Get to know Joey Merlo, artist in residence at Orient’s William Steeple Davis House

The day playwright Joey Merlo found out he was named the artist in residence at Orient’s William Steeple Davis house was a memorable one for him.

“I just remember, this was one of the best days of the year because it felt like a very lucky day for me,” he said. “It might have been early September; I remember someone gave me a free bicycle and then a friend of a friend couldn’t use these tickets that she had to a Shania Twain concert, and they ended up giving me these tickets for free… and then that same day I got a call telling me that I got the residency, and I was just so elated.”

According to their website, the William Steeple Davis Trust was established in 1976 under Mr. Steeple Davis’ will to “…provide a temporary place of abode for persons of good character who are or have been actively engaged in cultural professions, particularly in the arts, and who are in need to a quiet place for rest or creative work and are without adequate funds to provide for such accommodations.”

The abode referred to in the will is Mr. Steeple Davis’ former home. Also on the property is a separate studio building and several outbuildings.

The home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. The residency period is 50 weeks starting on Oct. 15 and ending on October 1 the following year.

Mr. Merlo went to Howell High School of the Performing Arts in New Jersey before getting into New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He started studying playwriting after transferring to Tisch’s Experimental Theatre Wing program. Upon graduation he traveled and taught in Peru as well as studied abroad in Ghana. He then got his Masters of Fine Arts degree from Brooklyn College’s playwriting program.

His latest play, “On Set with Theda Bara,” which was produced by Transport Group and Lucille Lortel Theatre opened on February 14 and closed March 16 off-Broadway at The Brick in Brooklyn. The play was described as a “haunting and refreshingly funny fever dream,” by Vulture. The New York Times described it as a “campy, comic solo show.”

Mr. Merlo is the second playwright to have a residency at William Steeple Davis House, he said.

Actor David Greenspan in Joey Merlo’s critically acclaimed off-broadway play “On Set with Theda Bara.” (Credit:Emilio Madrid)

In a phone interview with Times Review Media Group, he spoke about his time there so far.

Q: What is your connection to the North Fork?

A: I was dating someone for three years and he’s from Southold and we would come to visit his family often and we would take trips to Orient. From the first time I set foot in Orient, I fell in love with it. It was my favorite part of the North Fork, it might be my favorite place. So that’s how I knew about the area, and I actually remember seeing the William Steeple Davis House and there’s a sign outside that says it’s the William Steeple Davis Studio and I was like ‘Oh what’s that?’ the person I was seeing at the time said ‘I think that actually an artist residency.’ And then we walked into the schoolhouse that had a quilt exhibition and there was, I think it was Jan Rose, this was years ago, but I think she’s the one I talked to…She was there at the exhibition and told me all about the residency and said I should apply. This was back in 2018 or so. It didn’t make sense for me to leave the city and I didn’t think it was the right time to apply to live for a year elsewhere, so I held off applying.

Q: Why is now the right time for the residency?

A: Obviously COVID was traumatic for all of us, and during grad school my father passed away. I was really grieving. So my father passed away my first year in grad school and then the second year I got really sick. I was bedridden for a while and it was months and months, almost a year of being sick. I eventually recovered and I was finished with grad school and so I thought of Orient for the first time in a long time because I really felt like I needed a place to heal and further recover. It was kind of a whirlwind at the time, because right after graduating, I put up [“On Set with Theda Bara”] at a festival in Brooklyn called the exponential festival and we had a sold out really successful short run of that play and then there was talk about remounting the play in an off-broadway production. We just extended until March 16. We’ve had rave reviews and it’s been a sold out run and I kind of felt like I have a footing in the city…I felt like it was a perfect time to apply and be away for a year.

Q: What are you working on while you’re there?

A: I’m currently working on a new play called “No Artificial Flowers.” And I’m also working on a memoir, which is something I’ve never written a novel or any kind of memoir type thing, any long form project and so this is something new that I’m challenging myself with since I have so much time here. Then I’m also doing some paintings because I’m taking advantage of a studio that was Williams studio here on the property and it’s a painter studio.

Q: What does it mean to you to be the second playwright to have a residency there?

A: It’s so exciting to me that they’ve been open to playwrights and authors and that they’re validating what it is we do as writers. It’s a beautiful place to write. You just have these beautiful views and sunsets and there’s a kind of peace and quiet. I find myself constantly awestruck here.

Q: What has the community reaction/reception been like?

A: I have felt very welcomed. The trustees threw a cocktail party when I arrived and it was the first time that they had ever done that and they wanted to introduce me to the community. I want to just make sure that everyone knows how grateful I am and that I think this is a spectacular thing that they’ve done for an artist. It’s so hard to have any kind of housing or financial security as an artist and if you’re really trying to do that work and juggle multiple jobs and pay your rent and everything. It’s also expensive in New York City to give the artists a refuge and [to have it] in such a beautiful place and such a lovely home is a real blessing. I just feel I’m overwhelmingly grateful for that. I think what they’re doing is truly spectacular and wonderful. It was actually in William Steeple Davis’ will, he said he wanted a place for artists and that he wanted his home to be used to house artists and I think that it’s really fantastic that the community has come together to honor that.