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Folklife Festival 2003 > Scotland > Performers > Pantomime
Pantomime or "panto" is a uniquely British form of entertainment. An essential part of the Scottish Christmas season, panto is performed throughout Scotland in scores of large and small theaters by professional, semi-professional, and amateur panto troupes. Annually, from early December to late January, hundreds of thousands of Scottish children and adults attend these popular plays.

   We have nothing like panto in the United States. It is part 19th-century musical hall, part vaudeville, part mummer's play, part fairy tale, part Italian commedia dell'arte, and part slick modern showbiz. Panto is a mélange of songs, jokes, comedy sketches, and dance numbers. It uses a limited number of well-known fairy tales, such as Cinderella, Aladdin, Snow White, and Jack and the Beanstalk; some stock characters, such as Buttons, the Evil Stepmother, the Ugly Sisters, the Dame (usually played by a man), and the Principal Boy (frequently played by a woman); and many favorite catch phrases. It weaves references to local personalities, international news, local gossip, and ad lib comments into each show.

   A unique aspect of panto is its form of audience participation. Audience members are encouraged to boo-and-hiss "baddies," warn the "goodies" of impending danger ("It's behind you!") and talk back to the actors. (When an evildoer says "Oh, no he won't!" the entire audience knows to yell back in unison "Oh, yes he will!") Actors toss candies from the stage, lunge into the audience for "volunteers," and start conversations with individual audience members. The main concern is fun rather than plot, and everyone, including the audience, has a traditional role to play in this form of folk theater. Pantos are not only tremendous entertainment, but also an extremely effective way to introduce children to the joys of live theater.

   The history of panto has yet to be fully written. Older theatrical elements - including cross-dressing, rhymed verse, and clowning - hint that the form might have deep historical roots. This suggestion is strengthened by panto's run in midwinter during the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, when the "Lords of Misrule" traditionally held sway. But even if panto's past is murky, its future seems bright, especially in Scotland. A new generation of panto writers and performers, nurtured by panto luminaries such as Stanley Baxter, Rikki Fulton, Johnny Beattie, and the late Jimmy Logan, are bringing new life to the tradition. We are delighted to work with staff and students from Glasgow's Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dance to bring panto to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Coming to the Festival...
Pantomime director Alan McHugh (Glasgow)
—who in addition to his successful acting career Sunset Song; Taggart; etc.) is a respected "panto" writer and performer of the annual panto at the Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy -- will be joined by RSAMD students, William Barlow, Joanna Horton, and Lee O'Driscoll for a series of workshops on this uniquely British form of holiday entertainment. Panto is virtually unknown to American audiences, and we will feature the Scottish version of this distinctive folk theater via Festival workshops and discussions.

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