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Run away and join the panto

Teachers who don't get enough booing and hissing in term time are treading the boards to get their full complement of flamboyant theatrical feedback, says Stephen Manning.

For most male teachers, dressing up in women's clothes and shrieking at children would be a sure-fire way of ending up in front of a General Teaching Council disciplinary committee, but there are exceptions.

Yes, the panto season is upon us and, yes, there are those gluttons for punishment who will be spending their Christmas holiday preparing to face rooms packed with shouting and screaming children.

Female teachers too, it seems, are eager to pull on the tights, practise thigh-slapping routines and master the art of the double entendre.

Lisa-Marie Reid, 26, is a primary teacher and has been a regular of the Yeovil Amateur Pantomime Society since she was 11. The group performs at the local Octagon Theatre: this year it's Sleeping Beauty, where she is the principal dancer and a singer in the chorus. "I think there's a strong connection between teaching and this kind of performance," she says. "In some ways you've got to be nutty to get up in front of children in the first place. A teacher is always on show; it's a constant performance. I'm a different person when I'm Mrs Reid in front of the children from when I'm at home."

Lisa-Marie has appeared as Dick Whittington, a good fairy and, on one memorable occasion, the front end of a cow. Although she did a drama degree, she knew her heart was in teaching. "When I was in Year 9 we had a careers guidance test and it came out as my ideal job, which didn't surprise me," she says. "I always knew I had the personality to bring education alive."

She also realised that she would not be suited to the life of a professional actor, with its rejections and frustrations, and decided to channel her thespian leanings into her teaching. Now, as Year 4 teacher and drama co-ordinator at Preston Primary in Yeovil, Somerset, she is dragging (pun intended) panto into school.

She takes her panto lessons seriously, issuing such tips to the children as not speaking with your back to the audience and how to enunciate the words when speaking and singing.

Though she has enjoyed the straight acting she has done, there is something about musicals that she connects with. "It mixes different things - singing, dancing, acting and crazy costumes," she says. "I love panto in particular, which is really all about children. I suppose that's the teacher in me."

Kay Sanders, 27, agrees, seeing panto as a great introduction to theatre for children. As head of drama at Ash Green School and Arts College in Coventry, Warwickshire, she teaches a pantomime scheme to Year 7 pupils as a part of history of drama. From Year 8 they move on to Greek tragedy and melodrama, but panto is a good starting point, she thinks, because they will be familiar with at least one, if not through traditional pantomime, then through Disney re-workings such as Aladdin.

"When I started amateur dramatics about 10 years ago, I had not been involved in pantomime before, but I discovered how good it was for children because there's so much familiar material at hand," she says.

The panto scheme happens in the weeks leading up to Christmas and then in January they get the chance to see Kay perform in a two-week run at the Abbey Theatre in Nuneaton. It's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and she has a dual role - she will be singing in the chorus and will also be pre-recorded as the face and voice of the Magic Mirror. The dwarves will not benefit from such computer generated imagery - they will be played by men with their knees in boots.

"I've taken a lot of title roles but it's important to be seen in a chorus role, to show kids that you don't have to play the lead to be an important part of the show," she says.

Kay is a member of PR Panto, a small amateur group tackling a different classic each year but with original scripts and songs. Andrew Mackereth, its musical director, is headteacher at Heart of England School, a secondary in Balsall Common, Coventry, and he has the task of providing about 15 original songs that he will perform with a small band. He receives the script in June each year and will spend much of the summer holiday working on the lyrics.

Not such an easy task with something as familiar as Snow White, so he has been working on compositions that pay subtle homage to already-familiar songs. "Ho hi, ho hi, it's home from work for us," goes the chorus of one all-new number.

"Panto exists on so many levels," says Andrew. "Pre-school children love the triumph of good over evil. Hard-to-reach teenagers enjoy the opportunity to shout and misbehave and it does have a level of comedy sophistication with topical references weaved in that appeals to adults."

The Christmas and New Year period is for the professionals, with the likes of Bobby Davro and Ross Kemp possibly hamming it up at a theatre near you. But the real spirit of pantomime is with the amateurs in village halls or small local theatres and they will usually get their big moment later in January. For them, the holiday period is a valuable time of preparation, sawing wood for props, sewing costumes and learning lines.

Perhaps it's the all-hands-on approach that marks out amateur panto. David Roca-Mas, a 27-year-old primary teacher in Ilford, Essex, will spend much of the holiday after Christmas rehearsing for his role in Beauty and the Beast (as the beast's valet) and building and painting sets with colleagues in the St Augustine Players, a parish drama society. Costumes will not arrive until the last minute - some hired from a local theatre, but the majority homemade. All will be leading up to a weekend of performances in January, three evenings and one matinee.

David teaches at St Augustine's Roman Catholic Primary and has been involved in the group since his mid-teens. For the past 12 years he has acted in its pantomime, writing and directing many of the shows. The group also performs a play each summer. "I don't mind making a fool of myself. I'm a showman," he says.

"Personally, I prefer the outrageous comedy parts to the 'principal boy' roles, which are a bit too straight. I've been an ugly sister and last year I was Michael in Peter Pan, complete with adult romper suit." Maybe the larger-than-life personality is the common factor after all.

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