The full Montanaro | Alan Montanaro

Alan Montanaro is best known, dressed in drag, for his panto performances as The Dame, but he’s also vocal about all things theatre, censorship… and the importance of helping underprivileged children through drama.

Alan Montanaro
Alan Montanaro

Pantomimes abroad are typically child-friendly affairs, and as the young Montanaro was growing older, He began to get bored of the usual, childish skits. However, after some years went by, a friend dragged him back to the panto. Now a young man, what Montanaro found was a world of fun that wasn't as freely available in the 1980s.

"I realised I knew everyone on that stage and they seemed to be having such a great time. So the next year I joined as part of the chorus in the production of Mother Goose.

"The panto is all about fun and where pantos traditionally have a prank night on closing night of the performance - where the backstage crew play jokes on the actors - to me every night is prank night. That way it's always fun and never the same. The reason we all do this is to have a good time while entertaining others."

The following year, as a result of what Montanaro calls his "odd body shape" he was asked to play a small role as a damsel in Robinson Crusoe, a role that began a long career in women's clothes.

But Montanaro is not simply an actor and is very involved with the writing of pantos and other plays.

"I was first inspired to write while performing in Peter Pan. When referring to Tinkerbell's escape, I made a reference to Corradino prison and a prisoner who has recently escaped - not for the first time. It got such a laugh and applause that I decided to put some effort into writing."

Today the MADC panto is performed under a tent at the MFCC. After 30 years of performing at the Manoel Theatre, the administration made a call for applications for companies interested in putting on the 2008 pantomime, and though MADC were chosen from the three companies interested, an increase in fees - of €5,000 - caused the MADC to withdraw.

"The MADC had no contracts with the Manoel Theatre to produce the panto, however after 30 years of performance, the way in which the situation was handled lacked a certain finesse. 30 years of service demands a little bit of respect.

"However, every cloud has a silver lining and though having to leave the Manoel was a blow it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The MFCC was our third choice of venue for that year and it has proved to be a great move for us. From an actor's perspective it is a better place to perform because of the space available and the flexibility with the stage.

"The dressing rooms are great. I have a really large dressing room just off the stage. I do all my own make-up because I hate people touching my eyes. Once you get the eyebrows right it's easy - like painting by numbers.

"The MFCC has also allowed us to reach a wider audience where people who do not usually go to the theatre because they perceive it to be a bit snobbish are now venturing into our world. The MFCC seats 1,000 people - as opposed to the Manoel's 600 - and every night is always sold out."

Though Montanaro is to play the dame in this year's version of The Princess and the Pea, he did not write this one due to commitments on the latest instalment of Four Play - another popular comedy.

However, he promises to be back next year and is already working on The Wizard of Oz, involved in writing as well as acting.

"I'm really excited about it as we are at an unprecedented advanced stage, with the synopsis already completed as well as the set design, and I know where I want to go in so far as vision for the panto. The rich story of The Wizard of Oz is great to work with."

Montanaro says that this will be his final pantomime, however when asked how many times he has said this before, he admitted that it has happened on more than one occasion - last year being one of them. Yet, he still returned to take part in the Princess and the Pea this year.

"Although I say it's going to be my last, I know for sure that I need a break and I have no plans to do the panto the following year. However what happens after that is anyone's guess. Panto takes up so much time and energy, however when I'm not doing it I feel like something is missing."

Dubbed as 'Pantonaro' he is best known for his parts as the dame and other comic roles, Montanaro now resigns himself to a life of comedy.

"A few years ago the fact that I was pigeon-holed as the comic character really annoyed me and I always wanted to play a more serious role. Nowadays I am resigned to the fact that this is what I do well and am not afraid of being pigeon-holed.

"It is pretty amazing to have 17,000 people a year come to see you perform something you have written. It is the biggest show on the island of its kind and it feels good to be a part of it."

"What really excites me though are comic parts with message, with a soul. Through my new company DnA Theatre Productions, with Denise Mulholland, we are going for that kind of material."

One such play was The Secret Lives of Henry and Alice, a story about a failing marriage as a result of a breakdown in communication. Though it is a comedy, the idea is that the audience can identify with the characters and leave the theatre with something to think about.

"I want audiences to come to the theatre to laugh, to think and maybe even to cry. We are still a fledgling company although we have already had a few successes and we intend to diversify, however we are striving to continue producing this sort of play."

Keeping the laughs coming for over two hours of a performance is no mean feat, but Montanaro manages well.

"When I start writing, I open a folder and dump anything that may be appropriate in it - jokes, lines, images, anything I come across. Then I go through it all and a script starts to take form.

"This is then followed by discussions with the rest of the team until we eventually come to the final draft. Some scenes get edited, some cut out completely. However, as a rule of thumb, if I find something funny I assume other people will too."

This leads the conversation towards the issue of censorship, and though he believes that there are some subjects that need to be dealt with caution, he is a supporter of free speech.

"When I am writing a script I write it with the audience in mind. Comedy is all about having a good time and having a laugh. My primary objective is for the audience to have a good time.

