When someone says ‘Pantomime’, do you think of white-faced Marcel Marceau look-alikes in French sailor sweaters making faces behind invisible sheets of glass or pulling imaginary ropes? You wouldn’t be alone. Although historically related, there is a world of difference between the soundless, gesture-only theatre performances developed by the French called ‘Mime’ and the zany, musical, and outrageous fun of the classic British ‘Pantomime’. The family-oriented British version is what Cooktown’s South Simcoe Theatre has been presenting for the past couple of years. And it’s a hoot, and a lot of that hooting comes from the audience itself!
photos of cast members by Robert Alary
First; a little history to impress yours friends at Christmas parties
Like most theatre it all started with those ancient Greeks! “The Greek “pantomimus” which literally translates to “imitating all” was a highly regarded form of solo dancing often accompanied by music which encompassed both comedy and tragedy”. It survived the centuries, emerging and constantly evolving into the more recent theatrical history on continental Europe. Due to language barriers, the performances developed into communication forms that transcended the spoken word, leading to somewhat extreme physicality of performance and characterisation, closely related to circuses of the time. So popular it became that hundreds of troupes toured the Europe.
The wordless French ‘Mime’ also has roots in political and well as theatrical history. Its soaring popularity after the French Revolution was tied to the heavy censorship of the theatre and became associated with subtle criticism of politics or society without the risk of openly using inflammatory text or rhetoric.
‘Panto’: As quintessentially British as Earl Grey tea or a good Indian curry.
While the French have their own tradition of Pantomime, the art form found true roots in England, where its evolving eccentricity appealed to that of the British culture. The Christmas ‘Pantomime’ of today has evolved into an identifiable British institution, transitioning during Victorian times to shows of shorter length built into Christmas and Easter theatre schedules, and thus made more appealing to families with children. In fact, ‘Panto’s’ dominate the British theatre scene like nothing else, and have changed very little in the past 150 years.
A ‘Panto’ is often a British child’s first exposure to live theatre. They love the slapstick aspects of the presentations (literally a stick or sword used to slap fellow actors originating in the Italian version of pantomime of the 18th century) includes pratfalls, pie throwing. The adults enjoy the risqué double entendres. There are stereotypical characterisations in most plotlines, themselves a distorted fun-filled re-telling of famous fairy tales and children’s stories; a principal young players, sometimes a boy played by a woman in tight male clothing; an older woman played by an older man; and various combination of heroes and villains, whom the audience is encourage to ‘boo’, and ‘cheer’.
Carrying on the British tradition in Simcoe
‘I like to refer to our versions as ‘Panto’, so people don’t get confused with French ‘Mime’, explains director Mareka Martin. Martin, who left England at age 11, has been involved with Christmas stage performances for a dozen years now, but the Panto is a bit more recent.
She explains: ‘After 10 years of producing Christmas shows on the South Simcoe stage that were kind of slap-stick and vaudevillian in style, The Mad Cap Players decided to retire. However, South Simcoe Theatre now had this captive audience and wanted to do a Christmas show. I told them I really didn’t want to do Christmas shows like we had before, but something totally different. That’s when Panto’s came to mind.’
This is the third Panto directed by Mareka and produced by SST: In 2011, Snow White and the Seven Aliens; last year, Robin Hood’s Adventures in Thunderland. Can you see the twisting of traditional tales into ‘Something Completely Different’?
And in keeping with the concept of eccentricity, there’s none of the usual over-the-rainbow business in Wizard of Oz. The early scenes set not in Kansas but on a construction site in Cookstown, where a snowboard-loving Dorothy and her Aunt Plumbum end up transported to Baum’s fairy-tale land by a blizzard rather than a tornado.
Unlike the previous Panto’s of the last two year, which were basically royalty-free, Wizard of Oz originates from Ross Petty Productions of Toronto, and was made available under a more formal licensing agreement. ‘They knew they were dealing with non-professionals and have lifted some of the restrictions. Some of the parts that would be performed by men are being done by women for example. Some of the music has been modified to suit the level of singers we have in the cast. They’ve been very flexible. Some of the humour has been localised, from Toronto-oriented to more local politicians and other references.’
