So I’m having a hot flash memory of the Great New York Blizzard of a couple of weekends ago. Yes, I was there. Didn’t want to be, but I was. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do anything on Saturday, when the snow kept coming down from dawn till way after dusk. I just got to look out the window of where I was staying and see the white stuff pile up and up and up. Kinda nice, actually.
Even though there’s no snow outside my windows in beautiful sunny West Hollywood, I’ve decided to pretend I’m snowbound and do another Q&A, which I can do from the warmth and security of home in snowy LA. I’m using my imagination, okay?
Sheila Callaghan is a playwright who has received the Princess Grace Award for emerging artists, a Jerome Fellowship from the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis, a MacDowell Residency, a Cherry Lane Mentorship Fellowship, the Susan Smith Blackburn Award, and the prestigious Whiting Award. Her plays have been produced throughout the United States and internationally, and she was profiled by Marie Claire in 2010 as one of “18 Successful Women Who Are Changing the World.” She’s taught playwriting at Columbia University, University of Rochester, College of New Jersey, Florida State University, and Spalding University, is a writer/producer on the Showtime comedy Shameless, and was recently nominated for a Golden Globe for her work on the Hulu comedy series Casual.
Her new play BED will be at the Echo Theater Company through March 13.
Dan Berkowitz: In thirty seconds, can you tell us what BED is about?
Sheila Callaghan: It is a story about a relationship that takes place over 10 years, told within the timespan of 90 minutes – and it all transpires on one bed.
DB: You’ve said the play isn’t autobiographical, but is your “most personal” work. How did you come to write it, and if it was very personal, was it easier or more difficult to do than your other plays?
SC: I found the writing of this to be much more difficult than my regular plays. Because it was focused on a couple and didn’t have much room for the exploration of larger issues that weren’t rooted in their emotional truths, so there was kind of nowhere to run with the writing. I had to stay focused on the small machinations that transpire between a couple without trying to tell a larger story, and I found that sometimes suffocating but also very rewarding.
DB: Your plays have been done all over: Playwright’s Horizons and Rattlestick, among others, in NYC; Actor’s Theatre of Louisville; Yale Rep; Woolly Mammoth in DC; and, out here, South Coast Rep, Boston Court, and now Echo. How closely do you like to be involved in the productions? Are you able to be part of the rehearsal process in a significant way? And when you are, what’s your strategy for interacting with the director, actors, designers, and so on?
SC: Because this is a world premiere, I like to be very close to the production because a play isn’t really done being written until it’s been in front of an audience. I’ve been trying to finish the play in rehearsal and will also be working on it while we’re in previews.
What I like to do is be there for casting, because 90% of putting up a play is finding the right people for it, and then I like to be involved in the first table read and hear how the actors who are about to inhabit the roles are processing the parts, and they’re more than likely going to ask smarter questions about their characters than I could ask because they’re inhabiting them more fully than I have in the writing.
And then I like to be there for the first stumble through so I can see how the play lives in the space and the choices that are being made along the trajectory of the play. And then after that, I like to be involved in the designer run, the first text stumble through and all of the previews, because that’s when I feel like the play really gets built.
I like to be part of the conversations of design pretty early on, because my plays tend to be theatrical, so a lot of the conversation around the play is how to make the theatrical elements feel essential to the storytelling rather than just decorative. A lot of times I’ve discovered the language of the play visually through the conversations with the designers. With the director, I like to have early conversations about their impression of the play and any questions they might have that I can maybe answer in a rewrite. But I don’t like to be a part of the day-to-day rehearsal process, because I feel like I need some aesthetic distance in order to hear the play without being mired in the day-to-day machinations. It’s important for me to be in contact with the director, as things come up that I’m not in the rehearsal room for.
For this particular play, Jen has been giving me a list of questions that come up with the actors that they’re not finding in the text. So I look at these areas and see where I can clarify things textually. And then she has been keeping me up to date with other questions that the actors have that I could potentially help them with without changing the text, because I have a sense of the context of the scene that I haven’t necessarily clarified through the stage directions. With the actors, I invite them to collaborate with me and be open to sharing their process and experience with the character and asking questions. But I also like to rely on their own personal experience with the character without my feedback. So at some point these characters become theirs rather than mine. I welcome them to make decisions without my permission.
DB: You mentioned that BED is a world premiere, and that’s a big deal. Why did you choose Echo for the first production, and not one of the other theatres you’ve worked with?
SC: I don’t know of any playwrights who are so established that they can just look at a map and decide where to plant their world premiere. There are so many decisions that go into building a season that to imagine that it’s the playwright’s choice is to ignore the fact that most plays written by women don’t get produced. This play, while perhaps universal in its conversation about relationships, certainly isn’t for every kind of theater, including some of the ones I’ve worked with in the past. It’s racy, it’s not naturalistic, it’s foulmouthed, the humor is dark and it certainly isn’t for every venue. So my preference for this particular play would be to build it with a theater that has a built in audience that is receptive to adventurous and challenging work.
DB: You’ve taught playwriting at a number of colleges and universities. What are the two or three most important things you tell an aspiring playwright s/he needs to know today?
SC: My advice is pretty basic. First, I encourage my students to read and see everything possible. Because I feel like it’s hard to develop your voice if you don’t know the context within which you’re developing it in regard to the field at large. If you want to develop your own original voice, you need to see what’s already out there so that you don’t accidentally become derivative. You just don’t know how you’re being influenced until you widen your scope of influence. So you can identify the pieces that have the immediate impact on the work that you want to do, rather than the incidental impact based on other derivations of work. The more scope you have, the better writer you will be.
I also tell my students to support other writers and build a community around you, because you want your ringers to be with you through your project. You want trusted collaborators who understand you and your vision and what you’re going for. And you want people who get you on a molecular level and who you have shorthand with.
I guess the third thing would be to find something that makes you happy that isn’t theater or writing because it is a very imperfect and disappointing adventure if you expect it to satisfy all of your needs. Caring about something so much, when it could never be perfect. It’s too difficult for theater to be perfect because there are too many voices involved and there are too many obstacles. It’s about balance.
DB: We’ve all had wonderful and horrible experiences as playwrights: care to share one with us…?
SC: The best theater experience I ever had was winning a tiny acting award in high school for a short play called This Property Is Condemned by Tennessee Williams. It was in the Bucks County Arts Festival in Pennsylvania, and I fell asleep on the bus ride home clutching my trophy, feeling like I’d fallen in love for the first time. The worst was putting up a play a long time ago that I didn’t feel totally comfortable about putting up. I wasn’t clicking with my collaborators, I wasn’t totally confident about the material and the play got murdered in the press. And I was walking home one day when the wind blew a newspaper against my leg, and when I picked it off of my leg, it was my bad review that had just wrapped itself around my shin. I couldn’t get away from the humiliation no matter how hard I tried.
DB: What’s a fun thing about you that no one knows? (And I promise not to tell…)
SC: I’m a spin instructor and I teach yoga. When I was little my dad owned a bar, and when they couldn’t get a babysitter I would go into the bar and entertain all of the drunk working class, blue collar drinkers by playing the spoons to tunes they would put on the jukebox.
DB: A tiny tot playing the spoons while Elvis Presley sings. Now that’s a scene for a play…
Written by Sheila Callaghan
Directed by Jennifer Chambers
Through March 13
The Echo Theater Company @ Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Tickets: 310-307-3753 or www.EchoTheaterCompany.com