For some reason, these last couple of weeks my mind has been turning frequently to panto. It's not quite like the season is almost upon us; when I actually think about it, I don't start this year for another three months. But I guess it's nearly autumn term, and once term has started the weeks will start to speed by faster and faster until before I know it, I'm heading home for five weeks of early mornings and late nights, scraping ice off the car twice a day, obsessive Neros visits, getting dreadful songs stuck in my head (and accidentally learning the dance moves), competitively climbing ladders, pulling ropes, choosing drill bits, taking all morning to construct an effect only to denounce it as not-good-enough, pulling it apart and starting again, spending fourteen hours at work followed by three hours at the pub and five hours in bed before it starts all over again in the morning.
It's my favourite time of year, despite how exhausting and all-consuming it is. Actually, it's because of those things. I love my friends there, both the new ones (cast and creative team) and the old ones, the crew who are usually there every year and who have at their core the same five of us who have met like this since we were teenagers, to live in each other's pockets for five weeks before we return to our normal lives for the rest of the year, occasionally managing to meet up for a meal or a show maybe once in between pantos. It's an odd kind of friendship in that way: we don't make much effort to see each other during the year, and normally that might suggest that we're not that close. But I don't see it that way, and I'm pretty sure my colleagues don't either. It's more that we are satisfied with the pattern of our closeness: we enjoy each other fully, to the exclusion of all other things, for a short, intense period over Christmas - and then we disperse, and move on, and remember other friends and other activities, and are content not to interact much over the interim. We even become somewhat emotionally dependant on each other - I hope not in an unhealthy way, but it's true that there is always a general atmosphere, and one person's grumpiness or sadness can affect the whole team. It's why we make sure there's always plenty of food available: hungry crew are grumpy crew! It's perhaps pretty weird, but panto is by its very nature pretty weird, and for better or worse, I have fallen for it hard in all its bizarre glory.
One of the things I am less keen on, however, is the proliferation of young girl dancers. We get a troop in from a local dance school, and they're always a mixed bag, because what group of humans isn't a mixed bag? But these are teen and pre-teen girls, aged from 4-18, and seriously, that comes with a whole heap of problems. Of course it is difficult, integrating a bunch of kids with a bunch of adults in a working environment. Of course we get issues every year, some serious (a group of girls bullying one rejected girl), some not so serious (overexcited children in the wings, giggling and getting in the way). Of course there are tensions sometimes with the older girls, who think they are too cool to be chaperoned around the building like the law requires that they are, and who want to hang around with the cast and crew, testing boundaries and stretching their new freedom. But there are genuine joys in working with kids as well. The littlest ones can be delightful - often we have a couple of brand new dancers, and watching a 4-year-old perform for the first time in front of a packed auditorium could warm the hardest of hearts. Seeing how dedicated some of the girls are to the art of dance itself is inspiring (although tempered by the sulky ambivalence of some of the others, inevitably). But the biggest joy, and naturally the biggest problem, is getting a glimpse into the lives of a group of girls in the wild, as it were.
Although the girls are deliberately kept as separate as possible from the adult staff (for legal reasons, the girls stay in their dressing rooms unless they are required on stage, at which point they are escorted to the stage where chaperones wait in each wing, watching until the girls are finished and they can be escorted back to the dressing rooms), there is inevitably a lot of crossover, and sometimes you can't avoid bearing witness to their behaviour. I'm not really talking here about the smaller girls, who generally are sweet and silly and annoying and obnoxious as young kids are. It's the slightly older girls who can be really concerning. That age seems like a long time ago now, but I definitely recognise a lot of the dynamics from my own adolescence. They are the ones who are keenest to dodge the chaperones, the ones who want to go out in between shows to buy chips instead of staying in the dressing room with the younger kids, the ones who are most obviously divided between dedicated dancers and those who are only in it because it's more fun than school. You can see the difference in rehearsals, where some are actually rehearsing, and some are skulking on the sidelines, giggling behind their hands and eyeing up the male dancers. Often the adolescent girls are the ones who most often have to be told "face forward! put some effort into it! for god's sake smile!"
