Theatre News

Theatre etiquette: Susie McKenna: I'd rather write for an audience that gets involved

Hackney Empire creative director Susie McKenna explains why there is nothing worse than a polite or unresponsive audience

Susie McKenna at the Hackney Empire
Susie McKenna at the Hackney Empire

Being in a Hackney Empire audience, whatever the show, is always an experience. There is nothing worse than a polite or unresponsive one. So I'm with Shakespeare on that. Hackney Empire must have one of the most vocal and responsive audiences in London. I just love the fact that they feel it's a theatre where interaction and show times vocal response is welcomed even actively encouraged.

Of course how much they interact and vocalise their appreciation or their opinion depends on the show and how the performers set up that relationship. Just as the theatre itself is there to give everyone a great night out but can warmly set up an atmosphere where disorderly behaviour is not tolerated, without feeling stuffy.

So many people come to the theatre and watch as if they were watching television, which is very annoying, nearly as annoying as a drunk somebody thinking it's clever to shout out foolishness. But overall, for me, I know which audience I'd rather write for and play to, and it's definitely one that gets involved, and when I'm in the auditorium, I'm surrounded by an audience that represents the melting pot that is our city.

Pantomime needs the audience to feel 50 per cent of the show and go on the journey together in a vocal way. If a panto can make a rowdy schools audience suddenly go silent because they are so with the story then I have done my job. There's nothing better.

As we all know, other forms of performance also need a responsive audience but in varying degrees. I don't believe a live show should be something an audience sits in silence throughout, it just seems weird. Listening to the Rudy's Rare Records audience chat back at the stage, laughing and crying, reminded me of comedy plays I appeared in at Nottingham Playhouse in an Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell, or Barry Heath play, where recognition of one's culture, class or family are key to the storytelling and comedy. So I know that's the theatre for me.

There are shows at Hackney Empire where the bar stays open and others when it doesn't, but people can take drinks into the auditorium in any show. I think it's like anything else, as long as people respect their fellow members of the audience and the performers, everyone is happy.

Mobile phones are expected to be switched off. However, there are some shows at the Empire where we actively encourage the audience to use them, especially for shows where 1,300 13 to 19 year olds have bought their own ticket to come and get involved with us on shows such as Alter Ego and Man Dem on the Wall, where they can text vote and tweet live. For most shows, however we ask that people don't use flash or take photos at all, and above all switch the phones off.

I personally hate eating in the theatre (particularly wrapped sweets, crisps or worse). It drives me crazy, and I have been known to snatch sweets (once a Mars bar at Les Miserables) out of fellow audience members hands, saying 'I'll give it back at the interval'. Which is not good I know, but sometimes I just can't help it.

We welcome kids of any age at Hackney Empire (if the show is appropriate), but I think it's very important that if kids are unruly or crying it's out of respect for everyone, that parents just take them out for a little while to calm down. The boxes are perfect for kids who can't sit still too!

I just think how lucky I am everyday to get the chance to entertain the Hackney Empire audience, as they come for a good time, which helps any performance and, that's why we are here.

Susie McKenna is creative director of the Hackney Empire. Her production of Jack and the Beanstalk runs until Jan 3.

This week, WhatsOnStage will be featuring a series of interviews and blogs with people involved in the theatre industry about their opinions on our survey and theatre etiquette in general. Keep up to date with the conversation by following @whatsonstage and #theatreetiquette and visiting this link.