummoxed as to what on earth is going on. It is difficult to describe in words what Panto is all about. The origins of Pantomime, date back to the middle ages. Panto blends the traditions of the Italian Commedia dell Arte with British “Old Time” Music Hall. “Commedia dell Arte” was travelling street entertainment, which came from Italy in the 16th century. It was a very energetic type of theatre that used dance, music, tumbling, acrobatics and slapstick comedy. The troupes performed in fairs and market places. Often the troupes were made up of family members who would inherit their characters, costumes, masks and stories from their parents or grandparents.

Audience participation is probably the most important part of British Pantomime tradition. Even the most serious and mature members of the audience, suddenly become uninhibited in their enthusiasm to join in. The audience is actively encouraged to cheer and clap for the Hero, and to boo the Villain whenever he or she enters. Heckling is also encouraged and can lead to some hilarious ad-libs from the cast. Here’s a typical example of involving the audience:

Ugly sister: “I’m much prettier than Cinderella”
Audience: “Oh no you’re not!”
Ugly sister: “Oh yes I am!”
Audience: “Oh no you’re not!”

This happens frequently with a variety of lines throughout the show and it is up to the Actors to decide how long to keep it going before they go back to the script. No Panto script is complete without the “It’s/he’s/she’s behind you!” moments. Either on stage or “front of tabs” (in front of the curtain), the children are asked by one of the main characters to let them know if a ghost/spider/gorilla or anything else appears. There follows a classic scene where gradually each character is frightened away until only the Dame is left with the monster. The monster always ends up being scared off by the Dame – you have to see it, to understand it!

The Pantomime plot is very simple: A girl, who is actually a girl playing the part of a boy (the Hero), is the son of a man, who is actually playing the part of a woman (the Dame), will fall in love with a girl who is playing the part of a girl (the Heroine). The girl dressed as the boy will sometimes be assisted by one or two men (or it could be women) dressed up as a cow, or a horse or any other animal the scriptwriters dream up. Are you with us so far?…