Hackney Empire’s Associate Director tells Caroline Bishop there’s no place like home…
As fictional EastEnder Peggy Mitchell likes to remind us, there is nothing more important than family. It is a sentiment that rings particularly true at historic East London theatre Hackney Empire, so much so that the venue’s Associate Director Susie McKenna calls it home.
“It wasn’t until I walked into Hackney Empire and I saw it and I felt it, and the history… I don’t know what happened to me. It got under my skin and I haven’t left,” she explains, smiling widely as she discusses the theatre she is so passionate about.
That moment was back in 1994, when, already an experienced actress, McKenna was invited to try her hand at directing a pantomime at the Empire. Some 14 years and 10 pantomimes later – most of which she also wrote – McKenna is an integral part of the close-knit Hackney family which, under Chief Executive Simon Thomsett, runs this 107-year-old theatre with a programme rooted in its variety hall traditions, providing something for everyone in the equally varied local community.
Right now, McKenna is a couple of miles away from home, but she still manages to make it feel like one. Cradling cups of tea, we sit on a sofa, marooned in a cavernous room at the National Youth Theatre, where the director has gathered her cast to rehearse a new production for the Empire, the UK premiere of American playwright James Sherman’s Jewish comedy Beau Jest, which, as it happens, has a bit of a family theme.
"I don’t know what happened to me. It got under my skin and I haven’t left"
Set in the 1980s, when it was written, Sherman’s play is a romantic comedy about a Jewish twenty-something’s attempts to please her parents. Sarah Goldman is dating Chris, but he isn’t Jewish, so when her parents insist on meeting her beau, Sarah decides to employ an escort to impersonate a Jewish boyfriend. Unfortunately the man who turns up at her door knows no more about the Jewish faith and customs than Chris.
Though staging Beau Jest is part of a conscious effort to entice Jewish audiences back to Hackney Empire, says McKenna, the play’s themes are universal. “Life is life, family is family,” she says. “In most families you will see these characters. My partner is Jamaican; I sit with the Jamaican family and I am witnessing so much of exactly what Beau Jest is about. It’s that whole thing of the outsider being in a family. I don’t think any of us would be human if we hadn’t suffered at some point from the slight put-downs of the mum or the family rituals, sibling rivalry; even grown adults the minute they get with the parents they seem to revert back to being a 15-year-old again.”
Though McKenna has directed non-pantomimes several times, notably Steven Berkoff’s Sit And Shiver, which came to Hackney following a run at the New End, Beau Jest is the biggest non-panto McKenna has directed at the Empire. “I’d be wrong to say I’m not nervous about this,” she admits.
But McKenna’s pedigree as writer/director of the Empire’s annual festive show should stand her in good stead. Over the years, the Hackney pantomime has become known as the show to go and see during panto season, regularly being praised by critics. “It’s a bit worrying actually,” laughs McKenna. “After last year’s [pantomime, Dick Whittington And His Cat], my composer Steve Edis – he slums it with me at Christmas, he goes off and works with Trevor Nunn and all the posh people the rest of the year and then he comes and slums it with me – he said to me after last year’s crits, ‘well Suze, the only way is down!’”
"I think hopefully word gets round that if you come and work for us you have a good time"
Jokes aside, McKenna’s long-term collaboration with Edis – they have written 10 shows together – is testimony to the loyalty that the director obviously inspires in the people she works with, which all goes to cement that family atmosphere. That is something acknowledged by Clive Rowe, the Laurence Olivier Award-winning West End star who returns to Hackney Empire year after year to play the pantomime dame. While playing Sarah the Cook in last season’s Dick Whittington, Rowe said: “Apart from the fact that Susie McKenna is a great director and she writes a good panto, actually just the atmosphere at Hackney is so lovely, the whole company and crew work towards it with a love for the piece. You get the feeling that, even though it’s for a short time, you’re part of a family and trying to create something that’s going to be worthwhile.”
Hackney’s reputation as a great place to work is spreading. Beau Jest stars Lara Pulver, who was recently nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for her role in Parade, and Adam Rayner, seen on television in Mistresses and the Line Of Beauty, two of a cast that McKenna describes as “top notch”. She adds: “That’s what’s so wonderful about the way Hackney Empire has moved on, in terms of people’s perceptions, wanting to come and work with us, and the calibre of people we can now talk to. It’s really exciting. I think hopefully word gets round that if you come and work for us you have a good time!”
Certainly, Hackney Empire has come a long way since McKenna first entered the building in 1994. Then, “it was this run down theatre”, struggling to survive, eight years after being reconverted into a theatre following two decades as a Mecca bingo hall. In 2001, enough money was raised to begin restoring the theatre back to its original 1901 glory, and three years later the newly renovated Empire reopened. It says a lot for the passion of the Hackney team and the theatre’s many supporters that the Empire retained a presence during those three dark years and came out with an audience intact. McKenna continued directing shows in the adjacent 250-seater Bullion Room until the main house was finished – including an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, written hastily to plug a gap after the reopening was postponed.
