The guardian angel of the Hackney Empire shudders at acquiring veteran status as she directs Cinderella, her 19th pantomime for the venue, but Mark Shenton finds the grande dame’s enthusiasm undimmed as she plays the Wicked Stepmother with the same relish she has applied to securing a sustainable future for a theatre she adores
The season is upon us when the traditional pantomime cry of “It’s behind you!” rings out from audiences up and down the land. Susie McKenna knows the cry only too well as she has an awful lot of pantomimes behind her; this year marks her 19th for the Hackney Empire.
“I still find it weird when I say 19 years,” the veteran panto writer, director and star says. “It makes me shake.” Over those two decades her renown in Pantoland has grown and she is currently working on a book about the art form, commissioned by Oberon Books. McKenna, who was the theatre’s creative director until the start of this year, has made the annual Hackney pantomime into an institution, and it is arguably the best locally-produced panto show in London. These shows are a world away from the corporate beasts that play in places like Bromley, Croydon, Richmond and Wimbledon, as well as – for the second year – at the London Palladium .
The Hackney panto’s enduring appeal is entwined with its independence, but it didn’t start that way. “When I did my first pantomimes here in 1994 and 1995, it was for outside producers,” McKenna says. “But I kept telling the theatre that they needed to do their own show and keep the money, to help support what was, at that point, not even an Arts Council-funded theatre. It was fighting for its life, as it always does.”
When she started, with Dick Whittington in 1998, it was a real financial struggle to make it work: “I would drive a van up to my old mates in Nottingham, Coventry and Derby, and pinch bits of set and bring it back down. We’d beg, steal and borrow everything,” she says.
McKenna praised venues for helping her at the time including the Kenneth More Theatre and producers such as Michael Rose. “They were incredibly generous when they knew we were starting out as pantomime producers ourselves.”
She adds: “What’s interesting about the pantomime community is that people like to set us against each other but we do support each other. Of course, there’s some rivalry, but actually we genuinely all want everyone to do a good panto.”
A good pantomime prompts everyone else to raise their game, and helps build audiences of the future, by regularly introducing people to live performance, often for the first time. “Pantos are so important. It’s not just the first time children come, but when you live in an area like Hackney – where over 100 languages are spoken – often it’s the first time adults come into a theatre in the UK too,” she says.
For McKenna, panto has proved a professional game-changer. “I’d never directed anything in my life until I did my first pantomime here. But I’d been a principal boy for many years – my first job was in the chorus at Colchester for [director] Gerry Tebbutt when I was 19. Kenneth Alan Taylor gave me my first principal boy at Oldham Coliseum, which I did for two years. When he moved to Nottingham, I moved with him, and played the dame and principal boy for about eight or nine years.”
McKenna’s life has been in the performing arts, introduced by her parents who were both in the business. “My mum taught me to tap dance and my dad taught me to sing, and by the age of three I was on stage with them in variety.” She trained as a dancer and a singer, and has worked in theatre for three decades as well as in television and film. She starred in the national tours of shows including Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair and the Rocky Horror Show, as well as in the West End in Cats, Ragtime and Chicago. She wrote and directed Dick Whittington, her first panto in Hackney, in 1998.
For many, panto opens the door to a lifelong love of theatre. For others, the impact can have an even more profound effect on their lives. Rosalie Craig, who will star in Stephen Sondheim’s Company in the West End next year, recently revealed that seeing McKenna in panto at the Nottingham Playhouse inspired her to pursue a career in theatre.
McKenna attributes her own love of panto to the long apprenticeship she had with Taylor. “It’s his passion, his teaching and his ethos that I’ve brought here,” she says. “He instilled the passion for panto in me and how important it is. He taught us all – people like Alan Finch and the wonderful designer Robert Jones – the nuts and bolts of what it was to be part of a theatre.”
She stresses the team ethic needed to put together a successful panto and has built a regular family of collaborators, on and offstage, around her. This includes Steve Edis, Hackney’s musical director since 1998, and regular performers including Tony Whittle, Clive Rowe, Kat B and Olivier award-winning Sharon D Clarke, who also happens to be McKenna’s wife.
