top of page

"Simply A S**t Show": Mermaids Deep Dive

TW: Please be aware that this article contains references to suicide and self-harm.

The St Andrean mermaid is not a conventional one. Mermaids — the long-standing performing arts fund and producer of most St Andrews theatre — do not swim in bodies of water, but are themselves a body who preserve the performing arts scene. 

Funded directly by the Union, Mermaids is one of eight activities subcommittees, and largely responsible for producing most shows advertised in town. Mermaids are also host to a number of affiliated performing arts societies such as Gilbert and Sullivan Society and Musical Theatre Society (MusT). But with a primary goal and purpose to “promote performing arts in St Andrews and beyond,” this comes at a cost. 

As our evidence suggests, this ‘promotion’ is at the expense of well-being, diversity, equal opportunity, and student voices. Though the primary source of theatre in St Andrews should be held accountable for the addressed failures, many issues do not lie solely within the realm of Mermaids, nor St Andrews itself.  

What has become clear, however, is that the St Andrews theatre scene has proven to many to be a system in desperate need of accountability and reevaluation. 

One source — who has acted in a number of productions in town — called the theatre community in St Andrews “very incestuous.” “It’s predicated on social relationships,” she added. Citing an “intermingling of a very dense social web,” sources agreed that this cronyistic culture is an unshakeable characteristic of the community.

“It’s always the same guys,” one former director noted. “If somebody is the director of a show, usually a guy, who is third or fourth year, he will always cast his friends.” Another actress added that in auditions she felt production teams were “b**chy towards anyone who wasn’t the kind of person that they were looking for.” As for the “kind of person” they were looking for, one actress simply said, “Specifically, white, English people.”

When asked if the theatrical productions in St Andrews contained actors from a wealth of backgrounds, Jo Scherer, a graduate actor, replied, “More like people from wealthy backgrounds, rather than from a wealth of backgrounds.” They added, “The theatre scene in St Andrews seems to be predominately white and upper-class [...] Starting from the selection of the plays, to production teams and cast, as well as the target audience.”

It must be noted, however, that the Mermaids committee is itself a diverse committee. The lack of diversity plaguing St Andrews theatre is, however, attributed to individuals who are put on a tenured pedestal, in both casts and production teams. 

Recently, Mermaids produced a play in which a central aspect is its working-class characters overcoming their underprivileged backgrounds. While the production received rave reviews, strikingly, the play’s director regrets their “naive” casting decisions, exclaiming: “I wish I’d done it differently.”

The play’s cast consisted of primarily middle-class, privately educated performers, juxtaposing the subject matter; “It’s not the point of the play,” the director said. Despite its critical acclaim, in a moment of reflection they concluded that while they were proud of the production, the casting indeed lacked integrity. 

One actress remarked on the welcoming quality of theatre for many different groups of people — the racial constituency of shows in town threatens that, she said: “To see it be so white and so English and so unwelcoming to students is heartbreaking.”

Student director and writer, Catherine Barrie spoke of her own struggle in finding BAME actors auditioning for her writing. For her play Women You Know, she drew from memory the statistics of her auditionees’ demographic:  “50 white girls auditioned. Four Asian girls. There’s no contest.” 

On wanting to produce more BAME and female-led stories, she told The Saint, “asking once isn’t enough,” before stating that she believes these narratives aren’t encouraged unless “you can make it fun.” Furthermore, when asked about her experience as a woman in St Andrews theatre, she remarked, “I don't think they are treated equally.” 

Desiring to encourage greater diversity in St Andrews theatre, she aspires to change the roles available to BAME actors and the process of “having to ‘neutralise’ yourself, which is [to be] white and Southern [English].” She seeks to develop a project where ethnic minorities can discuss their experiences together and form new, diverse writing. 

Another female writer, who has since graduated, agreed on the lack of diversity in pieces produced in St Andrews, an issue existing beyond Mermaids. However, she criticised the choice of plays produced by Mermaids itself: “Telling stories from [the] 15th-19th century is not progressive”, before stating, “I know that rights are harder to acquire but maybe, just maybe, that then leads us to creating more space for new writing.” 

Sources also agreed that Mermaids has sponsored a number of shows with excessively heavy subject matter — a creative decision motivated by the impulse to, as one source said, “always go for the shock factor.” 

While these productions aim to facilitate conversations around mental health, one source said that they felt production teams often show little support for the well-being of the actors involved. The Mermaids Well-being Plan advises that production teams “offer trigger warnings” for rehearsals “so that participants can prepare themselves.” 

