The American Deaf community lost a valued member on March 9, 2022 – proud Deaf, gay, and Jewish actor Lewis M. Merkin. Born on December 18, 1955, he passed away at age 66 from cancer.
“Lewis Merkin exemplified a relentless advocacy for deaf artists throughout his entire career, both behind the scenes and at the front lines. We have lost a giant, but there are many more of us right behind in part because of his efforts,” said Tyrone Giordano, president of the NTD board.
Joseph Santini, NTD board secretary and friend of Merkin, added: “Lewis was a tireless community worker, advocate, and artist who continually pushed for higher quality in both people and performance. His ideas about interpreting, ASL, and the nature of theatre infused his work with passion and originality.
Deaf theatre historian and former NTD board member Stephen C. Baldwin compiled the following history of Merkin’s acting career.
Before joining NTD, Merkin initiated, produced, and starred in the signed version of Equus, comprised mainly of deaf and hard-of-hearing students from California State University at Northridge, under the direction of Sue Wolf. The production was staged at the Pasadena Playhouse. Inspired by the all-deaf cast, Silent Network founder Sheldon Altfeld produced the same play in 1979 starring Merkin and directed by Wolf. This production ran at the Pan-Andreas Theatre in Hollywood, under the aegis of the newly incorporated West Coast Performing Arts Center for the Deaf, for six weeks.
Shortly after, Merkin was cast in Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles under director Gordon Davidson. Merkin played the rebellious hard-of-hearing character Orin. The play and the cast earned a trip to Broadway. At the Longacre Theatre, they gave 887 performances from March 30, 1980, to May 16, 1982. Lewis left Children of a Lesser God midway through its Broadway run to join the British Sign Language production of Equus at the Young Vic in London, and later the United Kingdom tour of this production. As the original Orin, Merkin set the bar high for other deaf and hard of hearing actors
With NTD, Merkin acted in two mainstage productions from 1986 to 1988, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, based on the novel by Carson McCullers, and The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds by Shloime Ansky. Five years later, in 1995, Merkin teamed up with Drew Emery to script Language of One, directed by Howie Seago. He played the main character, Albert Rose, who was based loosely on Merkin’s life. This play was one of the first to feature a Deaf and gay character. Language of Love, co-written by Lewis and Drew Emery, was produced in Seattle by Alice B. Theatre, and directed by Howie Seago. The updated and renamed script, Language of One, was produced by the New York Deaf Theatre and directed by Drew Emery. The play also toured in Australia. Merkin worked as a DASL on Broadway and for Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Playwright’s Horizon. He was most recently seen as Larry in Deaf Broadway’s 2020 staged reading of Company.
Besides being a professional actor for 28 years, Merkin was a national advocate for deaf interpreters, known as Certified Deaf Interpreters. He volunteered and worked for the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). For his advocacy work with the organization serving DeafBlind clients, RID Region 1 awarded him the coveted Judie Husted Leadership Award in 2005. Merkin also worked with GLAD-AIDS Education for the Deaf and Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services
For those in the Deaf theatre world who want to keep reminiscing, sharing and talking about the wonderful Lewis Merkin before a memorial takes place, here are several selected videos:
Excerpts from Equus, 1978
CBS Segment on Equus
Language of One script co-written by Merkin and Drew Emery:
Merkin interviewed by NY Deaf Theatre producing director Annie Wiegand in 2017
2015 Deaf Interpreter Conference plenary, 2015
Rest in power, Lewis.
Contributors – Stephen C. Baldwin, Rob Roth, and Sue Wolf