Earlier this week, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden announced a £1.57 billion investment to help save Britain’s cultural landscape. Whilst news of the bailout was welcomed in most quarters, one aspect of his many media appearances caught headlines: pantomime.
When asked by Radio 4’s Today Programme whether a Christmas panto season would be possible, he replied, “I would love us to get to a point where we could have Christmas pantos back,” before continuing:
“The challenges are: you've got from granny to grandchild; you've got kids shouting and screaming, ‘Is he behind you?' and all the other stuff we love doing; it's highly interactive—there's usually bubble soap being chucked around or whatever else. All of those represent huge transmission risks. So it is at the very difficult end of it, but of course we will work through all the challenges. But I want to be realistic about it. If we can do it, we will, but it looks challenging."
Not only does pantomime’s diverse audience present problems, but the backstage areas of many theatres make social distancing almost impossible. Whilst those in the Industry were quick to correct Dowden’s use of pantomime terminology, challenging the definition of bubblesoap (professionally termed slosh) and correcting “Is He Behind you?” to “He’s Behind You!”, others criticised the inability of the government to provide a potential date for reopening.
Qdos Entertainment’s Managing Director Michael Harrison stressed the need for “an idea of a timetable to get ourselves back into the buildings we love so much. All of us, particularly our freelance community, want to return to doing what we do best.”
But whilst Harrison and the pantomime community united to lobby for greater clarity, the New York Times European Culture Editor Matthew Anderson couldn’t quite believe that pantomime had even made the agenda, tweeting:
“UK culture secretary doing the rounds this morning to talk up the arts rescue package. Talked about pantomimes on BBC Breakfast, Today and Sky News. PANTOMIMES.”
To date, the tweet has experienced 977 likes and a whopping 711 retweets and comments, with the Twittersphere jumping to pantomime’s defence and reminding Anderson of its cultural and financial importance.
One of these panto crusaders was actor Samuel West, who replied:
i) a huge earner for most buildings—no panto, no Pinter
ii) the start of many people’s love of live theatre
iii) a joyous night out at the playhouse; perhaps their only visit that year
iv) a uniquely British theatrical art form
v) something I’ve never been offered”
What Anderson failed to grasp was that whilst it might seem odd to hear the UK Culture Secretary mention pantomime over Shakespeare in summer, timing is everything. Companies need to know when and if they’ll get the green light to perform this season to provide them with enough lead in time to literally get the show on the road.
Usually by summer, casting is almost complete, sets are being fabricated, costumes created and scripts finalised. However, with theatres shut and no income since March, everything is on pause. Mobilising this huge industry in time for Christmas will be more than challenging and who’s to say whether for many theatres already discussing redundancies, budget will even be available?
I’ve been tracking and regularly updating cancellations, postponements and title changes in my article "Panto Season 2020: COVID-19". To date, 14 productions have been affected by COVID-19 with other venues waiting until August to make a final decision. But should social distancing be eased and venues allowed to reopen, what might Panto Season 2020 look like?
We already know that the season will have fewer pantomimes due to those already cancelled and postponed. We also know that many theatres won’t be able to make productions financially viable with such a reduced capacity on account of social distancing.
A reduction in the number of star names headlining shows to keep budget levels down and reductions in the number of cast members, dancers and musicians is almost a given. Indeed, 2020 may see venues dispense with Babes and Junior Ensembles completely whilst also opting for recorded music to limit company numbers. Other strategies to reduce the risk of transmission include fewer costume and set changes, only employing low-risk individuals, choosing non-cast-heavy titles such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and avoiding romance narratives for which social distancing would impede the story. All of these measures help reduce the risk of one person contracting and transmitting the virus and the production having to close.
However, the risk of quarantining may lead to additional employment for performers, technicians, musicians and stage crews with producers opting to employ an alternate company. For example, should Company A have to quarantine, Company B would swing into action and enable the show to keep running whilst Company A recovers. An alternate company for every production would be incredibly costly, so producers may decide to stage fewer titles, ensuring the same script, musical numbers, direction and choreography are used so that an alternate company could be deployed to any of its theatre if need be.
Pantomime thrives on audience participation. This may be the most drastically affected aspect of the genre and 2020 may see the end of chases through the audience, sweet hurling, toilet roll wanging and the traditional children on stage during the Song Sheet.
The audience experience will no doubt also be different with protective screens in place, limited food and drink (if any), no printed programmes (perhaps electronic?) and hand sanitiser on tap.
Guidance released this week on outdoor performances has shone a light onto some of the ways indoor pantomimes may have to adapt, but has also opened up the possibility for open air pantomimes from 11 July. In addition, Zippos Circus has been given the go-ahead to mount its 2020 tour, so perhaps tents are the future for Panto Season 2020 having successfully been employed during many theatres' regeneration projects? Might we even see an increase in Arena Pantos and the return of Ice Pantos now that leisure facilities and sports centres can reopen from 25 July? Many skating venues make it easy to practice social distancing and already have built-in protective screens rinkside.
Pantomime has survived centuries of evolution and should Panto Season 2020 go ahead, writers and directors will come up with creative ways to stage the show which may lead to innovation in the genre. St. Helens Theatre Royal has already proven that lockdown pantomimes performed via social media can and do work; perhaps we’ll see more of them? Or perhaps producers will throw open their vaults and permit archival screenings in cinemas (or perhaps even theatres) to enable a sense of shared community. We’ve already seen a number a past seasons’ pantomimes streamed online, so know this is also an option, as is a live performance streamed to an audience as per the Old Vic’s Lungs. With cinemas now open, were microphones and cameras to be placed in the audience as they watched on screen, the performers could hear their ‘Boos’ and ‘Cheers’ and respond in real time, even enabling the potential of finding a new boyfriend for the Dame each show.
Information on timings for the government’s reopening of theatres roadmap is said to be “imminent”, so it shouldn’t be too long before we know whether 2020’s panto season will get the green light. Until then, we can only speculate about what form this might take, but one thing’s for certain, COVID-19 won’t be the final curtain for Britain’s favourite artform.