by Gordon Cox
Imagine I’m standing onstage in a traditional holiday pantomime and I say to you, “There’s no panto in America.”
You, the audience, would be expected to respond, “Oh yes, there is!” And then I would say, “Oh no, there isn’t!” and then you would call back, “Oh yes, there is!” and then I would say, “ . . . Wait, you’re right. There totally is panto in America.”
In the U.K., pantomime is, to put it mildly, a big deal. These boisterous, comic holiday shows are a storied national tradition stretching back hundreds of years—and they remain a vital component of the country’s theater ecosystem even today. Panto shows are the United Kingdom’s version of A Christmas Carol: annual, surefire, all-ages offerings whose reliably outsize sales help sustain theaters around the country. There’s a panto on the West End every year. Ian McKellen has starred in them. Yet somehow, in the U.S. and around the world, panto is largely unknown.
But not entirely unknown. When I set out to write this story, one of the mysteries I expected to address was: Why doesn’t panto travel? To my surprise, it does. There are pockets of panto in the U.S. and around the world, hiding in plain sight. What the form hasn’t done, on these American shores, is risen to prominence. Yet.
In this edition’s SPOTLIGHT STORY, I highlight:
the bustling state of the industry in the U.K., including insights from the head of the country’s biggest, busiest panto producer
the long, storied history of pantomime—and all the ways its traditions are bumping up against modern-day mores
a primer on panto and its Rocky Horror-like audience participation
a look at the people bringing panto Stateside, from two prominent veterans of New York’s burlesque scene to the L.A.-based family behind American Idol
Curtain up on this vibrant performance tradition. If you see a ghost sneaking up on me, be sure to shout “It’s behind you!”
“I always thought pantomime would be the backstop, the thing I would have if everything else went wrong,” the West End producer Michael Harrison tells me. “But then it became a part of life.”
He’s not kidding. When I speak to him, he’s just stepped out of a rehearsal for one of the (checks notes) 24 pantomimes he’s producing this year.
As an independent producer, Harrison has a hand in shows including Jamie Lloyd’s buzzy revival of Sunset Boulevard and the upcoming London return of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rollerskating train musical Starlight Express. But he’ll tell you that his “day job” is chief executive of Crossroads Pantomimes, where, alongside chairman David Ian, he oversees the U.K.’s biggest panto pipeline, feeding holiday shows to a network of theaters across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
He’s taken a quick break from rehearsals for the crown jewel of this year’s Crossroads slate: a panto retelling of Peter Pan, playing a five-week run at the London Palladium on the West End. Jennifer Saunders, one half of the well-known comedy duo French and Saunders and the creator-star of Absolutely Fabulous, headlines as Captain Hook. The production budget is a lavish £4 million. In addition to producing, Harrison also directs.
“I’m not a director; I’m a producer,” he admits with a laugh. “But in panto, it’s a very, very fine line.”
That doesn’t sound like any other show on the West End—and it’s not the only unique element that characterizes the widely varied, hugely popular and wildly unruly form of pantomime. A traditional entertainment at least as old as Shakespeare, panto occupies a place in British culture unlike any other.
“Pantomime is like Brussels sprouts,” says Simon Sladen, the senior curator of modern contemporary theater and performance at the Victoria & AlbertMuseum and probably the foremost expert on contemporary panto. “You might not like it, but if you don’t have it as part of your Christmas meal, is it really Christmas?”
For many Brits, panto is their first experience in the theater. For some, it’s their only experience. It’s woven into the fabric of the holidays, and love it or hate it, you’re probably going. In fact, you’ve probably bought enough tickets to bring multiple generations of your family.
Powered by those multi-ticket buys, pantos are so reliably profitable that they’ve become an annual driver of revenue helping theaters survive across the U.K.
“After our government subsidy, the pantomime is our second largest financial contributor each year,” says Adam Penford, the artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse in the East Midlands of England. “It absolutely helps subsidize other projects throughout the year.”
“At some venues a panto can bring in 50%-60% of their annual income over that four-week holiday period,” Sladen adds.
Broadly speaking, there are two different models for producing panto. On the commercial side, companies like Crossroads or Evolution Productions develop shows for distribution across a network of presenting organizations around the country, and each new title becomes part of a stable of offerings that roll out into affiliated theaters in subsequent holiday seasons. Crossroads, for instance, can expect the hefty price tag for its new Peter Pan to fuel years of productions around the nation.
On the other end of the spectrum are the producing theaters (often subsidized) that craft a new show every year, embracing their own local traditions. That’s the case, for instance, for Nottingham Playhouse’s panto, which Penford is both writing and directing this year. One actor is marking his 25th year in the cast.
Whatever the production model, panto is back. After the lull of COVID, producers and theaters across the board are now seeing significant year-over-year increases in panto ticket sales, some by as much as 17%.
All this, and most Americans don’t even know what it is.
No two are alike, but we can make some generalizations.
A panto, short for pantomime, is an all-ages comedy-musical-variety show, usually (but not always) performed around the Christmas holidays. Humor is broad for the kids, bawdy for the adults. Their fantastical, fairy-tale storylines are typically drawn from a well of about half a dozen usual suspects, most globally familiar (Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk), one decidedly not (Dick Whittington). The most popular option is always Cinderella.
