Introducing Sallie Merkel, Play & Scriptwriting Faculty

We asked this year’s faculty to respond to a question related to this year’s theme of disTRACTION. Today, Sallie Merkel tells us about a time she turned a moment of distraction to her advantage.


I like it when someone else structures my time.

In graduate school I was in class from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. everyday, with an hour dinner break followed by rehearsal from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.

I loved it.

Things happened and happened fast. Priorities were abundantly clear. I did what needed to be done at the moment it needed to be done.

Distraction wasn’t really an option and what I did with my small windows of free time felt necessarily meaningful.

Because I am a Los Angeles-based artist, I’ll use a freeway metaphor for what happened upon graduation: my little car that had been speeding along at about 75 mph in a 65 zone, stopping only to take in stunning views of the Pacific or to grab a milkshake from In-N-Out, hit a 15 mph zone. The road became less clear, occasional fallen rocks or washed-out zones caused detours and back-ups. There was traffic. Maybe there wasn’t even a road anymore. At this point the metaphor kind of deteriorates. But the key point is that I went from 75 mph to about 10 mph.

As structure fell away I was doing/driving less and waiting more. I knew, because Buddhists and Einstein had told me, that time is illusory and relative to the way in which it is experienced. Whatever. But now I knew this to be true for myself – my abundance of post-grad time (time I had anticipated as time to read for myself, time to write for myself, to think for myself) passed much more quickly than my structured time in graduate school. At the end of each day I experienced an awareness that another twenty-four hours had passed accompanied by the guilt of wondering what I had to show for it. So I took up a hobby that would slow the time and leave an undeniable marker of the way in which it had been spent on my body: nail art.

I don’t think I have to explain why I consider nail art (and its attendant consumerism and social media use) a distraction. It was. The time I spent perfecting my ‘galaxy nails’ technique was time I didn’t spend working on grant applications or looking for a job. My friends, always encouraging, said things to me like, “girl, you need to start making YouTube tutorial videos.” No way. As much as I enjoyed painting my nails, I was not comfortable with the idea of linking my digital identity to nail art. I mean, I was reading Hegel while I was painting my nails. Nail tutorials don’t tend to include a discussion of dialectics. Boom. There it was. The idea for a project that I could fully script and produce without grant money or other institutional resources: nail art meets existential musings. From there the ideas flowed, I went down a rabbit hole of watching the vulnerable, intimate character studies that are YouTube tutorial videos. A character voice emerged and with it came story, before I knew it I was filming my series, “Dandy Nails with Sandy”, an existential sci-fi mystery that takes the form of four lo-fi nail art YouTube tutorials.

SALLIE MERKEL is a Los Angeles-based actor, writer and director. She holds an MFA in Acting from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Her original web series, “Dandy Nails with Sandy”—an existential sci-fi mystery that takes the form of a series of lo-fi nail art tutorials—is available for viewing on YouTube and at salliemerkel.com. Her theatrical work has been presented in Los Angeles at venues such as RedCat and the Live Arts Exchange (LAX) festival and internationally at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. She also performs and teaches with her improv group, GiRL CRUSH.