By Jim Sullivan
---- — Theater in the Open’s artistic director wants to give audience members fair warning as to how they are expected to behave at this month’s holiday performances.
“Through the Wardrobe: A Winter Wonderland Panto!” is playing at the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport this weekend and next.
“There are no rhetorical questions in pantomime,” said Edward Speck, who is also the writer/director. “If we ask you how you are doing tonight, we expect a response. Half the audience responds immediately, and half the audience starts looking around, wondering what sort of strange thing that they’ve wandered into.”
This year’s panto is the second Christmas one and sixth overall for Theater in the Open, which is closing out its 34th season. The not-for-profit theater company, which seeks to further children’s exposure to the arts, has been putting on a holiday-themed show in one form of another for more than 25 years.
“It’s a relatively new form for us,” Speck said of panto, which Theater in the Open first performed in the spring of 2010. “But it’s actually a tradition that goes back 200 years in England. Pantomime is the holiday tradition in Britain. In America, we have “A Christmas Carol” and “The Nutcracker” every year. In England, the tradition is to go out to a pantomime.”
Lest anyone think that means there will be a bunch of mimes running around on stage, Speck is quick to set the record straight.
“It’s the same root word, but there’s no connection,” Speck said of mimes and pantomime. “Those roots went in different directions. Both are products of laws in England that disallowed speaking on stage.”
What a panto does allow is inclusion and encourages the audience to participate as much as possible.
“There is no fourth wall,” Speck said. “We are constantly asking the audience to confirm questions for us and to help us warn the actors if the Baddies are sneaking up behind the Goodies. The audience needs to warn them. And if someone has a treasured object that they want protected, they will ask the audience to keep an eye on it for them.”
The show, which features 22 main cast members of teenagers and adults and 65 participating along the way, promises to take members of the audience to a mythical realm where animals speak.
The slapstick-heavy panto will also feature a snowball fight between the audience and the performers, as well as what Speck calls “a big, goofy dance number.”
“We’re starting to build an audience specifically for pantomime,” Speck said. “We’re starting to see people who know what to expect, and they are always the loudest.”
As it evolved from the 16th-century Italian art form commedia dell’arte, pantomime would eventually influence myriad other art forms, as well.
“It has its fingers in just about everything,” Speck said. “The clowns that Americans recognize in the circus came from pantomime. A lot of the slapstick we see in our Bugs Bunny cartoons comes from the tradition.”
It is pantomime’s ability to constantly evolve that Speck finds to be its most endearing quality.
“One of the reasons why pantomime is particularly good for community theater is because as a popular art form, it requires that each show be a unique event that exists just in that time and space,” Speck said. “So when we do a pantomime in the Firehouse, we are going to be doing jokes specific to the Firehouse, to Newburyport, to what is going on in local news, to who just won the track meet for the high school.”
If you go
What: “Through the Wardrobe: A Winter Wonderland Panto!”
When: Dec. 13-22. Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 7 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m.
Where: Firehouse Center for the Arts, Market Square, Newburyport
How much: $15 for adults; $13 for seniors, students and members. Tickets available at 978-462-7336 or www.firehouse.org
More information: www.theaterintheopen.org