And this attitude bleeds into the wings. It's not quite that cut and dried. I'm not saying the dedicated dancers are angels, either in behaviour or attitude, or that the girls who aren't quite as into the actual work are badly behaved. But I do see a lot of unprofessionalism from the dancers - unsurprisingly since they're not, y'know, professionals yet. However the difference is often between those who are aspring to professionalism (in behaviour if not actual career) and those who couldn't care less. And in some of those kids there is some seriously unpleasant behaviour.
A few years ago, I yelled at one of the girls for calling one of the other girls frigid. Both girls were thirteen. I can't even remember what I said, but I was absolutely enraged, and whilst it was totally not my place to get involved - we try to stay as separate as possible from the girls - I couldn't help myself. It was a year where the infighting amongst the girls was high: they were cruel to each other, they moved in packs where one false word seemed to mean instant expulsion, and the expelled girls would shuffle about awkwardly in the wings, red with misery and shame and frustration. One girl was so badly bullied that year that she hasn't been back since. And then I heard one girl accuse another of being frigid, and I lost it.
I wonder if I'm doing these girls a disservice by suggesting that they don't know how dangerous and damaging a word like "frigid" is? In a way, I hope that they don't. I know they've picked up from somewhere that it's an insult, that to be frigid is to be wrong in some way. I'm not naive enough to say that these girls can't know what sexuality even is yet - they are thirteen, and have probably been learning about sex in one form or another (and one form in particular) for some years. They're almost certainly old enough to have begun exploring their own sexuality, or at least to have begun thinking about it - as these girls obviously had. I'm willing to bet that while their knowledge may not be particularly honed or nuanced yet, certainly it's honed enough to know that being sexual is good and being frigid is bad. Certainly it's nuanced enough to perceive that there is no better way to bring down a peer than to go after their sexuality. I wonder if they've learnt yet that boxing other people into corners and holes only deepens their own isolation, even whilst they put themselves firmly on the side of the ones who are cool and knowledgeable and fun and sexy - the ones who are doing it right. Can any of those girls truly confide in each other? Did someone else - not the target of the hateful word, but one of the ubiquitous bystanders - overhear that and laugh along, all the while worrying that they themselves might be frigid, and knowing now even more than before that they could never tell their friends?
It's said that girls and women police gendered behaviour (in girls and women) more forcefully than men and boys do, because they are more aware of what's at stake for the transgressors. Those girls are learning that early, too. They are learning what's acceptable, and what isn't, and who they can be honest with, and who they can't. They learnt not to say that stuff in front of me, but I doubt my little rant had any effect on their behaviour away from me. They laughed at me, as teenage girls will do, and rolled their eyes. No doubt they made judgements about my appearance, my sexuality, my life. I can't say it bothered me too much, to be sneered at by a group of thirteen-year-olds. But those thirteen-year-olds will be around seventeen now, and who knows what toxic beliefs they are carrying into adulthood? Who knows what dangerous knowledge and anti-knowledge they are taking away to university and drama school and first jobs? Who knows how many other, similarly isolated girls and women they will find, and bond with, and discover the same things over and over again with until it's fixed so deep that it can't be purged?
This is all a lot of handwringing and think of the children!-ing, I know. It's rather predictable, and very boring. But I can't help but feel its importance, as I look ahead to another year of panto, another year of cute children and awkward teenagers and all the things in between, another year of cliques and friends and excitement, of learning and policing, honing the edges, knocking each other into shape with each word, each look. The thing that I love about panto, that feeling of closeness and community, of living in each other's pockets for a month before returning to regular life, will be if anything more intense for the younger members of that community, with all the positives and negatives that that intensity entails. Highs will be higher, lows will be lower, cliques will be cliquier and the girls who are rejected will be rejected totally, with no time to heal the wounds and allow other potential friends to come out of the woodwork to show that yes, there are other people, it's not the end of the world. I remember that very well from school, that feeling of devastation and desperation when it was my turn to be left out in the cold by a group of friends who had decided that, this week, I wasn't good enough. Next week it was ok, I was back in, and somebody else was out, or I had found somebody else to share my lunchtimes and conspiratorial looks. That freedom of time just isn't there in the condensed world of pro-panto, and for adolescent girls I imagine it's something like all the emotion and intensity of senior school packed into five weeks. Don't get me wrong, it can be a wonderful experience, and for adult me, it has been. But I don't think teenage me would have enjoyed it. And I just hope that those teenagers aren't learning all the wrong lessons.