Devouring the Scenery with Sheila Callaghan
Anima: I must have hung up the phone because it rang later, not five but seven, twenty, a hundred years later that night again but I don’t remember placing the receiver back down. I remember my inner skin being cold and my outer skin being hot and I walked in to my room and picked up my shirt and pulled it over my head but
Funny. I can’t recall if I told him before or after I put my shirt on.
—from Scab, by Sheila Callaghan
If you foray into the downtown theater world with any regularity, you have probably come across Sheila Callaghan. You took in her work on this coast or the other. Maybe you went to one of her readings, recommended by a friend of a friend, or to WET’s production of Scab, or Tumor at Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, or even Kate Crackernuts in L.A. The girl’s got awards and fellowships up the wazoo including a Jerome Fellowship, the Princess Grace Award and a trip to MacDowell, not to mention her commissions from South Coast Rep, Humana, EST, and Playwright’s Horizons.
I first discovered Callaghan by reading her play Scab, a beautiful, at times symbolic, and always poetic piece complete with crashing waves and a vicious Virgin Mary. It was about love, and I found it fierce and desperate and funny and beautiful, and it blew my mind completely and changed my idea of what a play could be. The New York Times called it a "textbook example of promising work, written with a yen for interesting language and liberally salted with well observed details of the lives of newly minted adults." But I didn’t need to ask the Times what to think— I just knew it moved me, and I wanted to meet its creator.
I finally met her when I found myself a part of the same new upstart New York theater company as her— the Relentless Theater, a transplant from L.A., where it had made its name doing work by Paula Vogel, Chis Kyle and, yes, Callaghan. It was at the inaugural meeting, in a greenly lit coffeeshop in Soho, that I encountered the pierced, smiling, manically irreverent, wisecracking writer. Since then, I have tracked her eclectic and busy life, from teaching a playwriting class at the College of New Jersey, to go-go dancing at a female-run bar as research for her "Ulysses play," to designing web pages in an office at TCG, to even running in this year’s marathon— where, she was upset to learn, she just missed beating P Diddy’s time. Making a living and making theater are infamously at odds for a New York artist, and yet Sheila’s prolific output seems untouched by her clearly frenetic schedule. How does she do it?
Her answer, like much about Sheila, is disarming:
"It’s really fun to filter your environment with one of your senses shut off," she confides. "It puts me in an automatic bubble. Don’t have to meditate or anything." Sometimes before writing she will read poetry by writers like John Ashbery, Lynn Hejinian or occasionally pieces by playwrights Ruth Margraff or Kristen Palmer. "Not so much that I start to write like them," she explains. "I find that if I read poems before I write, it opens up language."
Callaghan delights in creating specific and unique language for her characters, at times even stretching the language so far as to create new dialects:
BELLY: The world, right. Sometime. When you fraided. Fraided of something. Think and think about it ‘til your peepers hob, your tummy wobble. And you know the something gone happen. But people say naw, naw. But then. It do. It DO happen. And the world just shut off, right. Like noises stop noising. And lights go gray. And you can’t feel your slappers, and everything squeeze and squeeze until it a tiny dot. And you think you been kilded. But you doesn’t been kilded. Because the dot goes big again. And that something that made you fraided… It still there. It don’t get gone. And everything stay hinkey forever.
—from We Are Not These Hands
The languages her characters speak are an expression of decidedly new worlds; through these, Callaghan reflects reality back for us with beautiful distortion. "I feel like the topics I choose often come from a place of boredom or dissatisfaction and I don’t think I can correct it by making another more accurate version of what I’m seeing," she explains. "I feel accessing a new place that has certain truths which mirror truths about the perceived reality we live in might be more effective, or at least it’s more interesting to me."
This alter-reality is bursting with theatrical images that fearlessly and boldly express the mental states of her characters. Not only does the Virgin Mary make an appearance, but in Callaghan’s world a girl can suddenly grow the head of a sheep on her shoulders. Frantic in love or desperate in mourning, her characters may lie on the ground for days or suddenly binge, devouring the grass and earth for miles. In Crawl, Fade to White, a character licks a lamp to feel closer to its previous owner. Sheila amplifies the details of her world to show us the truth about ours:
APRIL: How long have we been here
NOLAN: In this bed.
NOLAN: Eleven days.
APRIL: Have we been eating?
NOLAN: Each other.
APRIL: It’s coming back to me.
NOLAN: We also ate some of your laundry. A T-shirt, a black sock, a white sock. Half a pair of jeans…
APRIL: Less for me to clean. What’s that? The phone?
NOLAN: We ate the phone.
APRIL: I hear ringing.
NOLAN: We can never leave this bed, you know.
—from Crawl, Fade to White
What I notice most is the energy infused in Sheila’s writing and the inexplicable way she can write dense monologues that somehow keep the play moving, while at other times characters trade one-liners for pages. Sometimes her stage directions crackle with poetry the audience will never hear: "Paul is walking home. He is a rubber band. His eyes are half closed, his mouth cracked and white, his skin egg-shell colored." (from Kate Crackernuts)
Perhaps what Sheila Callaghan has discovered most of all, and is so agilely equipped to show us, is that sometimes you have to close out the world around you for a little while, to see it deeper.
Sheila Callaghan’s next play is The Hunger Waltz, about a young married woman following a porcelain doll across the U.S. over 600 years. Produced by The Relentless Theatre Company and directed by Olivia Honegger, it will open January 10th at Manhattan Ensemble Theatre.
Tickets: $15, available at Theatermania.com or by calling (212)352-3101. For more information, visit www.RelentlessTheatre.com.
Adam Szymkowicz is a Manhattan-based playwright. Most recently, he’s been writing with Franny Maxwell. They are currently discussing the possibility of a musical romantic comedy about flesh-eating bacteria.