Saturday, February 24, 2024

Should Panto Dames Buy their own Costumes?

"There is nothing like a Dame." (centre)
by Rogers (left) and Hammerstein (right)

.
Who plays the Dame?  
.
How do they play it?  
.
What function does the Dame fulfil?  
.
What is the relationship of the Dame with the audience?
.

 

There are so many questions...


Of all the topics I’m thinking about as part of my research, Dame-ing* is the one that performers are most keen to speak to me about.

 

People love the Dame.  People love watching the Dame.  People love playing the Dame.  It’s surely no coincidence that of the many performer-impressarios running panto companies, the most common role that the producer plays is Dame.

 

For a start: it’s tricky.  Playing a stock character that carries so much cultural weight and is imbued with so many lifetimes of heritage is a serious undertaking.  With so much at stake (especially when you’re stumping up the capital) there is a certain conservative value in the old adage: “if you want something doing right, do it yourself.”

 

However, for some Dame-producers, there’s something more at play.  The Dame is a character that inspires people to perform.  People want to play Dame.  Some professional performers got into acting in order to play Dame.  Some professional performers only play Dame.  If you are dead-set on performing Dame, it makes good sense to set up your own pantomime!  Then, not only do you get to guarantee yourself the part you want, you get to make all the fun decisions about costume tracks, wig designs, song choices… it’s Dame heaven.

 

N.B. Even in the myriad non-professional companies, Dame is a role that carries a certain prestige and is often performed by the writer, the director, or some other community member with similar cachet.  In other companies, Dame is seen as a prize to be shared around… a reward for the performatively-minded for contributing to the community.

 

My biggest brother James playing Dame
in the greatly auspicious 2023 production of
"Harry Barber and the Four Tea Thieves"
by the Gentlemen of Moore Rugby Club.


However... when it comes to professional panto...


Dames are expensive  

 

For example. our 2023 production of Aladdin at the Met in Bury had 7 actors with a track of 25 costumes (not including the juvenile chorus). Eight of these were Dame costumes.

 

Let’s digest that for a moment.  A full third of the costumes used in the show are for one character.  (The ratio is even more skewed if you disregard the walk-down set…)

 

But numbers only tell half the story.

 

Compared to the “average” costume, Dame’s costumes are often much bigger, more elaborate and consequently more expensive.  

 

Sometimes the costume is bigger than the performer!

 

Now, I have some level of insider information on prices that I don’t intend to divulge on this blog.  It’s not that the industry has anything to hide, but it’s commercially sensitive information and some makers depend on this custom.  (Besides, people who need to know how expensive these things can get, already know…believe me!). However, I don’t think I’m going to blow anybody’s mind too much by saying that kitting someone out in 8 large, spectacular costumes with matching wigs, footwear and other accoutrements can leave a dent in even the girthiest wallet.

 

A canny investor may seek to make savings by specialising in playing one specific character.  It can be a good idea – if you get a reputation as a good Twankey, Ugly or Mother Goose (John Inman), you can circulate to a different show each year and command a good fee.  Best of all, as you’ll be performing in front of new audiences, you’ll only need to buy 9 costumes and you can wear them every year! 

 

And buying the kit is only the start of the bills.  Once you’ve got a collection of gigantic frocks and precious hard set wigs, you need somewhere to store them.  Of course, if you have a 20 bedroom mansion with several spare dressing rooms, then this needn’t cause too much of a problem, but given that you’re an actor and not a tech-mogul, you probably don’t… in which case, you better get used to seeing the name “BIG YELLOW STORAGE” on your direct debits every month.


Storage can be a real headache!


As a producer, you can ameliorate some of these costs by staging your show in a different venue next season – after all, you already have the costumes, so now you can budget the cost across two shows rather than one.  If you have a big company with lots of contracts, you might start budgeting a dozen shows or more, across the life of the costume.

 

If you haven’t got a lot of contracts, you could always try staging more pantos in the venues you have.  This is one of the reasons behind the upsurge in Easter, Summer and even Halloween pantos of late.

 

Of course, once you’ve had your hilarious big dame costume on in all the shows you can stage, your audiences have seen it – so it’s value to you plummets.   Now you have two options: you can sell it on, or find some space in your workshop and try to hire it out (HINT – why not join one of the dozens of people who have signed up to pursuedbybear.co.uk.  You can have your own shop without the cost of developing a website!).  Of all the panto costumes, dame costumes come up the most frequently on Ebay as people try to recoup some of their investment.  Here is a second hand costume starting at £300.

 

However, as a performer, your options are more limited.  You have to store the costumes until the next time you get cast in that show. (Although you could always sign up to Pursued By Bear and hire it to someone else)

 

Which is how we get to the world we now live in, in which a significant number of dedicated performers who play dame have large collections of costumes and wigs locked up in storage, waiting for Christmas.  A stranded asset.  And what do you do with assets?  Capitalise on them.


