One of Normandy Raven Sherwood’s first plays was about a couple of coat-check girls at a fancy restaurant, and even though I can’t exactly remember what happened, it didn’t even matter because her sense of space and place and weird relationships were unique and odd and riveting. Watching her work expand from being part of the National Theater of the United States of America (NTUSA) to focusing on writing her own plays over the years has been like finding a really intricate piece of beaded taffeta from another century in a bin full of court jester hats and handspun silk bits. Yes, this is a massive nod to Sherwood’s prowess as an innovative costume designer, but also to her penchant for the particular.
Normandy and I recently chatted about her new play Permanent Caterpillar (which she will also direct), her brilliant idea to start “an experimental theater of dreams festival where artists will create their dreamed version of someone else’s show,” and a brief contemplation on adolescent swearing.
Trish Harnetiaux (Rail): Normandy, we’ve known each other since our Brooklyn College days—how has your work changed over the last seven years?
Normandy Sherwood: Well, when we first met I was doing most of my theater work with NTUSA, which was a group that worked collaboratively. At that point I had mostly written plays, in collaboration with one to three writing partners, that were the result of a lot of group wrangling over concept and action and that were intended to give voice to the group.
Change over time is supposed to be progress, right? I am less afraid of narrative and naturalism than I was when we were in grad school. I really thought I hated linear narrative, thought it was ugly and, in some obscure way, ideologically repugnant. But then in the middle of a really intense job interview sometime after grad school I had an epiphany that I was actually probably obsessed with narrative. I like stories, and story-ness, story seeming things, and also fractal micro stories in all my stories.
Also I am inclined to be a really dense writer. But I’ve been trying to lighten up lately.
Rail: I completely understand that. Permanent Caterpillar seems like an incredible amalgamation of your work as a musician, cult cabaret singer, poet, playwright, designer, Francophile, and more. How important are dreams to your work, and is your work ever based on an actual dream?
Sherwood: Francophile?! I guess there is a song that mentions French handwriting—
Rail: —Oh, maybe I’m just thinking we’ve spent a lot of time at Fada and Zebulon.
Sherwood: Dreams are important, yes. It’s supposed to be embarrassing to want to share dreams. My characters want to share their dreams all the time, I think because I’m interested in how hard that actually is, to share the thing that is so specific and amazing about a dream. To the person trying to share the dream, it feels like there is some great authority that comes from having dreamed something about someone else—it feels urgent like you need to share it with that person. The dreamed-of person needs to know what larks they are kicking up in your unconscious. It’s a very sweet kind of failure, for a character to try to share a dream, something I keep being interested in putting on stage.
As an aside, let me share my dreams with you: I regularly have dreams about going to see other people’s shows, and I always try to write those down. I have had so many, and they feature a lot of the people I know. The ideas and images from those dream-shows exist in a funny place in my mind because they don’t feel like mine at all—they belong to Radiohole or Tina [Satter] or Sibyl [Kempson]. But of course these dream-shows are actually some secret idea I have about how I understand that other person’s work. Someday I will put on an experimental theater of dreams festival where artists will create their dreamed version of someone else’s show—
Rail: Uh, pretty great idea.
Sherwood: Or maybe I’ll commission that someone else to make the show.
Rail: The world of Permanent Caterpillar is constantly morphing; a cave becomes a nightclub, and then we’re on the side of the road, or maybe we’re back in a cave. What is it about the fluidity of space that you are drawn toward?
Sherwood: I’m drawn to ambiguity—I find it fun and scary, which is perhaps part of the attraction to fluidity and instability. Also, my favorite moments in the theater are when my expectations are upset, when things turn into other things.
One of the most satisfying theater moments I ever saw was in a puppet piece by Brian Selznick—The Christine Jorgensen Story. Christine Jorgensen was an American who, in the 1950s, traveled to Denmark to get a sex change operation. In Selznick’s piece there’s a moment where a suitcase is opened and unpacked; a slip is pulled out. The lights shift, and inside the slip, illuminating it from within, is an ocean liner. The puppeteers move the slip/ocean liner across the stage, and when it reaches the other side, they lift the base of the ocean liner up to show the base, which is a wooden cut out in the shape of Denmark.
