Blow Me Up, Lay Me Down

Sheila Callaghan writes plays with one finger on the fast-forward button.

By Sarah Hart

Sheila Callaghan doesn’t finish sentences. She tumbles forward through a flood of images and ideas, sometimes pausing to recall how she arrived at this particular spot in the conversation. There’s a giddy energy about her, and she’s a magnet for people and discussion.

Callaghan’s writing, likewise, seems to filter in everything around her before spinning back onto the page. Though she’s often tagged with various nebulous labels (“downtown” and “language playwright” are two, and neither is totally unfounded), her plays defy categorization. They are sexy, punky, smart, sophisticated, literate, edgy, tightly woven, big, crass, witty, exquisite. They swell with moments of the unreal but never let go of a narrative thread. They expand and contract to underscore everyday grit and epic ache.

“She writes the kind of plays you can’t wait to crack open,” says director Kip Fagan, who began working with Callaghan more than a decade ago at Seattle’s Printer’s Devil Theater, which Callaghan calls her first professional-development home. “She works in a lot of different idioms, but whether the play is naturalistic, like Lascivious Something, or a totally dystopian, theatrical story, like We Are Not These Hands, there’s a buoyancy that can be missing in a lot of more formally adventurous writing. There’s nothing dry about her plays.”

“Sheila has one foot in the literary theatre world and the other in the avant-garde world—and it’s really her love of both that makes her work so strong,” agrees Daniella Topol, who will direct Lascivious Something in fall ’09 at New York City’s Cherry Lane Theatre, where it was part of the Mentor Project in 2006. Paul Willis, Fagan’s co-artistic director in the early Printer’s Devil days, directs a separate production at Los Angeles’s Circle X Theatre Company in March.

Set in a vineyard overlooking the Ionian Sea against the removed-but-ominous backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s election, Lascivious is a tragedy of lost love, about what can be reclaimed and what can’t, old lovers, dead children and abandoned revolutions. Callaghan based August, her Marx-reading college-dropout-turned-radical-vintner, on a winemaker she met while visiting Greece. “He had come from Canada, where he had been a banker or something, and he was doing it all on his own,” she recalls. “There was this massive hubris. It had a manifest-destiny quality. I’d been wanting to write an epic-ish, Greek tragedy-ish play.” The appearance of August’s long-ago girlfriend destabilizes the idyllic veneer of his life with his young Greek bride. Violence hums beneath the surface of the play, occasionally splintering through in devastating outbreaks—only for scenes to rewind and repeat until events can go forward rationally. Callaghan’s instinctual tweaking of naturalism manages to amplify the play’s emotional truthfulness.

Meanwhile, Fagan will helm the pugnaciously titled That Pretty Pretty; or The Rape Play—captioned “a fragmented exploration of the things we find really fucking hot”—at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City in February. Callaghan started the play as a joke for Fagan and calls it the “psychic runoff” of surfing the Web. When they first read it together, reports Fagan, “it wasn’t even a play, but this collection of really raunchy things. Everyone was excited about it, but nobody knew what to make of it. Then a story started to emerge out of the goop Sheila had created.” The enormously funny plot is intricately constructed despite what at first glance seems like a meta-mess; it centers on a man writing what he calls a “topical” screenplay about “some fucked-up shit chicks go through. Rape, and babies, and stripping, and being objectified by the media.” Callaghan maintains a playful touch amidst his obliviously blinkered view and subject matter, which ranges from distasteful to horrifying.

And this month Willis directs Crawl, Fade to White for 13P, the playwright-run company Callaghan helped found in 2003. She began Crawl in 2000 (it had a production at Los Angeles’s Theatre of NOTE in 2005), but has reinvented the play for this go-round. “The ending  was originally much more literal,” she says. “It needed to be a bit more mythic and a bit more poetic. I knew the kind of tone I wanted, and I knew when I started writing it that I didn’t have the tools yet to figure out what it meant.” There is something delicate and breakable-feeling about Crawl, making it particularly fitting that it will be staged in the Ideal Glass Gallery, an industrial-space-turned-art-venue. “There’s a sense of wonder with this play,” says Willis. “We want the images to be simple and bold and envelop the audience. Hopefully without some of the baggage of the traditional theatregoing experience, it will be easier to surrender to the play.”

