Approaching Shakespeare as a Young Performer

Performer Mercy Ojelade shares advice for performing Shakespeare, and her tips for anyone considering a career in the acting industry.

By Christina Care

I think the thing that sticks out is that storytelling is key. What we’ve got are plays that are really just great stories. Sometimes they are very recognisable stories, but ultimately [these stories] are really cleverly told and have stood the test of time.
Mercy Ojelade

As part of our Open House sessions, Mercy Ojelade led a series of workshops for young performers looking to get their teeth into some Shakespeare. We caught up with her to get her advice for young performers looking to get started in the acting industry.

Hi Mercy! What made you want to become an actor?

I always wanted to be a teacher. My secondary school had a very good drama teacher who was just really encouraging. I won an award in school and I could use the bursary to pay for extracurricular classes. At about 14, I started to attend Saturday classes at Sylvia Young Theatre School. I was there for about five years. We went to the theatre as a family when I was younger, but I don't have any actors in the family!

Shakespeare can feel intimidating for actors at times – how should younger performers approach his plays?

I think the thing that sticks out is that storytelling is key. What we’ve got are plays that are really just great stories – they’re crazy and wild. Sometimes they are very recognisable stories, but ultimately [these stories] are really cleverly told.

As a young person, you grow up with stories, and are encouraged to use your imagination, so it’s probably easier to tap into some of the leaps you have to make [with Shakespeare] – as adults, we just apply logic to most things and that can sometimes get in the way!

Would you say that actors are often also intimidated by the language?

Sometimes and unnecessarily. I think it could be [that] if you’re not familiar with different languages already as a child or adult, any other language is going to be daunting to you. Whereas if you can already speak another language, you can use those skills to tackle it.

Even if you’re not fluent in French, you might recognise words and put words that you know together to form sense of what that sentence is trying to say. That's a great way to start; the irony is that it’s still in English, it’s not another language!

If you imagine that we wrote down everything in the way we speak now, and in fifty or a hundred years’ time, took it out to read to people, they might think, “It's odd or intimidating to decipher the meaning too!”

Right, if we used a load of Twitter language….

If I gave a load of Twitter language to my mum or a grandparent, they might say, “What is this?!” It’s the same. The initial reaction is fine; of course, it’s a surprise or a shock, nobody actually speaks that way, but actually once you break it down… suddenly it all clicks. It’s not actually that far from where we are at.

I do think it’s important that young people are allowed to develop a passion. Let them love it.

Would you approach Shakespeare the same as any piece of new writing, in terms of breaking down the text and starting to work with it?

From an acting perspective, yes, I would. If you’re presented with a text by a playwright, you have to read it for what it is. Beyond that you can do all the technical work. But I’d approach it the same way as new writing or any classical - you’ve got to understand what you’re saying and why it’s being said in relation to the story being told. I think that’s the way into it.

We give a lot of reverence to Shakespeare and I can understand why. But I think sometimes we confuse fear with reverence, and I’m not sure they are the same thing. Fear sometimes means running away from things - I didn’t do a professional Shakespeare performance until 2016. Some of that might have been fear, some of it might have been wondering if it was for me. The last couple of years I’ve found a new appreciation for it. I’ve been lucky to have lovely people around who are Shakespeare aficionados who can say, “It’s fine, what you’re saying completely makes sense!” Very reassuring.

Also, there’ll be stuff that speaks to you and you’ll think ‘I get it’. I struggle with The Tempest - no matter how many times… but that’s completely fine, because I also love Romeo and Juliet!

What’s been the highlight for you as an actress so far and what would you like to do next?

My highlights have been international touring - something I wouldn't change. It has opened my eyes to the possibilities of performance;  I really enjoy being part of international festivals - it’s such a great way to see what others are doing across the world in one place. For me, doing The Walworth Farce was a peak. It’s a brilliant play and made by a very passionate team of playful, passionate and highly skilled creatives. Touring has really informed me and who I am today; I definitely look outwards and have an appreciation for universal themes that may not simply be on my doorstep in North London.

Aside from this, I suppose my nagging desire as a performer is to fly in a show!

Is there any final advice you’d give young performers, or their parents, in terms of guiding them in their budding career?

My advice has changed over the years. I truly believe that the best way in for me [as an actor] has been to see as much theatre as possible. It’s invaluable. I think having access to shows - whatever, wherever - the more you see, the more it helps with the passion. You can study it all you like, but sometimes you just have to see it and do it - get involved, in as many things as possible.

So many theatres now have youth theatres or youth groups attached. It’s not just because you get to perform - which is important and performing is great - but there are other skills too. Being able to work with a group of people who you’ve never met before, being able to work with a director you’ve never met before, knowing that in six weeks you’ll be putting on a show… I think unless you do it, you’re not really taught those things. Being around other young people with similar passions as you is really useful, as is just using these classes and extracurricular activities for playing. Having a space where you can do all the crazy things.

Just keep exploring, because sometimes you might find that you think ‘I really want to be an actor!’ but then actually, you might discover ‘I really love writing, or directing.’ Youth theatres are brilliant for unlocking alternative career paths - still in the industry, still in the arts, but just [another way] of being involved.

Until you have to make career choices, it should be fun - I think it should be fun the whole way through, personally! But I do think it’s important that young people are allowed to develop a passion for it. Let them love it.

Thanks so much for speaking to us, Mercy.

We have lots more tips and advice for young performers who are working or thinking of a career in acting. If you have any questions or an idea for a topic you think we should cover, please do get in touch with us at [email protected]