The Eureka Moment!

 

At some point in distant history, an enterprising performer, in order to get one up on the competition,  sidled up to a producer at the end of their auditions, and said “Of course, I can provide my own costumes!”

 

And that producer thought ‘Kerching!’

 

All those costs, all that upkeep, all those ongoing expenses – it was now on somebody elses shoulders.

 

All things being equal, why wouldn’t you employ someone who brings their own costumes?

 

Well, a good idea is a good idea.  Which is why it was at this very moment, that something which nobody foresaw (nor no-doubt wanted) began.  The great dame-costume-arms-race.

 

If you are losing out on roles to people who provide their own costumes, you might start thinking “I’d better keep up.”  Soon there are so many performers providing their own costumes that some producers only cast performers who costume themselves, foregoing the financial and logistical burden altogether.

 

Dames who stick with the same company now need to costume themselves for different panto titles.  It’s not good enough to have a few good workers, you need something Chinese for Aladdin, something bucolic for Jack, something French for Beauty and the Beast – or maybe even two of everything if you’re sometimes an Ugly Sister.

 

Every Dick needs a Sarah!


You can do your best to economise.  The more generic the costume is in style and material, the more titles you can wear it for.  But the pressure to have “showstoppers” is enormous, and even basic workers aren’t cheap.  Several self-costuming dames I have spoken to have bemoaned the very high costs they bear – often above and beyond what they can recoup through “rental” clauses in their contracts (in which a producer offers to pay a flat fee in addition to the performance fee).

 

Some performers love dame-ing so much they delight in buying new frocks and commissioning wigs… in which case it’s less of a problem.  But some performers, in order to keep up, have got themselves into a quag from which it is not always easy to escape.

 

And it’s not just performers that suffer.

 

When you’re writing a script, you craft a world into which you place your characters.  Imagine you have a hilarious idea for a plot line in which Mother Goose is going to a Casino dressed as a roulette table.  You can picture the headlines now “Inspired roulette-table-dress steals the show at the Huddersfield working men’s club” The Guardian, “***** Dame takes hilarious costume out for a spin” Panto magazine, “All bets are off with this years jaw-dropping dame costumes at Felixstowe Independent Methodist Hall” British Theatre Guide.  Now all you have to do is find a dame with a roulette dress.

 

Good luck!

 

When the costumes come with performer, you have to pick from their collection - if their collection doesn't have a roulette dress... you get what you get.  So what happens?  Forget your ideas.  Write something generic so what the costume doesn’t matter and bodge together some references to it during rehearsals.  Good performers can make anything work… they’ll probably make something funny! (If it’s their costume, they may already arrive with some lines).  But no matter how well it turns out on the night, you have sacrificed authorial control.

 

SO, in answer to the question “should dames buy their own costumes?”  It depends.  If you love buying dresses and wigs and curating a costume collection – OF COURSE!  Life is short, make yourself happy.  But you shouldn’t have to.

 

The question itself is a bum steer. The real focus should be on the producer… 

 

“Should you be producing shows if they rely on performers to costume themselves.”  To this question, my answer is decidedly, emphatically “no.”

 

 

 

Sunday, January 14, 2024

How I secretly spent ££££££ of the government's money so panto could save the world

 

THE PRODUCER'S PARADOX


It was 2018, and we had just finished building the giant for Jack and the Beanstalk.  It was enormous.  We had started building it in the lean-to but had to move it into the kitchen when we could no longer squeeze round it to fit the costume.  With the gargantuan body completely covering our dining room table, the only available surface to put the head on was the kitchen counter.  We had to reach around it to scramble eggs.

Bertrand the Giant Bully in our very first panto


Although we had both made theatre shows before, and Will had been in a few pantos as an actor, we had never made a panto before.  It was so exciting.  

We had ambitiously scheduled 28 performances and, once word got round, it sold really well.  You couldn't get a ticket by the end of the run.  We were super proud. 

But even without paying ourselves for sewing the costumes, building the set, writing the script, we barely broke even.   

It turns out, it's hard to make a profit in a house with a capacity of 160.  

The next year we rented a room at the top of a mill and bought ourselves an overlocker.  We couldn't afford to buy or rent anything, so instead we spent months making costumes and set.  We even had a light up portal.  It felt like a real step up.  

We put on more shows, sold more tickets, and made just about enough to buy an industrial sewing machine.

Each year the shows got bigger and better with more performances, grander costumes, wigs and sets,  more ambitious illusions and sequences.  Little by little,  with the support of the venues, our friends and collaborators (you know who you are!), we built our company until this year we produced 124 performances of 3 shows across 4 venues and sold at 88%, 97%, 72% and 94% capacity. 

