“I dropped the cell phone on a puddle of baby poopy today.” This normally would sound like a snip of dialogue from one of Sheila Callaghan’s plays, visceral and strange, but for the recent mom it’s reality. Sheila’s other progeny, CRAWL, FADE TO WHITE, will be mid-wifed by 13P. It will be our (I am P#4) seventh production, and thus marks the exact half-way point in the theater collective’s original mission.
FADE to 2003: Winter Miller’s (P#2) Chelsea apartment. Eleven P’s present, two on conference call. Rob Handel (13P’s founder and Managing Director) has invited twelve fellow playwrights to determine the production order of the yet-to-be-named company. We do, and in the spring of 2004 the company had its inaugural show with Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist. Rob formed the company in order to be pro-active about getting mid-career playwrights’ work produced instead of more readings and workshops. I was enthused because I had seen similar companies, like the Playwrights Collective (of which P#8 Lucy Thurber was a member). They put on shows in a rented room on Varick Street. But I confess I was nervous; financing one show in this city ain’t easy, let alone 13, and I had never been involved in the self-producing model. But Rob had run a theater company in Vermont and his day job was in development, so I felt confident in his ability to negotiate this uncertain terrain.
In CRAWL, April has ditched college (she “ate the school”) and returned home with her boyfriend, Nolan, to retrieve a family heirloom that represents, for April, sort of an emotional repository of her family’s history. But Louise, April’s mother, has given the heirloom to neighbors Fran and Dan to sell at their lawn sale—a “Fall Clearance Sale”— throwing Fran and Dan in the middle of this impending mini-tornado of family collisions. Louise and Fran and Dan have been next-door neighbors for twenty years yet have never met. But Louise has peered at Fran through her window, “Your face in a frame,” and the literal window becomes a figurative entry point, a way to “look beneath the surface of nature to see why things behave as they do.” This framing device becomes a central motif—window frames, picture frames, framing people through interlaced fingers—and I was reminded of the visual motifs in Citizen Kane: The film’s opening, when the young Kane is seen through a window, playing in the snow; the dying Kane, his image reflected in a hallway mirror, echoing into infinity. Upon first reading Sheila’s play, one is struck with the odd tilt of the language and stage directions (APRIL starts to eat the leaves from the “FALL CLEARANCE SALE” sign), and the writing floats on the edge of strangeness but never feels arbitrary. “Her distortion is very purposeful,” says Jocelyn Kuritsky, who plays April. “It’s about investigating ways in which people connect and don’t connect, given the possibilities and restrictions inherent within the spoken word.”
One senses the characters’ frustrating attempts to make connections after a lifetime lived lacking communication—one step forward, three steps backward. As Paul Willis, the play's director, explains, he feels the characters are “trapped in a holding pattern. But they are trying to unearth who they are,” which, despite the characters’ seeming self-imposed stasis, creates the tension in the narrative, until they become “less trapped versions of themselves.”
Willis likens directing CRAWL to working with a musical score. “The score is nearly perfect until it is not,” he points out. “When it is not, it reveals gaps in the play which reveal things—important things happening in the broken parts.” He likens the structure of the play to a series of images along a long hallway; one follows the images as one might in an art gallery or museum, and the scenes become “poetic markers.” He feels that the “oral and physical shapes create meaning,” and the direction calls for a deliberate (not stylized) approach. In directing the play, Willis was interested in the shape of things, the meaning of a subtle arm movement, how a piece of clothing fits.
Like all the “P” shows, Sheila will act as Artistic Director in her production. She selected the collaborators and venue, and has final say to the cast. We spoke about her reasons for choosing this particular play for her 13P show. CRAWL had a production at Los Angeles’ Theater of Note which Sheila was happy with, but it also gave her an opportunity to see the direction the play could go in. This time around, she wanted it to be “a dreamier, more atmospheric play, with moments of stillness,” but she wasn’t quite sure how to get it there. Another reason for choosing this play is that Sheila had been sending the play around and, perhaps because it is more of a fragmented or slightly impressionistic play, theaters weren’t responding. The 13P production would be a unique opportunity to show people how the play can look staged.
A workshop of CRAWL at Fordham University really opened things up for Sheila. At first she and Willis were considering sort of an installation, but when the exploration began, that idea “willed itself out of that box,” as Willis says. They had a chance to explore ideas with a design team—Anna Kiraly (sets), Ben Kato (lights), Eric Shim (sound), Jessica Pabst (costumes)—who are, as Sheila says, “smart designers with dramaturgical minds.” This helped them realize the current shape of the play. Workshops are often an important part of a play’s development, but in the theatrical landscape which 13P is responding to, these opportunities are rarely linked to full productions. Knowing there is a trajectory towards production puts a different spin on things; the playwright reserves a file in her brain which is making casting, design decisions, etc. It also makes the development process all that more critical. Knowing that the show will be staged gives the development process more urgency.
For CRAWL, Sheila wanted a non-traditional space, something that would help create a more intimate and communal experience. The space, The Ideal Glass Gallery on East 2nd street, has a “cavernous quality to it,” notes Willis. The building itself was aesthetically interesting to Sheila and Willis, so the play, in effect, “begins the moment you walk into the space.” Since the play is imagistic, this is part of their effort to experience the play as a new object, and the “rustic beauty” of the space will enhance that motif.
Kuritsky aptly defines Sheila’s work: “I think she’s doing what I think the most interesting playwrights in NY are doing: playing with English and time—distorting it, rearranging it… questioning straight narrative.” Perhaps, one might suggest, not too unlike raising a baby.
CRAWL, FADE TO WHITE will run October 11 - November 1, 2008, Wed – Sat at 8pm at the Ideal Glass Gallery, 22 East 2nd St. For tickets, contact TheaterMania at 212-352-3101 or visit www.13p.org.
GARY WINTER is a member of (soon to implode) 13P.