Spotlight on Liz Meriwether

Liz Meriwether is a cult follower — of gummy candies.

Living above Durfee’s, this Yale actress, playwright, and director of the improv group The Viola Question has ample opportunities to indulge her addiction — as she does, with obvious relish, throughout our interview.

Chewing gummy peach rings, grapefruit slices, and berries with deliberate thoughtfulness, she acknowledges that someday she would like to have a cult following of her own. You know — a “bunch of weirdos” eagerly digesting her every action.

Luckily for Meriwether, her quirky personality would give her followers plenty of trivia on which to expound.

Take, for example, the fact that in order to prepare for her role as Viola in last year’s production of “Twelfth Night,” Meriwether dressed as a man for a trip to Gourmet Heaven.

Or that, in a previous life, Meriwether believes she was a sickly child who died on a ship coming to the New World. Perhaps this would explain why she is frequently under the weather.

And, although Meriwether dislikes roller coasters, she likens the feeling she has on stage to the high that physical risk addicts get from amusement parks.

“When you feel you are in danger and you get out of it okay, you feel this rush of happiness,” she explained, as she perched on top of a pile of pillows in her room, with her long arms supported comfortably by bent knees.

One moment later, she added, “That sounds really fruity.”

But, fruitiness aside, Meriwether has desired that stage rush ever since her early childhood in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“I was always kind of putting on plays in my basement, forcing my brother to play various parts,” she recalled. “I don’t think his parts were as complex as mine — emotionally.”

Her basement debut was shortly followed by her first stage role as an orphan eating gruel in “Oliver.” Some years later, she again appeared in “Oliver,” this time as Mr. Bumble, the head of the orphanage who served the gruel. Talk about complexity.

Meriwether’s formative years were plagued by a series of unpleasant roles and her jealousy of classmate Marie, who was always cast as the female lead.

“I was generally awkward and strange-looking in middle school,” Meriwether said. “I played Captain Hook in “Peter Pan,” and [Marie] was Wendy. It pissed the s–t out of me. That was the year I played Gollum in ‘The Hobbit.’”

A lanky blond wearing dark-rimmed glasses, rolled-down pants, and a cut-off t-shirt, it is not hard to imagine that, at one point, Meriwether suffered the physical awkwardness of the prematurely tall. But now, Meriwether is comfortable in her own skin — an actress well aware of how to control her movements.

For her next stage role in Sam Shepard’s “The Curse of the Starving Class,” Meriwether must play the 14-year-old Emma, a role she said that her awkward adolescent experience has helped her to embody.

“I was really tall in middle school, so I always played the older parts,” she said. “But now that I’m older, I’m playing the younger parts.”

During rehearsal, Meriwether played Emma with gritted teeth, a slight slump, and a barely-controlled intensity that seemed as if, at any moment, she could snap.

Not that she in any way resembles Emma off-stage. Out of the spotlight, Meriwether is surprisingly soft-spoken and relaxed in her movements. She freely gives away hugs and kisses to fellow actors and friends, and laughs during the play’s many intense moments of swearing.

After all, as the director of The Viola Question, Meriwether takes comedy very seriously.

“As an actress, I’ve played so many parts where I was raped, beaten, thrown across the stage,” she said. “What’s cool about improv is that you have complete control over what you say and what you do. It’s really freeing.”

Meriwether is quick to use her wit. Her greatest influence?

“My mom makes a mean omelet.”

Although Meriwether excels at both tragedy and comedy, she can not decide which she enjoys more.

“I love in-between stuff, where you are not sure whether it’s funny or sad,” she said.

Perhaps this is why she keeps a large color print of the Mona Lisa above her mantle. One wonders if Meriwether, like the Mona Lisa, has a tinge of split personality. Consider that her favorite role so far has been the cross-dressing Viola in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”

“She’s so resilient,” she said of the character. “She finds out her brother has drowned and immediately is going on with her life. I really admired her — she’s cool. And she pulled off being a guy for most of the show.”

But there are some roles Meriwether may never get to play. Although she has a latent desire to portray the assertive, ultra-feminine Anita in “West Side Story,” musicals are not her forte.

“I can’t sing and I can’t dance, so no one would ever cast me in that part,” she lamented.

These challenges have hardly prevented Meriwether from branching out into other areas of theater. In addition to acting, Meriwether also writes and directs plays. Her original play “The True Love Story of My Parents” was performed at the Yale Dramat’s Playwriting Festival this fall.

“It was a lot of exposure because it really was the true love story of my parents,” Meriwether said. “I had to cast my parents and direct my parents. I learned a lot about acting, directing, and my writing.”

Meriwether feels that directing and writing are very different than acting.

“It’s about observing things as opposed to doing. It’s quieter,” she explained. “It was different for me the night of the performance, feeling like I’d done all of my work and now was part of the audience. It was strange.”

As for the future, Meriwether prefers to remain pleasantly elusive, unwilling to disclose whether she wants to be a professional actress. For now, it appears the cult can wait — Meriwether is content with her gummies.

“I’ll always have my English degree,” she said. n

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