Aladdin 2023
at The Met, Bury

Rumpelstiltskin 2023
at Festival Drayton and the Millgate Arts Centre


Alfie the Elf 2023 
at the Bolton Octagon 


AND....

🥁

DRUMROLL...

🥁

...

🥁

We broke even!

🥁

The problem is: as the shows have grown, so has the whole operation that underpins it.  Nowadays we operate from a 3000 sq ft workshop with industrial racking stacked with sets and puppets, a flying carpet, industrial tools, a hoard of 800 costumes... we even have a separate lock up with the Robin Hood set from Salisbury in it.

The Robin Hood set from Salisbury would not have fitted in our kitchen!


I can barely believe  how much stuff we've accumulated - really good quality stuff as well - that's just sitting there.  

"If only we could turn it into some kind of income," I pondered...

TWO TYPES OF PANTO COMPANY


There are two types of panto companies.  Companies that make and companies that rent.  We make.  It's the only way we could afford our production values.  

Look up any panto company that makes it's own stuff and 9 times out of 10 they'll have a page on their website that says something like:

We have sets and costumes available to hire.  If you're interested in renting from us, please send an email to producer@pantocompany.com

Which is OK, if you know who they are, what they've got and what you need.  

"We should do that," we agreed.  Then we daydreamed of  something a little bit grander:


    Something Grander by The Big Tiny (excerpt)
                  
           Act 1: Scene 1

Ben:     Wouldn't it be great if it had browsable pictures of all the stock?
Will:     Yes... and it kept track of what's going where - 
Ben:     - and it was integrated with a merchant portal so people could hire it online?

                   Pause.  Ben and Will look at each other. 

Will:     How much would that cost?
Ben:     I don't know.  I'll find out. 
 
Phones software developers.

Ben:     Tens of thousands of pounds.
Will:    We don't have any money.
Both:    Bugger.

                    Exit, pursued by a bear. 


I knew we weren't the only people in our position.  Other producers I've hired to/bought from all say the same: we've got lots of stuff that we made for productions but we can't use again because now once you've staged a show at all of your venues you've got to wait 6 years before you can do the same title again.  And it's not just producers - we have plenty of mates who play dame paying hundreds of pounds for a lock-up to house their collections of costumes and wigs.  Every year, up and down the country, we're all ending up with more and more stuff, and nobody knows what to do with it.

  • It's wasteful
  • It's expensive to store
  • It's a missed opportunity 

Of course, we'd all love our own hires portal, one that catalogues all of our stock, that lets other professionals browse though and hire from us - if someone else had one, you'd have a nose through, wouldn't you?  Maybe they've got something amazing that you could hire... it would be cheaper than making it...  and quicker.

A pipe dream.  I mean... where would you even begin?


GOVERNMENT FUNDING

In January 2023, we teamed up with a software developer and registered a new company with the sole purpose of making an industry-wide platform for theatre professionals to hire stock between themselves.  Our aim was to provide a user-friendly tool that enables greener theatre production by connecting creatives and pooling our resources.

Supported by significant funding from the UK Research and Innovation Council, we have spent the past year doing just that.  The platform is called:

Pursued by Bear

and we are launching it on Monday, 15th January.

It's been a labour of love to get everything ready, but ready it is.

Currently it works through a website (the app is still in development), but professional theatre practitioners can sign up for free at: 


and as of tomorrow new users will be able to upload their stock, browse other people's stock, check availability and hire.

The portal is point and click so it's easy to use (if you can use eBay, you can use Pursued By Bear).  You can search using keywords, sizes, character, available dates etc...




Oh - and if you're worried about hiring your stock to the great unwashed - don't worry, we've set up a vetting procedure, so you can be sure that the people you're hiring your precious costumes to are legitimate practitioners and not someone on a stag-do. 

As is the case with all these things, somebody has to be first, so I got a few of our fantastic actors in, hired a photographer and spent a couple of days snapping away in our workshop.


  
I uploaded my stock onto the portal last week (big shout out to Ian and Nancy who have been helping test the site and the processes!). As of tomorrow, if you fancy a nose around The Big Tiny's stockroom, you can do so at your leisure: bonus points to anybody who hires something!

Here's a sneak peak of some of our catalogue.





You don't have to have your stock professionally photographed to get going.  If you want to dip your toe in, just get your phone out, snap a few items you think might be popular, upload them, and see how you do.

Registering, uploading your stock and browsing the portal is all entirely free.  The costs of the portal will be covered from a charge on completed transactions.

You can read all about the company and our mission as well as answering any FAQs about the platform at www.pursuedbybear.co.uk, where you can also sign-up to our newsletter available now.  As ever, if you've got any questions, please ask.

