This One Night: The Pantomime Dame

Daniel Carpenter, whose This One Book rolling blog was the inspiration for this project, pens our first guest blog on our latest theme, This One Night. Past First Draft performers will be contributing by blogging about a live performance that has been significant to them in the weeks leading up to our August event: One Night Only!

You lose a lot of inhibitions when you dress up as someone else on stage. See, some people will get cast as a sheep or a donkey, or if they’re lucky they’ll be a wise man or a shepherd. My school though, we didn’t ‘do’ the Nativity. We did pantomime. And me – I was the lucky guy who got to be the dame. When I was eleven.

I suppose most kids have some kind of traumatic experience when they’re younger – bullied, lost, picked last for the team – so this probably counts as mine. Being cast in the school play was not something I sought out for myself, everyone in the class was required to, none of us had a choice about the roles we played. I’m trying to explain that I didn’t exactly ask to dress up as a woman, it was something a teacher thought I would be perfect for.

The play was Cinderella, and we were a male heavy class, so, apart from the requisite Prince Charming, what roles were left to play?

At least I can say I had a major part.

The Ugly Sisters. One can only hope Dan's costume was something this fabulous

The Ugly Sisters. One can only hope Dan’s costume was something this fabulous

The moment I was told, I was dreading it. Not, by the way, in a ‘you want me to dress up as what?’ kind of way, more in a ‘this is going to go horribly, and I’m going to forget everything’ kind of way. I was terrified.

I hated the wig. The school didn’t provide costumes, so we made one ourselves, me and my mum. Charity shops are unkind to short eleven year old boys when it comes to well fitting dresses; wig shops: more so. We found an old blue sequin number that we really felt matched my character (I had, for several weeks, been practising and perfecting Mrs Twit’s voice from the Roald Dahl book on tape, my rasping was fucking spot on), when I wore it, I looked like Harry Potter if he’d been a flapper. We found the wig in Toys R Us, in the dressing up section. It was huge and pink, and it itched like crazy.

There was a laugh. That was the first thing I had to do. Cinderella, not in drag, had a line, and the Ugly Stepsisters opening gambit was an horrific joint laugh. That would be our introduction. ‘You have to give it your all,’ the teacher said, ‘the audience has to really hate you.’ Great. That’s just what you want when you’re eleven, to leave school after the Christmas play and hear all the parents talking about you.

‘Well, that Ugly Stepsister was a proper shit, wasn’t she?’

‘I think I hate her more than most things in life.’

You get some scary stuff when you google 'pantomime dame'...

You get some scary stuff when you google ‘pantomime dame’…

There are things that you think matter when you are eleven, things that you pretty much think matter for the next eight or nine years, things which, if you boiled them down to their simplest form could all be expressed as ‘being cool’. I was not cool, though I desperately wanted to be. That year, several of the boys in my class saw Jaws for the first time, and wouldn’t stop talking about how violent it was.

‘It was so mint, did you see the bit where the man’s arm came off in the air?’

‘Yeah, and when the shark bit that guy’s stomach open?’

Yes, they hadn’t seen Jaws – clearly, but it didn’t matter. None of us had, so those kids, they were the cool ones. I never got to see Jaws. I got to watch a pirate copy of ET which ended when he died. The point was, you did what you could to be considered cool. On the list of things that were cool: playing football, having Pogs, owning a Super Nintendo. On the list of things that were not cool: Dressing up as a woman on stage.

Nevertheless, I practised, and practised. I perfected my voice which, by the way, when you are eleven and sound like a girl anyway, is ever so slightly unsuitable for Pantomime Dame. I did the laugh over and over again, like the final scene of a demented sitcom stuck on repeat.

The day came. Our classroom was the dressing room; we were nothing if not economical. The sequin dress was zipped up, the wig thrust over my hair. Makeup was genially applied the way you imagine teenagers graffiti on trains – quickly and without too much thought. The play was underway already. I could hear the uncomfortable shuffling of an audience who already didn’t care. I felt a bit sick. I experienced my first bout of stage fright. Then, I heard it, the set up to the line. My teacher, waiting in the doorway, watching her opus unfold, turned to me. ‘You’re on.’ I shuffled forwards to the door, realising just how tough it was to walk in high heels, and I stumbled into the school hall, one half of the Ugly Stepsisters.

There was a pause. It is likely that it lasted several hours. People stared at me, at both of us. I was supposed to be doing something I realised. I was supposed to be laughing. The hall was cold and I wasn’t wearing tights. There was a curious breeze.

And I was scared. Terrified, the way I knew I would be. I wanted to open my mouth and laugh and I couldn’t. There was something blocking my throat, something stopping me. I knew that if I tried to say anything, all that would come out would be a whimper. But then, I knew that nothing was coming out from the other boy, the other Ugly Stepsister. He was scared too, and for good reason. But it helped. Alone, I was just an idiot in a dress, but together, we were fucking legion. We were better than Pogs, we were better than Jaws, we were two idiots dressed up as women and damn it, we were going to laugh.

And so I laughed.

It was an almighty screech, a horrible crone’s cry. Cinderella looked genuinely scared, I had not sounded like that in rehearsal.

I looked out at the audience, and they laughed. Not at us, not the way I was worried they would, but with us. It was not, by the way, a torrent of laughter, and there was no slow hand clapping, no whoops, no fist punching, but it was a kind of recognition. It was giving up a kind of identity that I had never given up before, and being someone else. It didn’t make sense to me before: why would anyone want to do this? But when I stood out there, I kind of understood why.

The truth is, I didn’t go on to become an actor. This wasn’t an experience which formed the basis of my career. Oh, I just knew I would be a star when I got up on that stage. Nope, nothing like that happened. To be honest, I forget more or less the entire thing until I started performing my work on stage. I hadn’t exactly had to go up on a stage for a long, long time, and when I started reading my work out to audiences, I would get that familiar pang of fear. It brought back this memory of standing in the classroom waiting to go on that first time. It made me itch, even though I wasn’t wearing a wig. Sometimes it feels as though that one performance was a rehearsal for all performances and it’s not a stretch to say that for the first few moments when I stand on a stage I worry about freezing up. It’s still important for me to get that reaction from an audience early on in a set. I’m sure that all of this, when you’ll be reading a bunch of really articulate essays on masterpieces of theatre, seems a bit arbitrary and quite self-indulgent: it is, to be honest. But I think that for many people who get up on a stage regularly, we all remember our first times, and they always inform (even if it’s just a little bit) every single subsequent performance we give.

...You really do.

…You really do.

Daniel Carpenter is a fiction writer and blogger who has read his work at First Draft many times (you can watch one of his past performances here.) He also co-runs our favourite role model literature night, Bad Language. Should you so wish, you can follow Dan on Twitter.

What’s next?

Wonderful fiction writer David Hartley has just penned his own #ThisOneNight blog. Read about the 5 best live performances he’s seen (cheater: the rest of us had to pick one) here. Our next guest blogger will be telling us about their one most influential show (one, David. That’s: one.) back here very soon.

Watch Dave perform at our last Christmas event, or read his previous guest blog for us about showing and telling.

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