Breaking the fourth wall | Malcolm Galea

An hour before stepping onto the Manoel stage as the Dame in Masquerade’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, actor/writer Malcolm Galea talks about the two loves of his life: Panto, and stand-up comedy (the more heckling, the better)

We’re in the backstage dressing room at the Manoel Theatre, shortly before Malcolm Galea gets into costume (as Dame Nanny O’Beezwax) for the penultimate matinee of this year’s Christmas panto, ‘Alice in Wonderland’. And much like Alice falling down the rabbit-hole, entering this ‘inner sanctum’ - where the magic all happens, as it were – brought back memories of my own first panto experience, aged eight or thereabouts. (Mostly, a sensation of blind terror at the first appearance of the ‘Giant’ in ‘Puss in Boots’... or was it ‘Jack and the Giant Beanstalk’?) In any case, this annual theatrical tradition has clearly left a small mark on myself: and judging by the evident success it has consistently enjoyed over years, it also occupies some form of centrality in the local cultural scene. How do you account for the cosnistent success of the Christmas Pantomime?

My first impression of Panto was different from yours. I saw my first Panto when I was 19. I was at Junior College at the time. And I went mainly because my friends were in it. But I was blown away... by the scale of it, by everything. It was one of those things: I said to myself, ‘I need to be involved in this. No matter what happens, I need to work in it: even if it’s voluntary...’

Did this ‘call of the theatre’ begin with Panto, or had you already been acting at the time?

No, at Junior College we had already started doing some secondary school theatre: putting on plays here and there... and I made friends with the people I’m still friends with today: Chris Dingli and Wesley Ellul, who do the ‘Comedy Knights’... we were a trio back then; and we were each other’s best men when we got married... I think your social circle really helps you in these things...

Panto seems to be something of a ‘social circle’ in itself: though the names change, the basic acts – ‘Dame’, ‘goodies’, ‘baddies’, etc – always remain the same. Even backstage, you get the impression of a community of people who know each other, and are used to working with each other. There is a sort of family feel to it. Is this, perhaps, also part of why Panto is so popular among families?

Panto used to be a lot more like that than it is now. When I first started – not that long ago, I guess: my first Panto was 2001 – there was a bar under the stage. The actors would be drinking in between calls. And the average age for a chorus member was mid-20s... it was different. Nowadays, the quality has risen. You have all these people coming out of drama schools, who started out very young, and who are now around 18 or 19... all really good, so even the audition process has become more difficult. Some people who don’t get picked today, might easily have been cast 10 years ago. The standard has gone up; while the average age has gone down...

That’s a good thing, surely?

Oh yes, absolutely. But [laughing] you can’t have a bar under the stage anymore, can you? No, what I meant was that things changed inevitably: for one thing, there has been more of a focus – as there should be – on behaviour in theatre. Today, I’m 38: if I’m acting with 18-year-olds, I can’t go out drinking with them afterwards. In any case, people tend to socialise with their own age-groups anyway. The good thing, however, is that the Panto has become a lot more professionally focused. People now see it as a stepping down to getting an audition abroad, and things like that... but to answer you about the family appeal: a lot of it comes from tradition. I like to compare Panto with Carnival. It’s something we got from another culture, and made our own. Now it’s a staple of Maltese Christmas culture.  Many people just take it as a given: ‘My parents took me to the panto; I will take my kids to the panto’.

It is ultimately a family outing. And family outings have always been a bit of an easier sell, from a production point of view. We were at the Edinburgh Fringe just last year, with a family show, and we didn’t do badly: for the first time, we broke even. But they tell you: for your show to do well, you either have to have a big name – or a show which is itself already a big name – or it has to be a family show. It’s an easier sell. People tend to relive their childhood. When you do a show just for grown-ups: people will see it, they might enjoy it... but they may not necessarily want to see the same thing five years from now. It’s not the same with experiences you have in childhood...

At the same time, however, the Panto itself has also evolved and changed over the years. The formula may be largely consistent, but the themes (inevitably) have to adapt to the changing times. And one big difference from my own childhood memories is that there is now more than one Panto. Before, it was just MADC. How did that impact the scene?

Ever since the MADC moved to the MFCC in Ta’ Qali, and there are other companies doing the Manoel Theatre, Masquerade and FM – there has been a competition boost, and it has really helped. The quality has gone up across the board.. Another thing is that the companies are different; but the people involved all audition for both. I myself have just done two years writing and playing the Dame for Masquerade. Next year I’m writing the MADC panto again... I’ve written and directed MADC pantos before... It’s the same pool of people moving around...

On the subject of writing: part of what makes our Panto tradition different is the prevalence of political satire: which stems from a time when satire was viewed as the only ‘safe’ way to criticise the government. This lends the Panto a (very remote) undertone of seriousness. Is this legacy still felt today?

Yes. Political satire is still quite an important part of pantomime. Political jokes are the ones that get the biggest laughs; sometimes, though, they’re the jokes that create the biggest discomfort. Especially these days, when the Prime Minister has young children who will come to watch... there’s always a day when he’s in the audience with his kids, and those shows get the most muted response... because, I think, people might be wary about laughing too loudly.  [Laughs] But it’s still an important element. As a writer... every writer has a certain style. I myself write professionally – in the sense that I don’t do anything else – so I focus mainly on narrative. I want the audience to follow a story that moves from one thing to another; I don’t them to be looking at their watches. What I want is a driving story-line. Everything else – including the political jokes – is quite secondary in my writing. Then I gauge the atmosphere, and throw in the political jokes. This year, the atmosphere is a bit more tense than usual.

