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History of the Pantomime

IDEA’s largest performance of the year is the annual pantomime or Panto. Usually performed in January/February.

What is panto?
Panto, short for pantomime, is a type of musical comedy stage production designed for family entertainment. Modern pantomimes include songs, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing. It employs cross-dressing and combines topical humor with a story that’s based on a well-known fairy tale,fable or folk tale. Panto is a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to singalong and shout out phrases to the performers.

The origin of panto
Roman Empire
The word pantomime was adopted from the Latin word ‘pantomimus’, which in turn derives from the greek words that stood for ‘all’ and ‘dancer’, meaning a dancer who acted all the roles or all of the story. The roman pantomimes were based upon myth or legend and were performed by one man who, indeed,played all of the roles on his own. At that time different roles were recognized by a variation of masks. According to researchers, the first panto was performed around 361 AD and Commedia was born.

Commedia spread across Europe from Italy to France and by the middle of the17th century began to be popular in England. The Commedia dell’art characters first began to appear in English plays around 1660.Panto’s officially were a folk play based loosely on the ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ legend, usually performed during Christmas gatherings. This already contained many elements we still see in panto to this day, including: gender role reversal, stage fights, chase scenes, creatures and good defeating evil and over the centuries this turned into the pantomimes we see in our theaters now! Isn’t it amazing how panto survived from 361 AD to 2023?

Pantomime roles
The main roles within a pantomime usually are:

Principal Boy: Main character in the pantomime. Traditionally a young woman in men’s clothing.

Principal Girl: Normally the hero’s love interest played by a young woman.

Panto Dame: Normally the principal boy’s mother or auntie. Traditionally a middle-aged man in drag.

Comic Duo: Do physical comedy and relate to children in the audience.Sometimes plays with an ‘animal’.Played by a man or woman.

TheVillain: The pantomime antagonist. Often awicked wizard, witch, fairy or demon. Played by a man or woman. Usually has a funny sidekick.

Good Fairy or Wise Woman/Man: Usually helps the(traditionally silly) hero defeat the (much more intelligent)villain. Often has a role in the resolution of the plot. Played by awoman or man in drag.

Animals: For example dragons, a cow, penguins or a cockerel.

Chorus & Dancers: The ensemble. Normally have several minor roles.

More in this category: Past Productions »