My Theatre

27 March 2018

Nominee Interview Series: Mercedes Morris

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2017 MyEntWorld Critics’ Pick Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

OMG, have you guys met Mercedes Morris?! You should say hi sometime, she’s kind of superhumanly friendly. Talented and articulate and humble and outrageously beautiful, Mercedes came bounding into our office (to talk about being in the Outstanding Ensemble of Stratford’s brilliant contemporary Tartuffe) brimming with enthusiasm and and just genuine, infectious joy. She then proceeded to tell me the truth no matter what I asked. Doctors should prescribe an afternoon chatting with Mercedes Morris (ideally about theatre but, really, about anything), it certainly made me feel better about the world.

Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Well, my first would be when my aunt- who at the time was cast in The Lion King as a dancer- she got to bring me to a rehearsal. She was babysitting, and I got to sit in on a rehearsal, and I was so small at the time. But I remember being off on the side playing with the actor who was playing Simba. He was on a break, and I’m there as a kid, and we were just playing.

Even though I didn’t see them onstage, I consider that my first connection, really, because even in the rehearsal, it was so beautiful to watch these dancers. My aunt is still a practicing African dancer, and she goes around and still teaches and whatnot. So it was so long ago, but it’s also like we haven’t come that far from it. But it was beautiful. I will say that that has inspired my love for not just acting, but for entertaining, because that’s what they were doing.

I’ve asked hundreds of people that question. That’s my favourite answer so far. Was she one of the animals?
She was. I think she was like a gazelle or something. So long ago, but I’ll never forget [it] – I was playing with Simba. [laughs] So in my head I was Nala! Hello, Nala in the building! Somewhere in my future down the road, I feel like there’ll be a nice conclusion to that story where I do play Nala one day.

You went to Wexford Collegiate, which is legendary for its musicals. How formative were your experiences there?
I love Wexford. I will say it’s love-hate because as much as you’re a student- you’re in high school, you’re learning- as much as it was about learning, and I feel like I did learn a lot, I also understood that there is already this expectation that you already have to be the best to be the best. So as someone who naturally was already shining in the program, from maybe Grade 9, I felt like I was lifted in the program and supported and encouraged in a way that my fellow classmates may not have necessarily been. It’s taken me years to really wrap my head around this, too, because it’s very important.

What I wish was that we had done a little more learning. I loved putting on the musicals- like, [playing] Evita in Evita in my grade 12 year, it doesn’t really get any better than that- but I just wish that maybe my fellow classmates had a bit more of that TLC, so that we could have shone together and rose together. Again, that’s a matter of perspective, because I have that perspective, seeing as I was a little bit more on the top of the pile. It’s complicated, because from being up there, I was all, “Oh, I wish we would do more!” But a lot of it became about pushing out that final product. Getting our show done. So it was about the end result, as opposed to the journey to get there, and I just wish we could have all gone on that journey together a bit more. At the end, we were all there, and everyone’s on board. [laughs] Our ship is tight for sure, and what we were always taught and reminded was that it is about the group, it is about the collective. But as much as we’re talking that, then we have to show it, too. 

I was a part of some incredible musical productions. Incredible. And to think “Whoa, we were in high school!” We were doing our thing. I feel blessed and honoured to be a part of it, but I also can’t not acknowledge the privilege that I did have within the program.

Tartuffe (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

How did you get involved with Tartuffe at Stratford?
I auditioned. Tartuffe is just this incredible journey of mine. I auditioned for Chris Abraham for the role of Mariane. What an audition it was. The audition went well, it was great, cool. I’m about to leave. I was changing my shoes in the hallway, about to go, and the reader comes out and was like, “Do you have any time? Could you stick around? There’s a guy flying in, and here are some sides. When he comes, we’d love for you to read it with him.”

I was like “Okay!” I did my thing. I prepped. Found myself a nice little quiet corner, and I prepped, and I went back in, and he wasn’t there. So there was another guy who showed up, and they’re like, “Okay, let’s read the sides with him.” Then they asked me to wait again. They were like, “We’re still waiting on that first guy. Do you think you could hang around for him?” and I was like, “Oh yeah. I ain’t going nowhere! Shine and show my stuff? I’m totally down for the cause.”

He actually didn’t end up showing, which left me a ton of time in the room with Chris to just pull out some monologues. I don’t know where they came from! In my back pocket. They always tell you to have some prep, and I felt like I’d just had a great showing that day, and I was really able to strut my stuff in the room. When the offer came in, it all felt right, like that’s what the universe gifted me. It was really cool.

It was a really updated production with some modern language, and a very contemporary setting. How did the update affect Mariane’s arc in the story?
As large of an impact as it could have, I always try to remind myself that in whatever production we want to go and look up, Mariane was always ahead of her time. Of course she has Dorine, and her input too, but it was always her decision of, “No, Dad, I’m not listening to you!” That was groundbreaking. And a groundbreaking production is the one that we had. I also remember, this is just how Mariane is. She’s always been this way, against the norm.