Q&A: Susie McKenna
What was your first professional theatre job? I was a chorine in Puss in Boots with Angela Bruce playing Puss, and a bluecoat at Pontins. I then did eight months of two weekly rep at Swansea Grand with John Chilvers.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Not to constantly compare oneself with one’s peers – you have your own journey in this mad business called show, so don’t look over your shoulder all the time or you’ll destroy yourself. Also go to university. I would have had an easier journey, though I don’t regret the hardest journey I’ve made. As a dancer, first of all you have to persuade people you could speak.
Who or what was your biggest influence? I can’t deny that Kenneth Alan Taylor had a massive effect on me, wanting to be part of a theatre and growing as an actor and then as a director. In terms of storytelling, the MGM musicals and Disney have always been in my head. I’ve always been so inspired by how Gene Kelly could tell a story without words.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Make sure you know your audition song inside out, upside down and you can do it in your sleep, so if the person in front of you was naked it wouldn’t put you off.
If you hadn’t been an actor/director, what would you have been? I’d have liked to work with animals – I’d be out with the gorillas in the mist. But I’d probably be shit at it – I’d hate the camping.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Tons. I always walk around the theatre before a press night and chat to her [the theatre], and go to the back wall and put hands on it and chat again. I have a little prayer with the theatre. I do talk to the Hackney Empire a lot.
The pair met when they were appearing together in the pantomime in 1999. McKenna says: “I fell in love with this theatre, then I really fell in love with someone on the stage.” And it was on that stage, in 2008, that the pair got married.
Clarke has appeared in the panto regularly since. Even if she’s not physically available, she’ll voice one of the animal characters. This year she’s the voice of the mouse, which follow her roles as a camel and a cat.
The theatre itself is an essential part of the magic. “The architect Frank Matcham is a true genius, and this is one of the finest examples of his work, the way there aren’t any pillars and the sight lines are amazing. When an artist stands on the stage it feels like the auditorium is giving you this massive hug; nothing feels too far away.” Another essential ingredient is the unique audience, McKenna says. “People tell me how great it is to see something with such a diverse and mixed audience – the kind that they don’t usually get a chance to sit with. It’s a very different experience, and genuinely infectious.”
She recalls being on stage with Clarke in the panto, looking over and fearing she had dried. “I asked her when we came off stage if she was okay, and she said she’d just choked up looking at the audience – there was a family on the front row with the women wearing burkas, then a Jamaican family behind them, and she thought what a privilege it was to play to this mix.”
It proved infectious, and McKenna calls the theatre an “extraordinary place. Somehow it has this magic that gets under your skin, and you want to stay and get it right so that it stays as this mothership in the centre of Hackney”.
Can you spare a dame?
The Empire has regularly faced financial challenges. In 1999, while she was staging Cinderella, the theatre launched its refurbishment appeal after being refused a Lottery grant. The response could not have been better.
“It helped galvanise people to feel and care about the place,” she says now. “We had a mad gala that Prince Charles came to when there weren’t even locks on the toilet doors. Jerry Hall was there and I thought of her having to stretch those long legs to keep the door shut when she was on the loo.” The theatre has come a long way since then, though the sense of potential crisis has never been too far away. “When we reopened in 2004 in the refurbished theatre, we had to start investing in the pantomimes properly and had to up our production values, just to compete with the theatre itself,” McKenna says.
“It would have looked awful by comparison. Only the odd critic had come before, but that year Ian McKellen was playing the dame in Aladdin at the Old Vic, and we were also doing it, so the broadsheets came to compare. Luckily for us their estimation of what we were going to be like was not very high and they were surprised – they fell in love with Clive Rowe and the ethos of the show.” Rowe would go on to be Olivier-nominated for achievement in an affiliate theatre for his dame in Mother Goose a few years later.
“We’ve all learnt so much. But we couldn’t suddenly just throw a lot of money at it, because the show represents 45% of Hackney Empire’s annual income.” All in, including staff costs and actors’ salaries, it now costs about £400,000 to capitalise the panto, but the theatre hit its first £1 million in box office receipts a few years ago.
She has been able to up the rehearsal time from two to three weeks – “in commercial theatre, you get anything from four days to a week or two”. She works hard to make it distinctive and imbue it with the unique spirit of the borough. “It’s a local pantomime, made for Hackney. We always place it here, but hopefully it is something the whole of London can enjoy.
“Gradually the audience has snowballed into coming from every postcode in London and beyond. And we started to get a tourist trade, too, since 2012 and the Olympics. The Overground and having a safe, reliable form of transport into Hackney has totally changed our fortunes in terms of pull to the theatre.”
