Saturday, February 20, 2021

Somerville's Marlena Merrin: A Foxtrot Between High Tech And The Arts


I first met Marlena Merrin at a Zoom meeting for the literary group "The Bagel Bards"--that was once happily housed in Davis Square. The Bards remain, and the Au Bon Pain closed--lost in the Pandemic sea. When you first meet someone in a group you really don't know them until you talk one on one. I was glad to catch up with this accomplished woman, who has many dimensions and diverse interests.

How has it been for you as a creative, living in Somerville and thereabouts for all these years?

When I first moved here, which was right after college, I wasn't a creative person. I spent nearly ten years working in high technology, admiring creativity and creative people—and thinking I simply didn't have it in me.

I was in my thirties when I first attempted writing fiction. I found it intimidating to live here because of all the accomplished authors inhabiting every corner and cafe. I wondered what I had to offer. Fortunately, a very helpful and insightful life coach (Allan G. Hunter) managed to instill in me that it was important to write, and write creatively. It's because of him that I continued on with my writing, and then ventured into other creative activities (acting, improv, singing, standup comedy, and songwriting). I've had a large number of wonderful experiences—and met many wonderful people— because I didn't give up in discouragement when I was first starting out.

I also want to mention how much I've benefited from all of the arts education available in the area. This really mattered in the years before video conferencing. I've had excellent teachers! And I'm still learning.


You are an accomplished computer scientist--occupying high level positions in the industry, when this was uncommon for women. One would not immediately associate "secure network software design" with the musical theatre--but you do.

Yes, they seem to be not very related! However, both require attention to overall concepts and flow, as well as extreme care with very fine details. Also, both involve "different angles" on what may seem to be a commonplace situation. Here's one huge difference: In software, I work at having my designs be conceptually clean and elegantly spare; in theater (and in any fiction I write), I'm seeking rich entanglements of ideas, feelings, and characters.


You use two different last names "Erdos" and Merrin. "Erdos" is your computer industry name and Merrin is for the theatre. Poet Wallace Stevens said that he would never reveal his identity as a poet to his colleagues in the insurance industry because he would lose his credibility. What is your take on this?

I understand Stevens' point of view. While some of my computing colleagues think it's fun and interesting (in a good way) that I do arts, others have been terribly disconcerted by the simple fact that I have a love other than secure distributed systems (whose study and application could entirely fill one's life).

Obviously, I've chosen differently than Wallace Stevens. And yet, if I were doing things over again, I'd chose an entirely different arts name. And I'd be more careful about which computing colleagues I reveal my arts life to. That said, I'd likely have some mis-steps anyway. One boss laughed at some songs I sang for him—I knew he would!—and still found my arts life distressing, even though I did very good work for him. Oh well....


Can you talk a bit about your nascent exposure to the theatre--and what plays sparked your passion for the art form?

My mother took me to see shows in New York City starting from when I was about eleven years old. After taking the train and then subway in from New Jersey, we'd wait for our turn at the half-priced ticket booth in Times Square. I got to see all sorts of plays, including musicals.

One of the musicals I saw early on was "A Little Night Music." This show has a wonderful set of interacting storylines and great songs which are superbly matched to the characters—and the predicaments they're in. It's also funny while having a soul. In my own musicals, I strive for the humor and depth that's in "A Little Night Music."


You wrote two full length musicals "College Bound", "Pipette Dreams." You are working on a third one " Risky Dishes." Is there a strong thread among these plays?

That's a great question! I'm surprised to find that the answer is "yes." Each show has a motif about "expectations": expectations from parents, from oneself, and one's community. The way expectations fit into each show though varies greatly.


Why should people view your work?

Get to know interesting characters, laugh a lot, and have things to think about and talk about with family and friends afterwards.

Here are some of the questions each show raises:

From College/Bound: What were your parents' expectations for you? Did anything—or anyone—upend those expectations? And what were the consequences?

From Pipette Dreams: What is your own measure of "success"? What is it for your loved ones, friends, and colleagues? Has your notion of "success" changed over time? And how does success relate to happiness?

From Risky Dishes: How did you stack up personally with ideals of each community you belonged to as a young adult? Did any of these communities know about ways you didn't stack up? What communities do you belong to now, and in what ways do you conform and not conform to expectations?

(You can find out more about College/Bound and Pipette Dreams at .)