Despite this, one actor said she “was basically asked to perform a self-harm scene in the audition without any prep or awareness.” It was only after being offered a role that the director emailed her to inform her of the show’s “romanticised” suicide. 

Issues concerning inadequate well-being creeped up during one recent Mermaids Fringe production, which never made it to opening night. After a mentally exhausting series of rehearsals left one cast member in a “deeply unnatural” headspace, the show was cancelled. 

The show centred on themes of death and grief, though the same cast member added that the script wasn’t finished until a few weeks prior to the show’s first rehearsal. 

“We didn’t have the time to really sit and wonder whether it was worth it [...] to potentially sacrifice [our mental stability] for the show,” recalled the actress. The show came a couple months after her grandfather’s death, making its overall message particularly raw. 

“[Rehearsals] had a noticeable effect on my mental health, and we had no way of managing it,” she said. “No one knew what they were doing. There was no clear plan in place.” She recalled how the lack of a designated Well-Being Officer led many actors to the unprepared Fringe Representative for support. 

The show’s burdensome topics encouraged actors to purposefully enter into a negative headscape to allow for a good performance, she said  if they didn’t succeed, it felt like failure. “It was this horrible, paradoxical thing where there was no possible way we could end the show feeling good.” 

At one rehearsal, she asked the director to go home early, but wasn’t allowed to because “we had a lot of work to do,” she said. “I was very on the edge,” she noted. “I was thinking about killing myself, and I hadn’t thought about that in a long time.” 

Luckily, she called someone she trusted. “And if it hadn’t been for my friend who was there? God knows. Mermaids would have been entirely liable,” she concluded, “everyone in the chain would have been liable for that.”

“That really almost happened, and I never got really any apology for that from anyone,” she said.

After her traumatising experience at the Fringe, she now feels that her reputation has been slighted. “The number of callbacks and positive receptions I’ve had in auditions has gone down significantly since Fringe,” she said. “I’ve been assured by other people […] that it could not be related to Fringe. I don’t believe them.” 

She urges that Mermaids provide more support for future productions: “[The director] should’ve had more support from people that were higher up in the chain,” she said. “There should have been a well-being plan in place to begin with.”

“I know all of us are students, all of us are young,” she said, “but when you’re responsible for other people, you have to take that seriously.” 

But for many, speaking out is a daunting prospect — as evidenced in the consistent anonymity of this article’s sources — for fear of being restricted from a theatrical career in town, or ruining both personal and professional relationships. Unprompted, many interviewees mentioned feeling as if there is, as one source put, a “blacklist culture.”

Jo Scherer told The Saint of the repercussions they faced when speaking out against a Mermaids production: “I complained about the production team’s refusal to put in the work, communicate and listen to the actors, their disrespectful treatment of the cast and the — quite literally — traumatising working conditions of the production.” Jo states their refusal to comply resulted in a loss of roles in Mermaids productions, following being branded “difficult to work with.”

They concluded, however, by stating: “If there is something I have learned from my experience with Mermaids, it is that ‘difficult to work with’ just means ‘difficult to exploit’.”

Following the loss of a cherished hobby, Jo spoke of their first-hand experience of Mermaids’ financial, personal, and resource presence in St Andrews. They said, “due to the sympathy of singular Mermaids members, I could get roles again after some time had passed, but the entire experience was simply a s**t show.” 

Similarly, one former director recalled how — at the last minute — Mermaids informed her that her production’s tech rehearsal would take place on the day of the show’s premiere because another Mermaids production had to rehearse instead. 

One actress noted how “multiple people went home crying” because the impromptu rehearsal “went so badly.” A lot of this, the director said, had to do with the fact that the Mermaids-provided tech crew knew little about the show, representative of the committee’s lack of involvement more generally. If they had been, this could have “absolutely” been avoided, she said. 

One actress from the same show said that she felt the production was “intentionally not cared about because it [wasn’t] something that that production company [valued].” Furthermore, the cast and crew had to single-handedly lug props and costumes from the Byre to the Union after Mermaids failed to fulfil their promise of transportation. Despite her complaints to the committee, they remained silent. 

“These people — no matter how smart and intelligent they are academically — have zero common sense when it comes to how they make other people feel with their words and actions,” she said.

Fellow sources cited this recurring lack of organisation as a primary issue within Mermaids.

Last semester Mermaids produced Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot despite notoriously rigid restrictions in place by the Beckett estate, which The Guardian once described as an “iron grip”. One such restriction denotes the prohibition of female-presenting performers playing male-presenting roles. Mermaids failed to mention this in their auditions information on social media, allowing female-presenting performers to audition.

