The Pantomime – What Makes the Magic
December 2014 – the century and my youngest son were both 14 years old. Pre Covid, still in my thirties, an age ago, my husband and I were taking our teenagers to the theatre to see the pantomime – Peter Pan. The night air was warm, and the thrill of being in a theatre foyer as real as it had been since the first time I had been in one decades before. Snacks, tickets, the usher showing us with his torch where we should be. Feeling the seats beneath us, the coolness of the arm rests, testing how far feet could be stretched. Three or four red rows, the gallery, rising up to the stage, where, with a swish and a wave, the magical cast would appear. Curtain up, lights down, music booming and visual bursts – the magic had begun.
A young child and his parents were in the row in front of us: “Look, look! It’s the Darling nursery, and there’s Nana bounding around the room, but who’s that flying in the window? Who’s that sprinkling fairy dust around? Look, mom! Peter Pan’s FLYING!!” I felt as childlike as him. Two hours of magic, music, fun, laughter – not thinking for a second about what was happening in the world outside. A complete mind break. Stardust, sparkle, glitz, glamour, fun, interaction – that is the magic of the pantomime from the audience’s side!
But is it magic because it’s the pantomime, because of the theatre or because of what goes into making it?
I spoke to some of those who would be best placed to answer.
Brenda Sakellarides, whose accolades include Sister Act (2015), The King and I (1996) and many more, will star in this year’s pantomime, Adventures in Pantoland, has a biography which introduces her in a way that is as picturesque as she is in person. Creative catalyst, artistic director, producer, arts administrator, strategist, fundraiser, actress and singer. A wonderful introduction that says exactly what it means. I asked her what was special about being in a pantomime, and in her well-spoken tones, through which you can hear her passion, she told me: “Early in my career I played Principal Boy in Cinderella at the Natal Playhouse in the 80s or 90s but I have never been in the Joburg Theatre Pantomime so I‘m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be very good for my inner child at the moment. It’s a magical thing to make a pantomime, it’s a wonderful wonderful thing”.
Her co-stars tend to agree. Ben Voss, actor, comedian, writer, producer and veteran of many pantomimes, (and whom you may have seen in shows including Benny Bushwhacker, and you DEFINITELY know as alter-ego Beauty Ramapeleple from Jacaranda FM, East Coast Radio and 5FM), explains: “You’re in amongst 20 or 30 performers plus 30 backstage crew. It’s just fulfilling and it’s a fun vehicle. It’s basically music, song, dance, family entertainment. There’s nothing really better. You’re not dealing with serious themes. Allow yourself for that three months to enter that fantasy world. I love it. I really love it.”
Justin Swartz who has performed in two pantomimes, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella, in which he played the Donkey, Outie, and for which he was nominated for a Naledi Theatre Award likes to impart happiness. Comedy is his first love, but while enjoying the experience of seeing his first pantomime, he wondered if the actors felt ridiculous dressing up in costumes which were, as he put it, not age appropriate. “Then I did my first one and saw it’s not about that, it’s about getting into your youthful self again without having to feel embarrassed about people laughing and saying act that age. It’s about believing in yourself.” Other accolades include West Side Story and Peter and the Wolf among others.
The best known theatre in South Africa that makes all this come true is The Joburg Theatre. The theatre, built in 1962 by the city council, and known then as The Civic Johannesburg Theatre, has been through a long history of changes, including refurbs and management. In 2000 it became corporatized.. It’s kept up with the changing times and modernized and upgraded security accordingly. With its state of the art equipment and technology, it is a national and international attraction in Johannesburg. Wilhelm Disbergen, Production Designer and lighting specialist, who has a long career of working in many different theatres with a lot of productions, told me in an interview in 2016 that the Mandela at Joburg Theatre was an amazing venue, and called it one of the best in the country. And it has become the recognized home of writer and director Janice Honeyman’s annual pantomime (the first of which was produced in 1987!) Although as an audience member you might not notice it, the theatre too is almost a character in the production.
This year, the panto is doing something a little different to mark a big event. It’s celebrating its 60th anniversary. In the press release issued in March 2022, the CEO Xoliswa Nduneni-Ngema stated: “Our annual festive season pantomime production is a major staple of Joburg City Theatres’ programming. Whilst planning Joburg Theatre’s 60th Anniversary celebrations for 2022, it was therefore the perfect time for us to produce a ‘Panto of All Pantos’, constituting the finale of our anniversary season”. Adventures in Pantoland combines five pantomimes. Writer and director Janice Honeyman explains, “We’ll take you on a daring and dangerous quest to retrieve the long-lost, sneakily-stolen Golden Goblet of Goodness. It’s goodies versus baddies, heroes versus villains, the happies versus the horrids – and you’ll be there with us to conquer greed and recapture the glow of goodness in Pantoland”.