Alternatively, you can connect with us on all the socials by clicking on the following logos:


As the platform grows, we hope that Pursued By Bear will become a go-to resource for theatre makers.  

It's taken a Herclulean effort to get everything sorted, especially while trying to keep it hush-hush, so I can't wait for tomorrow's launch... 

You're going to really enjoy the platform.  

I am certain that this is the tool we all need to diversify our income streams and ensure more sustainable production practices.  


A bonus photo of me as a starfish!
(matching socks not available for hire)








How I secretly spent ££££££ of government money so pantomime could save the world


THE PRODUCER'S PARADOX


It was 2018, and we had just finished building the giant for Jack and the Beanstalk.  It was enormous.  We had started building it in the lean-to but had to move it into the kitchen when we could no longer squeeze round it to fit the costume.  With the gargantuan body completely covering our dining room table, the only available surface to put the head on was the kitchen counter.  We had to reach around it to scramble eggs.

Bertrand the Giant Bully in our very first panto


Although we had both made theatre shows before, and Will had been in a few pantos as an actor, we had never made a panto before.  It was so exciting.  

We had ambitiously scheduled 28 performances and, once word got round, it sold really well.  You couldn't get a ticket by the end of the run.  We were super proud. 

But even without paying ourselves for sewing the costumes, building the set, writing the script, we barely broke even.   

It turns out, it's hard to make a profit in a house with a capacity of 160.  

The next year we rented a room at the top of a mill and bought ourselves an overlocker.  We couldn't afford to buy or rent anything, so instead we spent months making costumes and set.  We even had a light up portal.  It felt like a real step up.  

We put on more shows, sold more tickets, and made just about enough to buy an industrial sewing machine.

Each year the shows got bigger and better with more performances, grander costumes, wigs and sets,  more ambitious illusions and sequences.  Little by little,  with the support of the venues, our friends and collaborators (you know who you are!), we built our company until this year we produced 124 performances of 3 shows across 4 venues and sold at 88%, 97%, 72% and 94% capacity. 

Aladdin 2023
at The Met, Bury

Rumpelstiltskin 2023
at Festival Drayton and the Millgate Arts Centre


Alfie the Elf 2023
at the Bolton Octagon


AND....

🥁

DRUMROLL...

🥁

...

🥁

We broke even!

🥁

The problem is: as the shows have grown, so has the whole operation that underpins it.  Nowadays we operate from a 3000 sq ft workshop with industrial racking stacked with sets and puppets, a flying carpet, industrial tools, a hoard of 800 costumes... we even have a separate lock up with the Robin Hood set from Salisbury in it.

The Robin Hood set from Salisbury would not have fitted in our kitchen!


I can barely believe  how much stuff we've accumulated - really good quality stuff as well - that's just sitting there.  

"If only we could turn it into some kind of income," I pondered...

TWO TYPES OF PANTO COMPANY


There are two types of panto companies.  Companies that make and companies that rent.  We make.  It's the only way we could afford our production values.  

Look up any panto company that makes it's own stuff and 9 times out of 10 they'll have a page on their website that says something like:

We have sets and costumes available to hire.  If you're interested in renting from us, please send an email to producer@pantocompany.com

Which is OK, if you know who they are, what they've got and what you need.  

"We should do that," we agreed.  Then we daydreamed of  something a little bit grander:


    Something Grander by The Big Tiny (excerpt)
                  
           Act 1: Scene 1

Ben:     Wouldn't it be great if it had browsable pictures of all the stock?
Will:     Yes... and it kept track of what's going where - 
Ben:     - and it was integrated with a merchant portal so people could hire it online?

                   Pause.  Ben and Will look at each other. 

Will:     How much would that cost?
Ben:     I don't know.  I'll find out. 
 
Phones software developers.

Ben:     Tens of thousands of pounds.
Will:    We don't have any money.
Both:    Bugger.

                    Exit, pursued by a bear. 


I knew we weren't the only people in our position.  Other producers I've hired to/bought from all say the same: we've got lots of stuff that we made for productions but we can't use again because now once you've staged a show at all of your venues you've got to wait 6 years before you can do the same title again.  And it's not just producers - we have plenty of mates who play dame paying hundreds of pounds for a lock-up to house their collections of costumes and wigs.  Every year, up and down the country, we're all ending up with more and more stuff, and nobody knows what to do with it.

  • It's wasteful
  • It's expensive to store
  • It's a missed opportunity 

Of course, we'd all love our own hires portal, one that catalogues all of our stock, that lets other professionals browse though and hire from us - if someone else had one, you'd have a nose through, wouldn't you?  Maybe they've got something amazing that you could hire... it would be cheaper than making it...  and quicker.

A pipe dream.  I mean... where would you even begin?


