After cutting her teeth on big West End shows such as Dreamgirls and Memphis the Musical, Carly Mercedes Dyer wanted to step out of her comfort zone and landed parts in Hadestown at the National and Sweet Charity at Nottingham Playhouse. Now, as she takes on the role of Maria’s best friend Anita in Curve’s West Side Story, she tells Tom Wicker how she drew on aspects of her own personality to find the character and why the musical’s themes still resound so strongly today
For Carly Mercedes Dyer, landing the chance to follow in the footsteps of legends like Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno as Anita in West Side Story was thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.
“At first, you think, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve actually done it, I’ve managed to get this amazing role,’” she says. “Then you have that moment where you’re like: ‘Do I actually have the skills to do this?’”
But she quickly cast that trepidation aside. “The more you live your life, the more experiences you can call upon, the more people inspire you. You use those things and just do the best job you can.”
Dyer is playing the role of Maria’s best friend in the new production at Leicester Curve directed by the venue’s artistic director Nikolai Foster.
In this tale of doomed love on the streets of 1950s New York, the actor found her way into Anita’s character by drawing on aspects of her own personality. “I was shy when I was little and, sometimes, if you’re nice, people take advantage of that and push it too far. Then you stand up for yourself.”
Anita’s journey begins optimistically: she’s determined to see the best in America, “what she can gain and how she can improve herself”. Then tragedy strikes.
The original production of West Side Story broke ground by casting the Hispanic Rivera as Anita. But the casting since has often been controversial. White American actress Natalie Wood played the Puerto Rican Maria in the film version (Moreno played Anita). In 2018, Broadway star Sierra Boggess withdrew from the same role in the BBC’s West Side Story Prom after complaints of ‘whitewashing’.
At Curve, Adriana Ivelisse – a Puerto Rican native and 2019 Spotlight Prize finalist – will be making her professional UK debut as Maria. “She’s just a gorgeous person,” Dyer says, adding that Ivelisse has also helped greatly with her accent. “Just being around her, you get the lilts and where to put the stresses.”
She strongly believes that diversity on stage should be a given now, “and not just because ‘we should have someone who’s different up there’”. She movingly recalls the unexpected emotional impact of seeing resonances of her own childhood in Marianne Elliot’s Death of a Salesman with Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke and Alexander Zeldin’s Faith, Hope and Charity.
It made her consider how her father felt when he arrived from Jamaica. “I’d never seen that before,” she says. “I didn’t realise that I hadn’t seen part of my growing up on stage before.” Diversity in theatre, she says, “is about telling more people’s stories. It’s about seeing life through different eyes and using your imagination.”
What was your first non-theatre job? I worked for two days at Zenith Windows with my friend, cold-calling people. I was supposed to keep them on the phone and sell them windows. I was like: ‘They don’t want the windows.” I was terrible.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I left ArtsEd early to do High School Musical at the Hammersmith Apollo.
What is your next job?
I have nothing lined up after West Side Story, so if anyone wants to employ me, I’m all for it.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Make sure you have a life outside theatre. You need to find other hobbies, so you’re not going to be down and depressed if you’re not working.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
My mum, because she is the best cheerleader you could ever have. I also love people who are fearless in what they do.
What is your best advice for auditions? Remember why you’re doing it. Go in and enjoy it. It’s as much your audition as it is theirs.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
I was good at sports at school. I think it came from dancing. Maybe I could have been a PE teacher.
Any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No. I just have to make sure I drink a lot of water and warm up properly.
Since graduating from ArtsEd in 2008, Dyer has gone from dancer to ensemble and then to leading roles in shows from West End hits like Memphis the Musical and Dreamgirls, Sweet Charity at Nottingham Playhouse and exciting new musicals like Hadestown at National Theatre and, most recently, The View UpStairs at Soho Theatre.
“I’ve done it on purpose,” she says of her varied career path. After Memphis, her agent asked her about joining the cast of Motown the Musical. “I said: ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’ It’s very easy, once you’ve got into that world, to stay there. I don’t want to take away from other people who are enjoying those things – it’s great. But I want to challenge myself.” Playing Anita is the next challenge.
West Side Story may be more than 60 years old, but its tale of rival gangs touches on themes of immigration and ethnic tension, teenage gang violence and police brutality that still resound strongly today. Foster has drawn out these parallels, according to Dyer. The cast met community members to discuss their experiences with young offenders and knife crime.
“That’s the great thing about our West Side Story,” she says. “It isn’t just what you’ve seen before and know to expect. It’s shining a light on what’s happening today as well.” And Foster has created “a safe space” for the cast to explore the ramifications of their characters. “He’s so welcoming, he makes you feel that you can do anything. No idea is stupid.”
Every aspect of the production is about finding new layers of truth, says Dyer, and she reserves particular praise for choreographer Ellen Kane: “There’s a narrative behind everything she does. It’s never: ‘Let’s do a kick here because it looks nice.’ It’s about what story it’s telling.” Similarly, costume designer Ed Lindley hasn’t gone for “the typical, big skirts that swish around; it’s more personable and real”.
Dyer hopes West Side Story’s audiences will find her performance as Anita truthful. Meanwhile, she’s excitedly watched the production come together, from the stage being set up to her fellow cast members trying on their costumes. “And the music is unreal. It’s transcendent,” she says. “This is the musical of musicals. And I think it’s going to be the biggest orchestra the Curve has had. It’s going to be great.”
Place of birth and year: Central Middlesex, 1987
Training: Arts Educational Schools
• Memphis the Musical, Shaftesbury Theatre, London (2014)
• Dreamgirls, Savoy Theatre, London (2016)
• Hadestown, National Theatre, London (2018)
• Sweet Charity, Nottingham Playhouse (2018)
Agent: Alastair Lindsey-Renton and Helen Clarkson, at Curtis Brown