By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Everyone has a stash.
You know, the letters you wrote and you didn’t send.
Letters in which you confess your long-hidden love (possibly in free verse). Or your rage (likely in stinging prose). Or reveal your simmering grievances, regrets, grief, your subterranean resentments, your wounds. Letters where you admit your mistakes or declare ‘j’accuse’. Or set forth the views you squashed at the time in order to seem conciliatory. Or say the goodbyes or sorry’s you were too late to say in person.
That secret hoard of didn’t-send’s, wish-I’d-sent’s, glad-I-didn’t’s was Rebecca Merkley’s inspiration for Letters To No One, the Dammitammy production that opens online Feb. 26. The theatrical concept is simplicity itself, scarily so. A cast of eight actors read, for the first time, nine letters, written by each other, and anonymous. “You don’t know who wrote what, but you know you’re reading a letter by someone in the cast.” Envelope, please.
It began a couple of months ago when Merkley was getting a new computer, and sifting through the stash of writing lodged in the old one — as one does during an endless pandemic. And there they were, “letters I’d saved to people I’d never sent, quite a few,” some of them dating back 20 years. “Letters it was good for me to write and get it out, but I just didn’t feel safe or comfortable sending them.… Painful moments, memories, but quite beautiful to read knowing what I went through at the time.”
“How could this turn into art?” Merkley, a diarist of long standing, wondered. Encouraged by fellow theatre artist Brianne Jang (the managing director of the SkirtsAfire Festival), the pandemic-friendly idea became a video project, and Merkley approached actors. “And everyone jumped right in.… They were, like, ‘I’m scared to do it, and I’m gonna do it!’” Which pretty much counts as perfect theatrical motivation in Merkley World.
“Sometimes we doubt our simple ideas!. Sometimes we overthink, especially right now…. We can’t gather and do the big fun spectacles, the stuff I normally do,” says producer/ actor/ playwright/ director/ singer/ musician/ composer Merkley.
“Fun spectacles” dot the Dammitammy Productions archive, which begins at the 2016 Fringe with the funny, spirited sleeper hit The Unsyncables, an original Merkley underdog comedy in which an aspirational amateur synchronized swim team goes up against a snazzy and arrogant swim “club.” (It remains the only production in the last two decades to my knowledge in which the characters remain in bathing caps throughout). It was followed by River City The Musical, based on the characters from the old Archie comics, and Merk Du Soleil, an original circus cabaret/ variety entertainment.
You can’t keep a creative spirit down, even in times that have been devastating for live performance. “How can we do theatre now? We have to evolve fast. We have no choice!” Merkley has been looking for do-able alternatives. Hence a couple of Dammitammy radio plays, Camp!, a Halloween offering, and the Christmas comedy They Wanted To Do Chekhov. With more to come, including a Merkley mystery, Murder At The Park And Sleep Inn Hotel, set to be unleashed on St. Patrick’s Day (and having “nothing whatsoever” to do with St. Patrick).
Meanwhile, there’s Letters To No One, woven from real letters to real people, “people who wounded us or people we never had the chance to say sorry, or goodbye to, or who we hurt, or who we have mixed feelings about,” as Merkley puts it. Rage is “the palate cleanser,” she laughs. Hence, one letter is by someone who works in retail, a grocery store, and “has to deal with people.” The fury potential is doubtless stratospheric.
The theatre repertoire has its share of plays constructed entirely of letters. 84 Charing Cross Road and Love Letters spring to mind. Letters To No One isn’t like that. “It’s not a monologue project,” says Merkley, explaining that’s the reason the actors don’t see the letter they’ll read till the moment they open the envelope online, with the camera rolling. “I didn’t want it to be ‘acting’…. I didn’t want (them) to ask ‘who are you talking to, and why?’ I need this to be what it is….” And what that is, as she describes it, is unfiltered, unprepared, responses from people, not actors rehearsing a character. “We get the real raw reaction. It’s what makes the project unique!”
COVID has certainly highlighted the resilience and adaptability of our theatre artists. Even by those standards Merkley’s career continues to unfold and zigzag in a remarkable way, accumulating skills as it goes. For her radio plays, she “had to learn audio editing from scratch.” Each took hundreds of hours in post-production, “no exaggeration.”
Merkley, originally from Creston B.C. (near to the home of the polygamous Mormon fundamentalists who are the subject of her play Bountiful), grew up listening to music, and kids’ story records. Thanks to her mom, “I listened more than I watched TV.”
In high school, she was an athlete, in love with soccer and hockey. Music was “singing and playing guitar in my room.… It took a long time for me to be able to share,” Merkley says. In her five-year Grande Prairie period that followed, she was a career singer/musician, hired as part of church youth outreach programs and summer camps designed “to create safe spaces for troubled youth.” And she toured the U.S. doing just that. “It was where I thought my life was heading.”
Then came a falling-out with the leadership, and the life-changing decision to accompany a friend to an audition for Oklahoma!. In a classic theatre story, he got Chorus; Merkley landed a lead role, Ado Annie, the girl who “cain’t say no.” Says Merkley, “it was fun. So good for me to discover a community, a bunch of oddballs I fit into…. Sometimes you need people in your life to give you permission,” she says. “I didn’t know I had (musical theatre) in me.”
In 2011, she rented a car, drove to Edmonton, and aced the last audition spot for MacEwan U’s musical theatre program. Soon the Canadian theatre repertoire would be expanding with new Merkley musicals. And plays.
Letters To No One required a further expansion of Merkley’s already startling theatre skill set. And that was assisted materially by acts of generosity, as she says gratefully. A Merkley pal Aaron Hart, a professional videographer (hartfeltmoments.com), offered his equipment to the production for free. Ditto his encouragement. “This isn’t my wheelhouse,” she says. But she’s discovered she enjoys video editing.
When it came time to shoot, the Woodrack Cafe in Old Strathcona offered Merkley the space for free. “It was sitting there empty and beautiful.” So the actors arrived, one at a time, on a strict schedule.
“It’s all an experiment,” she says. “Hey, maybe I should have a separate webpage for my Pandemic Art!” Merkley laughs. “We had fun. I thought it’d be more sad…. It’s people being themselves. It’s real. And it’s pure.”
Letters To No One
Theatre: Dammitammy Productions
Created by: Rebecca Merkley
Featuring: Bret Jacobs, Brianne Jang, Calla Wright, Carol Chu, Chariz Faulmino, Kristina Hunszinger, Rebecca Merkley, Samantha O’Connor
Where: online, dammitammy.com
Running: Feb. 26 through March 15