Whether you get much of a story will depend on the individual panto. Some productions pride themselves on sticking to their tale; others erect a vague scaffolding of a plot to unite what is essentially a revue of comedy, magic, and song-and-dance acts. Pop music is performed with parody lyrics. A collaboratively-devised script is tailored each year to the local community, to current events, and to the specific talents of the cast.
Sometimes there’s original music, too, but even so: “I hesitate to describe any pantomime as original,” Harrison explains (lovingly!). “Begged, borrow and stolen, that’s how I describe it. Everybody contributes.”
At least one thing is true of every panto everywhere: You, the audience, will be requested and required to participate in ways that for Brits are second nature, but for everyone else are entirely baffling.
“OH YES IT IS!” “OH NO IT ISN’T!”At some point during a pantomime, a character will make a simple statement that the audience will loudly contradict. Variations include oh yes it is/oh no it isn’t, oh yes we do/oh no we don’t, did did did/didn’t didn’t didn’t, etc.
“IT’S BEHIND YOU!”Did someone or something (traditionally a ghost or a skeleton) just appear behind someone onstage? Warn them by shouting, “It’s/he’s/she’s/they’re behind you!” Hide-and-seek physical comedy will ensue.
BOO, HISSEvery time the Villain appears onstage, and every time they do something particularly dastardly, boo and hiss. Repeat. (Related: cheering for the hero.)
MEN PLAYING WOMEN, AND OTHER GENDERS BENTThere’s always a man in a frock, usually playing the role categorized as the Dame. It’s part of a long history of gender-swapping that used to see the role of the Principal Boy played by a woman—and it’s a tradition that endures even as it’s begun to butt up against a broader cultural understanding of gender and fluidity. (More on that later.)
CELEBRITY(?) CASTINGPantos love celebrity casting—and a very broad definition of the word celebrity. Some, like McKellen, are legit global stars; some are lower-wattage familiar faces from, say, reality TV; some names are even more locally specific. It all adds up to a list of panto alums that’s delightfully unhinged: David Hasselhoff, Joan Collins, Pamela Anderson, Mickey Rooney…
TRANSFORMATIONMost every panto builds to a staging coup that spotlights a major moment of magical transformation. Think Jack’s beanstalk growing to the clouds, or Cinderella’s rags transforming to a gown.
THE THRILL OF THE CHASEAt some point during the proceedings, expect an antic chase scene, probably through the audience.
ENTRANCES AND EXITSEvery panto director knows: The Good Fairy enters from stage right. The Villain comes on from stage left.
DRAMATIS PERSONAEBy now you’ll have picked up on the fact that panto is a form populated by stock characters. They’ll shift depending on the story and on the talent involved in that year’s show, but the most common categories include: Principal Boy, a hero traditionally played by a woman (though much less often these days); Principal Girl, the love interest; the Dame, a comic character played by a man and slotted into an appropriate role in the story (like one of the stepsisters in Cinderella); the Comic, usually the Dame’s sidekick; the magical Good Fairy; the Villain (also known as the Baddie); and the Broker’s Men, a pair of villainous henchmen.
To a panto neophyte, that’s a chaotically bonkers list of norms. To figure out where it all came from, I turned to a couple of scholars of the form: Sladen, whose website is a wealth of information on pantomime, and Millie Taylor, currently a professor at University of Winchester and the author of the book British Pantomime Performance. Here’s how far back it all goes.
Medieval Times: The staging tradition of the good guy on the right/bad guy on the left stretches back to medieval mystery plays, where you can also find some of the earliest occurrences of the Dame character.
1602: The earliest known performance of a commedia dell’arte troupe for Queen Elizabeth. Commedia, the Italian performance style that tells familiar stories with stock characters, comedy, dance, music and acrobatics, is among panto’s most obvious antecedants.
1717: Dance master John Weaver uses the term “pantomime” (after the classical Greek and Roman tradition of “pantomimus”) to describe his movement-based retellings of myths.
1717-1760: Director-actor-manager John Rich adds a comedy component, appending Harlequin clown sequences (called “the Harlequinade”) that bring slapstick, chase scenes and transformations into the mix.
1837: Lucy Eliza Vestris, widely credited as popularizing the female Principal Boy, plays Ralph in Puss in Boots at the Olympic Theatre in London.
1883: Augustus Harris, considered the father of modern pantomime, nixes the Harlequinade and pinpoints spectacle and celebrity as the keys to success. Producing lavish extravanganzas with casts of more than 500 at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, he’s among the first to employ stars hailing from the vaudeville-like music hall tradition.
Midcentury Modern Years: Starting from around the 1950s, pantomime’s popularity declines in London, though it remains a staple throughout the regions.
2000s: Competition heats up the world of panto production, as newer companies Evolution and Imagine Theatre become active alongside longtime leader Crossroads (formerly Qdos).
2016: Panto returns to the West End when Crossroads starts producing an annual panto at the London Palladium. Inaugural show Cinderella was the first panto to play the Palladium in more than 30 years.
