It’s Behind You! The Christmas Panto

Panto Day image

Today is Panto Day! The Christmas Pantomime is that curious British tradition of a family comedy variety show where the Principal Boy is played by a woman, and the middle-aged spinster, known as the Dame, is played by a man. Pantomimes, or Pantos for short, usually incorporate singing, dancing, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, topical references, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo.

Over the last 40 years or so, in order to help keep shows selling out, it has become popular for many shows to use C- and D- list TV celebrities, pop stars and now old Hollywood film and TV actors. There have also been times where panto has become the performance retirement home for once popular comedy stars from British television’s heyday.

Sadly, this, along with recycled, hoary jokes, has given panto a bad reputation of being tacky and many people in the British theatre industry look down upon the art form. The difficulty is two-fold; the first comes from the panto writers and actors trying to keep the traditional comedy routines alive by handing them down to the next generation. The second difficulty lies with the theatres trying to make enough money to stay afloat, so resorting to various celebrities.

Part of the fun of Panto lies with the audience being familiar with the old comic routines and jokes and they are often disappointed when they don’t feature. The problem with this comes when there are jokes made about targets from the 1970s or 1980s that are just no longer considered funny. Derogatory jokes against homosexuals or slightly dubious racist/sexist jokes crept in to scripts written during that time period, but the scripts were probably not updated to remove those jokes so, sadly, many pantos in Great Britain continue to use that material.

Even some of what Abbott and Costello did, were classic routines that many comedians before them had used. They just perfected and honed them and made them their own. It would be difficult for a double act to perform the “Who’s on First” routine without being compared to Abbott and Costello or feeling like they were being ripped off. Even some of Charlie Chaplin’s early comedies were filmed versions of sketches he performed live in British Music Hall; I am all for preservation of comic routines and finding ways to make them relevant for a modern audience. But one has to be careful of not attacking an old target.

There are also key moments of audience interaction such as when a character onstage says something like “Oh no I shouldn’t” the audience is encouraged by the other actors to reply “Oh yes you should”; or variations of that phrase. There is also the participatory line “it’s behind you”, which the audience get to shout out when there’s a scary creature or another character behind one who is already on stage.

Having seen a number of pantomimes in my youth, I am still a relative newcomer when it comes to performing in them. Early in my career I played Hansel in a touring production of “Hansel & Gretel” and also Ernie the Elf in a touring production of “Sleeping Beauty”. Yeah, I don’t remember that character appearing in the original story either…

The Principal Boy role usually played by a woman and the Comic Lead played by a Man who has a lot of interaction with the audience. Each of us performed characters that blurred those traditional panto archetypes as there were only three actors in each show.

Although there have been productions of shows such as Cinderella since the late 1800s, this type of Entertainment is still little-known in the United States. According to my research there have been intermittent productions in California, with more regular shows performed in Ghent, New York and Evanston, Illinois.

In late 2012 I played the role of the Dame in a production of “Bah, Humbug!” for Piccolo Theatre
in Evanston. Like the PantoLoons Bah Humbug the Pantoproduction company in Ghent, Piccolo were in their 12th season with their annual Panto. The archetype of the Dame is sometimes referred to as the Principal
Comedian and is played by a man. On the right, that’s me as Belle Bakewell the Dame in “Bah, Humbug!”

A common misconception is that the Dame is drag act; it’s not. The documentary from the early 1980s,
“The Art of the Pantomime Dame”, talked about how the Dame is a man trying to be a woman, but failing.
If the make-up and costume are too perfect the character tips over into being a drag act. In my mind, what hasn’t help the misconception over the years is when drag acts such as Danny LaRue, Paul O’Grady and Dame Edna Everage have played the role. It gets a bit confusing.

There need to be subtle reminders that the performer is a bloke in a dress, without going so far has having facial hair. Legendary Panto Dame, Berwick Kaler, manages to achieve this with his annual shows at the York Theatre Royal. While he wears the outrageous dresses, he doesn’t wear make-up.

If you have the opportunity to see a pantomime then I would highly recommend it. As Sir Ian McKellen, who twice played Widow Twankey in Aladdin, once said: “Panto has everything theatrical – song, dance, verse, slapstick, soliloquy, audience participation, spectacle, crossdressing and a good plot, strong on morality and romance – what more could you want from a family outing?”

To learn more about Panto online check out: Celebrate Panto (which talks more about Panto Day) and also It’s Behind You, which was a great resource when I was doing research for Dame.)

Picture courtesy of REP3 Photography

Posted in Comedy | Leave a comment

Freelance Comedy Writer

I am now developing myself into a freelance writer and stay at home humorist. Not that I am abandoning the performing, but looking after a baby right now you take opportunities where you can.

Back in August, I signed up with a couple of freelance writing sites (Elance and oDesk, specifically). So far the couple of jobs I’ve had have come via oDesk. The first was adding some humorous lines to someone’s memoir that focused on his childhood. I can’t really talk more than that, but it’s a project which has yet to be completed or published. Sorry to sound all mysterious. It was a fun, but tough project (the content was quite heavy-going) but that was the first freelancing I got paid for in a long time. In the past I have sold material to a topical sketch show in England.

Recently, I began submitting jokes, they’re more anecdotal really, to another site.  To use baseball terminology, thanks to my wife for help in that area, I am 3/3 in at-bats. This means, every time I’ve sent them something they’ve accepted something. You don’t have to hit a home run every time. The first anecdote I submitted, cultural differences, was accepted. Which means I hit a home run my first time “at the plate”.

Apparently most batters dream of hitting 50%. Hitting .500 means you hit once, every two times you are pitched to. A .300 is a good batting average.  This analogy kind of makes sense to me. If I knew cricket, I’d use that instead. But I don’t do sports.

Having written this is like having written ancient Aramaic.

Anyway, check out their site if you get the chance, “Smiles for All”. Their mission is a nice one; “to spread smiles and laughter, one person at a time, through funny true stories and playfulness.”

Posted in Comedy | Leave a comment

New Adventures in Comedy

Blackadder: Where have you been Flash?
Lord Flashheart: Where haven’t I been?

Wow, has it really been three years since I updated this blog? Why have I been away? Well, in short, I felt I was spending too much time talking about humor and comedy rather than doing it. Hence the three year absence from posting. However, I do love talking about comedy and so I missed blogging about it.

I also was moving towards presentation skills coaching and training, and while I am able to do that, it doesn’t make my heart sing. So I had to be really honest with myself and get back to what it was that I really enjoyed and that was comedy. Both writing and performing it.

Can you summarize the last three years, creatively, in less than 30 seconds?
Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How to Improve Presentation Skills workshop – The University of Chicago

Back at the end of May I did a how to improve presentation skills workshop for the University of Chicago. I enjoyed it for the most part, but there were a couple of things I hadn’t anticipated. I liaised with my contact and got clarification about the time available and I explained how long my workshop was. But for some reason there was still a  mis-communication between us… Continue reading

Posted in Presentations | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Can British Prime Ministers still learn from Aristotle and rhetoric?

Can British Prime Ministers still learn from Aristotle and rhetoric? Aristotle is important to us as speakers because he is generally credited as developing the basics of rhetorical theory in his book, which is often translated into English as The Art of Rhetoric.

Britain now has a new Tory Prime Minister. As a note for anyone outside the U.K., Tory is the nickname for the Conservative Party. I don’t want to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition, I’m specifically interested in the new Prime Minister’s speaking ability. Continue reading

Posted in Professional Speaking, Toastmasters | Tagged , | Leave a comment