An American's Guide to Panto

Since moving to London, I've discovered that one of the biggest British Christmas traditions is panto, or pantomime. So I thought I'd put together a little guide to panto for anyone who is as confused as I was.

Panto is a style of family musical comedy traditionally performed at Christmas. It blends slapstick, song, dance, and other physical comedy. For many British children, panto is their first introduction to theatre and the mention of it can bring both nostalgic sighs and groans, I've found.

While it used to be occasionally performed in other parts of the world, like America, Australia, and Canada, panto has come to be a completely British concept and is rarely performed elsewhere. It also used to be prevalent in other seasons (there would be a 'spring panto' and a 'summer panto'), but now it happens only at Christmas time.

Panto comes from the Italian commedia dell'arte and the 16th and 17th century British traditions of the masque and music hall. It involves fairy tales being told in a somewhat outrageous manner with basically no fourth wall.

There's lots of audience interaction, like throwing candy out into the audience or call and answer. The audience, and especially children, are encouraged to vocally react to the shows and often a character will ask for an opinion. Plus, panto will typically pick an audience member to bring up onto stage for a number.

Panto also always includes gender bending. Sometimes male roles, like Peter Pan or Aladdin, are played by young women. But to even be considered a panto, you have to have a panto dame: a hilarious man playing a female character. For example, I saw a production of Cinderella in which the Ugly Stepsisters were played by men in drag.

Panto, like most children's shows, always have a happy ending and the villain is always redeemed. But it's not entirely for kids because there's always a lot of double entendres thrown in for the adults in the audience -- often by the panto dame(s).

Pantos use a combinations of original music and popular music, sometimes with new lyrics. They also often feature a person in a cow or horse costume. One of the funniest things to me about panto is that typically, the villain enters from stage left and the hero from stage right.

Obviously, this isn't a comprehensive guide to panto but hopefully it will help introduce any other non-British people to what is one of the UK's most unique Christmas traditions. While perhaps not always high quality theatre, it's definitely fun and I can see why children absolutely adore it.

For more information on panto, you can check out my video below or read the sources I used to write this post. (1, 2, 3)

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