GOVERNMENT FUNDING

In January 2023, we teamed up with a software developer and registered a new company with the sole purpose of making an industry-wide platform for theatre professionals to hire stock between themselves.  Our aim was to provide a user-friendly tool that enables greener theatre production by connecting creatives and pooling our resources.

Supported by significant funding from the UK Research and Innovation Council, we have spent the past year doing just that.  The platform is called:

Pursued by Bear

and we are launching it on Monday, 15th January.

It's been a labour of love to get everything ready, but ready it is.

Currently it works through a website (the app is still in development), but professional theatre practitioners can sign up for free at: 


and as of tomorrow new users will be able to upload their stock, browse other people's stock, check availability and hire.

The portal is point and click so it's easy to use (if you can use eBay, you can use Pursued By Bear).  You can search using keywords, sizes, character, available dates etc...




Oh - and if you're worried about hiring your stock to the great unwashed - don't worry, we've set up a vetting procedure, so you can be sure that the people you're hiring your precious costumes to are legitimate practitioners and not someone on a stag-do. 

As is the case with all these things, somebody has to be first, so I got a few of our fantastic actors in, hired a photographer and spent a couple of days snapping away in our workshop.


  
I uploaded my stock onto the portal last week (big shout out to Ian and Nancy who have been helping test the site and the processes!). As of tomorrow, if you fancy a nose around The Big Tiny's stockroom, you can do so at your leisure: bonus points to anybody who hires something!

Here's a sneak peak of some of our catalogue.





You don't have to have your stock professionally photographed to get going.  If you want to dip your toe in, just get your phone out, snap a few items you think might be popular, upload them, and see how you do.

Registering, uploading your stock and browsing the portal is all entirely free.  The costs of the portal will be covered from a charge on completed transactions.

You can read all about the company and our mission as well as answering any FAQs about the platform at www.pursuedbybear.co.uk, where you can also sign-up to our newsletter available now.  As ever, if you've got any questions, please ask.

Alternatively, you can connect with us on all the socials by clicking on the following logos:


As the platform grows, we hope that Pursued By Bear will become a go-to resource for theatre makers.  

It's taken a Herclulean effort to get everything sorted, especially while trying to keep it hush-hush, so I can't wait for tomorrow's launch... 

You're going to really enjoy the platform.  

I am certain that this is the tool we all need to diversify our income streams and ensure more sustainable production practices.  


A bonus photo of me as a starfish!
(matching socks not available for hire)







Thursday, November 30, 2023

What's wrong with this picture?



Weymouth Pavillion are putting on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs this year.  Hooray!  It’s a great title… I imagine all the people of Weymouth are eagerly looking forward to opening night.

 

Also, they are employing actors with dwarfism (rather than, say, kids wearing big foam heads, which I suppose is OK if you’re an am-dram society, or playing a tiny venue with a limited budget for actors, but...) hopefully we can all agree as an industry that we should be looking to provide employment opportunities for actors with dwarfism – so another big HOORAY there! 

 

However…

 

Have another look at the poster.  Does anything seem strange to you?

 

Does it seem strange that every single performer is named except for performers with dwarfism?

 

I mean, I get the fact that you want to name your celeb castings.  That’s why they’re called names… (the clues in the – well, name, I suppose).  If you’re splashing out on a someone who’s won BGT, you’re hoping to leverage their fame to translate their audience draw into ticket sales.

 

But with the best will in the world, not everyone named is a name.  A fabulous performer you may well be, but if people don’t see your face/name on a poster and know who you are, then you’re not gonna translate to many additional bums on seats.

 

I think at the point at which you decide: we’re going to name all the performers, surely you NAME ALL THE PERFORMERS.

 

This poster feels a bit like artistic apartheid.  It seems to say: “Here are the actors, and here are the dwarfs.”

 

Weymouth Pavillion - why aren’t you naming the performers with dwarfism?  I bet if you’d manage to cast Warwick Davies, you’d name him.

 

A lot of little people who are stage performers have considerable, wonderful (and very relevant) credits on their CVs to boast about.  Why isn’t the poster trying to leverage these credits?

 

Honestly, I don’t have a definitive answer – at least not one I can back up with conclusive evidence.  But I can give you a pretty good finger in the air.

 

Buckle your seatbelts: here comes my twopenceworth…

 

CAVEAT: I’m neither a little person, nor (anymore) a performer, and the argument that I’m laying out is not saying anything that people who are little people and performers have previously understood and said themselves.  However, I am actively researching the field at a University, and (apparently) writing the most-read pantomime blog in the UK (whoop whoop!), so perhaps my twopenceworth is worth at least face-value.

 

2p or Not 2p, that is the question

 

This poster is symptomatic of our industry’s damaging objectification of performers with dwarfism.

 

Note that I say: objectification, rather than commoditisation.

