Performance for Christmastime: An American At Pantomime

Our Artistic Director continues her seasonal exploration of performance during times of traditional celebration – particularly those at Christmas – this week she reflects on Pantomime through her eyes as someone brought up outside the UK.

Every year, as the holidays roll in, so does one of the most uniquely British phenomena: the pantomime. And every year I think about what an interesting phenomenon it is, and wonder if, as an American, I will ever fully understand it.

America doesn’t have it. The word exists, but in America it means ‘miming a performance, without speech’, not a beloved Christmas tradition. In that sense it shares at least a root with the British version. But as a form of performance itself, “pantomime” simply doesn’t exist in America. So I didn’t see it until I was in my thirties, thereby probably missing out on a certain aspect of magic which is dependent upon the nostalgia of the childhood theatrical experiences.

The only pantomime I’ve seen is that of York Theatre Royal. I’m lead to understand (it was even mentioned in a recent lecture on Victorian Pantomime I attended, which took place in London) that this one is quite a unique thing unto itself, an especially remarkable version of the form. I’ll be honest: I went in a bit warily. My expectations included words like “zany”, “absurd” and “over the top”. I’m not sure those words were wrong, just that they were only a tiny part of the picture. As an American I’m still not sure I understand pantomime, but I’m also not convinced that my British friends and colleagues understand it either. It’s not about understanding. It’s about doing what comes hardest to me – giving up the need to analyse, and just entering into the spirit of the thing. And if you can do that, it’s really something quite special.

Like much British comedy, pantomime is a mixture of physical, slapstick comedy, and really intelligent humour. The topicality of it is remarkable, and possibly not more than a handful of the audience gets 100% of the jokes. In fact, trying to keep track of the variety of references can be a game in itself. If you want to “get” all of pantomime, you’d better be well up on your news-watching, pop culture, non-pop culture, theatre and music etc. It really does have something for everyone. If you want to see someone get dropped into a tank of water, you’ll get it (at least at York Theatre Royal); if you want to play “how many music theatre jokes can someone work into an evening”, you can do that, too. It’s that mixture that makes it different from a lot of American comedy, where things tend toward either “high” or “low” comedy, without the same mixing of the two; they play to different audiences, and there probably isn’t anything as universally appreciated as the pantomime.

I’m told that performers will test out their audiences at the opening of the night, and adjust the improvisational elements of their performance in accordance to whether the patrons seems engaged or “dead”, sleepy or excited. And they periodically talk to the audience, directly, while at certain points it is completely expected – almost scripted – that the audience will talk back. That kind of interaction within a “traditional” (as opposed to experimental or avant garde) production would be very uncommon in America – the only analogy I can think of is the way people go to screenings of Rocky Horror, which, being a film, isn’t the same thing at all.

This comparison brings me to the aspect of pantomime that probably makes it the hardest to translate to America: the Pantomime Dame. The notion that there’s just something inherently funny in a man dressing up as an elderly woman doesn’t translate across the Atlantic. Drag in America is almost always coded in terms of sexuality, which isn’t really the point in pantomime. I find it quite refreshing, actually, that it can be a simple exercise in the ludicrous, without mocking any particular group or lifestyle.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that pantomime is something I’ll ever fully appreciate. I think you have to grow up with it (and this may be especially true at York Theatre Royal, where people attend annually for years, even decades; it references previous years in the entirely reasonable assumption that much of the audience will remember). But what really sold me on it was the sheer joy of the performers. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen actors having so much unabashed fun in their work. You simply couldn’t watch it and not catch that kind of contagious enthusiasm. I was watching people break an awful lot of the rules of theatre that I was raised with, and they were selling it like hotcakes, and we were all buying. If letting go of any meanness or pettiness, if replacing them with joy and delight and laughter, is what the holidays are meant to be about, I can think of no greater example than the pantomime.