Wednesday, 7 December 2016

TO SERVE & PROTECT: Barbara and Anya Gloudon relish their roles as custodians of the National Pantomime’s storied history

ON WITH THE SHOW: Audiences come from as far as Negril and Port Antonio to see the annual production, the Gloudons note.

Surely there’s no creative space in Kingston filled with as many cabinets and cupboards, boxes and closets teeming with costumes, props, knicks and knacks from the world of the performing arts. At the Little Theatre Complex on Tom Redcam Drive in Kingston, Barbara and Anya Gloudon preside over this treasure trove, as guardians of the legacy of the LTM’s National Pantomime.

Sitting across from me on a balmy Wednesday evening, in a room that leads into these massive archives, the Gloudons are more than happy to talk at length about their work as custodians of this 76-year-old national treasure. Essentially, the team, led by the Gloudons, is carrying on the torch passed down from the late Miss Lou and Mass Ran, who played key roles in transforming the annual pantomime into what we’ve come to know as the wholesome, visually appealing song-and-dance show that opens at the Little Theatre on the evening of every Boxing Day, December 26.

With such an increasingly large archive to turn to, Anya and Mrs. G can more readily tun’ dem ham mek fashion. No wonder resourcefulness seems to define the Pantomime Company. “We’ve been lucky to be able to store, recycle and reuse items over the years,” Anya tells us, as she puts the finishing touches to a new metallic prop. “For example, when a pantomime ends, the carpenters break down the set and we store the wood in the she around the back. So for next year, we’ll know how much material we have to work with, and what we’ll need to buy.”

Put another way, hardly anything is wasted around here. That’s why you side with Mrs. Gloudon wholeheartedly when she proclaims that it’s full time for the establishment of a National Pantomime Museum. ‘It’s something I’ve been talking about for a while now. And I’d love to see the day when somebody takes us seriously and offer to sponsor it. It would be nice to have it as something to work towards for the 80th anniversary,” she says.

For the record, the LTM’s 80th anniversary is only four years away. It goes without saying, Mrs. Gloudon further stresses, that such an invaluable aspect of the culture must be properly preserved. “The pantomime is a part of Jamaica’s history, and what we have done over the years is add more of Jamaican life to it. So a lot of the original costumes, the props, music and song lyrics have been catalogued. We have a rich legacy here.”

And it’s one they are determined to protect for future generations. Speaking of the future generations, hardly a week goes by that the LTM doesn’t receive requests from local high schools to meet with students conducting research for their Theatre Arts classes and impending examinations. It’s work that the Gloudons enjoy immensely, in spite of the challenges.

Unsurprisingly, a lack of adequate funding is at the top of the list. Thankfully, entities like the CHASE Fund have been kind. “CHASE helped us to put in some new chairs in the theatre last year,” Mrs. G recalls when the subject of income comes up. “We have friends who make their bookings every year. The church groups have also been supportive. But the cost of living goes up every year, and we have to find money for the electricity, material, travel allowance, and other expenses.”

As Anya points out, the Pantomime Company’s strong family dynamic has been a big plus. “What we benefit from is the team work and the friendship in the cast and crew,” she says. “Some of the workmen and the seamstresses have been with us for 10, 15 years. So the process is a bit easier now.”

The LTM Pantomime has come a long way – from the 1940s, when the Fowlers brought a very British flair to the stage, to the advent of Anancy and his bag of tricks to the heyday of Louise Bennett and Ranny Williams who insisted, Mrs. Gloudon says, on the show being true to the Jamaican experience. 

“A lot has changed with the pantomime over the years. Today it’s a Jamaican musical production, but we’re not averse to trying something new and introducing different elements because we’re global,” she points out. “Throughout the Diaspora, the Caribbean especially, the Jamaican pantomime is known.”

And the accolades have come. In addition to wins at the Actor Boy Awards, their 2000 production Bugsie the Millennium Bug was singled out for special mention in a revised edition of The World Book of Drama and Theatre Arts, for their innovative use of stage props, including an airplane that could pass for the real thing.

Every now and again, Barbara and Anya Gloudon pause to savour these little triumphs, but they are never distracted from the fact that the work continues. Up next is this month’s The Upses and De Downzies Dem, another musical comedy sure to deliver visual power, catchy tunes and a plot that holds up a mirror to the Jamaican society. 

The Pantomime Museum aside, Barbara Gloudon has in mind a book project that will elucidate the LTM’s history and legacy, while charting a way forward. “I think what the pantomime has done best is show that you don’t have to be crude and brutish and vulgar to entertain people,” Mrs. Gloudon reflects. 

“The mandate that we’ve been given is that [the show] must be something that the whole family can enjoy – the children, the old people, the church groups. It’s a challenge for us every year but we still make it. We’ve kept to that mission. And we have a team of wonderful musicians and actors who feel honoured to be a part of it.”

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