 

I see no problem with commoditising any performer.  That’s why you hire performers in the first place.  We’re running businesses after all.  To be a performer is to pursue a career in which your likeness, skills, face, voice, your very identity is traded with audience members for money.  Other careers are available.

 

However, performers are people.  And I’m going to say this slowly for the people at the back… even performers with dwarfism are people!

 

If a production of Snow White is billing the fact that “this show has real life dwarfs” in the same voice as last year’s Aladdin billed “this show has a real flying carpet,” then it’s indicates that something’s gone terribly wrong.

 

The objectification of little people by pantomime does not end with the poster art.  It doesn’t even begin with it.

 

Agents and Equity reps are very keen to share stories of outrage in which the “plot characters” are auditioned, whilst the little people on their books are made offers based purely on their spotlight description – much the same as furniture is picked from a catalogue.

 

Producers: how can you possibly make the best show if you don’t even know what talents your performers have?  Dwarfism may be a plus when it comes to casting, but it isn’t a talent.  Think of how much better your show could be if you only knew that the actor playing Sleepy could juggle, or what the MD could have arranged if they only knew the actor playing Grumpy also sang opera, or what the writer could have concocted if they only knew the actor playing Bashful could improv rock songs on the guitar.  Not only are you missing out, so are your audiencesand so are your performers.

 

In my (so-far) limited conversations with interested parties, it doesn’t feel amazing to get cast because you’re a little person, but if you are a little person it feels great to be cast because you are a good performer.  

 

On this topic, more than any other I feel like I have so much more to say… I certainly have collected pages and pages of quotes and notes, but Rumpelstilstkin’s first public show is tonight and I have two other shows opening in the next 10 days, so it’ll have to wait.

 

This is Dr Panto signing off… Toi toi!


A sneak peak at The Big Tiny's production of Rumpelstiltskin, 2023


 

 

Monday, November 13, 2023

Why Jack and the Beanstalk is NOT like the others

I've spent so long on my blog talking about cultures from around the world, what a delight it is to sit down and write about something very British.  Jack and the Beanstalk.  It's got beans and a chicken - what could be more British than that?

"I thought chickens are domesticated jungle fowl originating from South East Asia."

Alright smart Alec, maybe they are - but it's still got gold and a giant, and I saw a guy who was 6'5" drop a bag of pound coins in Tesco yesterday - so what are you saying?

In fact, Jack and the Beanstalk is so British, that during the UKPA symposium on diversity earlier this year, it was held up by one panellist as an example of the type of story that white people should be allowed to put on if they only employ white actors.  I am paraphrasing here (because 10 months ago I had no idea that 500 people would be reading my blog every fortnight... otherwise I would have carried around a dictaphone) but I recall the admonishing going something like this "there are plenty of British stories you can use for pantomimes without going round the world and stealing other people's (AKA Aladdin)."

Well, Jack and the Beanstalk is particularly British... perhaps mores than you think.

The Greeks Invented Gayness

God, I loved Father Ted


Gayness aside, the ancient Greek's invented lots of things.  One of those, arguably, was a formalised dramaturgy.  Certainly, Aristotle's lecture notes on how to produce a successful tragedy are the earliest known surviving thoughts on the structure of the dramatic art form.

FUN FACT #1: Scholars know that Aristotle lectured on how to produce a successful comedy/satyr play, but his notes for these lectures are lost to the mists of time.

FUN FACT #2: The Athenians used to perform plays once a year during the (several-day-long) festival of Dionysus. The 32 Ancient Greek plays that have survived (think Agamemnon, Antigone, Electra, etc.)  have survived because they were performed at this festival.

What does any of this have to do with pantomime?  Rather a lot as it turns out.  

Aristotle's codification of how a (tragic) plot should be laid out, became (for a very long time) THE accepted understanding of narrative structure in Western theatre.

Nobody fell for Aristotle's pull-my-finger gag twice 

So what did Aristotle say?

  • Characters"must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral difference)" (Poetics, Part II)
  • "Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type - not, however in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly.  It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive." (Poetics, Part V)
  • A perfect tragedy should [...] excite pity and fear.  [...] A well-constructed plot should, therefore be single in its issue, rather than double as some maintain.  The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad.  It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty..." (Poetics, part XIII)
Why am I quoting some dead Greek guy from thousands of years ago?  Is it because I spent £10k on am MA that focussed of Aristotle and I'm desperately trying to justify my purchasing decision?  Partially yes. Is it because the history of art is conversational and you can't understand theatre today without understanding where it has come from?  Ooh - that sounds clever... I wish I had thought of that.

The reason that Aristotle's waffling about theatre is important to us is because it is THE best example of how political and social culture drives narrative structure... and this, it turns out is super relevant to panto today.  Let me explain.

