Sheila Callaghan, Daniella Topol, and the Slow-Building Wave of Collaboration
Once upon a time in a New York City that feels very far away, playwright Sheila Callaghan and director Daniella Topol decided they wanted to make a performance together about water. And they wanted to make it in a way that was new to both of them—outside of conventional structures and timelines, with the space to explore, to play, and to stretch—to sink or to swim. New Georges’ Artistic Director Susan Bernfield was up for the adventure. They jumped in and began.
Now, ten years and several lifetimes later, the collaboration is about to arrive at a production. Called (NOT) Water, and featuring characters called Not Sheila and DT, its epic reach, creative sprawl, deep questioning, and free spirit match a process founded in and sustained by these same qualities. And after such an unconventional process, no conventional production environment will do! Instead, New Georges is producing (NOT) Water at 3LD Art & Technology Center along with the inaugural Works on Water Triennial. Dreamed up by Susan B’s own long-term producing partner, New Georges’ Deputy Artistic Director Sarah Cameron Sunde (along with a dynamite cohort of water-based visual artists and experts), Works on Water will be twenty-six days of theater, art, and conversation featuring work on, in, around, and about water—presented by New Georges, 3LD and Urban Water Artists in collaboration with Guerilla Science. For a play (or a ‘not’ play) that extends its reach into visual art and science, this rigorous, multidisciplinary extravaganza is a perfect fit.
I wanted to hear more about how this durational duo is feeling and what they’re thinking now that they are reaching if not the end, then a major milestone of this work. I nabbed them—along with co-creator Liza Birkenmeier and lighting designer Barbara Samuels—as they headed into their current round (they didn’t want to say “last” round!) of rehearsals. Here’s a window into our conversation.
Katie Pearl (Rail): A central image in the play is a flood. In the beginning, when you were just starting, what flooded in for you?
Sheila Callaghan: Desire. Duty. A sense of resilience.
Rail: And as you’ve continued, what drowns you?
Callaghan: Desire. Duty. A lack of resilience.
Liza Berkenmeier: I’d add to that: Years of material and global crises; years of material about global crises.
Rail: What has kept you afloat?
Daniella Topol: The characters and their stories and longings continue to be an anchor for me—the ways in which we can empathize with others’ fears of death and longings and nostalgia. In the best-case scenario, the idea that this piece builds and galvanizes community keeps me afloat. Also, you know the piece is so scary to make, but I love the agency we all have in making it—how we aren’t following a map of “this is how it is usually done” because we are just doing it the way we think is best.
Rail: Can you talk about duration? Ten years is a long time to work on one thing, and to work with one person.
Topol: Although we have worked on this for ten years, I would feel very differently if we had worked on this every day for ten years—we have picked it up and put it down steadily over time. At some points I have driven the process, at other points, Sheila has—it’s been very moving for me to see how it has been allowed to ebb and flow between us.
Rail: I know many people have joined the two of you over the years as well.
Topol: I have developed some deep friendships and alliances with so many designers and actors who have been in the room with us over time. Their work is always in this piece—even though they themselves might not be. For example, since the very beginning, Carolyn Baumler has been the voice of water. But for this iteration we need the voice of water to be live, so we cannot record her—and something feels off about that, because to me she will always be our voice of water. There are tons of examples like this, and I am really wrestling with it.
Rail: Right. Duration can allow for extraordinary growth, but it also opens us up to loss.
Topol: Loss is always part of creation. That expression people use when writers have to let go of passages they love—which I hate for many reasons—“you have to kill your babies”? I hate that expression. But the point is, there is loss in not having people with us who have been a fundamental part of making this.
Callaghan: The project-building aspect is a part of me that I don’t actually want to let go. I feel connected to the process in some essential way. It’s become an identifying fact: “Daniella and I are working on a show with New Georges about our relationship to the environment.” That’s my tag line. It won’t be true anymore soon. I think that will be painful.
Rail: Heading into production definitely means an era is coming to a close. How has it been folding all those years of research and conversation and life and world changes into a play?
Callaghan: The looming deadline of production has definitely hastened our need to figure out how to shape a conversation without allowing the issue itself to become too overwhelming (or at least, allow it to be overwhelming in a way that encourages productive conversation and progress). Our biggest struggles have been 1) figuring out a structure to support everything we’ve built, and 2) narrowing our focus enough so the play can gently guide its audience to a place that feels hopeful. Our most interesting discovery has been that our play-building process itself is the story, precisely because it’s been so difficult for us to settle on something concrete over the years.
Rail: The play itself is multidisciplinary and has interactive moments—audiences move location, the set changes, there is conversation—and then there is the context of Works on Water itself. How does this intersection of your dramatic narrative with visual art, scientific research, and different theatrical modes (like the interactive activities) serve the experience you want the audience to have? In other words: why wasn’t it enough to make a play that the audience just watched?
Berkenmeier: The piece argues and wrestles with its play-ness or non-play-ness; it has always seemed that the scope of life and death inside was simply too big for a narrative with characters, let alone a piece of theater. The visual art and science, and the largeness of the Works on Water event, allow the play—the part with live human performers—to have a context that allows it speak even more clearly within the nook of articulation it occupies.
Topol: Also, the piece is about community and activism. We needed the structure to respond to this core thrust.
Barbara Samuels: Actually, in the design and playmaking process we haven’t specifically been talking about it as a play.
Callaghan: And what is a play, though? I don’t mean to be a dick – but isn’t a play made from whatever you need to tell your story? What happens if your story is bigger than words and characters? What if it involves stuff that isn’t theater? What if it involves the people who paid to be there, even before they show up? And continues after they leave? What if your story is bigger than the space that tries to contain it? Does it stop being a play?
