Ooooh, it’s all kicking off on the Twitter (when is it not?). Matthew Anderson, European Culture Editor of the New York Times, was shocked to see Oliver Dowdy (aka Buttons) talking about PANTOMIMES. He was so shocked he used UPPER CASE. In his defence, he wasn’t necessarily slagging off panto; he just didn’t understand why Buttons was so keen to talk about them. It’s a trifle worrying that the European Culture Editor of the NYT doesn’t understand the cultural significance of pantomime for British theatre, but that’s by the by. Point is, people are going OFF! It’s quite heartening to see people coming out in defence of panto. Even people from the legit theatre! Imagine! Nonetheless, I can’t help but find it all a bit worrying.
The majority of arguments lean towards the “panto is vital because it funds theatres for the whole year” model; or variations on the “many people who start in panto go onto big things” theme. Nick Hern reliably tells us that if it wasn’t for a production of Cinderella, Caryl Curchill would have never found her calling! Whilst these responses are all true and important, the constant emphasis on them creates the narrative that pantomime (in and of itself) is not especially important; that’s its primary function is to enable bigger, shinier things; whether that be a fancy career elsewhere or the production of different (no doubt better) work. I wholeheartedly refute the idea that panto is not valid in its own right.
Now, I’ll be honest there’s a helluva lot of shit panto, but there are also loads of shit plays and musicals. It’s just that they exist all year round so the effect becomes diluted. Pantos are concentrated into a couple of months of the year so when they’re bad, the stench is strong. Ahhh, but when they’re good…
The arguments I’m seeing tonight are very similar to the ones that have been going around lately in defence of theatre. Time and time again we’ve been told that without theatre there’d be no Netflix series from Daphne Warburton-Jones or whoever is the flavour of the month; that she’d have never developed her voice without the training ground that is theatre. We’re told how important the regional theatres are for developing the big names who go on to the National and Broadway and then Hollywood. It’s true. It’s also effin’ insulting. Not everything has to be in the service of film and television. Not every career has to be a route to the National or the West End. I understand that a lot of these arguments were voiced to appeal to Tory MPs. Speaking the language of hierarchy and profit is absolutely the way to appeal to them but I worry that we’ve started believing the hierarchy lie ourselves. I’m being polite. I know we’ve started believing the lie because I’ve been in the business long enough. I know that regional theatres are not viewed in the same way as the West End or the National. It’s not just the taxi drivers who need to have heard of you to deem you worthy; the gate keepers of our industry perpetuate the myth and we all buy into it. Why???
We’ve currently been afforded a sustained moment to pause and reflect. Can we take this time to imagine a theatrical landscape where a room above a pub is just as important and worthy as a play at the Nash or a series on Netflix? Can we separate profits and figures and location and just look at the work and the human beings behind the work? And can we look at the humans behind the work and actually see them as humans as opposed to commodities? Can we imagine an industry where this is the currency; an industry in which our humanity and our artistry is valued over all else (or am I being naive?)? And THEN when we’ve done that can we dispense with this nonsense notion that we create the best theatre in the world? It’s an imperialistic belief that is grossly out of date.
Right, I’m off to watch Michaela Coel. Yes, I know she started off in the theatre and you know what…I’d still love theatre if she’d stayed there. Here endeth my sermon.
Image: Printed programme for Robinson Crusoe at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, December 1881, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/the-story-of-pantomime.