British Tradition Panto Theatre Coming to American Audiences

One glimpse of John O’Hurley rehearsing and you can tell, he has bought into panto hook, line, and sinker.

This is his fourth time performing with the Lythgoe Family Panto and his third stab at Captain Hook.

“I play kings and villains and things like that," O’Hurley said during a break from rehearsal. "You know, I’ve corned the market on arrogance and pomposity.”

Panto may be relatively new to American audiences, but Kris Lythgoe says in Britain, it’s an annual tradition.

“It’s 300 years old. It’s just like a Thanksgiving dinner for us," Lythgoe said. "And it’s something that all kids go to the theatre for their first time to see their very first live theatre experience.”

And not just seeing it, they can interact with it.

“They can boo at the stage, they can hiss at the stage, they can warn the actors on the stage," O'Hurley said.

Throw in stories and songs everyone knows and you have all of the ingredients needed to make a panto, which the Lythgoes have been doing for a decade. They have four productions running this season, including two in SoCal, Peter Pan and Tinker Bell: A Pirates’ Christmas at the Laguna Playhouse and A Snow White Christmas at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, starring Olivia Sanabia and Michelle Williams of Destinys' Child.

But even with some big names on stage, since the Lythgoe family is behind the TV show So You Think You Can Dance? Choreography is the real star of the show.

“We’ve got Chase Benz who is Britney Spears' choreographer doing Nashville for us," Lythgoe said.

As entertaining as the shows are, it is all part of a bigger mission: making theatre accessible to audiences of all economic backgrounds.  

“In the UK, theatre is definitely made for the people. Shakespeare did that," Lythgoe said. "And we’re finding more and more theatre isn’t really there for the people.”

Each year they bring in thousands of students from Title I schools to see their shows, many for the first time.

“This year, we’re going to have something like 10,000 kids that have never been to the theatre come and see a live show which is phenomenal for us," Lythgoe said.

For them, by seeing performers on stage, O'Hurley thinks students in the audience may discover a passion they didn’t know they had.

“We’re really, really kind of scratching that itch and that they will go on and follow in our footsteps," O'Hurley said, "and therefore theatre becomes a passing on of the torch.”

Keeping actors and audiences hooked for another couple of centuries at least.

Click here to see exclusive video footage.