Every January, the imaginary beasts put on a Winter Pantomime for the Boston community. While the word “pantomime” typically brings to mind images of silent storytelling, Panto is in fact quite noisy. It is a hybrid comic form, full of wordplay, singing, topical humor, and call-and-response routines, not only between characters onstage, but also between actors and audience.
The modern form of Panto took shape in England at a time when amateur theatrical houses were prohibited from producing works with spoken dialogue to keep them from competing with plays at court-sanctioned theatres. To get around restrictions, amateur houses would put on shows with dance, music, and comic bits, and through such routine-based theatre, a tale was surreptitiously told.
Today Panto is a celebratory tradition, bringing people together for a kind of communal storytelling. The plots used are only the most recognizable, usually taken from fairy tales, nursery rhymes, or popular legends, and always involving a heroic quest. At their essence, Pantos enact a battle of good versus evil, fought by a band of ragtag stock characters. The Principal Boy—played by a woman—is a young hero embarking on a grand adventure, and trying to win the affections of the Principal Girl. The Dame—played by a man—is a woman past her prime with a particular fondness for attractive men. These and other goodies join the Benevolent Agent in overtaking or outsmarting the Principal Baddy and his sycophantic minions.
Good always triumphs over evil in the end, but this can only be accomplished if every person in the theatre works together. Last January, during our production of Kerplop! The Tale of the Frog Prince, I would run onstage in my green makeup before the lights went down to welcome the audience to the show. I would ask the crowd to cheer on the goodies and boo at the baddies. I would say to them, quite sincerely, “We can’t do this without you!”
This is what sets Panto apart from other forms of theatre. Audience participation is not only a staple, it is an essential part of telling the story. Only with audiences discouraging the bad characters and helping out the good ones can the journey be completed, and order restored. Each night when the Principal Baddy first sets foot onstage the audience and actors come together to form a team; children as well as adults lean forward in their seats to shout and cheer and laugh their way to a victory for the side of the good, right and true.
The local tradition of imaginary beasts’ Pantos grew from Artistic Director Matthew Woods’ desire, sparked long ago, to capture this sense of community. Woods spent a year abroad in England while he was in college, and got direct exposure to the spirit of festivity and kinship that Panto holds there. This spirit spoke to Woods, and when he began working for Sleepy Lion Theatre in Topsfield, Massachusetts, he decided to try his hand at the form. Working out of a barn, Woods and a cast of twenty-two actors spent three weeks writing the script, rehearsing, and constructing costumes and sets. They were offered a space at the Topsfield Fairgrounds, and on opening night they held a big dinner for the community. Woods called it a magical experience, and he has been producing annual Pantos ever since. He founded imaginary beasts in 2007, and in 2012 the beasts brought Panto from the North Shore to Boston, where new audiences have welcomed us.
The strongest sense of ensemble I have ever experienced occurs during the process of putting together an imaginary beasts’ Panto. The first task is to develop a scenario, or a description of what should happen in each scene, and everyone involved has a voice. Through writing exercises and improvisations, the scenes are continually refined during the rehearsal process. Characters are inspired by the actors playing them, and relationships are shaped by the dynamics of the group. We play together for weeks, and eventually, Woods takes all of the material that has been generated and sits down to write a final version of the script.
Even with scripts in hand there is plenty of room for improvisation, and we make changes, write new jokes, and crack each other up all through tech week. Designers contribute their exquisite work, stage management adjusts skillfully to last minute script changes, friends and longtime associates come in and help paint sets and make props right up to curtain on opening night. Each Panto is utterly unique, born of a particular group of people.
But no Panto is complete before it has an audience. On opening night the ensemble widens to take in a larger community of local theatregoers, and together, we tell the story. The spirit of each performance is completely determined by its audience, and so the show is never the same twice. I have countless fond memories of enthusiastic spectators who have altered the course of an evening.
On opening night of one of my first Pantos, The Fantastic Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor, I remember huddling with my cast mates backstage, nervously anticipating the next scene which had been a recent addition to the script. Three fortune tellers were onstage, musing over what to do next when a little boy stood up and started pointing and shouting directions to them. He knew the story and he was desperate to help the characters get to the beach and save the princess from the hideous sea monster! The fortune tellers froze, listened to the boy, and then abandoned their scripts to follow his orders. Shouting “To the beach!” they bounded offstage. I laughed so hard there were tears in my eyes, and I immediately relaxed, knowing the audience was with us and would help us through the show.
As a member of a Panto audience you might be conscripted by the baddies but you will always support the goodies. You will complete rhymes, and sing songs. You will guard sacred objects and shout warnings about sneaky characters. You may be flirted with, or hissed at, or even knighted. You may see a photo of yourself appear onstage!
You may have the power to change the ending of the story, as one young audience member did during our production of Rumpelstiltskin: or All That Glitters, when, infuriated by the Baddy’s refusal to reveal his real name, the boy shouted out the meanest insult he could muster: “Your real name is Chicken Finger!” That night Rumpelstiltskin (played by Matthew Woods himself) was vanquished by the audience and the goodies simultaneously chanting “Chicken Finger!” as he melted to the floor.
In Great Reckonings in Little Rooms, theatre scholar Bert O. States wrote that theater is “something prepared for the community out of the substance of its own body.” This is one of my favorite descriptions of theatre, and I always think of it when I am working on a Panto. For me, it reveals what the imaginary beasts’ annual Winter Pantos are all about. They are collective creations—stories built from the ground up—made for, and made of, our Boston theatre community.
Artistic Associate with imaginary beasts
Winter Panto 2016: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz! will open January 9th at the Boston Center for the Arts!
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