Pantomime’s the Thing

I have a lovely family picture hanging on the fridge. In it, my grandmother, with her long black dress and cane, stands demurely to my left. My grandfather, with his pink curls and large breasts, smiles brightly to my right. Each time I pass it I am reminded of how the wonderful world of community theatre has coloured my life.

The photo is from Theatre Kelowna’s version of Cinderella, the Christmas pantomime they did circa 1989, when I discovered pink was definitely my colour. A pantomime is a way of performing theatre in an exaggerated, exuberant fashion, and for Theatre Kelowna, has especially been about bringing laughter and fun to the lives of everyone involved. Plus they offer lots of opportunity for men to dress up as evil stepsisters, for moms to turn into nasty pirates, and otherwise cool teenagers all the time they need to act like hee-hawing donkeys or giant slobbering dogs—you get the picture.

I was in a handful of these plays as a girl and returned to the stage last year with my own children in tow. What a great way to get family time; hours spent imagining together, with music and costumes and an audience at the end. It’s not about getting a lead role, in fact the most lines I’ve ever spoken were back in Cinderella, where, as a schoolgirl/townsperson I yelled, “Look out Cinderella!” with just the right amount of blood curdling fear that I’m pretty sure the audience was on the verge of a standing ovation. But that’s not the point. For me, the best memories don’t come from the actual performance, they come from life behind the curtain; the instant friendships I made, the rehearsals spent running around, how we played off one another’s crazy ideas, and the back stage blunders that were fixed just in the nick of time, or not in time and somehow worked into the show in a scene-saving moment of creative genius. The best stories come through the adventure of making it happen.

Taking part means being adopted by a giant family of quirky, warm-hearted people who come together for the love of entertaining. Theatre Kelowna is made up of all volunteers. When you have 30 to 40 people putting months of free labour into a full-length Christmas show, you get a backstage experience that elevates every person involved to a heightened sense of teamwork, camaraderie—and chaos. Even after it’s over, when I run into a fellow belly dancer or friendly gnome from my past, I know although we may no longer be in costume, we are forever bonded in theatre.

To find out more about the play this year, I make a call to Debbie Helf, the beacon of the group and member for most of its 33 years. To me she is a huge local icon. Or iconoclast. She can play both roles quite well (imagine her now, rubbing her hands and raising her brows with such theatrical perfection you can’t help hang on her every twisted thought). She excitedly tells me about Honk, debuting in December. It’s the theatre’s version of the Ugly Duckling, and even though I’m missing out on being in it this year, I know a seat in the audience is one holiday gift worth buying. Professional actors, mainstage musicals, shows on Broadway, are all often worth the price tag and the trip. But it’s in the small corners of the theatre world where perhaps the most moving moments occur. In a space where no one is paid, no one is perfect and everything is a labour of love. ~Gillianne Richards