The pantomime — merry, family-friendly musical comedy shows which take top billing at theaters throughout December — remains a peculiarly British tradition. It is nominally a children’s Christmas show based on a fairy tale such as “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella” or “Jack and the Beanstalk” to which music-hall elements are added. Those include the dame (an actor in drag, who usually has a penchant for sexual innuendo), song-and-dance routines with topical lyrics, slapstick, in-jokes, call-and-response (“Oh no it isn’t!” “Oh yes it is!”) and familiar celebrity guest stars.
Pantomimes represent many British children’s first experience of live performance, and many adults’ only theater trip in a year. “Pantos,” as they are known, usually provide work for thousands of people each year.
As such, they are crucial to the British theatrical ecosystem. For many theaters, the festive show typically brings in around 30 percent of their annual box office in just four weeks.
This year, more than 180 British pantomimes have been canceled or postponed until next December, a development which has plunged the country’s theater industry, already beleaguered by months of national shutdowns, into dire financial straits.
In July, the British government announced a rescue package of 1.57 billion pounds, or about $2.1 billion, for arts organizations at risk of closing because of the pandemic, and pantomimes were given special mention by the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden. He even named the project to bring back live performances Operation Sleeping Beauty.
Planning for a panto starts early. In August, with no clarity on whether live events would be permitted around Christmas, one production company, Qdos, whittled its planned 35 panto productions down to nine shows at 10 venues, according to Michael Harrison, a joint owner of the company.
Pantomime is built to survive even the harshest of conditions, said Harrison in a telephone interview. “It’s the most adaptable of art forms,” he continued. “It’s all about what you create for the here and now. So when somebody says, ‘Everybody onstage has to be two meters apart at all times,’ that’s fine.”
At the time of writing, all 10 of Qdos’s planned openings had been further postponed to later in December, with three scheduled to open in early 2021.
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