Interview: Yolanda Mercy

I met Yolanda Mercy a couple of years ago at Rich Mix, just as she was beginning the development of her show 'On the Edge of Me', so it was fabulous to catch up with her last week to hear about how her piece went on to develop from there, and has so far had an incredibly successful journey. Read on to find out more about her work and this show, which explores what it is to be a young person graduating today.

Interview by Amie Taylor (@AmieAmieTay)

AT: It’s always good to start by finding out a bit about you, where you trained, where you came from, from an arts perspective…

YM: I did dance from a very young age, I went to the Royal Academy of Dance. Then I applied to the Brit School and got in, so I went there from the age of 14 - 18. After that I went to Laban and did a BA in Dance Theatre, and in that time I realised I really liked theatre. The word dance theatre comes from the German word Tanztheatr and it’s all about creating a piece that isn’t only about the movement of your body, but translates the story past the movement, so sometimes involving text. In my second year at Laban I elected to do physical theatre, as I knew I loved theatre; I think the one and only book I’ve properly read is Peter Brook’s ‘The Empty Space’. And I remember going to the Barbican to see his work back in the days when they gave free tickets for the under 25s.

AT: Ah yes, there was an era of that a while back, the golden days of cheap or free tickets…

YM: Yes, for free! I remember seeing 11s and 12s by Peter Brook and thinking ‘I really like what you’re doing here, I don’t know what this is, but I think I want to investigate more’. I got involved with the Young Vic, on the young council and off the back of that I got to see even more theatre. And I realised exactly what I wanted to do, I wanted to work in theatre. However, when I left Laban, things didn’t happen the way I thought they would. Three months after finishing I got a job in panto, but those three months felt like forever.

AT: Yes, I always think the first year after finishing your degree, or course is the hardest year…

YM: Yes, it’s edgy, but I’m an eternal optimist, I always believe things are going to go great. So a month out of uni and I wasn’t in a show, I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. But then I did panto and off the back of that worked on a theatre project which I got paid for, which was really cool: being paid to act!

AT: Paid to work? What? [They laugh]

YM: I know! I was living the life. Then I did work that I didn’t get paid for. Around that time I realised I really liked poetry so I joined the Stratford East poets. Although I loved it, I didn’t feel like I was a poet. Then I did some writers courses and got to work with Duncan Macmillan, but it was before he was Duncan Macmillan.

AT: Amazing, and he wrote People, Places and Things, currently on in the West End?

YM: Yes. He was right on the brink of his career and it was great to be in the room with someone like that. Not that I’m in the same place, but from working with him I started writing a lot more, thought ‘Yes! I’m a writer and an actor!’ And I haven’t looked back since then.

AT: Your show, ‘On the Edge of Me’, let’s talk about that. It started as a Scratch?

YM: Yes, it started as a seven minute scratch at Rich Mix a couple of years ago.

AT: And it’s about graduate employment, the challenges young people face now and mental health?

YM: Yes, it explores the issues faced by a very anxious character - she’s not been diagnosed as clinically anxious, but is an anxious person. Which I think a lot of young people feel on leaving university and having that moment, which we already talked about, of feeling as though you’re not doing what you expected. I used experiences from people I’ve spoken to, my own experiences and other research to make a piece that explores that moment in life.

AT: And what inspired you to write it?

YM: I was watching a lot of theatre, but getting frustrated as I was seeing a lot of shows that didn’t reflect the world I live in, or that a lot of people around me live in. I remember going to a theatre festival in Berlin, and being absolutely blown away by the way they presented the real world on stage, and began to ask why I was complaining about stuff, when I could write it. So I did. And after doing the scratch I discovered that it was relatable, people identified with that experience of going to the job centre and it being really difficult. People found it funny too, which was a surprise, it wasn’t written to be funny, it was written as real life…

AT: Ah, but I think that’s the brilliant thing about being a writer, you don’t always know what you’re writing until it’s up and in front of an audience, and then you find out exactly what it is you’ve written from their response. Out of interest, what’s your process for making a solo show?

YM: I started writing it and after my scratch I was given the opportunity to develop it in to a full piece in to a full length, but I was scared because people had loved the scratch so much, my fear was that I’d complete it and people would hate it. But I went away, spoke to people, wrote more then sent it to Jade Lewis, she’s now my director, because she read it and said that she ‘got it’. And then worked with Jules Haworth from the Soho Theatre who was dramaturg on the piece, we started teasing it out a bit more and asking questions like ‘why did you do this?’, ‘why does this happen?’ And it started to take a clearer shape.

AT: Like finding an anchor. So just outline for us where it’s been so far since your very first scratch and where it’s headed now…

YM: It’s been at the Rose Theatre, Richmix twice, ‘Upstairs at the Western’ in Leicester, Soho Theatre recently, where we sold out and received a 4* review. It’s going on to Oxford, Chorlton and Wolverhampton. I’m trying to get it on in other festivals around the UK, so I’m looking to take it to Ireland, Scotland and Wales, also overseas, I’d love to take it to the Berlin Festival and also the New York solo Fringe.

AT: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like to mention?

YM: Yes, just the fact that we offer workshops alongside the show, a lot of people aren’t aware of this. I actually trained as a drama practitioner at Central School of Speech and Drama, which is a huge thing for me because I make the work I make, but I also want to support other people.

You can see Yolanda’s show here:

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