The past few years have brought growing notice for the 35-year-old playwright, whose work has primarily been claimed by small, hyper-smart companies with an eye on bold new plays—groups like Chicago’s Dog and Pony Theatre Company or Washington, D.C.’s Catalyst Theater Company. Dead City, Callaghan’s Joycean riff aimed at the untethered soul of post-9/11 New York, produced by New Georges in 2006, also under Topol’s direction, marked her coming-out with New York critics, who were mostly enthralled. In 2007 she earned further attention by winning the prestigious Whiting Award and Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. And in the coming season she has four premieres slated, along with several earlier works and four more theatre projects in development—making it increasingly clear that Callaghan simply doesn’t have time to finish sentences.

Growing up and going to college in New Jersey, Callaghan read her way through a self-prescribed theatrical education. Her syllabus placed Edward Albee alongside Wendy Wasserstein—which might account for her easy shifting of styles. “I didn’t have any idea how these plays lived in the landscape of theatre,” she says. “I wasn’t putting myself into a slot. I was just observing everything. When I got to grad school, I was surprised that there were all these channels of different kinds of writing.” She earned her MFA in playwriting from University of California–Los Angeles. During those years—but again outside the classroom—she discovered playwrights like Erik Ehn, Jeffrey Jones, Ruth Margraff and Mac Wellman, writers who left a significant mark on her ideas about theatricality. “I couldn’t believe that what they were doing worked,” she says. “It felt like such an academic exercise, but then when you saw something like [Wellman’s] Terminal Hip, you were blown away. You had to be athletic just to keep up with it.

“I like that feeling of having the play race out in front of you and you have to catch it. The theatre that many people like to see these days, maybe including me, is this thoughtful, plodding—plot and plod—build of character and story, until you’re full of the play, like with August: Osage County. There’s an accomplishment to the work, and there’s an accomplishment to you sitting through the work, and I love that. But I also love this speedy, flip-you-around theatre.”

Callaghan, who now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, composer Sophocles Papavasilopoulos, and their three-month-old son, is an inveterate theatregoer. She’s constantly discovering new inspirations, and, in addition to those early influences, she cites a long list of her peers as stimuli, including David Adjmi, Lisa D’Amour, Will Eno, Melissa James Gibson, Naomi Iizuka, Young Jean Lee, Craig Lucas, Chuck Mee, Adriano Shaplin and Anne Washburn—as well as companies like Elevator Repair Service, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma and Radiohole, and canonical, convention-breaking poets like John Ashbery, e.e. cummings, Anne Sexton and Gertrude Stein. “I’m drawn to anything where language comes alive,” Callaghan says. “I don’t want language to feel strenuous—I like it to feel kind of magical with juxtapositions you wouldn’t expect popping out.” Still, she notes, “Language works differently in space, much differently than it works on the page.”

For We Are Not These Hands, which premiered in 2006 at Crowded Fire Theater Company in Berkeley, Calif., and headlined a new-work festival in Germany this past June, Callaghan created a broken argot for her pair of waifs cast off in a war-ravaged, rapidly commercializing third-world country. “They have nothing—they don’t even have language,” observes Daniel Fish, who directed the play for Gimme Shelter, co-produced by Berlin’s German Theater Abroad and Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus. “They have to learn by what they hear and see on the Internet.” Fish intensified the bleak, stifled setting by staging the play almost entirely in a dilapidated parked car, with close-up video feed projected on cement warehouse walls. The girls, with melted chocolate smudged on like lipstick, resembled dirty, baby-faced Olsen twins, disturbingly childlike and predatory.

Callaghan is a compulsive explorer, and she picks up obsessions everywhere (pop culture, fashion and food, just to scratch the surface). “Very few people carry so many strands so deeply,” notes Topol. Callaghan paints (an instinct she parlays into freelance graphic design) and sings (as an evening-gloved chanteuse on the theatrical benefit circuit, and with an erstwhile band led by Papavasilopoulos). She’s only recently conceded that she’s probably not going to go back to school for that upper-level degree in comparative lit.