The world’s caught up with her.
Yes! Exactly. That’s exactly how I felt. [laughs] I was like “No, you guys need to play catch-up, honestly.”

I think the update of how modern we brought it helped a little bit even in her independence, and her confidence, that a modern 21st century woman would display. But also the respect that she still maintains for her parents, and her privilege. She understands where she fits in the society. And because she understands where she fits, she’s able to use it to her benefit as well, and toy with her dad, just a wee bit. [And] ultimately get what she wants, in the end.

She’s a smart cookie, and she has some smart help, like Dorine, to give her that extra nudge. Because it’s always inside of her. She’s always known this is what she’s gonna have to do. Step up to the plate and speak her mind to Dad for once. It’s always been inside of her. But I think she just needed that extra go-ahead, that push from Dorine, who is in herself, again, confident and independent, and like a modern 21st century woman. It’s awesome how fabulous they can be together.

Tell us a little bit about working with the production team and Outstanding Ensemble-nominated cast.
[laughs] They are my family. Since day one, I was actually fortunate enough to be in all three shows with a number of my castmates from Tartuffe. So I think that helped strengthen our family bond. I was in Twelfth Night and The School for Scandal with a number of them. Even when you’re in one show, you’re always chit-chatting. We all loved how involved Chris and Julie Fox allowed us to be in not only the writing, but also the design, the production aspect – because it helped us to shape our characters.

Don’t get me started on Julie Fox, because I love her, and I love all of her designs, and she’s like a second mommy to me. But little things. I got to wear a fro on the Stratford stage. Hello, that was my idea! I was like, “No, I feel like Mariane would wear that, and I think Dorine could do this – why not ask those questions to make those suggestions, and have them be listened to, and valued?” That was big, and so I went onstage as Mariane every night knowing that “I shaped this. This is me.”

You mention the idea of a fro came from you. Did you find that you were really able to bring your perspective as a black performer into that story?
Yes. It makes me cry sometimes. I get a bit choked up thinking about it, but as an actor of colour, especially with large festivals, often your fear is [that] it’s kind of become – I don’t want to say acceptable, but there’s a kind of a feeling that I might be cast as a maid or servant, or maybe a witch or slave. That’s usually how you feel.

So, along with my offer of Mariane in Tartuffe, I was cast in two other shows. And I did play a servant, and a maid, in one. I acknowledge that it’s a part of the work. I get that it’s all a part of the package. But then I also acknowledge and understand that I was able to play a high-status character from my high-status family. I had a great role, and I had a great time as Mariane. So I have to acknowledge and understand both in order to put things in perspective for myself, but also for society.

Don’t get it twisted. I’m not complaining about my other roles whatsoever. I totally understand that that’s all part of the territory, completely. But I give props to myself for tackling Mariane. And obviously the visual challenges that some may have. It happens, sometimes. I’ll be in the lobby: “Oh, I just loved your maid character in Tartuffe!” And I was like, “Honey, that wasn’t me, I was the daughter. But okay!” [laughs] I understand – this is the two actors of colour. But again, hello! I just go, “We’re making progress. We are making progress. Baby steps.” I just have to pat myself on the back and remind myself that it’ll all be okay.

I look at characters like Anusree in Breath of Kings last year, she played a queen. Look at that. High-status character. So we can’t just look at the fact that she’s playing Dorine. She is a lead. Regardless of the role.

I love Anusree. She’s just everything and a bag of chips. As close as we were onstage as Dorine and Mariane, we are as close in the changing rooms. That’s my dressing mate, that’s my girl. I was sick at one point in the season, and I had to miss two shows. She brought me dinner, and snacks, and she checked in on me, and she was offering to pick me up and give me rides to the doctor- just a sweetheart.

So the bond that we created over the season really did show in our work. But that’s how I felt about everyone. Everyone was a family. It’s so easy to become a factory. Really easy. And to just become a number or a face. That’s not how I felt. I felt valued, and I felt important, and I felt unique in my own way. My own experience, and so I’m really grateful for my time at Stratty. And with all those people! You know how much you learn just from sitting in a room with Tom Rooney?! Hello! Just observing him. His work ethic, his attention to detail – even with the writing, he’s bringing it three different versions of it. Don’t play. He’s taking his Molière just as serious as he’s taking his Shakespeare.

A lot of people sometimes don’t do the text work, but he’s a constant reminder that the work never stops. The growth as an artist never stops. You just gotta put your head down and kick it into gear. Just work. Yeah, he’s awesome. And again, even, getting to work with Graham Abbey after, in Lear, it’s just like a family. You’re always connected somehow, if that makes sense.

How does Chris Abraham’s directorial style differ from some of the other directors you’ve worked with?
[whispers] Oh my gosh, I love Chris. [laughs] What I value about Chris is that, again, very similar to Tom – and I think that’s why they work together so often, and so well; that is a pair made in heaven – with Chris, the work never stops. He has this hunger, and it’s so fine-tuned and detailed. Up until right before your first preview, he’s still searching and finding, and he wants it to be right.

