The prince’s balls are getting bigger every year. It’s a time-honoured piece of pantomime double entendre. But let me tell you who else has a lot of balls… the PC brigade who are determined to feed poisoned apples to pantomime dames. Is the clock about to strike midnight on the time-honoured pantomime tradition of men playing the outrageous comic dame? Certainly a movement has started.
When I was five years old, I saw my first pantomime production of Cinderella in London. It was a traditional pantomime in the British manner where the roles of the ugly stepsisters and ugly stepmother were all played by men. I’d witnssed pantomime dames in action and I was captivated. They were absurdly hilarious. It was so clearly just men putting on garish girlie outfits and silly voices playing outrageous caricatures of women. They couldn’t possibly be taken seriously. It had all the realism of the pantomime horse which was obviously two actors covered by not much more than a brown sheet. I knew this at five.
Ever since I have dreamed of playing the pantomime dame. She’s the wickedest of wicked witches, the ugliest of ugly stepsisters and the evilest of evil queens. She’s not just a Christmas bonus for Aussie soap stars living in London. She’s about the best role a man could hope for.
But will I have to live with the fact that my one cameo role as an ugly stepsister will be the last time I will ever be allowed to don a frock in pursuit of art and laughs?
British Actress Caroline Quentin certainly thinks so. In a Prima magazine article Quentin said: “Is it appropriate, in this age of inclusion, for middle-age women to be ridiculed by blokes in skirts and too much make-up, be it in panto or a TV sitcom?” What followed was a wave of pantomime-style hysteria. You could hear the “boos and hisses” sounding along with retorts of “Oh…No it isn’t” and shouts about the best of British traditions being ruined by political correctness. But in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it is timely to lift up the sequined frocks and remove the troweled on makeup to examine whether comedy and tradition can and should save my beloved dames in distress.
Me circa 2004 Aged 6
Killing off the dame could be an unbreakable death curse for Australian performer Trevor Ashley. “I wouldn’t have a career which would be an issue,” he laughs. Ashley may have has starred in roles such as King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar and Thénardier in Les Misérables, but has spent much of his career in a dress. Indeed this month he opened The Bodybag – the Panto at the Sydney Opera House.
Bright red lipstick, eye shadow so thick it looks like it has come out of an 80s’ music video, a tight perm wig and a gold dress that’s even tighter – Trevor Ashley is quite a dame. “He’s behind you!” the audience shrieks at Ashley’s Rachel Marinade. Ashley ridicules those who are behind him throwing poison apples at his craft. “I think it’s ridiculous,” he churtles down the phone line. “I don’t think it’s anything like blackface. For me it’s paying homage to all of the wonderful women that I love and perform as.”
For me it’s about building on a character I have adored since I saw that first pantomime. There are hundreds of photos of me growing up in dresses with fruit put into bras to make fake breasts just like there are photos of me as lions, tigers and bears (Oh my). I loved to dress up and play a character and that is what a dame is – a character. I am not alone in this feeling. Many of my male performing friends want this experience of “playing the dame”. It’s so common an experience in our friendship group that there’s a saying: “You aren’t a real man until you’ve put on a dress”. The dame is one of the theatre’s great comic roles.
Me circa 2006 Aged 8
Am I wrong? Am I being demeaning? For guidance I turned to my mentors. First stop Penny Farrow. I sit her across my dining room table for an interegation. She’ll know. She has directed me in a pantomime (I didn’t get to put on a dress in that one. I was a frog). She is also an award-winning children’s theatre playwright and on the executive of The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the union that represents actors. “To me it’s not so much about scrapping the idea that men can play women but having a look at gender parity…the men can play the man or the woman and the woman only get to play the woman. That’s the problem for me.”
Farrow doesn’t just talk the talk, however. When casting her recent production of Alice in Wonderland, she resisted pressure to cast six of the eight roles with male actors. “I was told the only women were to be Alice and the Rabbit and everyone else needed to be men including the Queen and I have a problem with that. I said ‘if the Queen was going to be played by a man, then the Hatter needs to be played by a woman’.” When the touring production hit the stage in 2017, Simon Burvill-Holmes shouted “off with her head” but it was Karen Crone who was mad as a hatter.
That argument resonates with me, at least in part. Firstly it means I don’t have to completely abandon all hope. But on a deeper level, the number of female roles is a real issue. However, saying the dame is a female role stolen by a man is crazy. The role of the dame is meant to be played by a man, If classic female roles such as Amanda Wingfield in A Glass Menagerie or Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf were suddenly being taken up by men in drag, I’d be right there with them on the picket line in complaining. But the dame? Hell no.
While Farrow does see roles such as these as potentially male, there’s no convincing Cheyenne Richards, another one of my mentors. Richards is a Brisbane-based drama educator who has also directed me in a pantomime. (I, unsurprisingly, didn’t get to put on a dress in that one. I was the foolish king). She believes roles such as the ugly step sisters in Cinderella are female roles, despite the fact they have always been played by men in classic pantos. “I find it incredibly sexist to assume that men and men only can play a convincing and humorous pantomime dame especially considering the same opportunity isn’t there for women,” Richards told me. Now a professional colleague, we argue the point long and hard. Her: “Oh no they’re not”. Me: “Oh yes they are.”