She has produced the cycle of what she calls the ‘Big Five’ pantomime titles – Jack and the Beanstalk , Cinderella , Aladdin , Mother Goose  and Dick Whittington  – three times over. “I’ve always wanted to add titles, but it’s very hard to take the risk when the theatre relies on it that much. I asked the board to trust me, and when we did Puss in Boots  and it did well they relaxed, so we added Sleeping Beauty  last year.”
But even when she revisits a title she’s done before, she always creates a new script and adapts and improves the design. “I storyboard it very early on in February, then we work on the design in April and see what we can afford. Then in June I cast it, and write it once everyone is in place and I can hear them and play to their strengths. When they come to rehearsal, it already feels it is in them.”
This year she is returning to the pantomime as a member of the cast, for the sixth time. She will play the Wicked Stepmother, which is a first. Since taking over as creative director of the theatre in 2010 – she had been associate director for the five previous years – performing has taken a backseat, except when called to step into the breach. “When I took over as creative director – after it had been closed and all the staff laid off – all performing had to dry up, though I’d sometimes step into the show if someone went ill,” she says. Over the years she has gone on for Joanna Riding, Rowe and Gavin Spokes. “But I knew that if I was going to get the theatre open again and on her feet, I’d have to give it my attention 24/7. This had to be the job.”
The theatre had found itself facing another financial crisis, and she was invited to join the senior management team to try to rescue it. “The thing I was doing, the pantomime, was making all of the theatre’s money, so I wanted to have a say in how it was spent. I love this place so much and I wanted to make sure it was open and didn’t become a garage.” She worked for six months for no money before the theatre reopened in 2010. Last January, she stepped down from the role, taking up a new part-time position as executive creative producer with a particular focus on developing work with black, Asian and minority ethnic talent.
That’s an extension of the artist development programme that has been running, in one form or another, since a two-week project at the turn of the century. The year McKenna took over, the theatre won a four-year contract from the local authority to work with schools and after-school groups on a programme of free classes, half-term and summer shows. That scheme now runs for 44 weeks of the year. Those involved keep a connection with the Empire; some even perform in the panto.
The success of the programme is evident. “We’ve just had our first RADA graduate come out of the programme and have three people in Motown in the West End,” she says.
Susie McKenna’S three top tips for an aspiring actor/director
• Start creating your own work as soon as you can. It’s about finding out more about yourself, and giving yourself power.
• Go to see as much as possible, from the smallest thing to the biggest thing.
• If you’ve never done musical theatre, don’t think it’s easy.
Laying a golden legacy
Why has she chosen this moment to step back from her full-time involvement?
“It’s a combination of being time for a change and the theatre seeming to move in an artistic direction I couldn’t sign up to. It wasn’t going where I wanted it to go, and if I can’t honestly say, ‘This is my programme,’ I don’t want to do it. So, it felt like it was time to hand it over and be freelance and act again.”
She is also working on other directing projects, which include giving further life to Blues in the Night that she directed at the theatre in 2013 and a musical life story of Martin Luther King, scored by the late Martin Smith.
The theatre has secured another four-year funding round for the artistic development programme. “It’s a legacy – so many people have trained within our education department, and it has fed my soul as much as the panto does.”
She is drawn to projects that “are against the odds – tell me it’s not possible and I’ll try to find a way”. And if it has sometimes seemed like an impossible dream to turn the Empire into a thriving, viable local theatre, McKenna has done just that.
“Falling in love with the Hackney Empire comes from my roots in regional theatre in my 20s. What I realised was that it was about your connection with the audience. The West End is amazing, but you don’t get the same connections. There, your community is your show and the people you are performing with. But in the regions and at Hackney, you can connect with the audience itself.”
CV: Susie McKenna
Born: 1962, London
Training: “I attended a dance school in Leicestershire and was supposed to go to Arts Ed but I deferred my entry, then didn’t go”
Landmark productions: The Hackney pantos – 19 and counting… (1994-2017), Steven Berkoff’s Sit and Shiver, Hackney Empire (2007), Once on This Island, Hackney Empire (2009), Blues in the Night, Hackney Empire (2014)
Agents: Micheline Steinberg (literary agent); Belfield and Ward (acting agent)
Cinderella runs at Hackney Empire, London , until December 31