“It’s gone in stages from that idea of just surviving, to I think in 2004, actually being part of the team that’s moulding its future survival,” says McKenna. In the subsequent four years, the team spirit that saw the theatre through a crisis impacted positively on its drama programming. “I think we’ve grown as a team. I don’t think we would have been attempting Beau Jest had we not gone through the pantomime stage of building up that production value,” says McKenna.
"I need my fix of performing!"
Given her attachment to Hackney Empire, it would be easy to assume that McKenna was born and bred in the East End, but in fact, she had a rather nomadic existence thanks to her upbringing in the world of variety. Right from birth McKenna travelled to variety houses all over the country with her performer parents, and she was just two when she first went on stage. “It was just my mum and dad and me, it was easier for them to take me with them. People in the shows would come and look after me in the dressing room while they were on. I was very young when our pianist, my uncle Norman, who travelled with us, used to hear me sing and dance as a bit of a party piece and he shoved me on stage. Then it became more of a regular thing.”
The family eventually settled in the Midlands, and McKenna went to school in Leicester. Though she chose to become an actress, rather than a singer/dancer like her parents, her childhood instilled in her a love of variety that explains her passion for Hackney, which, during its long history, has seen the likes of Marie Lloyd, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise upon its stage. Now, the venue’s line-up combines live music with drama, stand-up comedy with opera, dance with pantomime – it even, appropriately, hosts the London leg of Britain’s Got Talent. “For me I get the best of both worlds,” says McKenna. “I get this fabulous theatre, but it’s a theatre with a variety history that also has a definite future that has drama at its base as well, that can really engage the community.”
McKenna’s first taste of the community feel a theatre can generate came whilst working as an actress at Nottingham Playhouse, where she frequently played principal boy in the venue’s pantomimes. As a regular company member for a number of years, McKenna “enjoyed that idea of being part of the building”, while the experience also taught her about other aspects of theatre, besides acting. “They taught us as young actors how important it was to respect one’s dresser for example, to not throw your clothes on the floor. It’s basic, I know it sounds crazy. But to know what people do in the building and to acknowledge them, that actors aren’t god-like creatures that walk on water that don’t have anything to do with anybody. I think from that I got the bug of how you put it all together.”
So when, in 1994, she was asked by a producer to direct a pantomime at Hackney Empire, McKenna found herself with the opportunity to try putting it all together herself. “The only reason he asked me was because he knew I lived round the corner from the theatre, he knew I knew panto extremely well, and he knew I knew the set, because it was a Nottingham Playhouse set. And he wanted me to be in it, because it saved a wage.”
"…actors aren’t god-like creatures that walk on water that don’t have anything to do with anybody"
“I said yes before I’d had a chance to get scared, and then got scared afterwards,” smiles McKenna. “And then I realised how much probably subconsciously I’d been soaking that all up. I pulled from all of that experience [at Nottingham Playhouse] to start directing. And then realised how much of that experience went into my passion for Hackney Empire. It absolutely came together at once.”
Now in her mid-40s, she says she feels “absolutely blessed” to have the varied career that she does. Though directing takes up a great deal of her time, she still likes to take on an acting job occasionally. In the West End she has been seen in Cats, Ragtime and most recently, Chicago, in which she played Mama Morton for five months in 2007. “I need my fix of performing!” she laughs. “But I think that fix of being an actor feeds what I do as a director; it definitely feeds me in general, it feeds my soul in such a different way [than] directing does.”
Likewise, being a director has influenced her acting. She says she doesn’t find it difficult to be directed by others, in fact, the reverse is true. “I’m like putty in people’s hands! I was a lot more stroppy and difficult when I was just an actress than when I started being a director who then acted. You can remember how you might have behaved at some point or how you were within a company.”
Her sojourns away from Hackney have extended to directing too – she has directed shows at Greenwich, the King’s Head and the New End, where Berkoff’s Sit And Shiver first played – but it usually benefits Hackney in the end. “There’s an energy about being away for a little while, even if it’s for a few weeks, and then coming back to the theatre,” she says. “I normally bring people back with me. For instance we got Steven Berkoff back. You can only do that if you’ve raised the bar, not just in terms of the building, the refurbishment, but in how you approach the work.”
But McKenna is never away from her beloved Empire for long. She has even turned down offers for bigger budget pantomimes elsewhere. That isn’t to say she wouldn’t like to direct in the West End, but the team spirit that pervades Hackney would be hard to replicate. “Often with a West End show you’re building a team from scratch,” she says. “It’s a much safer place for me to do it in my home – which I call Hackney Empire – and have that support from my team. I think it allows me to be braver, to have that wonderful support. I couldn’t do it without them.” Peggy Mitchell would be proud.
Beau Jest plays at Hackney Empire until 1 June