“The Witch of St. Elmora Street” is a new play by Joey Merlo that explores love, heartbreak and witchcraft in an Italian-American family circa 1987. The plot weaves together tales of family lore and superstitious hearsay resulting in a grotesque comedy about what it means to live with a broken heart. The play is largely magical realism and will play from Dec. 2 to Dec. 18 at Access Theater. Poet, playwright and actor Joey Merlo recently spoke about his experiences working on this play and in theater overall:
AXS: What inspired you to become a writer and how did you get into playwriting?
Joey Merlo (JM): For me it was always something I just did. I was always singing, acting, putting on a show. And when I was too young to write I would tell stories to my mom who would write them out for me. I remember being on the soccer field once when I was seven or eight and somehow getting half the team to act out “Jurassic Park” with me. The coach was not happy. I was a very theatrical child.
AXS: How would you describe your style?
JM: I think each new play comes with its own style. This one is: Bloody, clownish and grotesque – fantastical and emotionally raw – there’s no subtext in this play – the characters are all open wounds... But, in general – I think there’s always a musicality to my writing. I think typing for me is a completely rhythmic experience.
AXS: Growing up, what kinds of shows -- plays, TV shows, movies, etc. -- had the biggest impact on you? Why?
JM: I loved “Dracula”. The one with Bela Lugosi... When I was a kid, my mom would give me a big head of iceberg lettuce and I’d sit in front of the TV eating it and watching Dracula over and over and over again. In general, I loved the villains.
AXS: It's been said that "The Witch of St. Elmora Street" is based on true events. Can you explain a bit more about the backstory?
JM: The play itself grew out of several different points of experience; out of family gossip and lore. There was this big book that came out outlining 100 years of history in the town where I was born and it was filled with weird little stories – like the one about a cow that gave birth to twins and how whoever drank her milk in town that year had twins too. These are the kinds of stories I’ve heard my family tell over the years – magical, absurd and unbelievable tales masked as stone cold fact. I come from an entire family of storytellers. Thanksgiving at my house is a free-for-all, and that’s where I first heard this tale about the woman who used her period blood to get men to fall in love with her...that definitely sparked my interest! My family is also very superstitious and superstition plays a major role in the lives of these characters. It torments and controls them in many ways. I think, in general, superstition is something we hold onto in the face of the unknown. The fear superstition evokes – it comes from this lack of control, lack of knowledge and understanding. Superstition thrives off of our smallness and uncertainty... I’m not sure what’s scarier – the idea that we have complete control over our destinies or none at all... These characters believe they have no control and yet despite this belief, they spite fate and take matters into their own hands.
AXS: What's your favorite thing about this play?
JM: The way it plays with heartbreak. I guess this play is a complete excavation of my own experience with heartbreak as well as an exploration of how it has affected others near and dear to me... it’s funny... it’s so easy to judge someone going through a terrible breakup, having their heart broken, going through a tumultuous divorce – you can look at somebody going t-h-r-o-u-g-h something and say: “Oh wow... they’re crazy...” How easily we forget. This play turns that experience inside out and splatters it across the stage – it’s funny and sad – these characters are full embodiments of their broken hearts.
AXS: To date, how many plays have you written? Do you have a favorite?
JM: Not enough and no, not really.
AXS: So far, what has been the most rewarding thing about being involved in the theatre industry?
JM: The people. The passion. The exchange of humanity. The respect. The constant struggle... which has taught me so much; about myself, others and the world.
AXS: Career wise, where do you hope to be in ten years?
JM: I hope to be with people I love. Making things I believe in.
AXS: Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to mention?
JM: A workshop presentation of “This Boy Cometh to the Mountain” will be performed from March 30 to April 1—April Fool’s Day—at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center’s Rough Draft Festival. It is directed by Benjamin Shaw and featuring Caitlin Zoz, who plays Graziella in my witch play.
AXS: What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to become a playwright?
JM: Be yourself. Don’t give up. Write from the heart.
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“The Witch of St. Elmora Street” will run at the Access Theater from Dec. 2 to Dec. 18. To learn more, see here.