When I explain to myself in my mind how Permanent Caterpillar works, I keep thinking of a waterlogged copy of Life Magazine: all of the stories and pictures are swollen and distorted and sticking together.
Rail: How does being a designer influence you? Will you be designing the costumes for this production?
Sherwood: I think about design all the time when I’m writing—I always think about how things will look and also how they will work. I can be overly practically minded as a writer, for instance, thinking about whether a character will have time to do a costume change as I am writing a play.
I will be collaborating on the costume design of Permanent Caterpillar with Chelsea Collins, who assisted me on Anne Washburn’s Iphigenia in Aulis at Classic Stage Company last fall but who will be a co-designer on this project. I’ve done a fair amount of projects where I’ve written, directed, and designed costumes (and sometimes sets)—on Permanent Caterpillar Josh Smith is designing the set and lights, though. I like to do all of these things on a show, but it’s hard on me as a director. Back to changes since we met in grad school, I am trying to learn how to make work where I don’t glue every fringe and sew every stitch.
Rail: When you mentioned “strawberry wine” in the script, I have to admit I got a little sick thinking about an experience I had in high school with a certain bottle of Strawberry Mad Dog one weekend when my parents were out of town—I guess the question here is, how much of your plays are autobiographical, if any?
Sherwood: By way of answering your question, I have drunk of strawberry wine, but not in an unused mine. I have spent some time in caverns and mines, but I have never gotten lost in one and ended up in a 1930s movie version of an apartment in Manhattan.
But I think all plays are autobiographical, in the way that the stuff in them is filtered through the writer. A play is a world that the writer thinks should exist, and so it comes out of the writer’s dreams and nightmares and experiences, and is informed by what she likes and finds funny—I mean, speaking for myself. My plays draw on stories I’ve heard and received ideas and people I know and things I’ve seen or read and remember vividly and also things I sort of remember but can’t source—what I think the playwright Erik Ehn means when he asks participants, on those silent writing retreats, not to research but to draw on the “civilization inside you.” Just like the mulch of your mind. Incidentally this play was first drafted on one of those retreats.
Rail: You mentioned that you weren’t sure of the origin for the idea of a literal Permanent Caterpillar, and you’ve written this into the script. What is the significance of the mis-remembered origin story?
Sherwood: The image of a girl turning into a Permanent Caterpillar—a caterpillar that eats and eats (people and leaves) but never changes into anything else—came to me so powerfully that it seemed like something I must have heard somewhere. When I started writing about it, it felt like I was remembering it—like it already existed. I think this kind of misremembering is a creative moment—where your mind is grasping for something so hard it just starts making it. The should becomes an is.
It’s tied to your earlier question about the “fluid place” aspect of my plays, though, because I think that I often start plays from misremembering—or maybe a gap between what I remember and what has been documented. I’m thinking of my play Gentleman’s Choice. This was a play that arose from my dissatisfaction with a film adaptation of Jane Eyre—it didn’t jive with how I remembered and wanted to see the book, which I came to realize was my own selective memory of what was in that book.
I’m also thinking about how my sister remembers a lot of really specific things from our childhood that I don’t, or what I remember is her telling the story of these things. That faultiness of memory has always been terrifying and fascinating to me—what if I’m the unreliable narrator?
Rail: I think that’s a fair bet—but, in a good way. Your band, with Craig Flanagin, The Drunkard’s Wife, is performing original music. Did you conceive this play as a story that needed to be told through music?
Sherwood: Yes, I always thought this play had music in it—the songs have been in every version (there used to be many more of them). I think the music functions more as a character—I mean, there is a character who is the Singer, and the songs are her language. She’s sort of a narrator who doesn’t always narrate.
Rail: What are the biggest challenges when directing your own work? How do you overcome them?
Sherwood: The number one biggest director challenge I have is keeping myself from selling the writer out. It can be hard to toggle back and forth between those roles, because the writer one is about proposing what ought to be there, and the director one is about making it actually happen. The director is worried about time, and people, and objects, and physical space in a way the writer is not, which puts pressure on the script. That’s also the good thing about taking on both roles—you have to think about the whole, the proposal and the realization.