Ben Voss, whose appearance in person belies the hilarity he imparts on the stage, is looking forward to being in the ‘baddies’ camp. “There’s four lead goodies and four lead baddies and I’m in the baddies camp which I love. I don’t like smiling and waving, I like being a loud manipulative demon. There are 12 leads which is going to be thrilling to have that.
Justin Swartz, who is going to be a ‘goodie’ is keen to see how it will play out. “I have no idea how the journey is going to take place, considering there is normally one or two love interests. This has got four people I think, four good guys, four bad guys. It’s open to a lot of things which is pretty dope in terms of creation and playing around, so I’m keen to see what will happen. It would have been cool to be a baddie though.”
If you have experienced the magic from the audience side, and now you’d like to get into creating it from the stage, there are many ways to ‘skin a cat’. Voss studied accounting and HR before he knew he wanted to be an actor, but once he knew, he didn’t look back. Swartz knew from the age of four or five that acting is what he wanted to do: “I came across Mr Bean and that’s what got me into the acting thing. Was very curious about how this guy was making so many people laugh without saying a word. That’s what got me into it.
Sakellarides felt the magic of the theatre from a very young age, picturesquely telling me: “The child voice in me said when I grow up I want to be an actress or a mommy, but I’ve been so fortunate to able to experience both. The theatre, the make-believe, I’m very grateful to have it. My mother was an incredible story teller and she got me into drama and she just encouraged me so it was very much a part of it. Art makes the world a little softer. My grandmother was actually an actress in Norway at the beginning of the last century, and she was an actress and my mom studied drama and then I found myself performing. Art has been my best friend really.” That surely is the essence of theatre – it’s our friend, and who doesn’t need one of those?
Ben Voss suggests getting the best education you can, while continuing to write and create as much as you can. “I would say … if you’ve got the money and the talent, get into an overseas recognized drama academy. Second option would be … to go to one of the top drama schools here … Wits and UCT do a good job. And just start to write something yourself and put it on a stage wherever you can. If it’s a stage at your local bowling club, great. If it’s a stage that happens to be the Nelson Mandela Theatre, you recognize that you have the talent and connection to pull that off, or if it’s for 50 people in your lounge because you feel like writing a play then that. One has to be conscious of self-producing from the minute you start. Then if the big stuff comes through and you’re studying film overseas or something and you happen to get a big role happy days but you need to keep writing on your own and creating.”
Brenda Sakellarides supplements this: “If the child was in primary school I would without hesitation suggest they go to a specialist art school. They’ll get a matric with arts education. I would also then say to them make sure that you have got your triple threat talents [singing, dancing and acting] well honed. If you’re a good singer, make sure you can dance and act. It’s a very hard profession if you aren’t a triple threat. Make sure that you give yourself the best shot possible. As well to be able to find joy in themselves and you can tell the story.”
Coincidentally, Sakellarides too is turning 60 this year and is looking forward to her performance in the pantomime to help her mark this milestone. It’s part of her life’s journey: Gracefully, she elaborates: “I was sitting, just looking at my life and thinking maybe, this is going to be really good for my soul and I reached out and became part of the possibilities that were on the table for the pantomime. It was my turn. … working in the space of such joy and seeing an audience of young children. So with the pantomime it’s an extraordinary experience. It’s got everything in it. I’m going to be one of the baddies and I’m going to show just how nasty I can be. …”
She tells a story that encapsulates the feeling. “It reminded me of an acceptance speech of the Tonies one year. The actor mentioned that there was a little boy in the audience and as the child could feel the performance coming to an end apparently the child stood on the chair and called up to the curtain and said oh curtain curtain please don’t come down.” Participating in the pantomime gives her a sense of wonder, and being able to be on the stage as a performer, knowing that her art is transformative, shifting people is something she loves. Making someone’s day a little brighter and happier – imparting happiness, that’s what it’s about for her.
And if, like me, you just want to watch and appreciate all forms of the art, Justin Swartz advises: “Watch the panto. It’s the best way to get exposure. Panto gives you all three, dancing, singing, acting.”
In conclusion, it seems clear – the magic comes from the story, the venue AND those who put their all into making it! It’s a production of well-rounded, well experienced professionals – who are able to make something fun, innocent and magical. As Brenda Sakellarides says, “We all have our roles to play and if we all play them well, we’d have a great world.
Tickets from R260 are available now by visiting www.joburgtheatre.com or by calling 0861 670 670. Terrific discount prices are available for groups of ten or more. The pantomime season will run until Saturday December 24th 2022. .