So I’m in the middle of writing the climactic scene of my play Dead City. My main character, Samantha, after a very emotionally draining day-slash-lifetime, is about to have a massive psychic rupture, and I type out the following stage direction: “The Five Sams emerge from Samantha.”
I sort-of blink dumbly at the sentence, having no real idea what it means. I know I’m trying to get at something essential and surprising, a feeling one gets when one finds herself telling an incredibly personal story to a complete stranger almost accidentally, like on a subway platform or in line at the Dunkin Donuts. Or perhaps explaining what one had for breakfast, a seemingly benign topic, but finding herself weeping uncontrollably somewhere between the words “pour” and “milk.”
That kind of feeling. But bigger. The result of an immeasurable amount of pressure being built up inside a body by the act of constantly forcing a huge, delicate thing into a very small space.
How to theatricalize this? I have no idea. I really don’t. I can approximate a set of boundaries inside which the answer may be explored. I can invoke a kind of poetic outline to be fleshed out at a later date. But truly, I haven’t a clue what it means to have five actors emerge from one actor on stage.
So when Daniella Topol, my director for the New Georges production of Dead City, asks me again and again over the course of a year what exactly I want to have happen at that moment, all I can do is stumble through a series of unhelpful personal stories. “Okay, it’s like the time I was standing on the steps of the Mark Taper Forum in LA during intermission and someone asked me how I was enjoying the play and I exploded into sobs because I was so totally alone… exactly like that. You know?”
Or else I try using words I hear other theatre people use all the time. “The landscape of the play.” “A satisfying dramatic moment.” “Building a theatrical vocabulary.” But when a writer is trying to portray an abstraction, speaking in abstract terms does nothing to help determine how to actually move bodies around a stage.
However, in my experience, what it does do is give a sense of possibility to a moment. It clues collaborators into the idea that there may be several answers to this dilemma, and there will be much furrowed-brow conversation over coffees gone cold about how to make it work together. It invites ultimate participation, regardless of how initially frustrating it may seem (“But what does it mean, Sheila??” “I don’t know, okay??!!”). But most excitingly, it creates a warm, electrified vessel for something essential and surprising to occur within.
With Dead City, the creation of this strange climactic scene became a year-long discussion between a lighting designer, a set designer, a sound designer, a video designer, a costume designer, a director, and a playwright. Being a part of this conversation was exhilarating and terrifying. At meetings I would listen to the ideas whizzing from person to person and silently cringe, not because the ideas were wrong or misguided, but because of the honest fact that I really had no idea what the moment was supposed to look like.
And so when George approached me about contributing to this topic for the Rail, explaining that I’m an appropriate choice because I am a “very visual playwright,” my immediate reaction was “No I’m not! I can’t see the play, I can only hear it in my mind…” I consider my role in the process of creating visual or aural material as the one who sets parameters for exploration, making spaces into which designers may release themselves creatively. But I never actually visualize the result until it manifests itself during tech. And then I’m really terrified, because ultimately I’m the one responsible for whatever is up there. I’m the one who forced an abstraction onto my collaborators, then snatched up my skirts and fled the scene of the crime, shrieking.
I blame Erik Ehn. One afternoon in 1996 I was sitting on my couch in West LA after a particularly aggressive blind-book-buying binge at Sun and Moon Press, and I happened upon a series of short plays published under the title Beginner. Anyone who is familiar with Ehn’s outlandish stage directions will perhaps find some of these familiar: “Mama coughs and a moth flies out of her mouth.” “The guard has a horse-head and carries a pumpkin flashlight.” “A pop, and babies made of corn cobs are produced by Monica and Rose; Emily’s baby is a chunk of two-by-four.” And so on. At the time, I was blown away by such audacity. I couldn’t (and still can’t) visualize these moments on a stage. But what they invoke in a word is possibility. Thrilling, nail-biting, endlessly innovative possibility.
And when six inventive individuals—all with varied backgrounds and training and life experiences—are sitting in a room discussing impossible stage directions, some wicked alchemy is bound to occur.
However, things can get a little messy when you invite chaos. During the rehearsal period for Dead City, we lost a designer half-way through the process. The chemistry wasn’t there, the ideas weren’t gelling, the designer didn’t feel aptly supported… I don’t remember the details. But when a playwright throws her hands up during the design process, as I often do, it can leave designers feeling completely adrift—which is certainly not the best way to sustain a healthy collaboration.
I never quite know what to do in such cases, except trust that I’ve left enough clues in the text to allow a—yes—“theatrical vocabulary” to emerge, one that may be referenced when the discussion veers out of the parameters of the world of the play. But some things, like chemistry, are untenable. It’s a delicate art we practice, and when several creative people with huge ideas are trying to squeeze into a very small space, something is likely to burst.
Still, in my opinion it is always worth the risk. And when it works, it really works. The difficulty then I’ve found, is discovering a way to make extra-textual elements feel integrated and fundamental to the play rather than slapped on for decorative purposes. The hope is that if every artist truly feels at home in the play and secure in his/her understanding of the tone and the themes, then this will happen naturally.
But it’s a hope, not a guarantee, of course. And isn’t play-making all just one giant leap of faith anyway? In that case, what can a playwright do to increase her chances of an ideal artistic confluence?
I’ll tell you what this playwright does. She stays the hell out of the way.
Sheila Callaghan is a playwright living in Brooklyn. Several of her short pieces will be seen as part of UNCLE SAM'S SATIRIC SPECTACULAR at this year's Humana Festival, and DEAD CITY, her loose adaptation of Joyce's ULYSSES, will be read on April 4 as part of the Public's New Works Now series. Visit her at sheilacallaghan.com