I recently acted in a pantomime and survived – me: a socially anxious person with little stage experience – and unexpectedly found it to be a great time, full of talented souls and I even got to meet some amazing members of the local, queer community too!
The show was a huge success. Oban may be a small town in rural Scotland but the bright lights of the Corran Halls (where we sold out all 400 seats most nights) are our Broadway equivalent. We had some good LGBTQ+ representation, with several queer people in the cast and mixed up gender roles in the casting. Those in the know couldn’t escape the irony of a gay leading man and queer leading lady (aka Scrooge & our panto dame, Belle) in a romantic embrace at the end of the show! This year the panto was Bah Humbug, carried off by an amazing group of local people at Benderloch Drama Club, both in the cast and the technical and stage crews.
Our show may have had good LGBTQ representation but compared to performing in a city show, I noticed that some of the LGBTQ performers, although not closeted, were a little quieter about their sexuality. I still don’t know if some of the cast might be friends of Dorothy, and it was only when OutNewsGlobal’s very own Maz Gordon started talking about her work at OutNewsGlobal, LGBTQ magazine, that the penny dropped.
At the start of the show, Maz Gordon was originally cast as Scrooge and then later on recast as the saucy but sweet panto Dame, Belle. The director said he wanted a man playing the dame but simply couldn’t find a talented male performer, who fit the bill.
Many of us have seen panto dames in major cities performed by a man or a woman, however, the town of Oban has a panto every year, and casting a female panto dame was a first for Oban – and in my opinion, it worked
Many people think pantomime dame and make the connection with drag. Whilst this is true, a cynical but perhaps realistic part of me suggests that the drag aspect was once, not so much admired as ridiculed when a less open and educated society deemed a “man in a dress” as an inherently comic concept instead of the art form it is recognised as today.
That’s not to say comedic drag doesn’t exist; comedy is a huge part of drag with many performers being comedians in their own right. The point I’m trying to make here: Panto dames now win laughs through comedic merit rather than being laughed at for “cross dressing”. Pantomime dames are there hamming up the female stereotype for laughs, no matter the gender of those who play them. They exist to poke fun at gender roles.
In today’s culture, wider and more varied expressions of gender are being accepted into the mainstream, although sometimes it’s easy to feel left behind in small town rural Scotland. In contrast to the long tradition of men taking on the role of pantomime dame, having a woman play this part can be a way to examine the spectrum of the gender experience; escaping from the rigid dichotomy of gender and beginning to see it on something more like a sliding scale. In this case, a woman actor takes on the role of a hyper femininized character, donning voluptuous skirts, a bustle and a cushion padded bra much like a man would do if he were playing the same character. They both portray the female: they both act out the gender. This is to say, gender is a thing we wear, like costumes, expressing ourselves through clothing, mannerisms and affectations.
Using a woman to play panto dame and call out the ridiculous stereotypes of womanhood can remind us how stifling it can be to live up to the ideals within one’s own gender.
For my part, as someone who identifies outside the gender binary, I recognise the wide and ever shifting spheres of maleness and femaleness and see a little of both within myself, that culminates in an experience outside the traditional binary genders.
There are many ways people inhabit the gender queer/ non-binary existence and for me it’s feeling a combination of those “traditional” genders and something else entirely. My head’s been in the gender blender for some time, and currently I feel very ok with menswear and androgynous styles, but not at all with dresses.
Hence, when the costume director handed me a huge red puffy sleeved number to try on, I was reluctant at best. Do it for the play, I told myself through gritted teeth, but I would have felt humiliated, so I sheepishly returned the dress to the costume director who was more than happy to supply me with suit trousers and a tailcoat.
After a few rehearsals I was cast as the Policeman – a perfect fit for my awkward presence and ability to convincingly stage-fall (Tiny Tim wields his crutch as a weapon in this panto).
So far, we have a female Dame, a nonbinary Policeman and now Tiny Tim, played by a girl. She did an amazing job of portraying the Dennis-the-Menace-like renegade who takes great joy in abusing the hapless Policeman who obviously hands out sweeties in exchange. Not being a massive fan of the cops, I was happy to see the policeman being mocked for being totally out of touch and ultimately get his/their comeuppance. I hasten to add that my view of law and order is entirely my own and does not reflect the wider views of the OutNewsGlobal team.
I found myself subconsciously changing one of my lines from “hitting a policeman” to “hitting a police officer” to remove the gendered language.
The pantomime plot follows a lonely old miser turning from greed to generosity: maybe Scrooge’s change of heart can remind us that attitudes can and do change. I’m not suggesting that a trio of ghosts and a dead ex colleague can cure someone of homophobia/transphobia overnight – I’m sure you’ll all have first-hand experience: some people respond well to education on queer issues and some unfortunately, don’t. But maybe we can hold out hope for other Ebeneezer Scrooges – people who may need a bit of help, but ultimately educate themselves and in some cases, stop being such assholes.
On a personal note, I loved the ability to play with gender expression by taking on such a masculine role. It was also refreshing to meet people who knew what non-binary meant so I didn’t have to justify my identity to another disbelieving face. Judging by the ticket sales and roaring laughter I heard from backstage, the panto went down a treat with the local community. I enjoyed it as well – and who knows, I might even be up for it again next year!