Advice from an Expert: Vol. IX. A Damn Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

I got a bunch o’ emails after my blog about my experience in the UK a few weeks ago.  One of them was from an actual expat American living and working in London.  Since he has such a unique perspective on what and why things are different in the land of fish and chips, I thought we might all learn from letting him have a post.  So here’s Jason Ferguson . . .

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There is so much to say about the
differences in British and American theatre (such as how to spell theater!), but
for my first topic I will respond to a posting Ken did on the popularity of
jukebox musicals in the UK. His opinion was that jukebox musicals thrive in the
West End because of the influx of international tourists that speak different
languages coming from Europe (I should say ‘continental Europe’ but the Brits
don’t consider themselves European). I agree with Ken that this is an important
element to British theatre and the international language of pop music or
anything non-verbal (see Stomp) keeps shows running here that would die a
fast death in New York at the hand of Brantley and company. But there is another
factor less talked about and that I think it takes an American living here to
notice…PANTO!

I admit that on my arrival to London almost three years
ago I picked up a copy of the local trade rag, The Stage, and noticed article
after article about pantomimes. Castings, backstage profiles, interviews with
elder panto stars, and an entire feedback page filled with letters about this
strange theatrical art form. According to Wikipedia, ‘pantomime’ is:

a
musical-comedy theatrical production traditionally found in Great Britain,
Canada, Jamaica, Australia, South Africa, America, Japan, Ireland, Gibraltar and
Malta, and is usually performed during the Christmas and New Year
season.

I don’t know how America made that list; I grew up attending
theatre regularly in Florida, with the occassional NYC family trip, and I never
came across a panto! I encourage you to read the full Wikipedia article to fully
research this phenomenon. The closest you have come to a panto is probably going
with your Aunt Mavis to see Peter Pan. Or some could argue that Into
the Woods
is as much a play on pantomime as it is on children’s literature
(I have heard a couple Brits claim the show didn’t work well here because they
played it too ‘panto-like’).

In short, modern British pantomimes are
generally large expensive shows that play over the Christmas season in most
producing theatres and touring venues. They are usually titles like Peter
Pan, Dick Whittington, Snow White, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk
, etc.
The scripts can change from year-to-year, but usually include standard gimmicks.
For example, every time the villain walks out (and you won’t miss him as he will
be wearing black or some other villain-like clothing) the kids in the audience
will hiss. That’s right…hiss. Like when your more annoying nephew tries to act
like a snake to scare you. Another key element to panto are the celebrity
guests. Your average panto will feature between 3-6 celebrities in just that one
show. I don’t want to offend anyone that I know who perform in pantos, but let’s
just say the level of celebrity is not Jude Law. The big deal last year is that
Steve Guttenberg came over to perform in Cinderella at a theatre in
Bromley, England.

So back to my point. Panto is huge in the UK. Almost
everyone has been to see a panto when they were a child. It is a Christmas
tradition. In America we have A Christmas Carol in various forms, but it
doesn’t come close to the holiday theatrical monopoly that panto holds over the
public. But while many on the snootier side of the theatre industry will roll
their eyes at the mention of panto, it is an important part of the theatrical
tradition here. It has brought children into the theatre in mass and, unlike in
America, if you were to stop the average person on the street in Ipswich (think
Peoria) and ask if they have been to the theatre in the last two years, the
chances are probably good they have. Now you don’t find that in
America!

In conclusion, pantomimes have a large effect on UK theatre
audiences and one of those is that very British thing called ‘class’. By opening
theatre up to everyone at an early age and to people of all socio-economic
backgrounds, the UK theatre is often able to attract a more populist audience to
shows. The discussion over how class background effects theatre is for a whole
other posting, but PC or not these are the facts. The Royal Court may always
fight hard to expose working and lower middle class audiences to the plays of
Wallace Shawn, but the producers of Dirty Dancing seem to have had a much
easier time. In the UK at least.

 

Jason Ferguson is a theatre general manager/tour booker/producer in London. He formerly worked for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Manny Azenberg and Clear Channel before moving to London where he has been a consultant for general manager Arden Entertainment (Dirty Dancing, Old Vic’s Tunnel 228) and is currently working as an independent tour booker and producer through his company Jason Ferguson Ltd.

You can contact Jason at jason@fergusonlive.com.

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