Apologies that this post is not what I promised it was going to be but…
Last night I went to watch my son perform in his school panto.
(For readers who are not from the UK and who might not be familiar with this yuletide tradition, a panto is a live stage play characterised by its broad, slapstick comedy, stock characters and strict conventions. The male lead is usually played by a woman. The central comic character, the Dame, is always a woman played by a man in dress and make-up that is a gross exaggeration of typical femininity. The play is usually based on a traditional story or fairy tale. There is a lot of audience interaction, often centred around standard phrases such as “He’s behind you.” And “OH No, he isn’t.” Pantos are only performed around Christmas and the New Year. I am sorry if what follows is difficult to understand. If you have never seen a panto, it may well be.)
The panto was excellent. Very funny. My son played the Dame. He was frighteningly good at it. He and the rest of the cast were clearly enjoying themselves. Enjoying playing around. I love pantos. For me, they epitomise many of the themes that I have been writing about this month.
First and foremost, pantos are about playing. They encourage a lot of transgressive behaviours. Behaviours that would be unacceptable in the outside world.
Modern theatres are usually quiet, reverential places. Panto asks that the audience shout and bray as loudly as possible. The actors positively encourage the audience to loudly abuse other actors.
In panto, the good characters behave badly – they make a mess on stage and often soak the audience with water. They do not set a good example for the young children who make up the majority of the audience. In fact, a strong sense of anarchy, of mis-rule is to be expected. Kings are mocked, the poor overthrow the rich, childish behaviour is rewarded. Norms of behaviour are turned on their heads. It is a topsy turvey world. If you behaved this way in the normal world, you would end up in prison.
And how we love it! Here in the UK, people who never go to the theatre the rest of the year, flock to the panto. It is when theatre houses are full. When they make more money than any other time. Strange that a nation typified by its modesty and reserve, Its stiff upper lip and emotional restraint, should show such enthusiasm for an art form full of brash transvestism, vulgar humour, bad jokes, unruly behaviour and disrespect for the rules of polite society. Even stranger that a school should stage its own panto. And many do.
The easy answer is that it’s a pressure valve. A way for a buttoned up nation to let off steam. And I am sure that there is an element of that. But, more fundamentally, it is a way for us to play. A place where we can test out the rules we impose upon ourselves. Push the boundaries a bit. In a safe environment. Where we are allowed to break the rules without suffering the consequences. So, the children can shout, the dads can dance, boys can be girls and girls can be boys. And it’s ok. Nobody minds. It will not be held against you. That is why there is so much audience participation in panto. It actively seeks to blur the line between actor and audience. Between the real world and this strange panto world. It aims to make the audience feel part of the play. You are not just there to watch. You are there to participate. And that is why I love it.
I used to teach Drama in schools. There is a definite pecking order of subjects in schools in the UK. At the top is Maths and English. Closely followed by the Sciences. Then the Humanities. Then Languages. That is the top half – the academic subjects. If you study them you are a serious student. You have to work hard and you will do well if you do. Nowadays, they allow IT in here. But, it is modern and they don’t really trust it.
Then there is the bottom half. The practical subjects. The Design subjects – metal work, wood work, cooking, mechanics. You know, the subjects where you actually learn to make things. Then P.E. – the subject where you learn to stay healthy and look after your body. And right at the bottom are the Arts – the subjects where it is perceived that you will succeed if you have “natural” talent, and you don’t really have to work hard, and it’s permissible to take one (just one) because that will give you a “balanced education” and it will be a nice rest from all that hard work in the proper subjects!
And there is a pecking order in the Arts. First, Music. Because, yes, we have to admit, it’s quite hard and you do have to practice a lot. Then Visual Arts. Because paintings can be worth a lot of money. Then Dance and Drama. Which are for students with ADHD so that they can burn off all that excess energy.
Whereas I would turn the whole lot on its head. I would say that Drama is the most important subject in a school. Because Drama is where students get to play. Where they get to test the boundaries of the society they inhabit and to figure out a way that they can fit in and remain healthy. They can play the baddie for an hour. See how it feels to break the rules. Think about the consequences. Without having to do so in reality. Without paying the price. Drama is where they pretend to be someone else and so learn empathy. Where they work with other students to achieve a common goal and so learn team work, responsibility and resilience. Where they are presented with imaginary dilemmas and so learn to problem solve. Drama is the place where they learn to explore who they are in relation to the world. Where they begin to form or transform who they are.
Drama. Its only playing about.
Just like the panto. It presents us with an opportunity to transform ourselves a little.
And that is why I was so proud of my son and the other students in the panto last night. I know most of them. They have been coming back to our house between school and performances. We live very close to the school. They are lovely young people. Bright. Sensitive. Creative. And last night, I watched them transform into the characters on stage. And they entertained us. Made us cry with laughter. But they did more. They began to transform themselves. To grow. Develop. Change. Not just for the duration of the performance, but forever. You could see it happening. My son is a different person after that performance. He has transformed.
And what is more, they did it so well, that they enabled the audience to transform a little too.