Every year, the school I work in takes all the children to a pantomime.
We go in two shifts; infants one day, juniors the next. For many children it is their only experience of theatre.
Things like taking children to a pantomime, or indeed for some children, their only experience of theatre, is not only a privilege, but a huge responsibility. These are the kinds of experiences that can shape a child’s appreciation of culture and the arts and turn a disinterested child into an engaged child. Much as it may seem odd to equate that level of importance with seeing a man in a frock being squirted with water, it is true.
There are pitfalls, of course. For the infants, certainly it is more problematic than with the juniors.
Pantomimes, despite being family friendly, are, as a rule, rather long. The performance we took our children to yesterday was about two and a half hours in total. Even with an interval, it is a big ask of a small child to get them to sit still for that long. It’s on a par with expecting them to see Macbeth in terms of time, to put it into perspective.
If you want to make your pantomime trip a success, particularly with smaller children, here are my tips for making things go smoothly:
Absolutely insist on toilets for all beforehand. And in the interval. Pantomimes are quite noisy, and it is usual for children to get up during the performance and go to the toilet, but instilling in children that the convention is to manage without a toilet break during the performance is good training for the future, where in other productions these things are not tolerated quite so well.
Snacks and drinks for half time are a must with long performances like pantomimes. The ones we have taken the children to for the last few years have run over the children’s lunch hour, and they naturally get more restive when they are hungry. So do I.
It is worth explaining the rudiments of how a pantomime works for children who haven’t been before. Or even recapping for children who have. If I had £1 for every child over the years who has asked me why Aladdin or Prince Charming is a girl, I’d be a reasonably wealthy woman by now. The pantomime is a tradition, and a flourishing one, but it is peculiarly British for a start, and also unlike anything else they will ever see in a theatre, so going through a checklist of FAQS before you go will stop a bit of confusion, and mean the children can concentrate on things like plot without worrying. And they do worry.
It is also good to emphasise that a) this is pretend, like the television, and b) it is meant to be fun. A lot of the jokes based on word play will go over the smaller children’s heads, but if they are aware that they are supposed to laugh it helps them to talk about and try to understand jokes. It also helps the performers, who may be used to getting a big laugh with some lines which totally fall flat in school performances.
Pantomimes are nearly always based on traditional stories like Aladdin, or Cinderella. They will take huge liberties with the story however, and it is also worth explaining this to the children before you go. If a child is wedded to the idea of how a particular story pans out, they can find it very disconcerting when the story they were familiar with, suddenly takes a bizarre turn down unexpected narrative path ways. It also sets them up in future life in terms of understanding that stories can change, and that’s fine.
Explaining the conventions of how a theatre works, and how a play progresses can also be helpful. A lot of children every year, get their coats on at half time, thinking that the play is finished, for example.
None of these things are particularly distressing, if they happen, and they inevitably do. If, however, you are in charge of 100 children, covering these bases before you go, means that you do not have to have forty or fifty whispered conversations with confused kids during the actual performance, and everyone should enjoy it more. As adults, most of whom will have been brought up with a yearly pantomime as a staple of their Christmas season, we forget sometimes that all the things we take for granted and understand because we have been doing them for so long, are not as obvious as we think they are.