Jamaican pantomime: How a British tradition was given a Caribbean flavour
For more than 75 years, the Little Theatre Movement has been staging pantomimes in Jamaica’s capital, starting with very British-style offerings, but evolving into an art form that is uniquely Caribbean. LTM’s chairman tells Fergus Morgan about its history and future
We tend to think of pantomimes as a typically British affair, an annual, festive jamboree of traditional storylines and stock characters unique to the UK theatre scene. But around the world, in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, India and elsewhere, pantomime survives and flourishes – a legacy of colonial rule, a lasting gift of empire.
In Kingston, Jamaica, Little Theatre Movement’s annual ‘national’ pantomime is a long-established fixture of the country’s theatrical calendar, a popular cultural event that draws audiences from across the island. This year’s production – Dapper Dan the Anansi Man – is the 76th edition.
Not that British audiences would recognise much about the LTM pantomime. Over the years, the show has evolved to include elements of local culture. What started out as an expat import has become something unique: a hybrid art form – a panto infused with traditionally Caribbean ingredients.
“There was concern in the early stages about a backlash against the show’s colonial origins,” explains Barbara Gloudon, chairman of LTM’s board and a veteran pantomime producer and writer of more than 40 years.
“But the change to the more Jamaicanised style – the use of language, the music, the storylines, the settings – has been in effect for more than 60 years. I’m not sure how many people think about the show’s colonial origins any more.”
Founded in 1941 by Henry Fowler and Greta Bourke – two celebrated ancestors of Jamaica’s contemporary theatre scene – the Little Theatre Movement is Jamaica’s longest-surviving theatre company. Its name is synonymous with pantomime, having produced every show since the very first – Jack and the Beanstalk – in the company’s founding year.
The annual shows were originally staged in Kingston’s historic Ward Theatre, but in 1961 it moved to the Little Theatre, a new construction owned by LTM and built with proceeds from the annual pantomime, where it has remained ever since.
The changing nature of the LTM panto is reflected in the changing titles. In the 1940s and early 1950s, audiences were treated to Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Dick Whittington and Aladdin. Recent productions include 2006’s Howzzat!, 2010’s Blingalinga, 2011’s Anansi and Goat Head Soup and last Christmas’ The Upsies and De Downzies Dem.
“Nowadays, the pantomime still retains the family element, offering entertainment for children and adults, but there is very little of the British element left,” Gloudon explains. “We maintain the fantasy and comedy, though, and good always triumphs at the curtain.”
What pantomime producers in small towns and villages across Britain would recognise, however, is the ensemble effort that goes into staging every edition.
“Every year we create costumes and sets and props, and handpaint backdrops to depict the environment that goes with each story, whether it’s set on the moon, underwater, in urban towns or in country homes,” says Gloudon. “We create original music, too, performed by a live band with about eight members, which incites dancing in all ages.
“One year, at the end of a performance,” she remembers, “we welcomed a gentleman on stage who was celebrating his 99th birthday and when the band saluted him with music, he danced, to everyone’s delight. It’s very challenging to keep producing the pantomime, but we are committed to the effort.”
Today, LTM is a not-for-profit organisation, run by a board of management that oversees the rental and maintenance of the Little Theatre and its adjacent studio space, the Little-Little Theatre. However, despite the company’s long, illustrious history, staging the pantomime each year is always a struggle.
“The greatest challenge is funding,” admits Gloudon. “The profits from one year are ploughed straight back into the next production, and despite the fact that input costs go up every year, LTM strives to ensure that the ticket cost is not out of reach of the average Jamaican.”
LTM also receives sponsorship and contributions from Jamaica’s Culture, Health, Arts, Sports and Education fund, which oversees and distributes money raised through the country’s Gaming and Lotteries Act. “That’s been a tremendous support,” says Gloudon. “But it is careful budgeting, the Jamaican practice of ‘tun yuh han mek fashion’ – which can best be described as inventive recycling – that has allowed us to keep going for over 75 years.”
She adds: “The pantomime is financially important to LTM, too. As our margins have got smaller over the years, the contribution of the pantomime to LTM is increasingly vital.”
5 things you need to know about the Little Theatre Movement pantomime
1. The first LTM National Pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, was staged in 1941 at Kingston’s historic Ward Theatre.
2. The list of participants over the years includes such luminaries of Jamaican theatre as Oliver Samuels, Leonie Forbes, Lois Kelly-Miller, Charles Hyatt, Volier Johnson, Willard White, Rita Marley and Dawn Penn.
3. The pantomime opens at 6pm on Boxing Day every year, a tradition now forgotten in Britain but still retained in Jamaica.
4. LTM’s 1981 panto The Pirate Princess made it as far as London, running at the Hackney Empire with a cast of British Jamaicans.
5. The pantomime often incorporates contemporary events, with 2008’s Runner Boy coinciding with the Beijing Olympics, and 2006’s Howzzat! anticipating the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup.
In 1985, LTM decided to move away from a star-orientated producing model towards a company-led one. The Pantomime Company, led by Gloudon and Brian Heap, was formed in time for the 1986 panto Trash, and continues to produce the annual show today.
This core group of versatile, multi-talented performers, added to each year via an auditions process, collaborates on each production voluntarily, receiving only a small gratuity at the end of the run.
“Many in the company have a performing arts background, whether as students or graduates from the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts or the Excelsior Community College performing arts department,” says Gloudon. “There are also members who have an affinity for the performing arts, but may not have had professional training.
“Many of our current team members, off stage and on, have done more than five years with the LTM pantomime, including some who have been with LTM for more than 20 years. The dedication of these people is why we can produce work on a tight budget. They do it for the love of the art form and the camaraderie among the team members.”
It’s a model focused on continuation rather than expansion. In its earlier days, LTM produced a variety of classic plays in addition to the pantomime, and even took its 1981 show The Pirate Princess to London, where it was staged by British Jamaicans at the Hackney Empire.
Today however, LTM focuses on only two projects: the Heritage Series – a set of smaller, educational productions focused on historical themes and performed during the Emancipation and Independence holidays – and the pantomime, which still draws national attention.
“Our audience comes from all over the island,” says Gloudon. “The majority are school groups ranging from kindergarten to high-school students who are studying theatre. We also have community groups, church congregations, families, visiting family members, and they come from all over the island, too, urban and rural, from Portland in the east to Negril in the west.
“LTM also extends a charitable hand and offers free performances for wards of the state and children’s homes.”
While much about the LTM pantomime is unrecognisable from its European roots, with Jamaican cultural tropes having replaced British ones, a great deal of the essential spirit remains. It’s still a collaborative, community-focused event, produced on a shoestring budget by volunteers who are determined to maintain tradition.
So what of the future? “The pantomime will continue to provide family-friendly entertainment as long as LTM produces it,” answers Gloudon. “And we will continue to depict Jamaica and Jamaicans, historical or contemporary, as it is important for us to see ourselves on stage and tell our stories in our own voices.”
The Little Theatre Movement
Chairman: Barbara Gloudon
Location: Kingston, Jamaica
Theatre spaces: Little Theatre (600 seats), Little-Little Theatre (150 seats)
Productions: Little Theatre Movement National Pantomime, The Heritage Series
Key contact: Michael McDonald, theatre manager, email@example.com
Dapper Dan the Anansi Man opens on December 26 at the Little Theatre, Kingston, Jamaica