Re-Inventing Pantomime

In this blog, I explain my reasons for revamping the purpose and genre of school pantomime productions.

Firstly I show that pantomime is still a valued form of popular English theatre, despite its decline outside London and the UK.

Secondly, I look to make a connection between research around the implications of the ‘future of work’ and the ‘gig economy’ on current day students and the value of staging school pantomime productions.  While drama educators have often connected the cross-curricular skills which have been identified around ‘enterprise skills’ and their specialist drama work, I want to go a step further by curating the scripts and other production materials around ‘radical pantomimes’ created between the 1850s and 1930s that I investigated in my thesis that presented egalitarian and ‘post-colonial’ perspectives in their time. I showed how imaginative panto productions participated in a theatre industry which was on the frontline of social change, and in no small way contributed to the transformation of gender roles and class relations.

The fact that they were not remotely conscious of anything but a Eurocentric culturally superior worldview meant that racial diversity was never considered. I suggest that the challenge of dealing with their ‘unconscious’ racialism within an otherwise egalitarian theme in these pantomimes provides us with primary materials to radically re-invent the pantomime for a digital age.

Seeing the value of pantomime as a cultural form

Putting on a Christmas pantomime is still regarded as a significant theatrical event in many parts of London and in regional centres of the UK. This can be gauged, for instance, by scrolling down the index of productions advertised on the UK’s BIG PANTO GUIDE.  The UK’s pantomime production companies, such as Qdos Entertainment, First Family Entertainment and ImagineTheatre, create work for thousands of actors, dancers, musicians, stage staff and creative personnel every year.

While the role of pantomime in the Australia theatre industry has significantly diminished by 19th-century and early 20th-century standards,  Australian theatre companies occasionally stage pantomime like the 2006 production by Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre of Tom Wright’s Babe in the Wood. There also exist smaller more specialist companies such as Wonderland Theatre that offer the pantomime experience to school and community audiences. Though often packaged together as a sub-genre of the school musical, schools and community groups are also able to buy the rights to stage pantomimes via AustralianPlays, Maverick Musicals & Plays and David Spicer Productions.

Since 2014, theatre producer Bonnie Lythgoe has successfully ‘revived’ pantomimes in Sydney and Melbourne using some of Australia’s best known musical and comedic talent.  Speaking about her aims at the time of the first production, Ms Lythgoe revealed that

I’m taking a huge gamble here but I took Cinderella and Aladdin to America, where they know nothing about pantomime at all, and had a very big success with it,” she says. “If you can crack it there, you can crack it anywhere. If I break even on this show, I would love to bring Aladdin or Peter Pan and rotate four or five pantos around the country. I think in your winter you all need something to go to and look forward to.”

I’m happy to follow Bonnie Lythgoe’s example and take a ‘huge gamble’, at least by advocating schools to stage pantomime productions.  I believe the form is a rich genre that gives rise to ‘rich tasks’ and projects in drama and theatre studies courses.  From my research, I don’t believe we have a more interesting non-naturalistic style of theatre that has been as historically important for the creation of theatre industries, as well as popular culture in general.

The value of pantomime in exploring the nature of the ‘enterprise skills’ and the ‘future of work’.

Using McConachie’s and other theatre researchers and practitioners who have gained insights from the ‘cognitive turn’ in drama and theatre studies, I want Radical Re-Inventions to re-visit ‘dramaturgical thinking’ and explore the urgent issue of the ‘future of work’. I don’t claim to be the first and only drama educator to have considered that a direct connection between current drama curricula and enterprise skills. For instance, Nicholas Waxman, Head of Visual and Performing Arts at Eltham College in Victoria reported on November 2017 in Education HQ that the eight skills of  Problem solving; Communication; Financial literacy; Critical thinking; Creativity; Teamwork; Digital literacy and Presentation skills is integral to any drama exercise in which students are developing a scene for performance.

In Waxman’s words:

As a group students need to be able to organise, plan, and research their work (problem solving); they need to be clear on the purpose and intention of their written work (communication and teamwork); evaluate the effectiveness of the script and its theatrical intent (critical thinking); bring the story to life with engaging character and stagecraft (creativity); work with projection, lighting and sound software and more to effectively present their finished product (digital literacy) while presentation skills are evident throughout the exercise. The obvious outlier is financial literacy, but most drama programs include student input. That could be a student production, house drama festival, house music performance, ensemble performance or a scene study.

My experience supports Mr Waxman’s views. Therefore, it was just a small step for me to set up creative projects with my students and embed cross-curricular capabilities through the school production using my specialist knowledge of 19th-century pantomime and theatre entrepreneurship. However, up to the advent of the term ‘gig economy’, the entrepreneurial culture that set up theatre industries such as London’s West End theatre district seemed cast as the antithesis of a desirable economic model.

In fact, my work as a theatre director and the prospects of my drama students finding a reliable source of work in the theatre industry were my primary motivations for completing by 1997 thesis,  Entrepreneurs, Empires and Pantomimes, in which I looked at how theatre entrepreneurs had structured work practices through financial imperatives. Today, however, I believe the challenge faced by artists living off short-term contracts and experiencing ‘portfolio careers’ serve to illustrate a far wider group of workers than those pursuing a theatrical career. As a result, I find myself rethinking the relevance of staging pantomime productions, not just from the viewpoint of a drama specialist, but as a parent and citizen viewing a younger generation facing an upsurge in the ‘gig economy’.  

In this regard, I am aware that the annual Christmas pantomime had a huge bearing on financing theatre businesses and enabling individual artists to make a reasonable income. In the process of my research, I documented around 150 pantomimes staged in Sydney and Melbourne between 1879 – 1914 in detail. I also documented many more around Australia and the UK in enough detail to show me the vast network of artists and managers who moved in and out of the theatre industry from the 1850s to the 1960s. At the beginning of my research work, I could only access National and State archives and Performing Arts Museums by physically turning up to their locations. However, in the past 10 years, I have added even more productions from digital archival sources. There is now an array of primary pantomime materials, theatre reviews, production illustrations and photographs of performers, theatres and scenes, for instance, to be found on the millions of pages which are now available through the British Newspaper Archive and the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Remarkably, the success of local pantomimes shows the opposite trend to the importation of the ‘mega-musical’ from London or New York. In fact, pantomime convention called for a highly localised production through a process of adapting older versions of a script on the same theme.  This was referred to in the business as arranging or re-arranging the pantomime story. Productions included the theatre manager (sometimes the writer), the theatre designers of sets, lighting and costumes (including the scene painter), choreographer (sometimes the leading clown), the musical director who wrote the ‘accidental’ music between the scenes and adapted popular songs into the scenario. Pantomime writers were often journalists (for example Marcus Clarke was a pantomime writer, journalist and novelist) with a keen eye on local, national and international affairs. Collectively, these theatre professionals would

  • Devise a performance specifically for the local community;
  • Source local celebrities, star attractions, top comedians;
  • Write comic material – gags and routines by identifying specific trending topics;
  • Source popular music;
  • Audition and rehearse a cast of hundreds, including troupes of children and dancers;
  • Rearrange the storyline taken from a fairytale, myth or legend;
  • Include local settings, buildings, shops in the stage scenery
  • Design the stunning and fantastic scenes;
  • Set up a solid theme of good vs evil by satirising the formula leading up to ‘and-they-lived-happy-ever-after’; and
  • Daringly perform cross-dressed roles and lurid jokes!

All in all, I take the words of the pantomime tradition, here we go again, to signal that it is a dramatic form which can be looked at again for now positioning creative learning in our schools to look at the ‘future of work’ in a fun way.

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