Christmas season is my absolute favorite time of the year. It doesn’t matter how old I get, or how cynical the world might be around me, when it comes to the holiday season, I get excited about it all – the shopping, the presents, the Christmas carols, the television specials. However, in Christmases past there was one event that I avoided – the Christmas pantomime. The family-oriented, highly animated Christmas play was something that I felt just wasn’t my thing… until one woman proved me wrong.
In 2017, when Sarah Quick noticed that I avoided her annual holiday pantomime each year, she challenged me to attend. She told me that I had no idea what I was missing. The artistic director to Bobcaygeon’s Globus Theatre, actor, director, and playwright Sarah Quick has been creating her own traditional Christmas pantomime for over a decade, and in return has had the small Northern Ontario town embrace it as part of their holiday tradition. Out of respect for Sarah and knowing the standard of professionalism that is put in all the shows performed at Globus, I reluctantly attended. The theatre located at the Lakeview Arts Barn is one of my favorite artistic hubs, and no matter what season, it is one of my favorite places to visit. I was surprised to discover that Sarah’s pantomime production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves absolutely charmed me and sitting amongst the children and families who were also drawn into the fun filled fantasy, my heart grew two sizes bigger regarding the traditional pantomime that Sunday afternoon. The truth was that I really didn’t know what a pantomime really was, and that in North America it is a misunderstood Christmas tradition.
Originally from Manchester, England, the traditional pantomime wasn’t only a yearly tradition for Sarah and her family, but it was also the gateway into her successful career as an actress. “It’s a phenomenon in England, and if you stand and look at it from an outsider’s perspective you see everybody – every single person – goes to the panto,” Sarah explains. “It’s the time of year where theatre is literally is for everyone. We talk about there being for everyone, but this crosses class divides, every type of background. Everybody goes to the panto. The shows range from having them from the most prestigious theatres in London’s West end, to little art centers in little seaside towns in Wales. You must see it to believe it when you see two hundred kids, all with light up swords, all screaming at the stage. It’s very accessible and very family oriented. It’s the type of event that even if Dad isn’t around because it’s a busy time of the year, he is going to come to the panto. He’s going to put up with grandma and his mother-in-law being there, because it’s panto day and we are all going as a family. I think it’s just wonderful.”
‘We would go to the very fancy ones, as well as the local church ones,” Sarah continues. “I saw the whole gamut of them, which is what persuaded me into wanting to be an actor. It was in a church hall called the St. Peter’s Amateur Dramatic Society that I became a part of. From the age of twelve onwards I did a panto every year, and it became as much a part of my life as everything else. Every October, November, December became panto time, and it was such a great experience of coming together with a massive cast, because most times you don’t get to work with that many people on stage. It’s really a nice way to establish teamwork and work towards something that is going to create so much joy.”
When Sarah and her husband James brought their theatre company to the Lakeview Arts Barn, Sarah began to create pantos not only to bring the pantomime tradition to Bobcaygeon, but also to create a yearly event to help the theatre engage with the small rural community. This year, Sarah is producing Mother Goose, her fifteenth pantomime, after a year off due to the COVID crisis. “When we ended up with the Lakeview Arts Barn, and we had the opportunity to program something for Christmas time, we were trying to find a way to engage with the community, and it was a no brainer,” Sarah tells. “That’s when I realized that this was going to be the thing that made people understand that the theatre was not an intimidating place to come to, it was for everybody, and this was going to be their gateway into the performing arts. Reel them in for the panto, show them a good time and maybe they’ll come back in the summer for the professional season. And in a way that’s what happened. A lot of people just come for the panto each year, but far more come to the panto and back for our summer season.”
So, what was it about the pantomime that I thought I didn’t like? The truth is, I just didn’t know what it was. I thought I did, but I was pretty panto-ignorant. Memories of family shows from my youth, which were so sickly sweet that it could give a person diabetes, and so unsophisticated that it would insult the intelligence of an average ten-year-old, haunted my memories. The truth is, the pantomime is a fantasy play that is constructed for both children and adults alike, with tons of audience participation, colorful characters, over the top escapades, music, romance, candy and double entendres. A good pantomime should work on multiple levels, be filled with topical and political jokes and be able to engage an audience of all ages. Whatever it was from my childhood which gave me holiday performance PTSD was either a very bad pantomime or wasn’t one at all.
