Ash Mercia has had a whirlwind year, treading theatrical boards all over central Alberta and beyond in 2022.
Her current gig is playing the trickster Mario in the opulent Prime Stock Theatre comedy The Games of Love and Chance, now playing at the Scott Block Theatre.
But Mario’s 18th-century boots are just the latest theatrical shoes Mercia has been filling.
Hands down, the 37-year-old has been Red Deer’s busiest actor of the year, racking up more than half a dozen credits since January.
Mercia kicked off 2022 by playing hapless restaurant reservation-taker Samantha, as well as over 30 snooty, angry and loony callers in the one-woman show Fully Committed. Constantly running from one end of the stage to another and up ladders, while switching into different characters’ voices, was like running a marathon, she recalled.
“I’d go home and eat crackers and hummus at 10 o’clock at night…”
After recharging her energy, she premiered the one-act play she wrote and starred in, Alotted Heartbeats in Alternate Timelines, at the Heartland One-Act Play Festival last spring. It was named Best New Work at the festival.
The Red Deer College theatre graduate then brushed up on Shakespeare for the dual roles of Fairy Queen Titania and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, in Bard on Bower’s Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Bower Ponds stage in July.
Her challenge was finding the power in Titania, Mercia recalled. Although the fairy queen is deferential to King Oberon, “I wanted her to be a strong woman character.”
Summer was a season for taking on some fun, smaller projects. Mercia sang as kooky Rose in Curtis Labelle’s Comeback Cabaret, and also signed on for the Theatre Trail in Sylvan Lake. Playing dejected millennial Echo, she bemoaned the state of friendships in the smartphone age in a short play she wrote called Connection.
Somehow, Mercia also found time to appear with Bull Skit improvisation group and do improv battles in Edmonton for The Grindstone Theatre.
“I didn’t realize I’d done so much,” said Mercia, until a friend recounted her annual output. “But it feels good to be so busy,” she admitted since, for many years, Mercia couldn’t get a toe on stage.
While growing up in the farming community of Evergreen, near Leslieville, she never got to try acting because there were no school theatre programs.
In high school, the bookish youth joined an Arts and Culture Club and would be driven to Calgary with other students to watch ballets and plays.
I was like magic unfolding before her eyes: “I loved it!” recalled Mercia, who thought, “I would really, really love doing that kind of stuff, it looked like so much fun!”
Part of the thrill was seeing the vulnerability of characters exposed, she added. “We don’t value vulnerability enough in our society. It think it makes you true to who you are, if you can open up to others.”
After high school, Mercia auditioned for the former Red Deer College theatre program but did not get in. Instead, she obtained her teacher credentials and taught for a time in Japan.
Then a chance opportunity arose to become a murder mystery player, reigniting her love of theatre. “I dove into improvisation and acting,” she recalled. This time, she was accepted into the RDC theatre program for 2014-‘16.
One of her acting teachers, Tanya Ryga, became so impressed with Mercia’s fearless approach that when she decided to direct Fully Committed for Central Alberta Theatre, Ryga knew just who to cast to bring nearly three dozen characters to life.
Ryga has stated, “It wasn’t until I watched Ash transform so completely on stage in shows at Red Deer College, in Bull Skit Comedy, Butt Ugly, and Bard on Bower, that I knew I’d found an actor more than capable of embodying the 33-plus characters.”
Mercia’s current challenge is portraying a man on stage — which is no different from Shakespearean male actors playing women’s roles.
As Mario in The Games of Love and Chance (adapted by Red Deer’s Richard Beaune from the French play by Pierre de Marivaux), Mercia plays someone who’s in on the deceptions at the heart of the play.
Like audience members, Mario is aware his sister Sylvia is switching places with her servant before meeting her betrothed. Mario also knows that Sylvia’s fiance has pulled the same switcheroo with his valet.
“Because Mario knows, he can play tricks on them,” she said, describing the comic character as someone who’s very relatable. The trick to creating any role is finding a part of that character within yourself, she added.
The Games of Love and Chance runs at the Scott Block to Nov. 27.
Mercia hopes to get a good rest over Christmas and then plans to assess her situation in 2023.
While she loves Red Deer, Mercia is open to checking out prospects in larger cities with more professional theatre opportunities.