Pantomimes are categorically a unique form of theatre. They may feature the dance routines and big numbers of musicals, the wit and irony of comedies and the drama and outlandish costumes of opera, but pantomimes are undeniably their own entity. Even the most popular or dominant theatre venues conserve around six weeks of their annual programme specifically to host pantomime productions over Christmas. According to statistics by The Stage, revenue from pantomimes continue to grow each year, recording just over £60 million in 2016/17, showing the power of pantos to still draw in the crowds.
So what is it about pantomimes that’s so distinguishable?
A Brief History
The theatre genre has survived centuries and civilisations, taking the name ‘pantomime’ from the Greek words ‘pan’ (all) and ‘mimos’ (imitator). Modern pantomime owes much of its shape and content to 16th century Italian street theatre Commedia dell’arte, which exercised audience interaction, improvised dialogue, stock characters and slapstick humour. In fact, Commedia dell’arte coined this form of humour, where in its method of making use of available props, the most popular protagonist ‘Arlecchino’ would wear two sticks tied together that ‘slapped’ on impact (slap + sticks).
Storylines often centered around young lovers battling a form of evil, and were frequently adapted from mythology or folk tales. Audiences would generally be familiar with the story and characters, invited to react and communicate with actors to enhance the experience. There was typically no fourth wall, and actors employed a variety of techniques and tactics to promote engagement, such as ‘lazzo of running along the balcony rail’ particularly for chase scenes, ‘lazzo of the interpretation’ where an actor walks into the audience and begins shouting random orders at the actors on stage, and ‘the working audience’, where actors would sit next to audience members, include them in running jokes or insulting them.
It is clear to see the semblance between today’s fairytale-inspired, comical pantomimes and its Italian ancestor. Commedia dell’arte took theatre to the streets and it spread like wildfire across Europe – now recognised as quintessentially British. The unique art form and its traditions are all part of what makes seeing a pantomime so special, and any audience still virginal to the rich theatre genre may benefit from finding out more about panto-specific etiquette.
Common shout outs and when to do so
- Cheering/booing/hissing – pantomimes always have ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Simply put, you can cheer the heroes whenever they do something good, and similarly when the villains do something evil you can boo or hiss. These reactions dominated Shakespearean theatre and is now formally embedded in British pantos.
- ‘Oh no it isn’t, oh yes it is!’ – a routine chant instigated when an actor says either ‘oh no it isn’t’ or ‘oh yes it is’ and the audience is encouraged to shout the opposite. The chant is normally repeated three times, lead by the actor.
- ‘It’s behind you!’ – often an actor will be looking for something, or a villain is creeping up on a hero, and the audience can clearly see whatever it is behind them. Interestingly, this was found to be panto-goers favourite catchphrase according to a survey conducted by the Radio Times years ago.
- ‘Abracadabra!’ – not as regularly employed as the others, but the magician’s mantra is used according to the plot. If a character is trying to make something magical happen, audience members are usually invited to help.
There are various other plot-specific invitations to shout out or participate in pantomimes, so it’s important to attend prepared for anything.
Standing up and moving around
Pantomimes are typically much more mobile than traditional theatre shows. There’s lots of singing and dancing transpiring on stage, and you’re meant to dance along. We’re not just talking about gentle head bops, but standing up and giving it your all. A lot of pantomimes also have numbers with specific dance routines that actors teach their audiences, or sing along style challenges where the auditorium is divided and groups are cajoled to sing the loudest.
While it’s ok to move around, and somewhat expected of very young children, pantomimes are not concerts and do include plenty of sit-down times. So as a rule of thumb, sit down when there is no music playing to avoid restricting the view for spectators behind.
Dressing up and panto attire
Unlike other forms of theatre that are typically formal affairs, at pantomimes anything goes when it comes to what to wear. Whether it’s everyday clothes or a flamboyant frock, all outfits are generally accepted. However, it’s also worth remembering that squirting water is frequently practiced so it’s advised to refrain from wearing your best clothes.
Children often enjoy dressing up as their favourite characters from the show, but at pantomimes it’s important for them to be comfortable and able to run around if necessary.
Meeting the cast
Some pantomimes allow for meet and greets with the actors after the play. With the infusion of high-profile productions and celebrities now engaging with pantomimes, this is no longer the norm – particularly at the leading venues. But if you’re visiting a local theatre, it may be worth checking whether they hold a meet and greet for little ones.
Bringing food to a show
This often depends on the venue, but generally there are no strict rules to disallow food in theatres. Strong-smelling or messy food may be an issue, but small snacks and drinks to keep the little ones going (or maybe yourself) is usually acceptable. It may be worth researching the venue before you go to check if they have any restrictions.
Pantomimes are a tradition for a reason. They’re colourful and crazy and are a great way to bring the family together – particularly at Christmastime. Expect to see gender-reversed roles, acrobatic mastery, and plenty of cheap humour; pantomime is the carnival of theatre for all the great reasons.
As a thriving form of theatre, there’s plenty of pantomimes on offer each year. Why not take a look at our guide to Christmas pantomimes 2018 to see what’s coming up?