A couple of weeks ago a post popped up on my Facebook page imploring artists and arts professionals not to turn their noses up at pantomime as for hundreds of thousands of kids it can be a magical experience that will make them theatre lovers for life.
It got me thinking about our own Christmas offer at Lincoln Drill Hall. This year we’re presenting our 12th pantomime in association with producer Jamie Marcus Productions and it’s Peter Pan. Watching one of the early schools performances this week I was once again mesmerised by how our auditorium had been transformed for the Christmas period as we welcome around 14000 people through the doors. My technical team have not so much gone the extra mile as run several marathons to ensure that this year’s show continues to deliver amazing quality for the widest audience.
In fact, this then got me thinking about how pantomime sits within the overall programming of a venue such as ours. Our artistic offer is led by high quality popular culture. However we remain firmly committed to offering Lincoln audiences the widest breadth of arts and entertainment so we offer a smaller programme of contemporary performance that forms part of our agreement for funding with Arts Council England.
And as I watched the show this week I began to think that there is a strong argument that our pantomime delivers more closely against Arts Council England goals than a lot of the work that we present each year that I’d say was directly funded by our grant.
For example, Goal 1 for ACE is that excellence in the arts is thriving and celebrated. Panto does that. The production values and investment therein is huge. The effects, calibre of our cast, sets and technical elements are all of the very highest quality. Goal 2 is about reach, Great Art For Everyone. Well panto attracts by far the widest demographic of audience from across the city and beyond and from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. We’ve welcomed school groups from rural villages and parts of our city that fall well within the highest areas of deprivation in the country and offered them an arts experience that will stay with them. As one parent mentioned to me the other day, ‘the kids were talking about the BSL interpretation all through the afternoon and the next day’.
And that leads on to the Creative Case for Diversity. Panto affords us the opportunity to offer shows that we can’t regularly in other parts of the season with one off performances. This year we have 3 signed performances, a relaxed and autism friendly performance and are in discussions about audio description for next year. But more than that, this year we’ve cast a deaf actress in the role of Tinker Bell. This isn’t a move to tick a box, but a well thought out piece of casting. Tinker Bell historically communicates only through the ringing of bells, so to add signing to that ‘silent’ part seems absolutely natural. Phillipa Russell is amazing in the role. She signs her lines, Pan and other cast members sign back and the audience have opportunities to learn bits of sign language too. To see 300 kids signing ‘I believe in Fairies’ is a really moving moment to witness.
Goal 5 for ACE is achieved as panto engages with more children and young people than anything else we present and it is also a key production in helping to deliver resilience as it contributes the single biggest amount of earned ticket income to our budget each year.
I quite often get asked about commercial work and quality work with a misguided assumption that the two are mutually exclusive. They’re absolutely not and I hope that Lincoln Drill Hall will always seek to present the widest range of work for the people of our city. And I’m not for a moment suggesting that Arts Council directly subsidises our panto. But for me, our annual Christmas extravaganza delivers really closely to all of the outcomes that Arts Council aims to achieve. So before anyone dismisses this oldest of art forms as outdated, cheap or an irrelevance, why not check where your nearest panto is and go and have a look. My instinct is you’ll actually have a pretty amazing time and certainly one you’ll remember.