In late 2019, Virginia Gay had a theatre-going experience she’ll never forget: her first authentically British panto. The Australian actor and now writer was in London hosting a brief season of adult variety show La Clique when she travelled to Ilford to see her young nephew perform in what was nominally Sleeping Beauty.

“At one point, my nephew and other members of the ensemble did all of [Michael Jackson’s] Thriller, with the full choreography,” she recalls. “At another point, the plot stopped and the pantomime dame [a traditional panto role, usually a camp older woman played by a male actor in drag] did an 11-minute rock’n’roll piano solo. Just because she could.”

“Everyone in the audience had bought these plastic panto wands, and they knew what to say and when to say it.”

Virginia Gay

Virginia Gay at rehearsals for The Boomkak Panto, Belvoir. Photo © Brett Boardman

Gay’s curiosity was piqued by panto, so she decided to take in another of these family-friendly, Christmassy treats in London.

“I went to see Julian Clary at the London Palladium thinking ‘maybe it will make more sense’. If possible, it made less sense. But the budgets were bigger and the costume changes were more extraordinary, and the variety acts: instead of somebody just doing a ventriloquist act, it was ten tiny motorcycles spinning in a cage of death. In Goldilocks.

Confusion aside, Gay saw an idea that she could work with, and some elements which felt relevant to contemporary audiences, including the interrogation of gender and an audience’s role in making theatre — think shouts of “he’s behind you!”, the constant booing of villains, and the back-and-forth of “oh, yes it is!” and “oh, no it isn’t!” between audience and performers.

At interval, she snuck out and made an eight-minute voice recording, nutting out the skeleton of what a panto might look like for Australian audiences, who are largely unfamiliar with the traditions.

Nearly two years and one pandemic later, Gay is in rehearsals for The Boomkak Panto, a play she wrote for Belvoir, celebrating panto traditions. In addition to playing a role in the ensemble cast, Gay is also co-directing with Richard Carroll, who directed her in a wildly successful production of the classic musical Calamity Jane, which originated at Hayes Theatre Co.

“Richard always said when we were making Calamity, ‘it’s basically a panto’, and I would nod my head sagely and think, ‘I’ve got no f–king idea what a panto is, but sure, great’,” Gay says.

Carroll’s Calamity Jane placed audience members on stage, seated at tables as patrons of the Deadwood Saloon. They were integral to the action, filling in roles, and irreverently used to propel the plot forward.”

In addition to a shared theatrical sensibility with Gay, the British ex-pat director brings a wealth of panto knowledge to the creative relationship.

Richard Carroll

Richard Carroll at rehearsals for The Boomkak Panto, Belvoir. Photo © Brett Boardman

“Like almost every kid in the UK, panto was my first experience of going to the theatre,” Carroll says. “I don’t even remember the first panto I went to because I was probably one or two years old. I grew up watching them and took them for granted until I moved to a country that wasn’t as familiar with them.”

“I think they make sense – well, they don’t make sense, but they make the most sense if you think of them as essentially variety shows that have then had a plot placed over them. Why does a person come out and do a ten-minute scene where they try to wallpaper a house and get covered in whatever? Well that’s the act, so we find a way to put that into the show.”

Gay’s play is not strictly a panto, but a play about Boomkak, a small, imaginary Australian town. It uses elements of panto, which are dialled up or down throughout the performance, but Gay has a real story to tell amongst all the ‘acts’.

“In a panto, there’s always a fairytale village, and the fairytale village needs to be protected at any cost,” Gay explains. “When I was thinking about how to make an Australian panto, I thought: what about Australia needs to be protected at any cost? So this little town is a dream of what Australia could be. It’s got seen and heard Indigenous elders, an integrated refugee family who is the beating heart of the piece, and Zoe is the central character who uses they/them pronouns.”

Boomkak is threatened by a developer, who sees no real value in the existing culture and wants to profit off the land with high-density housing, a freeway and a casino. So what do the people of Boomkak do? They put on a panto to save the town.

Does it make sense? Not a whole lot. Does it allow Gay and Carroll to delight the audience with larger-than-life characters, comedy, classic Aussie rock and new songs by Eddie Perfect? Absolutely.

Australia has a long history of taking Western theatrical traditions and flipping them on their heads, so it’s only appropriate that Gay and Carroll are doing the same with pantomime.

