Explaining Pantomimes To Americans


Explaining pantomime to Americans
Castaway Theatre Group. Photo: Christine Jones Event Photography

They don’t have pantomime in the States. Oh no, they don’t – not like in Britain anyway, though there are cultural pockets here and there. Sure they have a word pronounced and spelt as pantomime, but it has a rather different meaning. Picture my wife Alison and me on an American cruise ship off the coast of beautiful Alaska, partaking of a pre-dinner aperitif and talking to a very nice couple from Twenty-Nine Palms, California whom we’d just met. We tell them that we are busy learning our lines for the upcoming pantomime. A glazed look appears, rather as if they think we’ve been too long at seas. “Lines?” they ask. “In pantomime?”

Although it’s not (quite) universal in the USA, the words “Pantomime” and “Mime” are interchangeable. You don’t have lines in pantomimes because they’re silent, right?

“Wrong,” I Say. “Let me explain…”

There are days when getting out of bed is a bad idea. This was one of those days. I took up my metaphorical spade and started digging, and the more I dug it was clear my only way out was to keep digging.

A pantomime, I explained, is the ultimate triumph of good over evil. “like the movie Star Wars?” they suggested, and I agreed there are similarities. The hero of the piece (we cal him a principal boy) sees the (principal) girl and they instantly fall in love. “Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia?” they question and I nervously agree.

“Except the principal boy….” I start.

“Luke,” they say with satisfaction.

“….is played by a girl.”

That took the smug look off their faces.

“A girl.” Neither a statement nor a question. More an impending diagnosis – of my mental state.

“With a short tunic, high-heeled boots and long, long legs” I continued, calling on euphoric memories from my teenage years best not enlarged upon there or here.

Alison snaps me back to reality with a well-aimed stiletto heel.

“So Luke is played by a girl?” says He.

“Does that mean Leia is played by a guy?” Mrs He (Whom I shall later refer to as She from now on) questions.

@”No,” I laugh nervously. She’s played by a pretty girl.

“OK,” comes the dubious reply. “Who else is in it?”

There’s the Dame, I tell them without thinking. Who is played – hesitate – by a – hesitate again – man.

“Let me get this straight” he muses. “A guy played by a girl, a girl played by a girl and a dame played by a guy. We kinda have that”, he describes triumphantly. “We call them drag shows.”

Dig, dig, dig.

I describe a whole host of other characters, associating them in most cases with stories they will know, such as Robin Hood, Aladdin and Cinderella. In almost every case I am required to define the gender of any characters mentioned, and I can see this is causing mental chaos. They can’t understand, for example, why Cinderella is played by a girl but her sisters by men. They even start to make notes with 4 columns on. Men, women, men-playing-women and women-playing-men, then add a fifth column when I foolishly bring on the pantomime cow from Jack and the Beanstalk.

It’s a good hour before I manage to tell them what pantomime actually is rather than just the characters in the stories and their dubious gender re-assignments.

I go on to tell them there’s usually a monster and the audience always shout “it’s behind you” and laugh a lot. Not our American friends, though: no laughter there. “So can’t the guys and gals (said with meaning) see the monster?”

“No, that’s why it’s funny.”

“So they’re disabled in some way?”

“I won’t bore you with the rest of this seemingly endless conversation, other than to say that, by the time we’d gone through slapstick, awful jokes (with examples), sword fights, villains, fools, cute kids, re-worded songs and silly characters with sillier names. I started to doubt my own grip on reality. They, meanwhile, had wandered into the areas of political correctness, asking whether we were offending the lesbian and gay communities (or even the straights) once they found out that the principal boy (a girl) marries the principal girl ( also a girl) at the end. Or whether having seven vertically challenged guys in a cast was flaunting prejudice.

It leaves playwrights such as me in a quandary: the US market for stage plays is unbelievably vast. I’ve had panto staged in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa so they get it. But the USA is a largely untapped market when we talk of pantomime. We just need to work out how to get to that market by working on the potential audiences understanding of what pantomime is all about.

Over the past few years, Nigel Lythgoe (Nasty Nigel of Pop Idol fame) has started rectifying this problem by presenting panto in the USA. Find out more about his endeavours here.


This article is written by playwright Ian Hornby and was originally published in Amateur Stage magazine in February 2012.

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