By Lee Devin and Gina Pisasale

“I’ve always thought it a wonderful form, because it can include anything the theatre is able to give a welcome to.” ~Ian McKellen on Pantos

Coming out of the commedia dell’arte, the Twelfth Night holiday (which has reversal of roles as a tradition), the Festival of Fools and Epiphany, the Christmas Panto is today the most popular theatre form in Great Britain. In a single year, 19 pantos played in London and 187 in the rest of the country.

Traditionally, pantos typically take a well-known fairy tales or other favorite children’s story and turn it on its ear. Favorite stories, which have inspired countless different Pantos, are Aladdin, Robin Hood, Cinderella, Dick Wittington, Jack and the Beanstalk, Mother Goose, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Goldilocks and Snow White. These familiar stories form the basis for exaggeration, variation and topical social commentary, as well as outrageous jokes, humorous songs, sprightly dances and, sometimes, a strangely affecting love story.

The tradition has developed some fairly rigid conventions of plotting, casting and story. Here are some of the familiar elements that audiences at People’s Light have come to relish:

  • The Dame: a boisterous yet benevolent matriarch played by a man in a fabulous dress 
  • A hero (sometimes played by a woman); a heroine; and a stock villain
  • “Skin roles,” animal pals who help our hero in his or her adventures
  • A comic duo
  • A basic story that explores themes of love, friendship, and good vs. evil
  • Music, dance, and slapstick
  • Audience participation: boo, cheer, even argue with the characters onstage
  • Satire of local events, government policies, and famous people
  • A “slosh scene” or “messy bit”: a slapstick routine with something wet, gooey, and/or slippery
  • A “candy bit”: the actors throw candy into the audience, sometimes by the villain’s lackeys to get information about the hero
  • Silly songs that the audience joins in singing

Since the 18th century, audiences have gathered in droves to enjoy the songs, jokes, costumes and treats of this Christmas celebration. At People’s Light, we’re having great fun joining this tradition, adjusting it to our culture and aesthetic, bringing it to our time and place. We don’t want to get all solemn, but these stories live in the hearts of us all, and beneath the fun and foolery they touch us in fundamental ways. We want to place these deep stories on out stage without losing the madcap, All Fools’ Day impulse that invented the panto back then and keeps it alive today.