The Boomkak Panto

Virginia Gay with Mary Soudi, Billy McPherson and Rob Johnson at rehearsals for The Boomkak Panto, Belvoir. Photo © Brett Boardman

The conventions of modern British pantomime developed out of live variety shows, which toured the UK to huge audiences in the early 1900s. Australia actually had a similar culture of variety performance in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but it never really developed into panto. Instead, the irreverence and joy found in those shows has seeped into the way Australians tackle Shakespeare and other Western classics (the early Bell Shakespeare productions, the 1990s production of The Pirates of Penzance led by Jon English, and Carroll’s Calamity Jane, are prime examples), and even the way we write our own drama (Patrick White’s plays frequently revel in a vaudevillian spirit).

Because there are similar theatrical roots, Gay and Carroll believe Australian audiences are primed to dive head into the world of panto.

There have certainly been pantos in Australia; recently Bonnie Lythgoe has produced a series of family-friendly pantos, and Trevor Ashley has leant on the conventions in his adults-only productions like Fat Swan, Little Orphan TrAshley and The Lyin’ Queen. But why have pantos never taken hold in a major way?

“I think the answer is probably ‘hemispheres’,” Carroll says. “If you played word association with somebody from the UK and said ‘panto’, they probably wouldn’t say ‘theatre’, they’d say ‘Christmas’. Christmas in the UK is cold and the idea of going to the theatre is much more of a thing at that time of the year. It’s not so much part of the theatre world as it is part of the Christmas world.”

The Boomkak Panto is due to open for the silly season, but Gay wants the production to be more than just a holiday confection. She says everything in the show is about minorities, people of colour and non-binary people pushing traditional leaders out of their positions of power and modelling a new form of leadership.

“My greatest interest is how we hide the vegetables,” Gay says, “so that people leave this show going ‘what an indulgent, ridiculous meal. I had all that lasagne and all that fairy floss’, and only a couple of days later they’re like ‘wait, was there zucchini in that? Because I feel good in my body!’”

“Sometimes being lectured at doesn’t get the result you want. But if we are constantly rewarding the audience with dopamine hits for siding with the right characters, then that’s a great way to subtly shift thinking.”

Zoe Terakes

Zoe Terakes at rehearsals for The Boomkak Panto, Belvoir. Photo © Brett Boardman

Gay’s protagonist, who the audience will inevitably root for, is played by Zoe Terakes, a 21-year-old actor who has had a meteoric rise over the last four years. They’re best known for their performance as Reb Keane on Wentworth, but also scored a Helpmann nomination and won Sydney Theatre Awards for their work on stage.

“I was so determined that Zoe should play this role that I named the central character Zoe, and I have been wooing them since I first conceived the idea,” Gay says. “I sent them a video message on Instagram saying ‘I don’t want to be weird about this, but I’ve written you a show where you save the town and get the girl’, and I zoomed out and there was pictures of Zoe that I’d printed out from Instagram on a bubblejet printer and tacked them to my wall. And it looked like Zoe was a boyband, and I was a 14-year-old fan.”

Thankfully, Terakes said yes and has prioritised The Boomkak Panto even when higher profile projects threatened to take priority.

“To their eternal credit they said, ‘I’m thrilled I save the town, but I’m even more excited I get the girl’,” Gay says.

Getting into the rehearsal room with Terakes and a multi-talented cast was an enormous relief for Gay, whose playwriting debut came just months earlier with a queer adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac for Melbourne Theatre Company. It was cancelled during previews owing to COVID-19 restrictions, which was a cruel reminder of the circumstances in which both Cyrano and The Boomkak Panto were written.

Gay, who contracted COVID-19 while living in Los Angeles, decided to put pen to paper while living alone in the US through a lengthy lockdown, and came out with two plays.

“I had nothing and no one, so I started to write the connection and joy that I needed to live,” she says. “If I didn’t make something out of it, I would be insane. Because that level of isolation is a lot.”

The Boomkak Panto

Sheet music from The Boomkak Panto, Belvoir. Photo © Brett Boardman

“It was important to me to make them tonally different and plot-wise very different. But both plays interrogate the idea of who tells the story and why. They both ask: why do we keep telling the old stories? If they don’t suit us anymore, why?”

At the centre of that interrogation is the recognition that theatre is a living art-form. There’s a script and rehearsals, but it’s created in the moment and speaks to its audience with startling immediacy.

“The feedback loop of community is essential to living,” Gay says. “And theatre is a constant, energetic feedback loop. It’s important to the audience, but it’s important to us too. We have missed an audience. We have missed collaborating with them.”

“And you’ve got 350 people there. Use them!” Carroll adds.

“Panto is like theatre in its purest form,” Gay says. “It’s, ‘let’s just entertain people’. And if we can entertain people and deliver them a really extraordinary, smart thing as well, then we’ve won.”

The Boomkak Panto plays in the Belvoir St Theatre’s Upstairs Theatre, 20 November – 23 December.

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