Sheila Callaghan is one of my favorite living playwrights. I can count these playwrights on one hand. In a theatrical landscape dominated by after-school specials, on-stage television pilots, exposés of rich families, and nonsense musicals, Callaghan’s work eschews any category. Every time the lights darken on one of her sets, I have no idea what I am about to see. And even when I think I know where the piece is going, Callaghan constantly changes styles and approach—a witty exposé about cruise-ship culture turning into a nightmare bloodbath, a steamy romantic triangle set in hirsute Europe twisting into an isolating psychological drama, an obvious satire about shock playwrights like Adam Rapp that turns its own lens on the very culture that vilifies violence.
I await each of Callaghan’s plays like a fanboy for a Marvel movie. I am so excited about her new work—Woolly Mammoth’s world premiere production, the Kip Fagan-directed, internet-meme inspired Women Laughing Alone with Salad—that I cannot even bring myself to read it. In preparation for this interview Callaghan sent me the piece, but it sat in my inbox, like a videotaped bootleg of The Incredible Hulk that I desperately want to watch but has a grainy resolution. Plays are not literature until they have a physical shape, and this is most certainly true of Callaghan’s writings. Her plays work on the viewer like a drug or a séance, a devious exorcism of emotions and ideas. But more than anything, Callaghan writes plays whose physicality and surreal command of reality demand to be experienced on stage. This is what sets her apart from the great percentage of the theater’s current pack of trust-fund scribes and fake-hot-button playwrights—Callaghan speaks straight to the core of one’s being, skewering the comfortable conventions that have turned so much theater into a place where wealthy people digest their dinner. Callaghan wants to make your throw up, then search for the answers of your life in your own vomit.
So the following interview is structured like the experience of watching a Callaghan play. (Full disclosure: I have in the past gotten drunk with Callaghan in her backyard on Sriracha-flavored beer, so we are perhaps a tad familiar.)
Tommy Smith (Rail): Why write a play?
Sheila Callaghan: Because it’s a terrible fucking idea and impossible to get right.
Rail: No, really.
Callaghan: I’m serious. I like to fail at impossible tasks. It’s like I’m striving for something superhuman, which feels kind of noble.
Rail: What does it say about your narrative trajectory that your new play begins with enthusiastic salad-eating and ends with a bittersweet cake feast?
Callaghan: I kind of feel like the answer here lies in the question.
Rail: Describe the dangers (and/or rewards) of dating a play with passing cultural references.
Callaghan: Eventual irrelevance, obviously. But that’s not a bad thing with this particular play. Hopefully it suggests that some of the societal ills the play addresses are no longer as pressing. Or maybe that the cultural conversation has advanced past the play. Either way, it’s social progress, which is more important than the enduring artistic life of a small, ambivalent, formally experimental piece of theater.
Rail: What’s the play you really want to write but will never write? Describe.
Callaghan: I don’t know if there exists a play I want to write but won’t. I will write every play inside me until I have no more, and then probably one or two more. There are definitely a few plays I don’t know if I actually can write. I’m writing one now. It’s called Bed, about an excruciating personal ordeal. I started writing it thinking, “If it terrifies me it’s probably worth exploring, because there’s something there.” But the “something there” may just be more terror. Which doesn’t leave that much room for art, unfortunately. Although maybe it only needs a little art? We’ll see.
Rail: What’s your favorite memory of Adam Rapp?
Callaghan: Probably hanging out in Brooklyn one wintry night, sharing pulled-pork sandwiches and talking about books for an hour. But my favorite Adam Rapp anecdote is only Rapp-adjacent. In 2004 I walked into the Blue Heron Arts Center to see an Ann Marie Healy play called Now That’s What I Call a Storm. Ann Marie writes peculiar, delicate, thoughtful plays with complex female characters in heightened circumstances. When I sat down for this play, I was shocked to find myself in a hyper-realistic and fully repulsive apartment on Canal Street, hanging out with an incontinent Gulf-war vet and his love, a tragic-lost-beauty-teenage-heroin-addict-stripper type. At some point the dude poops himself and changes into a fresh diaper onstage. I was like, holy shit, where the fuck is Ann Marie taking me? And how long has this play been living inside her? About halfway through I figured it out. I had walked into the wrong theater. Ann Marie’s show was playing next door. I was watching Adam Rapp’s Blackbird. What I found most shocking was how profoundly my regard for the play changed when I realized it was written by a dude.
Rail: What’s the major difference between doing a play in LA and NYC?
Callaghan: About $2000 in plane tickets.
Rail: “When I’m not writing plays, I’m….”
Callaghan: Feeding my gentle, curious, easily distracted son. Teaching Spin and yoga. Trying to sleep. Thinking about fucking. Trying not to think about fucking. Imbibing green drinks and cold coffee. Looking at my stomach in the mirror. Buying anti-aging serums from Sephora. Checking my email. Texting dangerously in my car. Training to become a mogul. Finding coping strategies for my diseased brain. Wondering if PTSD has a sell-by date.
Rail: Tell me the story of your most favorite tattoo.
Callaghan: It’s the bee on my left wrist. This is a long story involving my first TV job and it doesn’t reflect very well on me at all. I only tell it when tipsy and bullied into it. So buy me two glasses of Sancerre and get a little mean with me.
Rail: Irish, huh?
Callaghan: Italian. I’m adopted.
Rail: It’s your birthday. Someone gives you a calfskin wallet. How do you react?
Callaghan: I say thanks and re-gift immediately. Anyone who loves me knows not to buy me a fucking wallet.
Rail: You’ve got a little girl. She shows you her butterfly collection plus the killing jar. What do you do?
Callaghan: I’ve never heard of a killing jar. I just Googled it. It’s exactly what I should have imagined. Instead I had pictured something mechanical and medieval. I’d probably just put the little girl back where I found her, then Instagram a picture of the jar with a comment about the inefficiency of analogue murder devices.
Rail: You’re watching television. Suddenly you realize there’s a wasp crawling on your arm.
Callaghan: I watch it crawl until it stings me. Then I kill it.
Rail: You’re in a desert, walking along in the sand when all of a sudden you look down and see a tortoise. It’s crawling toward you. You reach down and flip the tortoise over on its back, Sheila. The tortoise lies on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over. But it can’t. Not without your help. But you’re not helping. Why is that, Sheila?
Callaghan: Probably because I’m waiting for someone to turn me over first.
Rail: Describe in single words only the good things that come to your mind about your mother.
Callaghan: Punctual. Unsqueamish. Devout. Practical. Loyal. Frugal. Satisfied. Uncomplicated. Cancer-free.
Sheila Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone with Salad, directed by Kip Fagan, plays September 7 – October 4 in Washington, D.C., at Woolly Mammoth; the world premiere is the theater’s entry in D.C.’s city-wide Women’s Voices Theater Festival this fall. For tickets and further information please visit woollymammoth.net or womensvoicestheaterfestival.org.
TOMMY SMITH is a playwright and screenwriter living between New York and Los Angeles. His incest drama Firemen recently won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for Best Production, Best Direction, Best Writing, Lead Performance, and Featured Performance; his revenging-hookers movie Sleeper Car is currently in production with director Guy Moshe and Dimension Films. More about Tommy is at smithsmith.wordpress.com.