“The biggest misconception about pantos is that it is considered to be a ‘mime’ and people think that there are no lines said or songs sung, which is absolutely not true,” Sarah explains. “That’s why I tend to call it a panto instead of a pantomime. I also don’t understand the way that a lot of North American theatres that have embraced pantos have gone in the direction of creating a ‘naughty’ version and a ‘family’ version because the entire point of a panto is that the one script appeals equally to people of all ages. You do the same script that you’d do for an entire room of adults as you would do for an entire room of kids, because there should be that light energetic princess falling in love and the goodies versus the baddies kind of story, and then there’s that innuendo that is a big part of the script. It could be quite filthy, but it’s the kind of stuff that goes over the kids’ heads. Why would you do an entirely different script for that? The whole point is that men and women and kids and adults and all types of persons can sit in that audience and enjoy it.”
One of the most essential elements of the classic pantomime is the show’s “Dame” – the master of ceremony, and the character who leads the audience into the show. In England, the role of the Dame has traditionally been played by a man dressed in drag, and at Globus Theatre, the role goes to Sarah’s husband James each year. “There is no way we could do a panto and not have James be the Dame,” Sarah laughs. “He absolutely thrives on it. It was tricky to talk him into it in the beginning, and to convince him that it was happening in theatres all over England and that all the best actors play the Dame. As I’m fitting him in his oversized dress and stuffing his bra with multiple rolled up t-shirts, he took to it as a duck to water. But once we went and saw several pantos in England, after he had played his first Dame, he realized there are two types of Dames. There are the ones who are like Mrs. Doubtfire – very homely and not glamorous or particularly attractive, but they are still flirting with all the men in the audience. Then there is the other type which tend to be played by more of a drag queen who have the legs up to their armpits and the high heels and the miniskirts and their makeup is pristine. But then you have the ones that barely shave. So, it goes from one extreme to another. James is not the one who is trying to embrace his sexy side. He just embraces the hoop skirts, the big boobs and the over-the-top persona and just making the adults squirm in their seats when he flirts with them. I just love it.”
“With everything that’s been going on in the world over the last number of years, in regard to transgender people and the like, I’ve been wondering about the place in the theatre for the Dame,” Sarah continues. “I’m sure thirty or forty years ago you found some men falling into the Dame role because it was the only place where they could express that side of themselves. But equally that isn’t always the case. I think it’s going to be okay, and I think it’s going to stand the test of time because what is so perfect about the panto is that it has been gender-bending for centuries. All our kids aren’t playing boys or girls. They’re just playing characters. In Mother Goose I have the four Goode brothers – Zeus, Deuce and Bruce, but really there are boys and girls playing them. Nobody is telling them they must play it like a boy. The bodyguards – Stop Em, Got Em and Stan – have both boys and girls playing them. They are just bodyguards. Our demon king is played by a girl in drag. James is the Dame. It’s just a whole hodge podge of wonderful characters.”
The pantomime is also an outlet for political and social satire. In the past, I was surprised how Sarah managed to sneak jokes about Donald Trump into her shows and yet made it light enough not to start any sort of political debate. This year, with COVID fears still being a concern throughout the world, Sarah does make a nod to the reality of the pandemic. “When you are a playwright and have your own theatre, you are allowed to have a voice and make your own political statements,” Sarah acknowledges. “If you can’t have a voice, then you’re not really doing your job. So, we’ll have a few COVID jokes, and we’ll be pointing out that even before the panto starts that people would have had to have a few good pokes before they are allowed inside.”
The cancellation of the pantomime in 2020 left a hole in the holidays of the families that attend each year, as well as the kids that are in it. To allow the show to happen his year, Sarah and her team have made several changes including cabaret seating for the families that attend, as well as reducing the number of children participating in the show. But by following provincial pandemic guidelines, including having all audience members and participants double vaccinated, and changing the venue to cabaret seating, Globus can bring this important community event back to the stage.
“I know the impact that it has on the kids that are in it, and the kids that come to see it,” Sarah says. “It’s too easy to get blasé about how we just go on stage to entertain people. But when you see these kids come in and get excited about going on stage, it revitalizes you. This is the reason why we do what we do. What an amazing way to earn a living. More this year than any other year because it’s been tough to revamp the show so we can do it. My son is now in the show. He’s got his lines to learn and he’s enthusiastic about it, and I know it’s going to have a profound effect on his life. It’s such a great community thing. It really is.”
Sarah Quick made a believer out of a panto-Scrooge like me, and it has become one of my favorite holiday events. If you’ve been avoiding the Christmas pantomime, I challenge you to take the plunge and dive in.
For more on Globus Theatre and its events throughout the year, visit their website https://www.lakeviewartsbarn.com/globus-current-season, and for more on Sarah Quick visit https://www.sarahquick.net/
PHOTO GALLERY BY DAHLIA KATZ OF DAHLIA KATZ PHOTOGRAPHY