The Importance of Panto by Johnny McKnight
The theatremaker is involved in not one but three panto productions this Christmas
He’s an acclaimed performer, playwright and director, but from November to January you’ll find him in wig, heels and shoulder pads as the new queen of Scottish panto. Johnny McKnight takes a break from rehearsals for not one, but three productions to tell us why he loves the time-honoured genre
My earliest panto memory is one of deep fear. It was Cinderella at the Ayr Gaiety, I think I was in primary six or seven. The ugly sisters came into the audience and I threw myself on the ground hoping they wouldn’t find me. It’s weird because one of the things I like best when I perform panto is the audience interaction. I’m sure there’s some sort of cathartic exorcising-my-childhood-demons sort of thing going on there. Either that or I just want to inflict fear on other people now I’m old enough to do it.
Weirdly enough panto was never really my thing when I was studying. I thought I was going to leave RSAMD and become a dazzling live artist. Then I got cast in a panto as one of my first jobs out of college and, in my mind, it really connected to my live art/performance training: I could play myself, could acknowledge there was no fourth wall, could come off script and keep it live. As soon as I did that first performance I was pretty much hooked.
I genuinely love each aspect of making panto. It’s like solving a puzzle: how do you tell a weel-kent story and give it a little something extra? That’s been particularly interesting this year. I’m working on a revival of my Cinderella script at the Macrobert so I’m asking myself what needs updated without ruining those aspects of the show that really worked. I’m also writing a musical for the Lyceum – how do I write a totally fresh version of Cinderella that feels a world away from the one at the Macbob? How do you make a Christmas musical thrilling and comedic at the same time?
Writing and directing an all-female Aganeza Scrooge for the Tron has been a special process because I cast the show first and then wrote it thinking of these wonderful actresses (Anita Vettesse, Michele Gallagher, Helen McAlpine, Sally Reid) and how they’ll rip it up grand style this Christmas. Aganeza has been in my mind for the last five years. I love the story of A Christmas Carol so it was a challenge to figure out how to keep what I love but still make it for a Glesga crowd. I also think that as someone who’s a bit younger on the panto scene I have a duty to make sure we push the genre a bit further. We need to make sure we give our female characters more to do than just the love interest or evil witch. We have Elaine C Smith, Jeanette Krankie and now Karen Dunbar but I think it’s important that scripts service a new generation of women performers. It’s a pet peeve of mine: not enough good parts for women (or high-pitched gay men from Ayrshire!).
I think the success of any panto is the team you work with. Work with people with a sense of humour because you need it when you’re dressed as a Christmas turkey or banana at 9 o’clock in the morning. I also think you should love being on stage and really want to give the audience a great time. I’m a big kid and I feel like panto has the best dressing up box of the year. You need to remember that for a lot of people going to a panto is the one thing they do as a family the whole year. So give mum, dad, granny and their children something to laugh at.
I think if Scotland keeps its eye on the ball then panto has a bright future here. Down South they have pantos starring dogs from talent shows – luckily that culture hasn’t really travelled up here. Panto needs talent, simple as. It’s the most punishing schedule and it needs people who are trained to do that. I think we have amazing writing voices up here; we have amazing performers of different generations. We have a brilliant history of variety, storytelling and we all walk on the shoulders of the giants that went before us: Rikki Fulton, Jack Milroy, Stanley Baxter, Johnny Beattie, Gerard Kelly and Una McLean. We owe it to them to live up to the terrifyingly high bar that they set.
Cinderella, macrobert, Stirling, Wed 28 Nov–Mon 31 Dec; Cinderella, Royal Lyceum, Thu 29 Nov–Sat 29 Dec; Aganeza Scrooge, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Fri 30 Nov–Sat 5 Jan.