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Spotlight on Erin Merritt


At the age of four, Erin Merritt knew that she wanted to work in theatre. She began training at age 15 and made her professional debut as an actor at 22. In 1998, at 28, Erin founded Woman’s Will, San Francisco’s all-female Shakespeare company, to create equitable opportunities and advance the careers of women in the field. The touring company had a mission to connect with the broadest range of people who could relate to each production. This included casting performers to represent the full diversity of the Bay Area.

“Some of my proudest moments in life include the founding of the award-winning Woman’s Will. My company members and I radically redefined how Bay Area theaters employed women on stage and off and helped lead a movement toward parity that continues today”

– Erin Merritt

Over 12 seasons at Women’s Will, Erin directed 13 productions including two “Top Ten Shows of the Year,” including Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Her adaptation of Pericles featured a deaf narrator, which was the world’s first American Sign Language (ASL) translation of the play, and received many outstanding reviews.

Photo by Lisa Keating

“The rarely performed ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre’ doesn’t rank among Shakespeare’s most popular works. But after seeing Woman’s Will’s touching, entertaining production of the play, it’s difficult to understand why,” said Leslie Katz, of the SF Examiner. “Under thoughtful direction by Erin Merritt … the key to this production’s strength … in addition to the extraordinary acting and solid staging … brings even greater depth to this production … the new translation of the play, performed in ASL … Woman’s Will has the smarts to stick with—and enhance—the heart of the story.”

Erin was well regarded for her translations and adaptations, including Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Szechuan and Drums in the Night, an expressionist Hamlet: The Melancholy Dame, and a five-person Witches Macbeth. She also was known for her freelance work as a producer, director, dramaturg, adaptor, and teacher/lecturer.

“Theater is the single best medium to gather the community together to see itself, analyze itself, and dream its best self into being. Let’s tell our biggest, boldest stories together.”

– Erin Merritt

A key project occurred in 2019 when Erin was part of a team that created a permanent exhibit for the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, CA. Scattered in various poses throughout the Visitor Education Center, the National Park Service has on display a collection of highly realistic, special effects figures known as Lifecast. They each have names but until recently, their diverse stories hadn’t been delved into in-depth or shared with the public. 

Erin wrote and directed voice-over scripts that told their stories, which were based on real-life experiences of Bay Area residents, who were affected by the wartime work and population boom during WWII. You can hear some of their stories below, with thanks to the Fund for People in Parks, the philanthropic partner of the National Park Service.

An immigrant woman from Poland named Rose eating a sandwich on her lunch break shares about her previous life, career, and ambitions for her new life in America.

A woman positively describes her work as a riveter, recognizing the value of herself and other women alike in the local “homefront” war effort during WWII.

While hanging laundry, a woman shares the difficulties she faces working all day at the shipyard and compares herself to city women who live different lifestyles.

A Chinese woman describes her experiences with gender stereotypes at work and expresses her longing for the day when women can have any job they want.

“These figures represent a group of people whose stories are not often heard: children, women of color, immigrants, Asians, and a person whose identity could be considered non-binary. This project gives voice to previously silent figures … adds a layer of warmth and humanity to the existing visitor experience by sharing the life-cast figures’ stories.” – Mary Lou Herlihy, National Park Service

“Raised in the East Bay, and the daughter of a teacher and a historic preservationist, I have always been deeply invested in disseminating hyper-local stories of the past and present, employing techniques from theater to connect people to each other and our shared world.”

– Erin Merritt

Erin also directed The Women in Theater Project—a series of filmed songs written from interviews with female theater leaders. She was also well-recognized for “Neighborhood Stories,” a theatrical treasure hunt/city tour that she started during the pandemic from 2020-2021. The project aimed to demonstrate the importance of artists in every community, their role in making sense of the times, and reconnecting everyone locally and globally. 

When Erin wasn’t working on shows, she taught up to 12 classes a week for California Shakespeare Theater. It was in early 2022, during her daily commute, that Erin noticed that occasionally she could not hit basic notes when singing in the car. She first thought it was just a sinus issue. About a week later, she experienced more complications with her vocal resonance. Her tongue felt heavy, making it difficult to make certain sounds. She also struggled with articulating complex verses, ran out of breath quickly, and would sometimes slur her words. 

Several months later, she finally was able to be seen in mid-July, and a neurologist told her that she had myasthenia gravis. She was promised treatment and was told that she would improve within a couple of days. Nothing had changed, so she switched neurologists and received a diagnosis of primary lateral sclerosis (PLS) on August 5, 2022. The disease continued to progress quickly and was changed to ALS. 

World Premiere Tea Party Postcard

By November 2022, Erin could no longer speak or cut her food. The challenges of ALS have made it difficult for Erin to continue to be a parent, find proper care for herself, and go about her daily life. Soon after Erin found out she had ALS, she connected with the ALS Network (formerly the ALS Association Golden West Chapter) for care services and access to resources for living with ALS. She participated in connection groups and participated in clinical trials.

Even though ALS had taken away her ability to speak, Erin refused to allow it to stop her from doing what she loved. For over a decade, she had wanted to direct Gordan Dahlquist’s Tea Party, a political comedy thriller, focused on the power of people’s words and actions. When she tried pitching it to theater organizations, the themes were considered extreme and implausible. Now, Erin felt that the time was right and that it could also be important to raise ALS awareness and support. After learning the news of her diagnosis, her many friends and colleagues in the Bay Area theater community urgently joined together to help make Erin’s dream to direct one more production come true. 

During rehearsals, Erin communicated with the cast and crew using a synthesizer on her laptop. Despite losing her dexterity in her fingers and being restricted by her medication schedule, Erin managed to get through the rehearsals. Tea Party premiered on March 2, 2023, at the American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater. The extraordinary community efforts were covered by many local news outlets including SF Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, KPIX CBS SF Bay Area News, and KTVU FOX 2.

Erin Merritt (center), with assistant director Alicia Nelson (left) and stage manager Terri DeMartini surrounded by cast members during a rehearsal of Gordon Dahlquist’s “Tea Party.” Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle

“When I first got my diagnosis, I felt like I had lost my future, but also my present because how can I direct without a voice? But … throughout my life has been that if I’m told I can’t do something, I ask myself, ok, but how can I do it? If something matters enough to me, I am going to find my way around the roadblock.”

– Erin Merritt

Since this production in 2023, Erin’s journey with ALS has progressed significantly and has stopped most of her creative pursuits. She now receives around-the-clock care. She uses a QWERTY board and laser pointer attached to her glasses to communicate and continues to receive care services and support from the ALS Network.   Erin’s long-time friend, Deb Fink, producer, writer, actor, and teacher is developing two documentary projects, following both Erin’s life and experiences with ALS, as well as the making of the Tea Party production. Below is the Tea Party for those who did not see it live.

After more than three decades as a creative artist and director, Erin Merritt remains an important leader in the theater community. Her efforts to build diversity and share stories of women and other under-represented people, as well as create equity and gender parity in the arts are remarkable. To learn more about her work, please visit her website. The ALS Network is deeply grateful to Erin for her willingness to share her story in support of those affected by ALS.

Erin Merritt with Tea Party cast and crew
Photo from San Jose Mercury News

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