Rail: Okay, last question: your character Bret calls someone a “dickweed”—have you ever called anyone a dickweed? Or how about “dillweed” (remember that word??)?
Sherwood: You know what, I probably actually haven’t, though that word is in my head because I grew up with several male cousins who were my same age or thereabouts, and I think it was in pretty heavy usage around ages nine through twelve. It’s like a medium-bad word, but not that bad—usually something boys say to boys. I think “dillweed” is for the more timid, because you could plausibly claim you were talking about a plant.
The Brick Theater and The Drunkard’s Wife present: Permanent Caterpillar. Written and directed by Normandy Raven Sherwood. Music by Sam Kulik, performed by The Drunkard’s Wife. Conducted by Nick Demopoulos. Music direction by Craig Flanagin. Set and lights designed by Josh Smith. Costumes designed by Chelsea Collins and Normandy Raven Sherwood. Performed by Jordan Baum, Maxwell Cosmo Cramer, Juliana Francis-Kelly, Admiral Grey, and Kristine Haruna Lee.
Performances: May 19 – June 4 at The Brick Theater (575 Metropolitan Ave at Lorimer Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn). More info at: bricktheater.com. Tickets: $18.
Excerpt from Permanent Caterpillar,
by Normandy Raven Sherwood
4. CHARITY IRONS HER HOT PANTS.
We now see Charity, in her bedroom at an ironing
board. During the song, these actions happen:
Charity irons her hot pants.
She tries her hot pants on.
Singer is in the light, the band and the club
accoutrements remain visible. We’re in a halfway
space—a superimposition of two spaces, like when
a page from a magazine is backlit so you see the ad
for a tropical vacation and the photo essay about
chicken farming at the same time.
Charity wanted “hot pants” which
her mother thought—no, not appropriate,
but after seeing the school play agreed
that it was standard.
Her mother agreed to make shorts.
Charity’s mother wanted to broider a monogram, to make them elegant.
Lights up on Bret, in another part of the house, in the
living room area. He’s talking to his friend Andrew
as they work out. They start by doing stretches.
Because a part of my probation is: I have to help the old. I go to the home and sit near
Her Grandma uses a breather.
Charity’s Grandma is crazy.
She has the worst room.
No other room in the home is like this, you can tell it isn’t just the money, it’s her.
The rest of the building is like a normal public home for the old, the soap and plastic is all
really cheap but okay. But her room is a pit!
Pause for stretches.
Her room does have a plant,
that is its best feature.
But everywhere there are sharp things,
sharp Jesus statues, a sword,
pins and needles on all of the surfaces,
and ceramic shit is always about to fall
Meanwhile, Charity takes out a Polaroid camera and takes a selfie of her butt in the hot pants to check them out. She waits for the picture to develop and then examines it. Charity takes the hot pants off and throws them on the floor.
She picks up another pair of hot pants, puts them on.
She takes another butt selfie. Waits.
Bret and Andrew do lunges.
Charity said no. The monogram wouldn’t work.
No one would do that.
Her mom had other suggestions: A flower? An Owl? A turtle? An Ice Cream Cone?
What do girls do these days?
She knew it could hardly be poodles any more.
On Charity’s hot pants.
Bret and Andrew do an intense partner stretch.
Charity tries to look at her butt. Then she compares
the two Polaroids.
is always wearing an old housedress
like you can buy the 99 cent store
and it’s always smeared with some jelly.
She has a diamond in one tooth and another tooth that’s black.
Something random is that
Charity’s Grandma really loves this thing, which is like
a band of monkeys wearing old fashioned clothing
and playing a violin and a tuba and those sort of things.
The old monkeys are aristocrats and are wearing wigs.
She loves those old monkeys so much!
Charity takes these hot pants off and puts on the first
TRISH HARNETIAUX is a Brooklyn based playwright. Some plays include How To Get Into Buildings, If You Can Get to Buffalo, and Weren’t You In My Science Class?.