When I first started working at the Pantomime Theatre two years ago, I was pretty shy and timid coming into this new environment. It took some time for me to open up and get comfortable with the people who I've come to recognize as my work family, but I remember from day one, there was one individual who teased me and made jokes mere moments after having only exchanged names. From that day, he introduced the Pantomime Theatre as somewhere to be kooky and crazy and 100% yourself, and gave me the impression that I was being initiated into a lovable bunch of people.
This is Tommy. He's like this with everyone. Most summer nights you can find him on stage performing in one of Tivoli Ballet Theatre's many shows. He's likely the one who's pulling the wildest, most expressive faces, and making the little kids in the front row burst into a giggle fit.
When I explain Tommy to people, I usually refer to him as somebody who is straight out of a cartoon. He's vociferously animated and has the capability to be transformed to any kind of character. He's like Mike Myers in Austin Powers, but instead, every evening in Tivoli Gardens. Sometimes sharing the stage with him can be a real challenge for holding in laughter. He's a terrific actor, specializing in comedy, and has an energy to him that captivates you. Even as I sit on the park bench outside the theatre talking to Tommy, his storytelling pulls me in, like watching a really good movie.
Not only is Tommy a brilliant stage actor, he's also privileged to have the job (in partnership with Henrik Lyding) of reviving and maintaining the historic pantomimes being performed by the theatre. The peacock stage itself dates back to 1874 and while now we have classical ballet and modern dance gracing the raked stage, it once used to be exclusively pantomimes. Deriving from Commedia dell'Arte, these pantomimes follow the story of young lovers Columbine and Harlekin (the jokester). Columbine's father Kassander forbids this relationship and their servant Pjerrot has an unrequited love for Columbine, but often is the butt of all jokes and bumbles around on stage. These archetypal characters and the general plot structure remain consistent but each individual story varies, keeping the shows interesting. Actors would often stick to playing only one character, which they would get to know inside and out. Some pantomimes involve a wizard, some involve a proposed suitor, and some make very little sense at all. But this all contributes to the hilarious slapstick comedy that comes out on stage.
"Pantomimes are about stories. You can't run a pantomime by counting. It's not like dancing in that way. It should never ever be a ballet. It's acting." - Tommy
While the ballet in the shows is minimal, the characters arguably are dancing. Columbine wears pointe shoes, Harlekin goes into an arabesque. But Tommy is right in stressing how the focus lies in the stories.
This is where the Pantomime Theatre in 2017 differs to it's 1974 ancestor. The dancers working in this company must be versatile. About half the shows each season focus on dance, so the employees must be good ballet dancers, agile contemporary dancers, but must also have the ability to be a good actor...or at least the open mind to act like a fool on stage.
There's also something very particular about pantomime acting. It cannot be confused for other types of acting. As the word suggests, it's influenced by miming. Movements are big and exaggerated. Features are embellished. Gender roles and archetypal characters run on stereotypes. Everything needs to be obvious and done with conviction.
"You learn a lot with age. Sometimes it takes time to pull this style out of people. Some get it right away. Others, it takes time. But they'll get there," Tommy states. For himself, he started working at the theatre very young. Having had just graduated from the Royal Danish Ballet School and showing lots of promise in his theatrical skills, he was hired as a replacement in the Pantomime. He tells me how he observed and learned plenty from the people working there at that time, many having come from theatre or circus backgrounds.
"I'll never forget when I first came and tried to put on my makeup with brushes," Tommy recalls with a laugh, "They looked at my brushes and asked 'What are you doing? These are your tools!'" Tommy lifts his own hands and starts miming, applying the imaginary makeup on his face with his fingers. He learned along the way that this was the most effective way to achieve that enhanced grotesque look that most of his characters required.
An interesting point Tommy shares with me about the style is the importance of the pregnant pause. A moment of silence can be so effective. It can tell a whole story, even though nothing is being said (or mimed). It's an effective tool in comedy.
"You don't want to rush the script. You're meant to sing the pantomimes. It goes up and down. Comedy is all about timing," Tommy insists, "I live and breathe comedy. I've always been interested in humour. It's all stuck in my head."
He refers to his inspiration coming from many places. He's a huge Woody Allen fan and loves old cartoons. He also enjoys the Marx brothers, Stan Laurel and many silent films, influential for his ideas of comedic timing.
I ask Tommy a little more about what his role at theatre is like, in terms of preserving the tradition of the pantomimes. I'm curious about them and how they've managed to outlive the creators, the actors, the audiences, in a day and age that is so rapidly changing.
"There are people that come to every single show. They remember coming as little kids. I also grew up with it. I'm Danish and so I know the story of this place and the culture of the people," Tommy explains, "It's an honour to be in charge of this tradition and to hold it for a little while. We have to try to protect it. But never just leave it. Never let it get dusty."
"Of course there are small adjustments we make, like which side of the stage they should come from, for example. These are just things that Henrik and I decide make more sense. I'm privileged to have Henrik as the practical side of our duo. I have lots of wild, stupid ideas. He's more rational. But he does let me get away with some," Tommy says with a wink and a smirk.
"I've also made improvements with the character of Columbine. She used to be just a pretty, dumb girl, Just standing there for her looks. I tried to encourage all the girls who play her to see a feisty side in her. She'll slap someone that upsets her, or will be stubborn to get her way."
As well as resurrecting old pantomimes, Tommy and Henrik are experimenting in making new ones too. They gather archival music and work together to stage it. The most recent example is "Pjerrot Sleepwalks", which is now playing throughout the summer at Tivoli.
Amongst the varying storylines, each show can still have the room to be different. For this reason, Tommy can't choose a favourite pantomime. You can never predict when something goes wrong. Be it a stage technical error, a wardrobe malfunction, or one of the fellow performers goofing up. That's the magic of live theatre, and also why everyone's improvisation skills are tested regularly.
"I believe in learning by laughing. It could look unorganized if you just walk into a rehearsal. It could look like a Bodega. But we always get the end product on stage."
Last year, Tommy celebrated working 40 years with the company, an achievement in itself. I ask Tommy what he thinks will happen after he leaves (which we hope will be never):
"I'm happy to give it onto someone else. But I'm also terrified. But I'm sure the people before me thought the same," Tommy then breaks into a huge smile, "But I'll tell you, I'll be back! Even when I'm dead, I'll be up there with a critical eye!"
"Although, I want to live until I'm 500 years old! Why only 100?!" Tommy jokes, though it's evident with someone like him that he has enough vitality and bravo to make it to 500 years old.
"If I could, I'd do it all again," He then turns to me with a mischievous sparkle in his eye, "Imagine all the girls I've met here."
** Thank you to Henrik and the Pantomime Theatre