Barrie Hunter was playing a cross-dressing, trumpet playing stripper when he was first approached about becoming a pantomime dame.
As the acclaimed Scottish actor takes to the stage resplendent in make-up and his latest festive frock, he reflects with Mark Good on his personal panto fairytale and explains why the artform continues to thrive in the world of Scottish theatre.
Read more in the interview with our Graduate of the Month for December.
Barrie Hunter (Diploma Dramatic Arts 1995) is a veteran panto dame, embracing the role in Perth for the eighth time in 2018. This year brings further responsibilities as he finds himself directing the production of Snow White and the Seven Dames at Perth Theatre.
Barrie’s increased duties saw him involved throughout the year in script meetings, poring over drafts and generally fine tuning the production to ensure it was ready for Perth’s expectant audience. A frantic two weeks saw the cast bring the script to life in rehearsals, aided by the colourful sets and costumes which, when the curtain rises, capture the imagination of legions of fans all poised to cheer, boo and hiss with gusto.
With his directing responsibilities sitting alongside two full-on performances each day, Barrie admits it is an exhausting but satisfying experience.
“Being a dame is a great role. I’m allowed to break the fourth wall and speak to the audience, helping make sure everyone knows what they need to know. Most of it is very structured but you can always jump in if something untoward happens. That can be lots of fun.
“Panto is a fantastic thing to be a part of. When you are doing shows for all ages, it’s very rewarding to get them up on their feet cheering. In between shows, I totally rest I don’t even speak to anyone to give my voice a chance. I have a little camp bed with me and usually squeeze in a power nap in between shows then at the end of the day, it’s straight up the road to get to bed.”
Barrie continued: “We even perform on New Year’s Day. I’ve had to take a leaf out of Andrew Panton’s book, though. His scheduling is arranged to the nth degree and that’s the only way to make something like this work.”
Scottish director Andrew is a graduate of and Visiting Professor at the Royal Conservatoire, and Artistic Director at Dundee Rep, where Barrie is a member of the Ensemble. The initial approach about being a dame came in 2005. In 2011, Andrew finally convinced him to take the plunge and the rest is history.
Scotland boasts a rich tradition when it comes to panto, with many of the country’s leading performers regularly treading the boards during the holiday season. It is an artform of which Barrie is extremely proud.
“Pantos in Scotland tend to use bona-fide actors and that has helped ensure the tradition remains very alive here. I think it’s one of the most important pieces of theatre in the entire year for both actors and audiences.
“Very often, panto will be the first time a child sets foot in a theatre. We have a duty of care to ourselves and the industry to ensure that the young person wants to come back.”
Barrie’s busy festive schedule can be traced back to his early years in the industry after graduating from what was the RSAMD in 1995. His student days saw him study alongside the likes of Billy Boyd and Jayne McKenna on the Diploma of Dramatic Arts Degree. Arriving as a 25-year-old, Barrie said his age and the intervening years working in everything from administration to gardening ensured he had the maturity and life skills to make the most of his student experience. Those formative years developing the fundamentals, combined with the friendships and networks formed, laid foundations which have endured throughout his career.
Between his second and third year, Barrie was involved in sprawling World War One production The Big Picnic at The Shed, Govan. Initially an extra, illness saw him drafted in to more prominent roles where he worked alongside a stellar cast including the likes of Jimmy Logan and Juliet Cadzow. It was a pivotal time.
“Working on The Big Picnic was an amazing experience. It was a big-budget production with laser shows, a crane, a playing area the size of a football pitch and a terrific cast. I met so many people and it helped develop contacts which led to other projects; after all, work breeds work.”
Barrie has gone on to work consistently in theatres across Scotland and the UK with companies such as The Royal Lyceum, The Tron Theatre, Perth Rep, Dundee Rep, Borderline, Theatre Babel, Courtyard Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland. At Dundee Rep, he often crosses paths with more recent alumni of the Royal Conservatoire. Earlier in 2018, he took to the stage alongside alumni Ross Baxter, Chiara Sparkes and fellow RSAMD chum Ann Louise Ross for Spring Awakening, a collaboration between Dundee Rep and Scotland’s national conservatoire. Does he like what he sees?
“I’m always impressed with the standard of performers coming out of the Royal Conservatoire. They are willing to get their sleeves rolled up and get stuck in there’s a great work ethic.”
Looking ahead, there is barely time for Barrie to catch his breath. After the curtain comes down on Snow White for the season, he has a week to recharge then it’s straight into rehearsals for All My Sons at Dundee Rep.
Before that, and on a fleeting day off from panto, it’s time to “catch up on life” before diving into costume, ready to entertain audiences looking for their fill of festive cheer. Oh yes he is.
Image credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan