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Running out of time – can this year’s panto season be saved?

Top row: director Susie McKenna (photo: Darren Bell), Qdos' Michael Harrison (photo: Simon Hadley) and the Dukes Lancaster chief executive Karen O’Neill; bottom row: performers Clive Rowe, Paul O'Grady and Riana Duce
Top row: director Susie McKenna (photo: Darren Bell), Qdos' Michael Harrison (photo: Simon Hadley) and the Dukes Lancaster chief executive Karen O’Neill; bottom row: performers Clive Rowe, Paul O'Grady and Riana Duce

Earlier this month, Qdos Entertainment’s Michael Harrison gave the government a deadline of August 3 to save the festive season at theatres nationwide. Directors, producers and performers tell Nick Awde why pantomimes are crucial for their communities as well as their bank balance

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The next few weeks are crucial for theatre. The deadline is fast approaching when companies, venues and producers have to decide whether to pull their pantomimes this Christmas season or push on. And that decision will have huge ramifications beyond the faraway land of dames and principal boys.

Earlier this month Michael Harrison, Britain’s most prolific pantomime producer, warned that, should the Christmas season be lost, it could devastate the wider theatre industry. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden himself seemed to recognise the importance of the art form saying “panto season was key” to reopening theatres.

“Pantomime is vital in the theatre economy,” says Harrison – co-owner of Qdos Pantomimes, whose productions generate sales in excess of £50 million annually – when we talk several weeks after those initial comments. “It can often contribute 20% or more of any theatre’s annual retention. It’s by far the biggest earner for most regional theatres.”

Panto not only attracts the biggest and most diverse theatre audiences but also powers venues’ coffers and measurably boosts local economies and talent. With time running out, those involved in Christmas shows are calling on the government to give the green light – or the opposite – for reopening early next month or it will be too late to pull the productions together.

Last week (July 17), the government announced that theatres could reopen from August 1. The news was welcomed across the industry but there were also calls for greater clarity on when venues could welcome larger audiences, as reduced capacity is often unviable finacially.

Harrison says: “The government’s announcement on Friday is no help for pantomime. We can’t open with socially distanced audiences and if we have to wait until November to get the green light that is clearly too late for productions that open in December.”

‘Pantomime covers many theatres financially for the rest of the year’ – Clive Rowe, actor

Pantomime has been a mainstay since at least the 18th century, and while it is often dismissed as ‘popular’ and ‘not a real art form’, it is the unsung saviour of the industry. As long-standing panto star Clive Rowe points out: “Pantomime for many theatres is the show that covers them financially for the rest of the year.”

The problem is that it’s not always acknowledged. “People who could be snobby about pantomime are quite happy to go and sit and watch something in the same theatre that’s risky or very arty. And they don’t understand that the show they’re pooh-poohing is the one that’s paying for that,” says Susie McKenna, who is now associate director at the Kiln Theatre after two decades of writing and directing groundbreaking pantos at Hackney Empire.

It’s hardly a new phenomenon, as McKenna points out – for proof, pick up a copy of Putting on Panto to Pay for the Pinter, Chris Abbott’s history of pantomimes at the Salisbury Playhouse between 1955 and 1985.

The snappy title came from a quote from their creator Henry Marshall. “Pantomime helps theatres take risks,” adds McKenna. “If your panto is solid, you can afford to stage new work for the rest of the year.”


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Susie McKenna. Photo: Darren Bell
Susie McKenna. Photo: Darren Bell
Clive Rowe in Dick Whittington at Hackney Empire in 2019. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Clive Rowe in Dick Whittington at Hackney Empire in 2019. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Battling against snobbery

Pantomime constantly has to fight to correct its image as second-rate theatre, as was shown by the curt dismissal of the art form by a newspaper culture editor when Dowden talked up panto’s importance in interviews about the emergency funding package for the arts. That dismissal sparked a social media storm from panto’s defenders that lasted for days.

“Pantomime is often a dirty word in theatre, I’m well aware of that,” says Harrison. “However, the effects of Covid-19 have proven to the wider industry just how important pantomime is from a financial point of view. As an art form, it is one of the hardest to master. Two shows a day, six days a week is incredibly difficult. Often panto stars who make it look easy are actually working very hard, and that is the skill.

“When Ian McKellen decided to play Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the Old Vic [first in the 2004 Christmas season then the following year], that changed people’s perception. I also think our London Palladium shows have changed the view of some of the cynics because of their size, scale, spectacle and power at the box office – and the love from the audience. In fact, many of our pantomimes now feel like major musicals.”

‘As an art form, pantomime is one of the hardest to master. Often, stars who make it look easy are actually working very hard’ – Michael Harrison, director and co-owner of Qdos Pantomimes

From a performer’s point of view, “it’s very simple”, says actor Rowe, who is due to appear in Hackney Empire’s Jack and the Beanstalk this year. “In some circles – ever decreasing ones, I might add – acting, singing and dancing are seen as higher forms of theatre, which has always confused me because to do pantomime properly you need to be proficient in all three of those skills. You do the maths.”

