When the comments on a Facebook job advert suddenly turned ugly this week, it was tempting to use it as a jumping-off point to talk about low pay and overwork for panto dressers. But I love Christmas too much to yet again be that person who is always pointing out the negatives about everything. Let us all just acknowledge that there are costume professionals who will work a phenomenal number of hours for very little pay over this season. Let’s accept it, vow to change it, and move on to why, despite the negatives, panto creates a little warm spot in so many costume people’s hearts.
When I was a child, my mother used to make costumes and help with make-up in amdram pantomimes. It may have been these early experiences that sowed the seed for my career in costume. The smell of the greasepaint and the overwhelming sensory experience of sequins and feathers and colour obviously worked its way into my subconscious to manifest later in a desire to work with costume in theatre as opposed to film or TV.
I have worked shows over the Christmas holidays, and there is something amazing about being part of something that is itself part of other people’s Christmas traditions – although despite being a huge fan of panto, I have somehow never managed to work on one professionally. I have seen many: as a child, then as an adult, especially when I took my own children. After all these years, I find I‘ve become a panto snob who has exacting expectations for the experience.
I love the easy evil versus good stories: no complicated moral nuance. The script must contain topical jokes relevant to the area. Nothing beats a joke at the expense of the local mayor. The songs should be written for the panto but if pop songs must be used they should be funny. The principal boy is a woman and the dame is a man and if it’s Cinderella you get to have two, perhaps three, dames. The dame needs a new costume every time we see her, getting more outlandish as the panto goes on, including a ‘messy scene’ costume, and of course everyone changes for the curtain call.
Traditionally, many old-school dames were responsible for their own costumes. That’s not always true these days, but for those who still fly that flag, what a monumental responsibility they shoulder. The highlight of any panto is always the dame and her costumes, wigs and make-up, the quick changes and the inventiveness of the costume design. I have had the pleasure of altering and working on a dame’s costumes and they were amazing: a ‘gardening’ costume consisting of plant pots and flowers and a giant flower motif; a ‘day dress’ that boasted brash patterns and stripes of red white and orange. What a joy!
For many young people, panto will be the first and possibly only theatre trip they will have and it is our responsibility to make it something special for them. Because among those who just have a good time with the colours, songs, jokes and costumes, somewhere there is a young person who is falling in love with theatre and maybe thinking that they want to work in it.