2018: Panto wins an Olivier Award when Dick Whittington takes the prize for best entertainment and family show.
These days, panto looks less like commedia and more like music hall. (In my conversations, more than one person cited the Carry On movies as a reference point.) It continues to evolve to this day—often in response to changing social, political and artistic attitudes. “Right now panto is confronting challenging issues of representation as a form inherited from the Victorian era, which is a period embedded with colonialism and patriarchy and homophobia and all of that,” Sladen says.
That explains why there’s been something of a pause on productions of the classic panto tale Aladdin, as theatermakers figure how to reconfigure it with a contemporary sensitivity to the politics of representation.
Meanwhile, Principal Girls are no longer damsels in distress; in keeping with modern notions of equality, they’ve got just as much kick-ass agency as Principal Boys. At the same time, the actress-as-Principal Boy has all but died out: Sladen says cross-gender casting in that role happens in only about 6% of pantos these days.
Queer narratives have also grown more common. In one recent commercial panto, beanstalk-climbing Jack came out as gay to his mother. In this year’s Peter Pan at the Palladium, Rob Madge plays Tinkerbell with a mustache.
At the same time, the convention of cross-dressing for comedy, as exemplified by the Dame, is coming into question, if slowly. The phenomenon of men wearing dresses for laughs is seemingly less loaded in the U.K. than in the U.S., where many critics call it retrograde in the face of expanding ideas of gender identity. On the other side of the pond, “people are starting to ask questions about it,” notes Nottingham’s Penford. “That will only increase.”
Meanwhile, international communities in the U.K. and around the world are helping to broaden the pool of stories told by panto: Taylor points to panto productions of Anansi spider narratives hailing from the Caribbean. “It’s continuing a British tradition, but in a post-colonial era it’s speaking to local communities in local languages,” she says.
Here’s the part where I thought I was going to tell you that panto doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, and then try to explain why. Boy, was I wrong: Panto’s reach is global (particularly in the former colonies, for obvious reasons), extending to Singapore, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Sydney and beyond.
Even here in the U.S., panto is less unknown than I thought. Heck, there’s one happening right now in my own Brooklyn neighborhood.
That was pointed out to me by Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser, the duo behind New York’s Panto Project. Both prominent names in the downtown performing-arts scene, they launched the Panto Project in 2017 when they were asked to create a holiday show by the leadership of the Abrons Arts Center, the Lower East Side institution with which they’ve long been affiliated.
Abrons is the artistic wing of the community-oriented Henry Street Settlement, which encompasses a women’s shelter, a job placement center, after-school services and more. A Brit with a family history in panto, Fraser thought the form might fit right in at Abrons, given the overall campus’ focus on kids, family and community.
The writer-performer took pains to localize and Americanize the show—the first outing, Jack and the Beanstalk in 2017, renamed Jack’s colossal nemesis Giant Rump in a jab at the then-president—while Muz, long a leading figure in the city’s burlesque scene, called on her nightlife cohort to participate.
“There’s really not that much difference between performing in a bar for a bunch of drunk adults and performing a panto for a bunch of kids,” she says. “It’s the same kind of humor. Melodrama rules. You have to be clear, you have to do one thing at a time, and you have to do it fast.”
Interrupted by COVID, the Panto Project has created three original productions and performed them across five non-consecutive years. This year’s show, Sleeping Beauty, is the final one to be supported by a three-year grant from Henry Street Settlement. (The Settlement put in $100,000 per year; for the 2023 outing Muz and Fraser’s company ONEOFUS raised an additional $70,000.)
Panto has proponents on the other side of the country, too. Lythgoe Family Productions, the company run by Kris and Becky Lythgoe, has been producing pantos around the U.S. since 2010.
Kris, whose father Nigel Lythgoe was a key producer of the American Idol franchise, is another Brit who grew up on panto and wanted something similar he could bring his own family to. Becky, an American, recognized panto as a gateway theater experience for kids.
“How do you get kids interested in theater? You do it with modern music from Dua Lipa to Elton John, with the stories they know and love and by making modern references,” she says.
The family’s connections in the music industry help them secure permissions to parody those pop tunes, and also faciliate landing stars who have included Ariana Grande and Neil Patrick Harris. Production budgets have ranged from $400,000 to $1.5 million. Before the pandemic hit, Lythgoe Family Productions were doing six pantos around the U.S., with each show tailored by Kris to the local community.
Among the hurdles facing panto’s expansion in the U.S., Kris cites an unwillingness on the part of theaters to take a chance on changing up their lineup. Americans’ general lack of familiarity with the form—and its mass-appeal components—also proves a challenge.
The Lythgoes have produced a panto at the Laguna Playhouse for eight years. David Ellenstein, now in his second year as artistic director there, recalls being struck by panto’s potential as a tool for audience development. “I was out there on opening night, watching kids buzzing, and I thought, ‘We’re saving theater here,’” he says.
Over in New York, the future of the Panto Project is up in the air for now, pending funding. “It’s an audience that’s building, and certainly there’s now a community expectation,” Fraser says.
“In every aspect there’s this snowball effect,” Muz adds. “Every step of the way you can see how this program can blossom into a national phenomenon of pantos.”