Waxing lyrical about the Brazilian


If you haven't heard the name Augusto Boal, you are missing out.  He is without a doubt one of the most insightful, innovative and influential thinkers about theatre of the twentieth (and 9 years of the twenty-first) century.  One of his great insights that has always stuck with me comes from his seminal work: Theatre of the Oppressed.  In the chapter "Aristotle's coercive system of tragedy," he argues that the narrative structure of Aristotle is a necessary tool of the slave-owning Athenian state.

In other words: if you want to assure the enslaved 90% of your population that they should be obedient and morally noble on penalty of divine judgement, you make them watch tragedy.  If the gods judge the noble Agamemnon, how much more-so wilt thou be judged?  
"Finally, so that the spectator will keep in mind the terrible consequences of committing the error not just vicariously but in actuality, Aristotle demands that tragedy have a terrible end, which he calls catastrophe."

Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed (1973) 

Brazilian gymnast Arthur Mariano's opinions on Aristotle are undocumented

Also, from Boal's point of view, tragedy brings with it the added bonus that you get to see someone much posher than you get their comeuppance.  What blissful catharsis! OK, so you might be a little bit enslaved, and the Athenian slave-owner that owns you may be lazy, or jealous or prideful - but you can rest assured he will get his just deserts... after all that is what always happens in a tragedy.  

Of course, the paradigm that tragedy is a coercive political tool puts Boal at loggerheads with Aristotle who claims that that this "hero's journey" is an inevitable and universal story structure (an idea I ended pinching for my TEDx talk on how to teach maths, which I delivered in my younger, slimmer days shortly after Aristotle's death).  
"Aristotle's coercive system of tragedy survives to this day, thanks to its great efficacy. It is, in effect, a powerful system of intimidation. The structure of the system may vary in a thousand ways, making it difficult at times to find all the elements of its structure, but the system will nevertheless be there, working to carry out its basic task: the purgation of all antisocial elements." 
ibid.

"For example: the stories of "Western" movies are Aristotelian (at least, all the ones I have seen)."

ii bids.  

If you are a wicked step-sister who bullies Cinderella, you will get your comeuppance.

If you are vain and betray your friends, you will end up in court like Mother Goose.

BUT if you are good and follow the rules and see the best in people then you will be able to turn the most angry, beastly man into a gentle and considerate Prince, just like Belle.  (Yeah right, Belle... because that always works!)

According to Boal - just like the slave owning societies of ancient Athens, our hugely unequal capitalist societies are stabilised through the oppression of the masses by the promulgation of coercive narrative structures.

*If all this has whet your appetite for learning a bit about Boal, here's a good blog about Theatre of the Oppressed.

Different cultures, different stories

This week I went to see the much hyped sci-fi film: The Creator.


My one word review: Risible.  


Perhaps I am being unfair.  After all, it is difficult to sum up an entire 2.5hr piece of work in a single word.


My full review: Utterly risible.


I won't spoil the plot by giving away the minutiae, suffice to say: if you sent a group of GCSE kids on a weekend dramaturgy course and asked them to come up with a plot to show what they had learned it would be this film.


Everything that could happen at the last minute happened at the last minute “to build tension”.  Everything that could have a countdown had a countdown


The twists and turns of the “plot” (of which there were so many as to limit any time for character development to zero) were so telegraphed  that you would have to be a moron not to see them several scenes in advance. This leaves the whole film being a tedious unwrapping of a present that you already know what it is and didn’t want in the first place.


The film is clearly the product of a society that is promoting multicultural harmony. Which is no bad thing in its self. However, it has nothing interesting to say about AI. 


Essentially, what we have in this film is a reworked slave redemption narrative. It is Django unchained, but instead of white people owning black people, we all own AI, and humans are the slave masters. However, this doesn’t in any way talk about what AI actually is. The danger of AI, is not that it is a Tibetan monk, because it isn’t, the danger of AI is that it is self replicating and can move throughout bodies.  e.g. one of the premises of this film is that AI has become a small child, and has to learn. But that’s not how AI learns... if it took an AI the same time as a human being to learn things, it would be no threat, in fact, I’m not sure why people would build it.  It would obviate all of the benefits of being an AI. In its attempts to say something profound about humanity  (the film says nothing profound -in fact, as far as messages go, it’s nothing that terminator two didn’t say 30 years ago) the film sacrifices its ability to say anything meaningful about AI.


Pardon?


For a start, it doesn’t make sense. How of the Chinese ended up with advanced AI, humanlike, robotics, and they still carry spears live in corrugated iron sheds. Can’t we think of anything better?  

FUCK MISS SAIGON



The main thing this film made me think about was Kim Lee’s Untitled: Fuck Miss Saigon Play.  


