Image by Martin Tember
So here I am again in panto. It’s like fondly looking back on an embarrassing memory from your past, except it’s happening right now. Thankfully there is no chicken suit for me this year, and instead I get to ride onto the stage on a giant pirate ship. This is definitely a step up.
This year I’m doing the adult panto at the brilliant LGBT theatre Above The Stag. This is much more fun than regular kids’ panto because we get to talk about willies and most of the audience is drunk by the second act. It also means that rather than your average dame, damsel, Buttons and baddie, we have a lesbian chef-pirate (that’s me), a gay Prince of Atlantis, and a transgender merman. Oh, those old panto gems.
But one aspect of panto is the same whether it’s a school hall in Little Wymondeley or an LGBT theatre in a railway arch in Vauxhall: ain’t no fourth wall in this joint. Audience participation is essential to any panto, so a performer needs to be ready to deal with whatever the audience may care to add each night.
Of course, much of the audience participation is carefully spoon-fed: ‘Oh no it’s not!’; ‘You will tell me if you see him won’t you?’ et cetera. Some crazy-reckless panto mavericks will try to up-end this age-old paradigm, for example by shouting ‘No’ when the obvious answer is ‘Yes’. This creates a cringe-makingly un-funny detour that the performer then has to laboriously wade everyone out of, as the progression of the scene often hangs on getting the right answer from the audience. Time is precious in panto. Any extra air that gets in can deflate the comedic tension, so seconds wasted dealing with cheap, smart-arse answers can really drag it down.
However, if an audience member is engaged with the action, rather than just doing the equivalent of trying to get the teacher’s attention by daubing their own excrement on the wall, their participation can absolutely make a show. One audience member in this run called to me as I left the stage, “don’t forget the map!” I had to explain (in character) that forgetting the map was integral to the plot, and it went down a treat.
Our director gave us some important lessons in dealing with heckles, as the wrong handling can be completely disastrous. Golden rules include
- Keep it light. You can be cutting, but never cruel, and you have to be likeable first.
- Never ask people to repeat heckles if you didn’t hear them. That’s just a catastrophe of cringe.
- Never give the audience the finger. It looks like the feelings of the performer showing through the makeup of the character.
- Always stay in character. Coming out of character is a loss of control, and although the audience want to challenge the performers, they don’t want to see them fail.
It’s a good idea to have one or two responses up your sleeve if certain heckles happen frequently. During Shit-faced Shakespeare , we often get a chorus of ‘down it, down it’ when the drunk is given a drink on stage. Our customary response is failsafe; firm but funny, and delivered with great mock-gravitas: “This is NOT a fucking RUGBY CLUB. This is classical SHAKESPEARE, and the lady [gender of performer irrelevant] will drink at her own pace.”
If a heckler is obstructive and unfunny, a careful put-down often goes down well. Great heckle responses are passed folklorically between performers; at Above The Stag they tell tales of the great put-downs of the drag acts at the nearby Vauxhall Tavern. All naughty words in the following anecdote have been gently sanitised, but you get the gist: “Get your male appendage out!” one heckler challenged the drag queen halfway through her act. “I don’t need to,” she responded, “there’s already a massive ladygarden in the room.”