Emerging theatre-maker Yolanda Mercy seeks to educate and entertain

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Following a showcase of excerpts from On the Edge of Me and Quarter Life Crisis at the iF Platform as part of the recent Vaults Festival in Waterloo, London, Colin Hambrook interviewed Yolanda Mercy about her career and aspirations.

Yolanda Mercy performs On the Edge of Me.

Yolanda Mercy performs On the Edge of Me. Photograph: Yoshi E

Yolanda Mercy has positive commitment to making socially engaged performance work. She feels strongly about stigma and the role of the arts to open up conversations about mental health reaching out to as divergent a group of people as possible with her theatre-making practice.

“I really enjoyed the Vaults Festival − it has a fun pre-Edinburgh vibe to it, and it was a pleasure to be part of Stopgap’s iF Platform a year on from our first outing to showcase work as part of Brighton Fringe. It’s a real testament to the achievements of iF and the work of Lou Rogers. Being issue-based, I didn’t know how to best place On the Edge of Me. I wanted to reach diverse audiences and iF turned out to be a perfect fit. It has helped me to take my career to another level.”

Having come through various young people’s programmes with the Lyric, Hammersmith and Battersea Arts Centre in particular, Yolanda was determined to become an independent solo artist.

“I realised there was a gap for young people who come out of these projects who want to make work but don’t know how to do it. I had been through making On the Edge of Me with Jade Lewis and Gemma Lloyd and I thought it would be cool if theatres had a project that supported ambition. So, I thought up the idea of Development Lab and pitched it to the Lyric.”

Yolanda recognised how hard it is for individuals without a track record to get their work endorsed. Development Lab is a week intensive course exploring how and why you create work, giving participants space to write and share what they’ve created. Another clear benefit of Development Lab has been the opportunity to develop professional relationships with course participants.

“Luay Eljamal did Development Lab with us and is now working on my next show Quarter Life Crisis. It’s important to be amongst a body of peers to support each other in making work happen.”

The support is carried through after the course with commitment from the theatre to provide space and a showcase for budding theatre-makers, which is happening at the Lyric as part of Evolution Festival this month 16-18 March.

Seeing a disparity in understanding was also a key motivation for writing On the Edge of Me.

“Being a keen theatre-goer I felt there was a gap in the stories and the types of people I was seeing represented on stage. The experiences of the world felt by myself or my peers was missing. I’d never seen a young female on stage talking about visits to the job centre. Similarly, I remember watching shows where there were so many stereotypes that weren’t true representations of my experience of what depression and anxiety are like, and how they affect people.

I was conscious of making my key character, Remi relatable. She’s vivacious and upbeat and I wanted to show that anyone can experience mental health and what you see on the outside isn’t necessarily reflective of the inner life.

In the Q&As after the show people would often say ‘I’d never imagine a girl like her being depressed or anxious.’ I was humbled by the positive responses I got and the numbers of people who said ‘that’s my life’.

One audience member told me they’d always suffered from depression and anxiety but had never had the confidence to tell anyone. Afterwards they found the strength and confidence to tell their family and to seek support. That reminded me of the power of theatre.

The Greeks understood it and they used theatre not just for entertainment but to educate. Theatre-makers have a responsibility to think about the messages behind what we create and to ask: ‘what do I want my audience to leave the theatre thinking and feeling?’”

On the Edge of Me.

On the Edge of Me. Photograph: Yoshi E

Yolanda acknowledges that there are some positive shifts happening across society with regards to perceptions of mental health.

“I feel that we are starting to build awareness around stigma. People are responding with understanding and support more and more. 1 in 4 people have mental health issues at some point in their life. It’s such a high number, and as a society, as people − we have a responsibility to support one another and to break down alienation.

More of the media are waking up to challenging stigma. Recently, rap artist Professor Green was on Newsnight talking about his campaign to challenge the stigma and taboo surrounding suicide telling the audience: ‘Don’t think less of yourself for crying’.”

Yolanda met Owen Calvert-Lyons, Head of Theatre and Performance at OvalHouse as a result of the May 2016 Brighton Fringe showcase. He has since made her Associate Artist at OvalHouse and programmed Quarter Life Crisis, the piece she is currently developing.

“I’m still rewriting Quarter Life Crisis – and the one thing that is ever present in it is the identity of second-generation citizens. I have friends whose ancestors were from the Windrush generation, and a friend whose grandmother survived Auschwitz. I want the new play to show how experiences of adversity travel from generation to generation.

The show will have some of my Nigerian identity − so it will have aspects of Yoruba language and culture within it as part of an exploration of what those traditions mean to second-generation citizens. My main character, Elisha is conscious of the duality she lives with and how her experience of living in London is informed by her identity. Quarter Life Crisis will have the Yolanda Mercy style of audience participation with music projection and a bigger theatre experience in general.”

With investment from OvalHouse and a tour in the making, Yolanda has written a two-year plan with inclusivity at its heart.

“It’s important for everyone to have access to understand a story. So, for example when we did On the Edge of Me in Bristol we had a BSL interpreter on stage – and she asked “should I be at the back?” But if you’re sidelined or made invisible you are instantly rendered as ‘other’. It’s important to think about the time of day, the price and other ways of taking the work to new audiences.

I want every show to be the next step up in development. I am deepening my knowledge and am keen to have conversations about making shows accessible. Annabel Turnip who leads at the Arc in Stockton has helped us to put inclusivity on the agenda. She has created a great team around her and alongside some of the other people in theatre I’ve worked with I am fortunate to have a body of people within the profession helping to ensure I get to the next level.”

For more information visit Yolanda’s website.

Upcoming performances: 

Taming of the Shrew – Shakespeare’s Globe
23rd Jan-27th March 2017

Soho Theatre Young Playwrights
30th Jan-10th March 2017

How to Create Your Own Show
7th March-9th May 2017

Quarter Life Crisis
Arc Stockton: 7pm. 12th April 2017
OvalHouse Theatre: 7.45pm. 13th-15th April 2017