It’s no surprise that the Internet, with its infinite knots of hyperlinked dispatches, figures prominently in her work, both thematically and structurally. “I get easily overwhelmed, and I’m also a bit of a manic person,” admits Callaghan. “There’s something about the Internet that both satisfies and exacerbates both of those things because there’s so much information and there’s no end to it. There’s also a repetitiveness to the imagery. But there’s a kinetic quality that’s also in a lot of my plays. It’s a manifestation of manic energy—and keeping up with that is exciting.”

It’s also an indispensable research tool. To write her bomb- building preteen for Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake), Callaghan studied adolescent blogs—“I would search the words ‘11-year-old girl’ and ‘fuck’ or ‘I hate everything’ so I found the disturbed journaling girls,” she relates. The play is a startlingly poignant portrait of a mother-daughter relationship and the immobility of grief—and it gives an actor the chance to play an aggrieved apartment, perhaps the greatest role she’s written. Crumble was developed and premiered by New York City’s Clubbed Thumb in 2004 and has been produced around the country (it goes up this December at Cleveland Public Theater in Ohio). It’s also the latest emblem of a growing European interest in her work as an entry in Voices from undergroundzero at Theater Bielefeld in Germany, Oct. 16–19. Dead City, which gets its fifth production this February at Ohio’s New Stage Collective, was written on a Jerome Fellowship at Minneapolis’s Playwrights’ Center in 2001–02, using to tour her home from afar. And Callaghan recently completed a short film script, one of several screenwriting projects she has in the pipeline, for Shekhar Kapur (director of the Cate Blanchett–starring Elizabeths), set in Prague, by visiting via Flickr-posted vacation photos and YouTube clips of Czech TV shows.

Close attention to form has led her to use  existing structures to “free up some of the muscle that it takes to be creative.” She based her Kate Crackernuts on an English fairy tale, and Dead City uses Joyce’s Ulysses schema. Fever/Dream, yet another new play this season (at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in June, directed by Howard Shalwitz), is a contemporary rendition of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream set in corporate America. “She is brilliant about understanding the essence of a story and then asking why it’s relevant today,” says Jessica Kubzansky, who directed Kate in Los Angeles in 2003 and intitiated the Fever/Dream project with Callaghan. “She has an amazingly fertile imagination that’s on the cutting-edge of culture.”

Lately Callaghan perceives a shift in her work. She’s leaving more open spaces, trusting her collaborators to flesh out unwritten moments. “I think it’s a natural progression,” she says, “because the more people you know who can pull it off, the more you trust the work over. In Kate Crackernuts the theatricality is written into the language; there’s no real room. What I’m doing now is more fun—and puts less pressure on me.” Specifically, she’s developing her noir-ish Roadkill Confidential with Clubbed Thumb, setting aside “big pockets of potential theatrical-ness, so the play is very still and then explodes in places, and I don’t know what that looks like yet.” She’s also writing a play set on a cruise ship for San Francisco–based physical troupe foolsFURY and the Playwrights Foundation, and a musical about fashion, commissioned by True Love Productions in New York.

And then there’s Water (Or the Secret Life of Objects), her most hybrid piece to date, which she’s been working on for two years with Topol and videographer William Cusick, both collaborators on Dead City, along with sound designer Katie Down and a quintet of actors. In residence at HERE Arts Center, the team also snagged funds from the Princess Grace Foundation to present work at Baryshnikov Arts Center in June. The play, part narrative, part installation, will unfold over six hours (Callaghan says people will be free to leave and come back) and depict the world after a devastating global flood. A short excerpt previewed at the PRELUDE festival in New York at the end of September. The multi-tiered project explores—as the title suggests—what happens to objects when they survive past their owners, as well as the lives of a guilt-ridden scientist who pre-disaster preached global-warming-as-myth, and a superstar chef raking in power, money and women as he peddles faux food, the only gourmet possible in an environmentally decimated world.

Taking aim at planetary strife makes sense. Callaghan never sells her audience short. Her plays push and prod and aren’t always pretty—but at the core of her work is an authenticity and emotional density that serve as reminders of what theatre is and where it can take us.