When you are led by someone who cares so much, you can’t help but care as much. The show was every cast member’s baby. We were so together. We were such a unit in creating this, and it’s like, if that type of passion and enthusiasm wasn’t shown from the top from day one, then I don’t think we would all have been so on board.

We had an edit in one scene, this major edit – it was like our last preview, and we tried it out on our last preview. A major edit, and it worked. To think now, if we didn’t stop, and decide as a group at 9 o’clock the night before [to] sit down along with Sarah Kitts – [who’s] our assistant director and awesome too. I can’t wait to work with her again in future- but if we hadn’t sat down and made that change, as scary as it would be to do it on your last preview, if we didn’t commit to it, then we wouldn’t have had the show that we had. It just sealed the deal, almost.

I’m so glad that Chris is not scared to say he’s not satisfied. That’s what it is. That’s what’s up. if you’re not content, don’t say you are. If you’re not happy, then say that, and let’s work on getting you happy. But often, people are okay with just being okay. I don’t like okay. I like excellent. I like fabulous. [laughs]

Chris is awesome. And he also has this way of articulating his notes in an actor’s vocabulary, as opposed to a director’s vocabulary. Call me crazy, but there is a difference. He just has a way of phrasing or formulating his notes that are easy and clear for the actor to understand, and it’s a way that I can then adjust my whole thought as that character, as opposed to just a reading. His notes go deep. I’m a fan of Chris’, and he has been an advocate for me, starting my theatre career, and my time at Stratford. I’m really grateful for him.

Will you be doing the remount with Canadian Stage, Groundling and Crow’s?
My hope is that I’m able to, because like I said, it was such a family unit. Because we were so close, I believe that’s what gave the production that extra boost of life, that extra spark. So I would love to perform with them again. You know, January’s a ways away, that’s all.

Did you have a favourite moment in the play?
[laughs] Oh, I had a couple. Maev Beaty’s just so funny. I really loved the couch scene. The exposure. That’s just a classic. And those two just did it a way I’d never seen before. Everyone just looked so fabulous in that show. I loved how she seduced him. I love a woman with power, and I love a woman who knows how to work her stuff, so I think that was my favourite.

Then, of course, my fro line. Because, like I said, we were able to actually have a part, have a say, a little bit, in some of the writing, and the edits for this translation. And I got to come up with that one, and it was a keeper. [laughs] That was like my baby, so it felt good.

Tell us a little bit about working on Lear and having Seana McKenna for a mom.
How do I even explain this entity? She is so amazing. As soon as you said “Seana”, my world just lit up a bit.

Backtrack a little. My time on Lear was very special because it was my first time being cast as one of the main characters in a Shakespeare production. I call it my first Shakespeare, so that alone has a special place in my heart, to be directed by Graham Abbey.

Again, it’s similar to my time in Tartuffe, because when you have someone who can articulate what they mean as an actor, my notes from Graham again – you connect as a director and an actor. That’s what I found I was able to do with him, and to learn, and to pick up from everyone around me, like Seana. She’s so open, and so gracious, and to be able to ask her questions about the folio, ask her about her – because she’s played the role. She’s actually played all three daughters, if I’m not mistaken. So to ask her about her time as Cordelia, and have her be so gracious, and so educating, and so free.

She was my mother. I called her Mama Seana. [laughs] That’s what she was to me. Mama Seana. She was my mom onstage. We did build a really special connection, and the same thing with Graham. That’s my papa. He’s still my Orgon. We still had that connection where I feel like if I had any type of question or any doubt, I could go to him.

I could go to anyone in the cast, really. Kevin Hanchard was very supportive. He was always there to listen, and answer little questions, and give me feedback. He’s the sweetest, actually. I left my hat there on our closing night, and he mailed it to me two weeks later. [laughs]

I’ve been very blessed and fortunate enough to be a part of a cast that feel like a family. I’m supported by really loving, nurturing, understanding individuals who are also on their A-game, and very professional, and respectful, so there’s a level of professionalism in the room that you just breathe in and soak up. Not only do I learn from them my craft as an actor, my skills as an actor, but as a human being. Just humanity is something I’ve picked up a lot from these individuals. Just humanity. They’re really cool.

What are you working on now or next?
Before my time at Stratford, I was doing a bit of film and television, and so I have jumped back into that. I’m excited. I have something that I have recently finished working on. I can’t quite say, because all of the little rules that they have, but people, stay tuned and caught up and up to date with my Twitter, and my Instagram! Things will slowly start leaking out. [laughs] It’s @im2fancy_ – something I’ve always been. And I totally embrace it. I love dressing up, and I love a good time, and I love red carpets. [laughs]

Someone sounds ready for April 16th! Do you have anything you want to add?
I wanna add that I’m really grateful for my time here, and getting to share my experiences, because I’ve had some special ones, and it’s not every day that you have a platform to share them with. So I’m very grateful for you and your time. And I just wanna share more love for everyone in the city, just doing their thing, because it’s not easy, what we do. Some people have been in the game a long time. Kudos, and I’m inspired by them, and I’m grateful for them. Blessings to everyone, really.

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