November 10, 2022
Panto for Beginners
Panto in the Presidio is back this year! It might surprise US theater lovers to learn that British Pantomime (affectionately called panto) has been around for over 150 years, and is arguably the most popular holiday theater event in the English-speaking world.
With its satirical and cheeky retelling of well-known fairytales and stories, British Panto is a fun and music-filled, noisy and boisterous, holiday romp for all ages. It has a unique structure and sense of humor that plays on two concurrent levels–one for adults, and one for kids–that is the secret of its lasting popularity. Adults and young people alike will find themselves laughing at the same jokes, but for very different reasons. There’s always something for everyone in the audience.
I love panto because for two hours you can’t take yourself seriously, it is such infectious fun. I love the collision of really smart dialogue and characters with ridiculous dad jokes. I love shouting along with everyone else in the audience, and maybe getting some candy thrown my way. I love panto because it brings all of us in the audience together in a shared experience of mayhem and joy.
I’ve seen over 50 pantos in six different countries. And I have been part of creating 15 new pantos (including this year’s Panto in the Presidio) as an actor, director, writer, and dramaturg, and I spend much of the year waiting for panto season.
Here are my tips for anyone adventuring out to a panto for the very first time!
1. The Dame is Your Panto Guide
Every panto has a Dame. She is the emcee and primary guide through the story. Because we already know the fairytale, panto developed as a satirical response to the events of the day hidden in a children’s fairytale. And it is the Dame who guides us through the retelling, a retelling that is replete with Dad jokes, social and political satire, and a skewering of current events. The Dame, who is usually the Cook or someone’s mother, but always someone who is tangentially connected to the fairytale. She is traditionally played by a man, and many actors, including Sir Ian McKellen, have played panto Dames. Learn more about the development of the Dame in the history of Panto from Professor Jane Moody, Director of the Humanities Research Centre and Professor in the Department of English and Related Literature at York University.
2. Watch Out Behind You!
Panto is all about the audience and there is audience participation a-plenty. From candy tossing, to call and response (Oh no it isn’t! Oh yes it is!), to warnings (It’s behind you!), to traditional boos for the baddies and cheers for the heroes. Yes, panto is a noisy, noisy, fun-filled extravaganza.
3. Meet the Classic Panto Characters
In addition to the Dame, there are a few other character tropes in most pantos:
The Dame’s side-kick
Often a family member or an animal, and who keeps the kid’s story going.
The Principal Boy
Who plays the Prince or the love-interest, is traditionally played by a woman.
And there is always an animal
The animal can be played by two people in an animal suit, or singularly (like our Pecker), and is usually the best friend of one of the major characters.
A local ensemble
The ensemble often comprised of members of a local dance company or drama school.
4. Bring the Kids and the Adults
Pantos invite us to join together in a shared and magical experience. One for the whole family. The story is always on two levels with the fairytale for children providing cover for a lot of cheeky, adult humor driven by the Dame’s search for true love. The dialogue is filled with puns, word-play, local references, and Dad joke groaners. The songs are parodies of popular tunes through the ages.
5. Leave Your Worries Behind
Finally, pantos are a chance to escape the burdens of real life, the stress of the season, and the endless loop of holiday songs playing on every radio in earshot.
Want to Learn More About Panto?
Check out the Victoria and Albert Museum’s historical overview of Panto with great historic
CHRISTINE NICHOLSON is the dramaturg for the 2022 Panto in the Presidio, Sleeping Beauty. She has been teaching Theatre at the University/College level for twenty years, directing professionally for over twenty years, and has been a working actor since the 1980s. She is Associate Producer and Director for the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival, a founding member of Synergy Stage and Splinter Group Theatre (a theatre dedicated to Panto), and a member of Wildflower Women’s Shakespeare Ensemble. Sleeping Beauty will be the twelfth Panto that she has written/produced with her husband, Luther Hanson. Other Pantos include: The Magic Lamp, Cinderella, Snow White, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty (separate production), Robinhood in the Forest of Frogwarts, Moby Dick, the Panto, and Little Women, the Panto.