Erin Mei-Ling Stuart was a self-described “restless” 17-year-old when she left Fresno for San Francisco. Now, in her late 40s, Stuart is playing the lead role in her latest production after years of work in music, dance and theater.
Stuart comes from a family of classical musicians, with multiple family members in the Fresno Philharmonic. In her years playing viola and violin, Stuart occasionally filled in during concerts and even studied music for a year at Fresno State.
But in Fresno, Stuart felt like a “misfit,” she said. It was in San Francisco that she found a place where she belonged.
“San Francisco felt like the place to go. I think I was just drawn to someplace where it felt like people could really be themselves – you know, the freaky, weird, queer people that they are,” she said.
After graduating high school early, Stuart transferred from Fresno State at 17 to the SF Conservatory of Music. A repetitive strain injury from playing the viola forced her to take some time off. However, Stuart ended up discovering a passion for dance.
She had done ballet growing up, but discovered modern dance at San Francisco City College. For many years she was a dancer and a choreographer, founding her own dance company, EmSpace Dance, and running it for 18 years.
“It was a very scrappy company. Meaning it was mostly me doing anything administrative and kind of running whatever needed to happen, and then having performers and other artists join me on a project-to-project basis,” Stuart said.
Although this was exactly what she wanted to do for a while, she soon found herself “burned out.”
“Eventually, I think being on the treadmill of coming up with projects and trying to get funding, getting people to the show, and everything [was too much],” Stuart said.
Stuart then turned her focus to acting and directing, where she said she found her preferred role as a performer and collaborator.
Though COVID-19 slowed some of her projects down, Stuart has multiple works on the horizon, beginning with the world premiere of Sam Chanse’s “Monument, Or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play)” at Magic Theatre in San Francisco in May.
The play follows four sisters, of which Stuart plays the eldest, Amy. She said that she found familiarity within the play, being an eldest sister herself. The character is also multiracial, which Stuart related to as well.
The press release promises “one epic road trip, four talking sloths and countless hilariosu cartoon bombs,” in which Chanse asks “how to build resilience after unimaginable loss.”
Stuart highlighted a scene where the actors dress up as sloths for a children’s show for which one of the sisters is writing.
“I think when I read the script I was like, ‘This play is weird and wonderful,’ and I really wanted to do it,” she said.
Stuart admitted that the artist scene in the Bay Area has changed since she arrived years ago, with many artists moving away and the overall community “draining out.”
But Stuart does not see herself leaving anytime soon.
“[The art scene] is actually still really vital, and my roots here at this point are pretty deep and broad,” Stuart said.
As for her ties to Fresno, Stuart still visits her sister and other family members at least once a year, times she said allow her to see how the city has changed.
“It’s nice to kind of go back and have [my younger sister] take me to like, some brewpub doing a farm-to-table thing, or something else happening here now. It’s been nice to see a little bit of that through the lens of younger people,” Stuart said.