Cheer, sigh, boo, hiss. It’s a pantomime.

Gary Smith

Gary Smith is bringing a British holiday tradition to a local stage.

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

Alas, Gary Smith’s children, now off to college, had never been to a British pantomime, panto for short.

Smith, who is chief of the Section of Epidemiology and Public Health at the School of Veterinary Medicine, is from Birmingham, England, and had grown up on pantomime, a play based on a fairy or folk tale, usually performed at Christmas. “Every English child goes to pantomimes,” he said.

The plot is standard. A girl, dressed as a boy, is helped by a man dressed as a woman and a person dressed as an animal to overcome evil and win the hand of the other girl, who is, surprisingly enough, dressed as a girl, Smith said.

But having been at Penn 15 years, he bemoaned his children having missed this critical element of a British upbringing.

So the man who by day has been working with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to assist should foot-and-mouth disease arrive in Pennsylvania, and who recently gave a talk to the Pennsylvania House Rural Affairs and Agricultural Committee on bioterrorism, discovered his avocation.

Not only has he written a pantomime, but he has seen his first panto performed by the highly regarded People’s Light and Theater Company.

And he’s about to have it performed again after New Year’s by an amateur theater company he helped form. “We formed our own community theater, KATS, the Kennett Amateur Theatrical Society, a very British way of naming it,” he said, with a certain British dryness.

It wouldn’t be quite right to say that Smith is new to theater. He had been taking acting classes at People’s Light—“We all prance around spouting Shakespeare.”

Nor would it be right to say that pantomimes require a Shakespeare. After all, Smith recalled that in his student days in England, the chemical engineering program put on “Cinderella.”

Smith, however, was unsure of his effort. So he gave his incomplete manuscript to one of his acting teachers for feedback. After not hearing for two months, he said, “I thought, Oh, it’s terrible.” But she had passed it on to People’s Light to consider for a reading at their Outside the Box experimental theater festival.

“It amused me enormously that a pantomime might be experimental theater,” said Smith of the drama form with a standard plot, stock characters and roots in commedia dell’arte.

The reading, however, got nixed in favor of a full production that ran nine evenings for the duration of the festival.

Smith’s panto, “Dick Whittington and his Cat,” is based on a true story of the third son of an earl who goes to London to make his fortune and eventually becomes lord mayor there. Smith’s Whittington, however, is a poverty-stricken orphan who eventually becomes a policeman. Dick’s cat, shipped to America, becomes a device to get in “lots of jokes about American foibles like liking peanut butter, which is disgusting,” said Smith.

So cheer for the principal boy, Dick Whittington (played by a girl), sigh for the principal girl (played by a girl) and boo for the villain. And cheer for the persistent playwright, who’s now at work writing next year’s production, “Aladdin.”

“Dick Whittington and his Cat” will be performed Friday, Jan. 11, and Saturday, Jan. 12, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 13, at 2 p.m. at the Kennett High School auditorium in Kennett Square, Route 82 and Kaolin Road. Tickets $5; children under 16 and seniors over 64, $3, at the door or by calling 610-444-3129.

Originally published on December 13, 2001