Within the production itself, certain stylistic decisions — namely an actor playing a tree — garnered contention from the Beckett estate, infamous for threatening productions with lawsuits. We are unable to report on whether the Beckett estate has taken official legal action against the aforementioned production.

This seeming lack of consideration even extends to St Andrews journalism. One member of The Saint’s editorial board shared that, upon agreeing to review Mermaids’ Christmas Ball, she had to comply with a contract, stating that committee “maintains the right to review any written and photographic material before it is published and maintains the right to request edits that they deem inappropriate or defamatory.” 

When she pointed out this request’s obvious breach of journalistic integrity, they replied, “we are struggling a little to understand how the clause is preventing [The Saint’s] independence.” Additionally, they alluded to its fairness on behalf of the compensated tickets provided to The Saint itself. “This is a very standard clause in professional contracts,” they claimed. 

Mermaids did agree to change the clause slightly — instead of stating their explicit right to approve the review, they “request that The Saint do not publish any material that they deem inappropriate or defamatory.” She still recognised the issue with this, though. 

“There’s no reason why I should have to share [my review] with them,” she said. “That’s not how it works.” They also gave her a “really strict turn-around” to publish the piece within 48 hours of the event — in return, Mermaids promised to share her article on their social media platforms, which they failed to do. “They completely violated our agreement,” she said.

Elsewhere, scroll through fellow publications’ theatre reviews and see endless praises in alignment with the production’s desires. One journalist fell victim to censorship after her own publication informed her that she had breached publication reviewing policy in her coverage of a Mermaids production. She described the culture of fear in St Andrews journalism as “draconian”, commenting: “the purpose of a review isn't just promotion for a show, nor is it to make the cast and crew feel warm and fuzzy when they read it: they're meant to assess the calibre of a production.” 

Earlier this year, another student journalist came under fire after Mermaids caught wind of their review — of which the uncensored version was shared by an anonymous source.

A text sent to the cast and crew of the production disclosed that a committee member asked the Union Sabbatical Director of Events and Services — a figure present at most Mermaids events and proposals — to reach out to the publication’s Editor-in-Chief and ensure the review would not get “published in some unofficial capacity.” Ultimately, the DoES and LGBT Officer prevented its publication. 

While aspects of the review rightfully earned the committee member’s criticism of being “deeply personal,” the mere fact that Mermaids had the authority to influence the review’s process to publication speaks more to their lack of regard for St Andrews journalism as a whole.

This cultivates a shared feeling of trepidation for all those who work with Mermaids — especially performers in town. After one actress’s disappointing experience in her first year, she “considered never doing theatre at St Andrews again.” 

“I know from talking with people that theatre is something that they were […] pretty involved in before they came here, and they were just so demoralised by the process of auditioning that they kind of gave up,” added another.  

After multiple failed auditions and impolite run-ins with committee members, she recalled feeling like her countless years of theatre experience prior to university didn’t stand a chance to the environment at St Andrews. “It feels like, oh, to get into this stuff you have to do X, Y, and Z,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like being you is enough to bring to the table.” 

The recurring term associated with Mermaids and St Andrews theatre, appears to be “lack of”. Lack of diversity, well-being, organisation, and mere consideration — all of which are clawing away at St Andrean theatre. Student theatre should be a hobby, but instead it’s proven to be a taxing extra-curricular requiring unattainable and unfathomable commitment on a multitude of levels.

If theatre in St Andrews is to change, the higher-ups across the community need to reevaluate how student theatre in this town is run, alongside their treatment of — not only current performers and creatives  — but those yet to take the stage.

Upon being approached for comment, Mermaids gave the following statement: 

The Mermaids Performing Arts Fund Committee is aware of issues within the St Andrews theatre community as a whole. We are actively working to address these issues as they pertain to Mermaids specifically within our capacity as subcommittee. We also actively encourage any and all feedback from cast, crew, audience members, and all members of the St Andrews community. If you have concerns you would like to discuss with Mermaids, both those addressed in the article or otherwise, we welcome everyone to attend our weekly public meeting Monday 6-7 in the Small Rehearsal Room (the Canada Room) at the top floor of the Union; at this meeting we have specific sections where the public can bring up any complaints or observations to the committee. We also have an anonymous feedback form that any member of the public can fill out at any time. For more information, we invite everyone to visit our website, which has our constitution and policies easily accessible.”

Illustration: Clodagh Earl


bottom of page