McKenna adds: “There’s the same snobbery around pantomime as you get around musical-theatre performers to straight actors. To make your way in musical theatre, and indeed pantomime, you have to be a triple threat or even a quadruple threat if it’s an actor-musician show.”

It’s not as easy as it looks, says designer Hugh Durrant: “Beneath the veneer of ‘anything goes’ mayhem there are fundamental rules to pantomime, often obscure to pinpoint and best discovered by doing them. They are probably as rigid as those of classical ballet but much more difficult to identify.

“I have been fortunate to work with some of the greatest pantomime performers and directors and have found listening to, and following, their advice invaluable. Experience here is everything. You may have only a vague notion of the rules of pantomime as there are no 10 Commandments written in stone, but to flout or ignore them can lead to disaster. Only a few geniuses can break them and that’s why they are geniuses. It’s a serious business.”

‘Beneath the veneer of ‘anything goes’ mayhem there are fundamental rules to pantomime, often obscure to pinpoint and best discovered by doing them’ – Hugh Durrant, designer

When Durrant started in the business, he admits he shared a lot of the snobbery about pantomime, believing that it was vulgar and not really art. “But by doing it I have come to respect and treasure the immense knowledge and skills of pantomime performers.

“Some great actors and companies have come a cropper in pantomime by misjudging the dedication and energy required to perform twice a day in front of the liveliest and noisiest and – particularly with children – most critical audiences. But to share in that moment when the practitioner has that audience in the palm of their hand is exceptional. That magic can be transferred by those skills to almost any performing art, usually to that art’s benefit.”

Panto is also a leader for diversity in both audiences and employment. “It is often the first theatre show that children are taken to, paving the way for the theatregoers of the future,” says Rowe.

Ros Lamont, executive director of the Maltings in Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is planning to stage Snow White this year, says: “It’s inclusive and appeals to a really broad cross-section of the audience. It has the broadest appeal and we see babies and grandparents and everybody in between all having a good time. That’s really important to us.”

Julian Clary wearing a costume designed by Hugh Durrant in Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the London Palladium in 2019. Photo: Paul Coltas
Julian Clary wearing a costume designed by Hugh Durrant in Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the London Palladium in 2019. Photo: Paul Coltas
Karen O'Neill, chief executive of the Dukes Lancaster
Karen O'Neill, chief executive of the Dukes Lancaster

Capturing new audiences’ imaginations

In any panto audience there will be many who have not been to theatre before. Reeling them in with pantomime, in such a way that is genuinely inclusive and with great storytelling, might persuade them that other theatre shows are for them too.

Pantomimes represent a potent audience development tool because they’re so ingrained in British culture, says Karen O’Neill, chief executive of the Dukes Lancaster, which plans to stage Beauty and the Beast in the round this year. “People get a taste for theatre. The young people from our hard-pressed schools, for example, have been able to come back and see other things that have challenged them and introduced them to [wider] theatre.

“And because the Christmas show is such a beneficial tool to our theatre, it also has to give back. So we have a pay-it-forward scheme where we ask businesses and wealthy individuals to buy tickets for community groups.”

Often, panto is the first job graduates get when they come out of college, drama schools or youth theatres, and it creates opportunities for working with young artists and artist development at a local level. Pantomime will always be a vibrant learning and training ground both on stage and backstage.

When McKenna started the in-house Hackney Empire pantomime 21 years ago, only a handful of theatres, notably Theatre Royal Stratford East, were addressing ethnic diversity in the art form.

“The basis of my artistic policy at Hackney Empire had to be about diversity, inclusion and community,” says McKenna. “Of course, there is even more work to be done in the industry. If pantomime does bring in an audience that doesn’t often come to the theatres in areas with multicultural populations, the onus on the production is to be more diverse to bring that audience in. Your cast needs to reflect the audience.

“And if you’re in an area perhaps that isn’t diverse, then you can help community cohesion. If you do a diverse pantomime, you can showcase talents and, for example, show the true ethnic mix of our country.”

‘If pantomime brings in an audience that doesn’t often come to the theatres in areas with multicultural populations, the onus on the production is to be more diverse’ – Susie McKenna, director

To put on a panto worthy of the name also means employing a full team on the backstage, technical and creative areas. Costumes, of course, are crucial.

Durrant, who has received three consecutive Olivier nominations for his pantomime costumes, says: “My own career has had an autumnal boost from designing for pantomime. Coming up with ever more ridiculous and amusing things for Julian Clary to wear is enormous fun though increasingly difficult. We set the bar high to start and now matching or exceeding audience expectation for each entrance is more and more challenging – not just for me but for the brilliant team of builders who have the guts and skills to make them just about wearable.

“One of my greatest design joys is to try new things and I know – because I’ve been told many times – that my costumes are not easy to make, but if they were it would be boring.”

