Erin Merritt has been a powerful force in Bay Area theater for decades, as a director, actor, producer and as someone who all-around makes things happen.
Founder of the all-female Shakespeare troupe Woman’s Will, Merritt went on to produce events such as the Bay Area Women’s Theatre Festival, the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, the Theatre Bay Area Awards, and “Neighborhood Stories,” a series of short performances for audiences to sample from the cars.
In August, Merritt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a terminal motor neuron disease that has taken away her ability to speak and is progressively hampering other motor functions. At present she communicates primarily through typing.
Now friends from the Bay Area theater community are coming together under the name One of Our Own to give Merritt a chance to direct a play she’s been wanting to do for a long time: the world premiere of Gordon Dahlquist’s “Tea Party.”
A comedic political thriller set in a not-so-far future, “Tea Party” explores the extreme potential consequences of vitriolic rhetoric and political balkanization.
“This play grapples with real issues we have while pointing out that the survival of our society is the solemn responsibility of every one of us, because any of us could bring about its demise,” Merritt says. “The tinder is dry. Anything we do or even say could be the spark. It’s also very, very funny, as most really precarious things are.”
Merritt first encountered “Tea Party” when it was part of Playwrights Foundation’s 2012 Bay Area Playwrights Festival, where she was working as a dramaturg on George Brant’s play “Grounded.” She’s been pitching Dahlquist’s play to theater groups on and off ever since.
“In 2013 everyone said, ‘This is over the top, improbable, etc. We’re post-racial,’ blah blah blah,” Merritt writes. “In 2016, the response became ‘I just … can’t. Too scary.” In 2020, ‘We’re over that now.’ Biden elected, everything copacetic.”
“We had a good experience with it at the festival, and audiences responded and everything, but a lot of people thought, it’s all well and good, but it seems a little extreme,” Dahlquist recalls. “And now, I hate to say it, it almost seems just on the nose.”
All the other plays from that year’s festival have premiered in the meantime. Two of them went on to win Glickman Awards for best play to premiere in the Bay Area: Christopher Chen’s “The Hundred Flowers Project” with Crowded Fire Theater and Aaron Loeb’s “Ideation” with San Francisco Playhouse. SF Playhouse did “Grounded” as part of a rolling world premiere, and Lauren Yee’s “Samsara” debuted at Chicago’s Victory Gardens. Merritt herself directed Aditi Brennan Kapil’s “Brahman/i,” for Crowded Fire in 2014.
Merritt already knew Dahlquist, who had been a few years ahead of her at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and who’s married to playwright Anne Washburn (“Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” “The Internationalist”), a good friend of Merritt’s ever since the two met as teenagers in Berkeley Shakespeare Festival’s (now California Shakespeare Theater) Summer with Shakespeare program.
Dahlquist says he’s always impressed with how sharp and comprehensive Merritt’s insights are.
“She’s able to look at something from the perspective of ideas or craft or writing or literature, but then to really translate it into like the nuts and bolts of actually making a play, which is a completely different thing,” he says.
In rehearsal, Merritt types her notes. “I can play them from any word processing doc through a speech generator,” she says. “But I also have (assistant director) Alicia M.P. Nelson by my side, and she is so good at predicting what I’m writing that usually she just reads as I write. She is my voice.”
Merritt first started experiencing symptoms in March 2022, such as slurred speech and difficulty singing in tune.
One of Our Own producer Deb Fink is a friend from high school and longtime colleague in the Bay Area theater community. Fink says she first noticed Merritt’s symptoms when they were working together on a memorial for another of their Berkeley High classmates, musical theater songwriter and musical director Peter Foley.
“When she showed up to do that, she had neuro speech symptoms,” Fink recalls. “I looked at her and I said, ‘Have you been to a doctor?’ She said, ‘I’ve been trying for four months. I have Medi-Cal. I can’t get appointments any sooner than months from now.’ And I said, ‘Hang on a second, let me help with this.’ We finally got her in to see a specialist and then basically got the word.”
Fink set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for medical costs and to help support Merritt’s 16-year-old twins. Now she’s managing the craziness of putting together this independent production with basically no budget and an impressive cast of local Equity actors.
“Making theater is hard no matter what, but of course, everybody wants to do this for Erin,” Fink says.
In addition to putting on the play, Fink is making a short documentary film called “One of Our Own, A Compassion Project,” which she says is “about the terrible beauty of the magnificent Bay Area theater scene being its best to come together to make this happen.”
If anyone’s earned that kind of support from the local arts community, it’s Erin Merritt.
“She’s an incredible brain that has so much purpose and passion for telling story that makes a difference in the world,” Fink says. “I had a wonderful meeting with Jon Tracy today, who has secured the only funding we’ve gotten so far for the project. And he said, ‘She’s always shown up for me. I have to show up for her.’”
Contact Sam Hurwitt at [email protected], and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
By Gordon Dahlquist, presented by One of Our Own
Through: March 19
Where: The Rueff at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco
Tickets: $20-$50; www.erinmerritt.com/tea-party
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