So, there is less political commentary than I would otherwise have put. People have reached breaking point with political commentary. There’s some tension in the air, so you try not to add to it. And it’s not ‘my’ Panto, either. I’m commissioned to write it, and my job is to make sure that the company which commissioned me gets good feedback. And that the audience has a good time. So, this year, my political jibes were fairly... subdued.

Meanwhile, another inevitable consequence of the ‘family entertainment’ business is that Panto writers have to cater for literally all age groups: from the tiniest tots, all the way up the most senior of senior citizens. That can’t be easy. Is there any trick to entertaining such diverse age groups with the same script?

I think, in our generation... people in their 30s... we were raised watching cartoons. And if you look at children’s entertainment coming out nowadays – movies like ‘Shrek’, ‘Zootopia’, etc – they’re all aimed at children, yes... but they also need to entertain the people who will be paying for the ticket. I think it’s taken for granted now, that children’s entertainment needs to cater for adults. There is a certain style to it: it’s not over-simplistic at all. So rather than aim directly at the children, I aim at the child within the adult...

But children themselves must surely be slightly harder to entertain than they were in previous generations. They now live in a universe where there will always be something – mobiles, laptops, 24-hour Cartoon Network, etc - to keep them permanently stimulated and entertained. Does this affect their ability to enjoy something as traditional as the Christmas panto?

It definitely does, yes. It really makes writers and producers up their game. Not just with children: with everyone. Everyone now has an attention span which is measured in seconds. Even a promo video online: if people see that’s more than a minute long, they won’t watch it. No one has more than a minute to spare. If it’s less than a minute... then maybe they’ll ‘risk it’.

And if people have a two-minute break, they want to be entertained for those minutes. So they’ll watch a short clip on Youtube.  It’s the same with Panto. They used to say ‘a laugh a minute’. Now, ‘a laugh a minute’ is dull. Sixty seconds per laugh? No. It has to be a laugh every two or three lines.

You need to really keep it up there: you have to be ruthless with your material, to ensure that your audience doesn’t get bored. The advantage with Panto is that you can constantly ‘check in’ with the audience:  you can ask them, get them to boo, get them to shout, get them to do things... at all times, you need to assume that the audience does not want to watch. You can’t expect that, just because they bought a ticket, they’re going to just sit there and enjoy the show.  That’s the one thing you cannot take for granted. With that in mind: you start with a plot that’s going to intrigue people, that’s going to make them actually care what’s going to happen to the characters... and something I particularly like about Panto is that you can break the ‘fourth wall’. The actors know they’re actors.  And they know that the audience knows they’re actors, too.

So sometimes they make references to typical Panto tropes, like: ‘We can’t stop and rest, because we’re in a Panto... and whenever the good guys stop and rest, the bad guys ALWAYS catch up with them’...  I myself, as Dame, sometimes pick on an audience member to help my character deal with what’s going on. I ask the audience what’s happening... then I can’t understand them because they all speak at once, so I pick on one guy in the audience: ‘OK, what’s your name? When I have an issue, I’ll ask you…’ And he becomes the hero of the show, and so on...

Watching the show as an adult, I can’t help but notice that when it comes to ‘calling up people on stage’... the children will all be rushing to queue up, while the grown-ups will be sinking into their seats and trying to look as inconspicuous as possible (me among them, naturally). Out of curiosity: has anything ever gone horribly wrong when calling out audience members?

[Pause]I would say, ‘not yet’. In England, for instance, they don’t take kids up on stage anymore, for health and safety reasons. They won’t even let you use the backstage toilets, because they’re not insured. In Malta, we still do these things because no one’s got hurt... yet. Even so, however, things have changed in this respect, too. This year, when the children come in, they’re given a ticket... like at a cheese counter... and we call out six ticket numbers. It’s much more civilised now. As for the adults, that’s a different story. I guess every Dame has her own way of doing it – or any actor, because it doesn’t have to be the Dame... but you tend to generally become a good onstage judge of character after a while. When they look like they really, really, REALLY don’t want to do it, I won’t pick them. The audience wouldn’t want that anyway. If they look really, really cocky... I won’t pick them either, because they’ll try to be [laughs] ‘funny’. It’s a bit of a happy middle ground you’re looking for: someone who doesn’t altogether avoid your eye, but doesn’t stare too intently either. Personally, my own preferred medium is stand-up comedy; I do that a lot. That makes Panto feel really easy...

Stand-up comedy, on other hand, is notoriously difficult. I’ve been to gigs in the UK, where the heckling would have broken even Rodney Dangerfield. So, I imagine part of being a successful stand-up comic must also involve acquiring a very thick skin...

Maybe it’s because I’ve been on stage for so long, but when here’s something like that going on, I actually get a rush. I enjoy it when the audience gets a bit feisty, and starts to bite back... I really like that. And I’ve done Edinburgh, with rooms full of drunken Glaswegians. Once you can handle that, then the mummies and daddies at the Manoel Theatre start looking slightly easier to deal with. With stand-up comedy, though, you have a lot of material that you’ve built up over the years... but when you go on stage, you don’t have a script. You don’t go out with jokes ready: you just talk to people, and, depending what they are... OK, there are people with kids?

So, I talk about my children. There are people who are going to get married? OK, let me tell you this story... sometimes you go completely off-tangent, and just improvise with the audience. Because you know in your head that you have all these stories ready, should you need them. You have several safety nets you can fall back on.

So when it comes to Panto: there are scripted parts, yes, that get tampered with all the time... but until those lines come along, I just play around. Those are the parts I enjoy the most.