The Creator is a story about an American who goes to somewhere in the Far East where people have spears and live in corrugated iron sheds, has a baby (or does he?) then comes back six years later to claim the child. Kim Lee's play points out that this is also the story of Madame Butterfly, South Pacific, Miss Saigon etc. and asks the question: do we have to perpetuate these hackneyed and tired narrative structures?


I did not enjoy this play...


...for about a hundred reasons that I will rant about to anybody who buys me a beer.  But you haven't bought me a beer, and it's not about panto... so... back to the point.


However, just as Boal highlighted in his OG takedown of Aristotle, Kim Lee's play articulates the truth on display in The Creator: that cultures generate narrative structures in order to protect themselves.


The Athenians needed to control a population of slaves - they developed tragedy.


The USA need to hold together an ethnically diverse population, they develop a "redeemed slave narrative"of Django Unchained and The Creator.  They want to justify the use of arms to spread democracy, they develop the "white saviour" narrative of Miss Saigon.


There's nothing wrong with these narratives per se, I like Miss Saigon!  But it is important to understand that they serve a political as well as an artistic function.


FINALLY... PANTO!


So what does this mean for panto?  Where have these stories come from?  What are the political functions that they serve?


Contemporary panto has roots in melodrama, which is fundamentally a Zoroastrianesque good vs evil cage match.  There's a villain (boo!) and a hero (hooray!).  Consequently, most of the plots that fit the form well are hero's journeys - an Aristotelian hero who is noble but unfulfilled, goes on a journey, there are twists and turns, they learn something about themselves (anagnorisis), and in the end they overcome evil, gets the girl (or Prince), and everyone lives happily ever after.


Aristotelian panto titles


Cinderella

Robin Hood

Beauty and the Beast

Mother Goose

Dick Whittington

Sleeping Beauty

Snow White


These are the types of stories that Victorians would approve of.  The types of narratives that a state who wanted to proselytise morality and subservience to a very rigid and stratified class-system would develop.


But (as advertised)


Jack and the Beanstalk is NOT like the others.


It actually draws from an earlier tradition of Celtic heroes who are morally ambiguous.  In the Celtic narrative tradition heroism is born not out of nobility, but out of quick wits and cunning.  Jack is a thief, who plunders gold from the lord... but he is a thief who get away with it.


This is the type of story that commoners tell their children.  You can't be Prince Charming unless you're a prince.  But anyone can be Jack if they're bold, bare-faced and lucky.


You can see it in the casting profiles.  Get called for a Prince Charming audition, and you might get cast as Dick Whittington.  But a Jack is a Jack is a Jack.


Super interesting aside: scholars think the Hansel and Gretel narrative developed during the little Ice Age (around the 1300s) during a period in which wide spread famine caused some families to abondon their children in the woods, and there were reports of ne'erdowells resorting to cannibalism.


Of course, the society we live in today is NOT the society that these narratives were developed for.  Our political needs have changed.


The class system of the Victorian age is fading.  The sexes are much more equal.  Heterosexuality is no longer assumed of everybody.  Our demographics are becoming ever more diverse.  The need for international cooperation has taken the place of British nationalism.  We need stories that bring together lots of different people; that inspire; that include; that empower.


You can see the effects of these shift in these political needs in the way these stories are staged today.  Aladdin is set, not in China, but in Hackney.  The villain wasn't evil, they were misunderstood.  The ol' Maid Marion-rescues-Robin/Jill-rescues-Jack switcheroo is now so common in pantos, it too is in danger of becoming hackneyed.  


DOING SOMETHING BETTER


The panto canon is popular.   I see no reason for abandoning it completely.  Of course you can be clever and creative - you could retool Aladdin as a narrative to highlight poverty and internationalism by setting it in a Beijing favella (tickets available here) .  Or if you don't lie that, you could scout around for another narrative.  There ARE other stories out there... and less well known stories provide more wiggle room.


OK, so you can't bugger about with Cinderella - there's too much plot.  No-one will be happy if Prince Charming loses a shoe and the wicked step mother is really good all along.  But you could probably do something interesting with Rumpelstiltskin... I mean - who can remember the actual story anyway?  Something to do with spinning thread into gold?  With a bit of creativity maybe you could retool it to say something profound about love and otherisation... (tickets available here).


And if you're a producer reading this thinking "that sounds like a risk" - my sales for Rumpelstiltskin are up 35% in the same venue on the same point last year when we produced Aladdin in the same venue.  And what's the one thing I've heard from ticket buyers over and over again? 


"Ooh, Rumpelstiltskin.  We've not seen that one before?"



Early photograph of a young Aristotle
trying to remember the plot of Rumpelstiltskin 



Should Panto Dames Buy their own Costumes?

"There is nothing like a Dame." (centre) by Rogers (left) and Hammerstein (right) . Who plays the Dame?   . How do they play it?  ...