“My job is to adapt the internet” – An Interview with Leo Mercer

Leo Mercer is perhaps the most experimental playwright in the Oxford theatre scene. His latest effort, Queueue: A Coffee Shop Musical, looks to be shaking things up even more than usual. Set to be staged in the Modern Art Oxford Cafe, Mercer and director Scott Bolohan have created an exciting, experimental show, which I previewed for the OxStu here. Leo was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss immersive theatre, internet culture and The Lego Movie.

Could you start by just telling us what Queueue is and what it’s about?

So it’s a musical set in a coffee shop, staged in a coffee shop. It’s about the people in that coffee shop, and the small but very beautiful interactions that they have. It lets the audience sit actually inside the cafe as it’s happening, so it’s very intimate, and it’s very real. We’re not going for a massive, overblown musical, with big things on stage, far away. It’s entirely the opposite; it’s pure contemporary life, with contemporary music.

So where did the idea for this show come from?

It’s a funny story. It began as an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, with the notion of ‘let’s go from a very normal space to a very weird space’. That was Stephen’s idea, who wrote the music, and then I thought, cool, I like the internet, and the internet is kind of its own wonderland, so let’s try and merge the two. We gradually lost the Alice in Wonderland frame as we went along – the main character’s still called Alice, as a kind of throwback. But I think in some sense it is still an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Both of those novels took little, normal things, like a mirror, or a garden party, and transformed them into fantastical things. It’s the same with the internet. You can sit there in a cafe, and everyone will be working on laptops, and it’s very real life, but at the same time everyone’s on a computer, they’re linking to everywhere in the world, seeing so many different things. So on the one hand it’s very mundane. and on the other it’s just completely wacky. I guess that’s what Queueue is about, it’s about finding the wackiness in the mundane.

Let’s talk about the music – where did the sound of the show come from?

A really cool thing about coffee shops is that they have their own music, in a way the internet doesn’t. The internet is more of a visual space than an auditory one. A coffee shop, on the other hand, has its own kind of sound, and so it makes sense to begin there when you’re writing the music. So we started with that very familiar sound, and then built outwards. For me, as a writer, my job isn’t to adapt Alice in Wonderland, it’s to adapt the internet. Stephen’s job as a composer is not to write a musical, it’s to write a coffee shop.

Do you feel there’s a natural affinity between coffee shops and the internet?

Definitely. It’s counter-intuitive, because the internet is so virtual, whereas the cafe is such a physical space, and it prides itself on that. But you couldn’t have one without the other. There’s a new breed of human life which is emerging as a result of the internet and coffee shops coming together. Paul Mason has a lovely section in his book, PostCapitalism, talking about Shakespeare’s histories versus his comedies. The histories are these grand stories about bygone types of people, but all the comedies are set in the real world. He’s noticing a new kind of person exists, and Mason says that in future literature it’s going to be the same, that a certain type of entrepreneur/freelancer type person who works away from home, in places like coffee shops is going to emerge and have stories told about them.

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