Rowe, for whom panto is a key season in his calendar, puts it more simply: “My career has been filled with the incredible joy pantomime brings into your life and I have been very lucky to have had some wonderful things said about my dames.”

Riana Duce in Cinderella: A Fairytale at the Dukes Lancaster in 2019. Photo: Joel Fildes
Riana Duce in Cinderella: A Fairytale at the Dukes Lancaster in 2019. Photo: Joel Fildes
Little Red Riding Hood at the Maltings, Berwick-upon-Tweed in 2015
Little Red Riding Hood at the Maltings, Berwick-upon-Tweed in 2015

Establishing community connections

There’s a measurable sense of local empowerment that accompanies panto. Like many regional venues, the Maltings started doing its own pantomime in 2015.

Lamont says: “They sell better and better each year. It’s part of everybody’s Christmas locally, and we’re very fortunate to have achieved that position pretty quickly in just a few years.

“We felt that by doing a pantomime that was made in Berwick using a professional cast, we would appeal to that local family, offering a few local jokes and a sense of place along with all the trimmings of pantomime. And we’ve been proved right. So that’s why we keep doing it. We’re lucky because we have a locally based writer, Wendy Payn, who can deliver the shows for us. So it would be almost foolish not to take advantage of those local assets – and it’s been financially successful, which is a real marker of success for pantomime.”

Pantomime is a unique platform that has the potential to employ the rich mix of raw materials in a town and deliver it. “We had a commercial company that serviced pantomime and it was popular,” says Lamont. “But we wanted to put a local stamp on it. So it was a natural progression. We weren’t parachuting in an idea, but we wanted to own it. And we wanted to make our community own it as well.”

The Maltings has increased the number of its schools’ performances. “It felt like a big leap the first year we did it, but now it’s just part of what we do. And it’s a real highlight for the staff as well, although stressful because so much money is riding on it, but it’s something we’re really committed to doing.”

‘Pantomimes sell better and better each year. It’s part of everybody’s Christmas locally’ – Ros Lamont, the Maltings, Berwick-upon-Tweed

The reason panto needs clear guidance if they are to proceed this year is because they are so expensive to put on. Having it pulled late in the process because of a new spike in Covid-19 would be devastating.

The Dukes’ O’Neill says: “Every year’s a risk because you have to invest an awful lot of cash in it. You’re talking about a big cast. It’s really important to have good songs, good music, good lighting and a really innovative set. One of the core things that everyone loves about panto is the costumes: they have to be outlandish and extra and make people feel that sense of magic.

“But you do that on the basis of being very hopeful that it’s going to bring in a certain amount of income to your theatre. Pantomimes and Christmas shows are a great way for organisations to up their income, because you can do really well on your tickets sales and then you’ve got all the secondary sales that come from the kiosks and bars as people are on their Christmas night out.”

Following the government’s publication of advice for safe theatremaking on July 9, O’Neill says: “Although the guidelines are a welcome step forward, the reality of the situation is still extremely tough. At present we are having to balance our organisation’s long-term future and need to serve our audiences and artists without clear and advance information.

“The limitations of social distancing mean the business of theatre does not work. We need good capacities to fund productions, to cover our costs and provide surplus for reinvestment. Additionally the unknown time frame makes it difficult to plan and expend resources. However I do believe that we can look to build different models by working with artists to develop work fit for theatre in a Covid reality.”

‘Although the guidelines for reopening theatres are a welcome step forward, the reality of the situation is still extremely tough’ – Karen O’Neill, the Dukes Lancaster

Despite Friday’s announcement allowing venues to reopen, until stage five of the government’s plans are known – which allow a fuller audience inside – those planning their Christmas shows this year are stuck. It’s the same story in every town as the time approaches to decide the fate of the 2020-21 season. Will theatres be forced to cancel Christmas and reschedule their pantos?

“Our pantomime is such a huge financial investment, so we’re facing the risk of not being able to generate the ticket revenue because the season capacity’s restricted – and who knows what will happen if there’s a second wave?” says Lamont.

If there’s no panto this year, that crucial percentage of winter income won’t be there to carry many theatres through quieter months in 2021.

Just as crucial, the usually guaranteed seasonal jobs for freelancers simply won’t be there.

“We always look to employ local creatives, which makes our show a great source of employment for local actors and creative professionals. So it’s a huge loss if the show doesn’t go on,” says O’Neill, adding: “That understanding from government has simply been lost in terms of how the sector physically works.”

She concludes: “Pantomime is a massive undertaking, and it’s not just the weeks of rehearsals and teching. There’s the assumption that we’ll just open a cupboard, dust off a few actors and a tech and pop them on a stage – but that’s just not the reality of it all. If we don’t get enough notice, people will not be able to invest and will not be able to
take that risk.”

As with panto itself, Harrison, who has 34 shows planned for this year, concludes with an upbeat message. “I think pantomime is rather resilient,” he says, “and if it doesn’t happen this year it will come back even stronger in 2021.”

But can theatre live happily ever after without it?

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