Ross Petty – The Pantomime King
At home with Toronto’s premier producer of pantomime, the man (dressed as a woman) we love to hate, Ross Petty
It’s a chaotic time for Ross Petty. He’s just 10 days away from the start of rehearsals for his annual pantomime production and there’s still a script to finalize and lines to memorize. Not that the script is ever really final or that he ever fully memorizes those lines. That’s how it’s been for the past two decades, and it’s all part of the fun.
“We’re going into our 19th year [at the Elgin Theatre],” he says from the living room of his North York home. “It’s really something I’m proud of that we’ve been able to create this family tradition over the winter holidays.”
Wearing blue jeans, a salmon dress shirt and a black shawl cardigan, the alabaster-haired actor/producer is everything but the outlandishly silly fiends he’s so known for on stage. He’s well mannered and welcoming, a raconteur that wields silky charm and the timing of a seasoned showman. His home, an original farmhouse in the area, is over 150 years old and is equally as pleasant, with a rustic appeal that pays homage to its simple past. He shares his home with his wife, celebrated Canadian ballet dancer Karen Kain, and their cat, a Maine coon named Eddie. It’s a peaceful setting, a sharp contrast to his life in the limelight.
Through bucketloads of silliness, and the odd tongue-in-cheek zinger, Petty turns classic stories on their heads with his “fractured” fairytales. These side-splitting shows draw audiences both young and old, and have become a staple of the holiday season in Toronto. This year they’re returning to Cinderella, and Petty, as usual, is the bad guy — or, more accurately, the “bad girl.”
“I’m the bad girl this year, the evil stepmom,” he says of his dressed-in-drag role. Playing the villain isn’t anything new to Petty. The playful boos hurled at him have become just about as traditional as his annual panto — and he’s completely cool with it. “The audience is always screaming at me,” he chuckles. “I’m the guy they love to hate every year. That’s fine by me.” If they get too rowdy, he’ll jump off the stage, find the source and stare them down, or maybe even end up on their lap. It’s all part of the off-the-cuff style that keeps people coming back every year.
Petty did his first pantomime in 1984 when British producers were testing the style in the Canadian waters. It proved to be a hit. When he entered into his 40s he wanted to take control of his career, to no longer be at the mercy of casting directors or producers. “It’s a young man’s game, I think,” he says of the auditioning process. “So I decided that I wanted to take some protection against not getting the work as the years progressed and created my own company.” When he started Ross Petty Productions, pantomime was the obvious choice, and he’s never looked back. When asked why he’s stuck with comedy all these years, he laughs heartily. “What do I want to do, Checkhov?” He loves that people have a good time at his productions and always leave happy. “People say, ‘Do you want to do anything else?’ I say, ‘No, I’m quite satisfied doing comedy.’”
Ever since he was a child, Petty has been drawn to comedy. He still remembers those Sunday nights when he would drop everything to catch Wayne and Shuster. But it was Sid Caesar who showed him the power of improvisation. Petty once shared the stage with the American comic and Ginger Rogers in a production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Petty was third-billed to Caesar and Rogers, but he worked closely with Caesar as they shared a number of scenes. Caesar was known for ad libbing, and while Anything Goes was a scripted performance, he would often go off the book or address the audience directly. “I’d never seen that before,” says Petty. “He actually was the one that showed me that you can step away from the character and interact with the audience.”
While this year’s show features Cinderella as an organic farmer and the evil stepmother pushing her hypnotic GMOs, Petty notes his show isn’t political in its message: “We’re more basic than that.” But, he concedes, they always try to portray their heroines as more than the love-seeking victim who only finds happiness in marrying a man. “We like to really underline the fact that our heroines really have a steel rod up their spines,” he says. “They know what they want and they will do whatever they can to come to that end.” There is romance to his shows, for that happy ending, but the female figures take action and become the conclusions of their own story.
Petty knows his pantomime is often the first experience many children have with live theatre, so these positive messages are important. But above all, he wants children, and their parents, to have fun at his shows. These children are the audiences of the future. He wants to nurture their minds and cultivate an appreciation for ballet, opera and, of course, theatre. As he concludes, “I think it’s important.”