"Having a censorship board is a ridiculous, archaic idea. I cannot accept that my peers decide what I can and can't say."

Though he is all for free speech across the board, he says for theatre, this is particularly true.

"There is no 'passing trade' when it comes to theatre. No person is wandering around Valletta at theatre time and says 'I wonder what's on at the theatre. Let's drop in.' Audiences are informed of the type of play they are going to watch and what to expect from it."

A production of Anthony Nielson's Stitching (to be directed by Adrian Buckle for Unifaun Theatre) was banned in 2009 for its use of extensive vulgar, obscene and blasphemous language, which, according to the Courts, exalted perversion and undermined the right to life. It also undermined the dignity of women and reduced them to an object of sexual gratification. Montanaro dismissed the case as ridiculous.

"Buckle had been putting up shockers for a while before Stitching was banned - including scenes where characters ate babies. He eventually got stitched up for a minor play which was rated 14 in Edinburgh. I think Stitching must have been the last straw for the censorship board.

"In my personal opinion I think the board bit off a bit more than they could chew with Stitching, and I believe that if they could go back in time they would do things differently. This case has created a lot of bad publicity for them, something they are not overly fond of.

"To be perfectly honest I question whether everyone does go through the censorship board because it does not always make sense what is allowed and what isn't.

"One panto script - Jack and the Beanstalk - was censored for a joke referring to a character's time of the month. The panto is intended for children so I can see how this might have upset the board, however if your children are laughing at the joke then they are old enough to understand what is going on and the fact that we can joke about it on stage teaches them that these are not taboo subjects and it's alright to talk about them."

With Malta being elected as the European Capital for Culture in 2018, Montanaro believes that "we all need to pool together to impress the world rather than putting spokes in the wheels and trying to hinder other people's efforts. Not just in censorship but in attitude as well. Other people's successes will enrich the cultural scene in Malta, and everyone needs encouragement."

By day, Montanaro runs the Helen O'Grady School of Drama. A franchise of the international chain, the programme is designed to aid in a child's development through drama.

"We are not in the business of turning children into stars but we are more concerned with improving their confidence, teaching them to speak more clearly, develop their communication skills and stimulate their creative self."

The programme is on the road, with Montanaro teaching classes at a number of schools so that a Helen O'Grady programme is never more than 10 minutes away from your home.

In the coming year, Montanaro intends to extend the classes to adults.

"We have some really interesting people coming over and I fully intend to attend my own classes."

Although the project is run as a business, Montanaro runs a number of classes for underprivileged children in a number of areas in the south.

"The programme really does work, and I want to give the kids that have been dealt a rotten card in life a chance. Some of the kids that join have parents in prison or dealing drugs and though there is nothing physically wrong with them, they just never get the opportunity to do well.

"I have received letters from the Commissioner for Children as well as a number of headmasters thanking me for the programme and telling me what a difference it has made. The programmes are taught in English and because they are learning by doing they saw a huge improvement in academic grades in English."

These classes still involve costs and though these are sponsored, Montanaro is running out of sponsors and classes for underprivileged children have decreased from 12 to just four.

Theatre is ingrained into Montanaro's life, and though he sometimes gets tired of it, he firmly believes that he will always be in theatre.

"We do theatre because we love it, and this comes across in our performances. This is where we are so different from television. I could never work in television because television is a job, theatre is a lifestyle. I've been asked to take part in a number of TV series but they would have to pay me a real lot of money for me to consider working with nine-to-fivers who care more about getting home than getting the job done well."

Over the next few years, there are a number of projects that Montanaro is very excited about. Aside from next year's panto, The Wizard of Oz he is also looking forward to his involvement in the revival of the musical La Cage aux Folles, to be put up in 2013 at the Manoel Theatre.

"This play is very close to my heart for personal reasons. My brother died the night before opening night and we buried him the day the play opened.

"Denise and I are also in negotiations to acquire the rights for a very exciting project and although I cannot reveal the name of the play, if all goes according to plan 2012 will be a very exciting year."

Family life for those around Montanaro and anyone who is part of the panto is difficult. Christmas celebrations are have to be cut short or missed altogether because rehearsals and shows, however his family deal with it with patience and understand his passion for theatre.

"If I wasn't involved in panto my Christmas would be pretty standard, spent with family and friends, probably in Germany with my wife and her family."

Montanaro's daughter has recently followed in her father's footsteps and joined the panto.

"This is the second year she is part of the chorus. The chorus is a great place to learn the trade of pantomimes. It is the 'university of the panto', where actors learn the dos and don'ts. It would be a great disservice to both the actor and the audience to put someone fresh into a leading role.

"It is a great place for young people to be. The social life is wonderful - we often go out for drinks after rehearsals and as corny as it sounds the cast and crew become a tight-knit family. On a more fatherly note, it keeps the youngsters out of trouble as they don't have the time to get into the kind of trouble that kids their age tend to get themselves into."

Luke Camilleri
The man has not only TALENT but CLASS!