We can learn from panto – oh, yes we can!

The cast of Snow White at His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen parody this year's favourite cultural reference Gangnam Style. Photo: Donald Stewart
Honour Bayes is a freelance arts journalist who has written extensively for The Stage and had work published in the Guardian, Independent, Time Out, Exeunt Magazine and The Church Times. She is currently Associate Editor on Chinese arts magazine ArtZip and has worked as web editor for the Royal College of Art, managing its arts and design coverage.
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For some people pantomime is only bearable because it encourages families who never go to the theatre into it, and for others it’s not even bearable then. But I’ve always been rather fond of the "He’s behind you!" hoopla.

I enjoy the silly antics and clever pop culture references (if there’s a pantomime on the planet this year without a Gangnam Style pastiche I’ll run around the stage with bloomers on my head). Most of all I get a thrill about being part of an audience so involved in their own entertainment, proactively working with the performers to ensure a good night out.

How many straight theatre audiences can say the same of themselves and those around them? The passivity of an audience has long been explored but the question remains - how much responsibility for the audience’s engagement should rest with them? Theatre lovers speak passionately about the moment of connection between performer and viewer but for too long artists have born the weight of this ‘collaborative’ relationship. So while they work their socks off we, the high maintenance lover who demands to be kept interested, too often sits back and waits.

Pantomime audiences don’t do this, instead leaning forward and gleefully taking part. Of course it’s easier to get involved when you’re being invited to all the time but still the effort is infectious (as, I’ve found, is booing, like yawning once those around you start you can’t stop). This invitation or even demand, to participate has strong echoes of the mad genius of such interactive adventures as You Me Bum Bum Train or the emotional rollercoaster of Ontroerend Goed’s Internal.

Although these are mostly individual invitations and in a pantomime they are always collective, it could be argued that these buffoonish fairytales are the first form of interactive theatre many people engage with.

[pullquote]More fringe theatres should do pantomimes – not sexy ones but child-sfriendly, cheeky, brilliant, straightforwardly daft ones.[/pullquote]

For most of my non-theatre going friends their favourite ‘theatrical’ experiences have been Punchdrunk  and Shunt Collective shows such as Money that you take an active part in. They revel in being allowed to play and in the sense of collective that is created by speaking to strangers. The exact same response occurs in pantomimes as people join together to yell blue murder at an utter stranger on stage. It’s bonkers but isn’t this is what theatre is good at – facilitating communal live experiences that can never be replicated.

It’s not just the massive auditoriums full of flashing lights and chorus’ of school kids that can delight. My favourite pantomime this year, Dick Whittington Goes Bollywood was performed in the intimate Tara Arts but the communal singing and generaly silliness lost none of its thrill. I left the theatre hoarse and with a huge smile on my face, eager to see whatever they take on next.

Although it is seen as the province of the regions and large stage off west end theatres, more 50 seater fringe theatres should do pantomimes – not sexy ones but child friendly, cheeky, brilliant, straightforwardly daft ones. Perhaps then families would be tempted to come again to whichever interactive show was programmed next - high art, or low. Now that would be something to shout about.