There’s nothing quiet about a pantomime.
“There’s often a lot of confusion around the term pantomime,” says Malcolm Mincher, who is directing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the Chilliwack Players Guild this November. “People see that word ‘mime’ and immediately think, there’s no talking. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
In fact, a pantomime is probably the noisiest, rowdiest sort of theatre you can attend. And the more boisterous, noisy, and involved the cast and the crowd are, the better. The name pantomime comes from the Greek, meaning “we can act everything”, and Pantos, as they are affectionately dubbed, do include a little bit of everything.
Modern pantomime contains songs, slapstick comedy and dancing, employs gender-crossing actors, and combines topical and local humor with a story loosely based on a well-known fairy tale or nursery story.
“To me it’s the last bastion of the variety show and you can absolutely litter it with corny gags and get a fantastic reaction,” says Mincher.
“Snow White is a classic of the genre, the script we’ve started with is very clever, and it’s always fun to slip in a few local jokes and some digs at current politics. The great thing about Panto is the audience interaction, it’s so inclusive. It’s a participatory form of theatre, the crowd is expected to sing along with the music and shout out phrases to the performers,” he adds.
Performance conventions include yelling things like “he’s behind you!” to warn the hero, and “Oh, yes it is!” and “Oh, no it isn’t!,” to voice disagreement with the villain.
One of the major aims is to break the fourth wall and make the audience take part in the play.
“That’s what’s so wonderful about pantomime: anything goes,” Mincher says.
In Victorian times, when the Pantomime really came into its own, it was perceived as a means of escape from the strict morals of the time. In those days the leading young male character (the principle boy) was often played by a young woman, usually in male garments (such as breeches) that made her female charms evident. This provided a marvelous opportunity, in stoic Victorian times, to display a shapely pair of limbs and to increase the male audience.
Pantomimes rely on a set of stock characters, perhaps the most iconic Panto role is the Dame, who is usually played by a man in drag. The Dame’s costume and entrances are typically more extravagant and exaggerated than any other character. She is usually portrayed as older, unattractive and fairly common, all qualities which she believes she is the exact opposite of. The dame in Snow White is also the villain, the wicked Queen Evilynn.
“Emphasis on the evil,” smiles Ralph Jones, who dons the dame’s bloomers for this show. “Panto baddies are so much fun to play, you can be as broad and over the top as you like, argue with the audience and be the person they love to hate, it’s fantastic!”
The foil for the villain is the Princess, in this case Snow White, played by Elizabeth Monaghan, assisted by the charming Prince, played by Cruze Hurley.
Another traditional role is the spinster in this case Clarissa the Cook, played by Janet Fox and her slow-witted sidekick, played by Darrin Kennedy.
Rounding out the cast of 28 are dwarfs, villagers, soldiers and henchmen.
Producer John Ayris adds, “Pantos are family shows but there is usually enough innuendo of the nudge-nudge wink-wink variety to keep the grownups happy.”
Part of the popularity of Pantomime is that it works on two levels. There is the basic story and gags for the children, but the script also often involves risqué double entendre, often wringing innuendo out of perfectly innocent phrases. This is, in theory, over the heads of the children in the audience and is for the entertainment of the adults.
Many modern pantomimes cast popular artists and celebrity guest stars to promote the show. Keep your eyes open, you never know what local celebrity might show up!
Pop singer Ariana Grande recently appeared as Snow White, while Pamela Anderson, Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, and David Hasselhoff have all tried their hands at it. Even the celebrated stage and screen actor Sir Ian McKellen has taken recent turns as the Dame and is enthusiastic in his praise of Panto: “I believe there’s more pure theatre in a pantomime than you get in Shakespeare, and if it works, it’s unforgettable…”
Now, you can’t say fairer than that… ”Oh no you can’t!”
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Panto, plays at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre Nov. 19 to 28, 2015. Check out the Cultural Centre website for showtimes and prices.