A Bay Area theater director who was diagnosed with ALS last year, and who has already lost the ability to speak, is at the helm of what she calls her "dream project," which came together quickly through the help of theater friends and opened last night at ACT's Strand Theater.
The play is Tea Party, a comic thriller from 2012 by Gordon Dahlquist about a second American civil war, which director Erin Merritt says was prescient in predicting the fervor behind the January 6th insurrection. It opened Thursday night at the Strand's intimate, 120-seat upstairs space called The Rueff, and as KPIX reports, Merritt has been doing all of her directing of actors with the help of typing and a computer voice synthesizer.
As one actor, Anthony Cistaro, told the station, "It takes time to type. [But] She still brings her humor, and she asks open ended questions."
Merritt spoke (through the computer) to the Chronicle's Lily Janiak earlier this week, saying that it's "ironic" that she had to develop a terminal illness in order to get Dahlquist's play produced. (The production is not affiliated with ACT, but ACT donated space for the production to happen.)
"Gordon saw in 2012 what is happening now: that we are tearing our country apart, that the tinder is so dry that any action or even any word by any one of us could be the spark that lights the next civil war," Merritt tells the Chronicle. "We need to stop screaming, ‘I can do whatever I want,’ and instead look at how we work together."
Merritt said she made a list of plays she might want to direct after receiving her devastating diagnosis last year, and Tea Party rose quickly to the top of the list. And as she began losing some hand dexterity this winter, she says she realized she needed to move the schedule up so she would still be able to direct with the voice synthesizer.
Her diagnosis, she explains, was delayed somewhat because the first symptoms of onset were not typical. Merritt began losing her voice and the ability to pronounce certain letter about a year ago, while directing students in a CalShakes student program. Doctors initially ruled out ALS because she had not had the tremors or weakness that are typically the first symptoms.
Merritt, who has worked at the Magic Theatre, Stagebridge, Crowded Fire Theater, Bay Area Children’s Theatre, and other local theaters, founded Woman’s Will, a now defunct all-women's Shakespeare company back in 1998.
During the pandemic, she launched Neighborhood Stories, a watch-from-your-car theater experience in the East Bay that involved multiple episodes in different geographic areas over two hours.
When asked about what comes next, Merritt tells KPIX, "I will become increasing disabled and die. ALS is 100% fatal and though there are medications for it, all it will do is slow down progression and [the drugs] don't seem to be working for me."
Maybe, just maybe, she will get to do another project before her condition worsens. As she tells the Chronicle, "I’m only really happy working, or rather I am always working in my head, so it’s a relief to have an outlet."
'Tea Party' runs through March 19. Find tickets here.