In Steve Yockey’s ‘Mercury,’ revenge is sweet when it goes down with laughs

Seventh play by the Atlanta native opens on April 6 at Actor’s Express
Steve Yockey's successful career has spanned writing for stage, film and television. His play "Mercury" opens at Actor’s Express on April 6,

Credit: Photo by Maddie Deutch

Credit: Photo by Maddie Deutch

Steve Yockey's successful career has spanned writing for stage, film and television. His play "Mercury" opens at Actor’s Express on April 6,

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

When ”Mercury” opens at Actor’s Express on April 6, it will mark one of many homecomings for Atlanta native Steve Yockey. Long before the celebrated playwright and screenwriter began his career — rewinding past his Emmy nomination for Max’s “The Flight Attendant,” the announcement of his gig on J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek 4″ and long before he was regularly texting with Neil Gaiman about his adaptation of the British author’s “Dead Boy Detectives” series for Netflix (debuting April 25) — he was an unpaid intern at Actor’s Express, having landed the gig fresh out of undergraduate studies at the University of Georgia.

That year as part of the intern cohort of 2001-2002 — a cohort which, incidentally, included yours truly — was formative. It imbued him with skills he’d carry forward, including the purely technical know-how that now feeds and informs what he calls the “spectacle of my work.”

Yockey would go on to earn an MFA in dramatic writing from the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU in 2008, later moving to California, where he now resides. But those ties with Actor’s Express have sustained him as his career has flourished. Between 2012 and 2019, six of Yockey’s plays graced the Actor’s Express stage: “Wolves,” “Pluto,” “Octopus,” “The Thrush & the Woodpecker,” “Blackberry Winter” and “Reykjavík.”

If you haven’t yet seen one of Yockey’s imaginative, darkly funny plays, you’re in for a treat. As one of his best friends, fellow Atlantan and also-prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson described his work in an interview last year: “Animals, magic, murder, anything you want — he’s able to do it and pulls it off in a way where you feel very satisfied and clear as an audience member.”

Steve Yockey appreciates the dark humor of revenge. "Humor kind of lets the audience off the hook a little bit and lets them enjoy what they’re watching," he says. "If 'Mercury' were not a comedy, then it would just be like a tragedy and almost unwatchable."

Credit: Photo by Maddie Deutch

icon to expand image

Credit: Photo by Maddie Deutch

Ahead of the show’s opening weekend, ArtsATL caught up with Yockey to chat about all things cosmic, creative and carnivorous onstage . . . and to walk down memory lane a bit.

Q: What is “Mercury” about?

A: “Mercury” is about revenge. It’s the story of several different people whose adventures with a cursed book cross paths in and around Portland, Oregon. That’s my nonspoilery version.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about the play’s journey, from idea to premiere.

A: I would say I was circling the idea in December 2016, and then I had a fight with my grandmother at Christmas and heard a weird Carrie Underwood song, and it all kind of clicked in my head. I wrote the entire first draft over that Christmas holiday. The first production was in late 2017, and then we were gearing up for more and a global pandemic happened.

Q: Between that first production and now, how has the play, or your perception of it, evolved?

A: I feel like [”Mercury”] has become more relevant as time goes on — as we enter the bread and circuses period of the decline of Western civilization. It’s fun and entertaining and satisfying but hopefully in that funhouse mirror kind of way.

Q: I did read some of the coverage from past productions, and one thing that I absolutely adore is that the word “grisly” kept coming up. Tell me about playing with the violent/horror aspect of this. What is it about grisly that can also be funny?

A: Well, anything can be funny — the question is, will you laugh at it? I do feel like revenge is very visceral, and to capture it you need a certain level of violence. The violence in “Mercury” borders on camp, and for me it’s like if you want to tell an emotional story that has real depth, the way that you go as dark as possible is you include humor because humor kind of lets the audience off the hook a little bit and lets them enjoy what they’re watching. I think that if “Mercury” were not a comedy, then it would just be like a tragedy and almost unwatchable.

The best thing is sitting in an audience. It’s one of the few plays I have where, no matter what, the audience is going to gasp, speak back to the stage and laugh at the most inappropriate things. I mean, in a lot of ways, I think of “Mercury” as a big piece of chocolate cake. It is good and super satisfying, but, while you’re eating it, you’re like, oh, I shouldn’t be enjoying this so much.

Q: Without any spoilers, what are some of your favorite concepts, bits of dialogue or images from the show? What can we look forward to?

A: I like the fact that there’s a character who handles all of the scenic transitions, and that’s written into the script. I really like that it kind of takes down the concept of “Mercury in retrograde,” which we hear way too much in popular society now. I’m no expert on astrology, but I think that’s ridiculous. And I love the bear when it shows up.

Q: The Actor’s Express internship was a lot of trial by fire, but what were a couple of skills or insights into how theater functions that you took with you and still use today?

A: I think I learned more during that internship than I learned during my entire undergraduate education. Hanging lights, how sound works, what goes into budgeting a show. I also learned that not-for-profit theater as a model will take as much from you as you are willing to give because of your love for theater. So you have to establish boundaries for yourself or else the model will just take everything. I think that’s a healthy lesson to learn.

Yockey says writing plays is how he processes the world: "It’s therapy for me, and then I just make other people watch it. I mean, I think I would go crazy if I couldn’t write plays."

Credit: Courtesy of Steve Yockey

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Credit: Courtesy of Steve Yockey

Q: With “Mercury,” you’re working with Melissa Foulger, who has directed almost all of your plays at Actor’s Express. What is that dynamic like?

A: When I first met Melissa and she started talking about theater, I just thought to myself: what are you doing here? Why aren’t you in Europe directing at some avant-garde theater company that does political work? She has big ideas, but she’s also really good at getting to what core thing the play is hanging onto and then letting everything else kind of grow from there visually. She’s a true collaborator, and I would trust her with anything. We have such a shorthand at this point.

Q: You’ve had so much success in film and television. Why does playwriting continue to be an important part of your creative work and your creative trajectory? What does playwriting give you that’s different from TV and film?

A: It’s my language. It’s what I eat and sleep. The easiest way to say it is I write TV and film for other people, and then I write plays for me. It’s how I process the world. I know I joke about it, but it’s therapy for me, and then I just make other people watch it. I mean, I think I would go crazy if I couldn’t write plays. And, honestly, it’s fun. It is one of the few places left where we can actually have a discourse that isn’t just I liked it or I hated it. Everything’s so fast now. In theater, you can still have a conversation with an audience.

Q: What are some things you feel like you can only get when you come back to Atlanta?

A: I go to Waffle House with my parents.

Q: What do you order?

A: I just get scrambled eggs with cheese, man — and grits because there’s a huge swath of the country where you can’t get grits. And grits are the easiest thing to make, but mine always end up really soupy and so I’m a failure. I mean, don’t include that.

Q: That’s going to be the headline, by the way.

A: [Laughs.] I can’t make grits. It’s a specific consistency, and it eludes me.



Runs April 6-28 at Actor’s Express. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. Ticket prices vary depending on performance date and time and are subject to change. Actor’s Express (at King Plow Arts Center), 887 W. Marietta St. NW, Atlanta. 404-607-7469,


Alexis Hauk has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines, including Time, The Atlantic, Mental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian. Having grown up in Decatur, Alexis returned to Atlanta in 2018 after a decade living in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles. By day, she works in health communications. By night, she enjoys covering the arts and being Batman.

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Credit: ArtsATL

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Credit: ArtsATL


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