For those new to the stage, shows like Wizard of Oz are a unique opportunity, says Mareka. ‘Panto’s are a great introduction to the stage, especially if you don’t have much acting experience or don’t want a long run. And audiences are much more forgiving with panto’s too, with something this comedic.’
Meet mild-mannered retired accountant Frank Hutcheson
Typical of leaping at that first time opportunity is Frank Hutcheson, a recently-retired accountant from Oro. ‘This is my first foray into acting; my background is music, not theatre. I stumbled into the ‘Auntie Plumbum’ role through the musical director Jay Rothenburg who I saw at a party. One thing led to another. I wasn’t familiar with what Panto was about. I looked it up, went to the audition and sang my song. Mareka asked me to read the parts of this character and that character, called me back and offered me the role of ‘Auntie Plumbum’,’
‘Frank is the dame in the show, the very traditional British panto male-as-female. He has a lot of responsibility. The dame is very important in the show.’ explains Mareka.
Frank is not entirely new to performing; he’s just new to the stage. ‘I took piano as a kid, played guitar, sang all the way through high school. I sang with Bravado! for about 6 or 7 years with Edwina Douglas. I left for a while due to work pressures, but rejoined last year when I retired.’ The biggest challenge for Frank in his role on stage? ‘The lines, and learning when and most importantly how to say them, and how difficult that is, especially for a role so over-the-top.’
The glorious sensation of satin against the skin!
Was newcomer Frank happy about his casting and need to wear women’s clothing? ‘Absolutely, although I’m not known as a cross-dresser, except maybe some Halloween’s when I might or might not have been wearing a dress! But I researched this over-the-top, buxom, big-bummed, big haired dame and it sounded like a whole lot of fun.” There are some physical challenges to overcome, however. “I’ve never been in heels, or pumps I guess they are, before, and my feet have been killing me!”
Nevertheless, Franks looks forward to his stage debut. ‘This acting opportunity has allowed me to stretch myself. Mareka has been working with me on line delivery and what the lines are trying to impart, changing delivery styles, striking poses. The younger actors already seem to have that flair and style, but for me everything is new. Every rehearsal is a new experience for me. I’m working hard to make what I do live up to the quality of what the others are giving to the show.’
But it wasn’t just the opportunity to act that appealed to Frank; it was the story itself. “You’ve got the original story with ‘Dorothy’, the ‘Lion’, ‘Scarecrow’ and ‘Tin Man’ but they have mostly different names in this Panto; but ‘Dorothy’ is still ‘Dorothy’ and there is a ‘Wizard’ (played by Barrie actor George Gibson) who here is a 60’s or ‘70’s hard rocker called ‘Ozzie’. It’s true to the original story more or less for about half of the show and then you’ve got deviations. It’s a comedy and a musical is what it is. ‘Auntie Plumbum’ is roughly the equivalent of ‘Auntie Em’. She’s raised ‘Dorothy’ but the whole character is over-the-top; always hungry for a man, in particular ‘Oz’, to be her partner. There’s a lot of play and action between ‘Plumbum’ and the ‘Bad Witch’ (Sally Wente) because we’re both after ‘Ozzie’.”
Frank is particularly impressed with the younger members of the cast he has watched during rehearsals. ‘The skill that the young actors bring to the stage just blows me away. Most of the leads have done this before. I’m also amazed at the additional dimension, the demands that acting brings to the stage over and above the singing.’
Mareka agrees: the cast is wonderful. ‘It’s really a wonderful cast to work with. It gets better and better every year. I get stronger as a director too. My leads are great, lots of experience. George Gibson as ‘Ozzie’ is a dream to work with. Being British he has a great appreciation for panto and makes my job so easy.’
What parents and children should expect
Parents might want to heed Mareka’s thoughts about age appropriateness. ‘The show is a full afternoon or evening of entertainment, a first act of 50 minutes and a second of 40 minutes, with an intermission; it’s not a little kid’s show but likely more appropriate for children 7 or 8 years and older. If they can sit through a full length show, they’ll be OK. There’s nothing in the show that is naughty, expect for things that goes right over their heads. It’s the length of the show itself.’
South Simcoe Theatre’s ‘Wizard of Oz’ opens December 4th and runs to December 8th
There are matinees on both Saturday & Sunday
For ticketing information call 705-458-4432
or CLICK HERE for more details