Me Circa 2007 Aged 9
We are not going to see eye to eye on the topic of the dame but I wonder if Richards is directing her anger at the wrong target. Perhaps instead of targeting the dame due to the lack of female roles, critics including Richards could use that anger and channel it into creating the next Blanche Dubois or the next Lady Macbeth. Maybe that way there would be a plethora of great female roles and I could still play a pantomime dame.
The dame is, after all, tradition. Sure, traditions have to change, even when it comes to entertainment. I turn to a gender politics expert. University of Melbourne Dr. Lauren Rosewarne helps me out. “We used to consider public executions as ‘entertainment’. We don’t think that anymore.”
She’s right. In the theatre until the 1600s, all the female roles were performed by the boy players. A full 300 years later the Black and White Minstrel Shows were still a thing. Indeed, there are some who happily compare the dame to blackface.
Surely that’s a bad pantomime joke. Certainly, I don’t see the punch line. Why? Intent matters and so does origin. This is an over-the-top character with big hips, big lips and even bigger tits who’s clearly a bloke in a dress. That’s the joke. What’s the joke in doing that to women? Not much, unless you find the whole Kardashian clan wildly amusing. The intent of the minstrel was mocking and debasing. It was entirely about propagating racial stereotypes and having a big old belly laugh at characters called such things as the “dandified coon”. Putting a man in a dress is no such thing. It’s laughing not at women.
Me circa 2010 Aged 12
So I turn to another of my mentors. Damien Lee, general manager of Starbuck Productions, has written, directed and starred in pantomime for nearly 30 years. I message him on Facebook and he replies. “Yes, I have donned a frock in the name of art.” He has also directed me in a pantomime. (I didn’t get to put on a dress in that one either. I was a big cuddly bear). “I feel that political correctness is raring its ugly head again. The panto dame has been a much loved character by actors, and audiences every since pantos began. Children find them funny and are entertained by their antics and usual buffoonery.”
To Lee the bloke in a dress is the joke, at least in part. Putting a woman in the same role spoils the punch line. “Kids grow up on shows like this, and I firmly believe they don’t see any issues with a male actor in a dress. I think the issues created are more from adults who wish to be politically correct. I don’t believe it to be unflattering to women, because it’s a character portrayal, just like playing a super hero, or a stereotypical gay type character.” Indeed, some of the biggest laughs of my career thus far came from my short turn as the ugly stepsister. The loudest came when I was a buffoon and my wig “accidentally” fell off.
In any case, assuming only woman can wear dresses goes against modern understanding of gender fluidity and identity. Leigh Buchanan is an award winning theatre costume designer by day and cabaret star Barbra Windsor Woo by night. “Barbra is a character, possibly the female side of me that for most of my life I felt I had to hide because of the negativity society had and still holds toward trans people,” Buchanan emails me. “She started out as just a person I talked about in my cabaret performances long before donning the blonde hair and mu-mu, but in hindsight she’s just an extension of me.”
He believes intent and direction are important. “I think blackface was always intended to ridicule and belittle, it was lowest common denominator laughs at a time when no-one questioned white privileged.”
Me circa 2015 Aged 17
Some may think that straight white male privilege explains away my claim on a right to be a pantomime dame. Unlike Buchanan, I can’t argue a trans right to the role. That, however, assumes that I don’t have a female side and that the dress, by its very nature, is female. Not so, says Rosewarne. “If we believe, as I do, that gender is a) an artifice, b) a performance we all engage with and c) that there’s nothing natural about women wearing dresses, does it really matter if men wear them for the purposes of an entertainment? Surely “womanhood” is pinned to more than clothing.” It might not be as strong an endorsement as a true love’s kiss, but it is enough to awaken my dream of playing a dame from its sleeping curse.
Before I start rehearsals, however, I need to turn to one final mentor – Cienda McMamara director, actor and acting coach. She’s also directed me in a pantomime. (I did get to put on a dress in that one. I was an ugly stepsister). She has also stared as a pantomime dame playing the evil Snow Queen. I catch her on the phone between rehearsals. On the question of whether men can play pantomime dame role she sits firmly on the fence saying it should be judged on a case-by-case basis. “When I am casting the role, it would really depend for me. There are a whole lot of factors at play. I am all for casting across genders the other way. On the other hand, I am a slave historical accuracy but then I don’t see the purpose other than a historical one as to why a woman can’t play that role.” By that reading, she rules women in but refuses to rule men out.
This is good news in terms of keeping alive the dream I have had since I was five. I can still play the dame. I will need to accept the fact that I will have to compete for the role with female performers. I’m good with that and so should the PC brigade. Sometimes the best man for the role might actually be a man. I just hope the critics of the male pantomime dame learn a lesson from the actor playing the pantomime horse: quit while you’re (a)head.