Panto Day 2020
Friday 18th December

Panto Advice

Dames, Demons and Drag Villains

When I first came to the Millfield, I had done pantomimes before, but I had only once played a prince. I don’t often play conventional romantic leads, so the quirkier character roles in pantomime have always felt a more natural fit. I also like the challenge of improvising around what audiences throw at you (not literally, one hopes), so roles that combine comedy and villainy, and who can sneak jokes under the radar, appeal to me! The first role I played at the Millfield was dame in Beauty and the Beast, and it helped that the show was set in France! I’m a magpie, in that I borrow bits of other characters I like, and glue them together, so I took the corncrake vocals and over-the-top accent of Madame Edith in ‘Allo ‘Allo, added Carol Channing eccentricity, and some Fenella Fielding smolder!

The next year, I played the villain instead, in Mother Goose, as the theater needed an actor who could simultaneously operate a puppet henchman, since the Demon King carried a pet spider. The biggest difference as villain is that many of your scenes are solo, front-cloth scenes, counterpoints to the ensemble scenes. The other character in them is really the audience, as they’re the ones who interact most with you, and their responses are really the other half of your scenes. Villains have to galvanize the plot by threatening the other characters’ happiness, but it’s a balance between being wicked and funny, and nefarious, but ineffectual! I like giving my villains an air of slight ennui, as if they are trapped in this silly, carnival world, but are powerless to do anything about it! My favorite humor involves wordplay, playing with tropes, and breaking the fourth wall, whether that’s 30 Rock, or Will Self, Cole Porter, or Carry On!, so I add some of those things into my villains.

Because of the exaggerated, storybook nature of the villains, I like to start with a definite vocal and physical quality. My Fleshcreep, for example, walked very idiosyncratically, being led by his nose; my King Rat twitched and scratched, as I imagined his being flea-ridden (hence his bad temper). Vocally, he had a Jerry Stiller Brooklyn twang amongst the Cockney cast (which I chose as a nod to Disney, where the villain is usually British in contrast to an American cast); my Ugly Sister used Joan Sims’ vocal tic of an affectedly posh voice (with aspirated ‘h’s); Fleshcreep was a Kobold (a German sprite), which allowed me to pepper his aggressively accented dialogue with outbursts in German; for my Wicked Witch in Beauty and the Beast I have stolen some of Edith Piaf’s nasal French accent!

I’ve played a lot of characters who identify as female, and for me their gender makes no difference, in the same way that I’ve played characters of, say, nationalities and ages different to my own. That said, pantomime has a long history, with conventions and expectations. A very traditional dame can afford to undercut the illusion of femininity, acknowledging she’s a man parodying the traditional maternal role. An Ugly Sister thinks she is a glamorous female stereotype, whilst (traditionally) being a parody of cosmetic excess. But for both of my female villains I’ve played ‘straight’, as it were. Their voices might be in the Lauren Bacall register, but I actually try to emphasize their femininity: Carabosse was essentially a statuesque Bond villain; her accent even came from Xenia Onatopp in Goldeneye! My Wicked Witch consciously plays with conventional tropes of being preening, pouting and pettish. I don’t send them up as being men-in-drag, even though elements of the Witch’s aesthetic would not look out of place on Drag Race. When she ends up with Gaston, the joke for me is that he’s ended up with this rather egocentric virago who is going to make his life a living misery by being as incredibly high maintenance as he clearly is, rather than laughing at Gaston because he’s ended up with a dude in a frock!

Personally, pantomime means a lot to me. I wasn’t brought up on it, as it wasn’t a major tradition for us, but I’ve found an incredibly powerful magic in this odd gumbo of elements that really shouldn’t really work at all, but somehow does! Music, dance and stories work magic in themselves; combine that with a time of year when people come together, and which still carries a lot of old magic from deep-rooted traditions (Chanukah, Christmas, Yule, Saturnalia, Kwanzaa) and it’s very potent. For me to be able to be part of people’s yearly celebration, and to make them laugh, or feel included, or transported, is an extraordinary feeling. There’s a lot of current debate about the relevance of pantomime today, as cultures change seismically all around us. Pantomime is one of our few remaining theatrical traditions, often a child’s first experience of theater, as well as one of the few times some children (and adults) go to the theater in the year, and the thing that keeps many of our amazing regional theaters solvent year-round, so it’s without a doubt worth preserving! But we should be able play with the form, and change the rules, just as we’ve done with Shakespeare over the years. It makes the storytelling even more interesting and diverse, and if we do that with pantomime, it could last forever!

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