Rail: I wonder if one reason the story feels so uncontainable is because it’s about the climate, looking at water within the context of climate change and climate crisis. So many of us are facing up to this challenge of making works that respond to the climate crisis—do you share my fear that people will roll their eyes when they realize you’re making a “climate” play?
Callaghan: We’ve spent ten years being afraid of this. That’s part of the question at the heart of the play: how do you make a compelling piece of theater about an “issue” without dissolving into polemic? Maybe you can’t. Maybe that’s beside the point. Maybe you do it anyway because recycling your Dasani bottles doesn’t seem to be working.
I think the fuel of the play is an almost pathological insistence on veracity. That has been humiliating and terrifying to us as play-makers, which may bode well for play-watchers. Hopefully.
Topol: I do think it is our job to help create community through theater, and engage that community with issues that affect our environment and our culture. But our way in has been personal. Water is very personal. We interact with it in very personal ways—when we bathe or shower, when we drink, when we wash. It is also nostalgic: how we played in it when we were a child, how we were bathed by our parents or grandparents, etc. Every time we have spoken to people who have shared their personal stories related to water, the conversation gets deeper and more thoughtful and more emotional. The science and the activism is certainly a big part of the piece, and it is the envelope that surrounds the piece. But the actual piece itself is about people grappling with their fears and their loves and their hungers towards one another and water.
Samuels: Sheila and Daniella have always been very clear that we aren’t trying to make a “climate play.” We can’t explore our connection with water without addressing climate change or natural disasters, or unnatural disasters as the case may be, but water is also so much more than those things. It is at the core of all existence.
Rail: One challenge of responding to the Climate Crisis also has to do with not feeling a connection to it, or impact from it. Hurricane Sandy changed that for a lot of people...kind of. Where do you find your own connection?
Topol: It’s changed throughout the years actually. The economic disparity between those who had access to clean water or were able to re-make their lives after Katrina versus those who didn’t haunted me. The great gap between those who can leave and those who cannot is profound.
Samuels: In the last year I have specifically begun to think of water as life and power. When I first became involved in this project I cared about climate change and disasters. I still care about those things, but I’ve been deeply affected by becoming better educated about the crisis in Flint, and spending a few days with Standing Rock Water Protectors has very much affected me. My brief time with Water Protectors helped me to connect with water as a life force for a community. In American colonizer culture we take water for granted as something that comes out of pipes or tubes when we need it. I was with communities connected to each other both by fears about when their water will be contaminated with oil, and also by being in touch with where this precious beautiful resource comes from. Water is life, and we should be grateful to the earth for providing us with life.
Rail: Barbara, as a newer collaborator, what’s your experience of entering into a process that is long ongoing?
Samuels: The duration of it both means there is a lot of catching up to do, and everything is fresher for me. However from talking with Sheila, Daniella, and Liza for this last year of the project it is pretty clear that the ethic of development continues—we have been restructuring the play the entire time I’ve been working on it even though some of the text has existed for ten years. It’s pretty fun to dig into.
I really can see how the way we have been working has kept the play loose. It will be very alive through the tech and preview process.
Rail: Does having the play located within a larger exhibition of artworks rather than in a discreet theater space change the way you’re going about designing?
Samuels: We definitely have been talking about the play and how it lives in this room with artwork always present, but my design process always starts with how the event sits in whatever room it is taking place—so in that respect I am not diverging from my usual process. Although there is the added element of focus shift: what happens to the artwork when it is quieted to allow the event of the play to emerge? What happens when the play quiets so the artwork/exhibition take the focus?
Rail: Is the play made stronger by co-habitating with artworks? Is the art made stronger?
Berkenmeier: I think so. Visual art puts a viewer in distinct contrast to the thing they examine; the sensory input goes one way, which allows the humans in this exchange to gauge their distance and time with the object or experience. An exhibition is a subjective spatial adventure. The live theater inside of it adds something temporal, even more fleeting, and when the audience hears and sees things together (whether they want to or not), they are tied to an experience that is connected to time, and they must depend upon each other to get through. There’s some interesting metaphor in there about the exhibition as the earth and the live theater the people who inhabit it; they’re fleeting; they take so much energy, and they’re gone.
Rail: Sheila, what has this process—and these ten years—uncovered for you—personally—about being an artist?
Callaghan: I definitely need an artistic home/community to survive. I don’t feel like an artist when I’m in my room on my couch with my laptop writing little versions of myself talking to each other about dumb shit. I feel like an artist when I share my weak embarrassing trashy pages with some brave thoughtful geniuses, and they make magic from it. But also, I discovered I can’t be sleep-deprived or stressed-out for too long or I will have a seizure in the middle of rehearsal and be hauled away in an ambulance with Daniella holding my hand telling me I’m OK while Susan fills out paperwork at the hospital.
Rail: As other artists seek to lean into processes that are experimental, multi-year, design-driven or devised... what advice do you have for them?
Topol: You have to feel love and passion for the subject matter and for your collaborators. That, and my own curiosity is what has driven me to stay in it this long. My respect for my collaborators has kept us trying to do better. And trust. We have such trust of New Georges from our first show with them, Dead City [eleven years ago, also at 3LD], and that relationship with Susan has also been so core to us moving into the pre-production and production phase.
Rail: What about you, Barbara?
Samuels: Don’t be precious. Keep generating ideas. Listen to other people. Pay attention
Callaghan: Start with a Daniella. Then get a Susan. And later, a Liza. After that, as long as you manage to sleep, you’ll be ok.
The weight of my hand in yours
It is not a celebration
Babies falling from vaginas
To remind me of my dignity
I can taste my teeth
In a few moments, she will call me
I’m not afraid of dying
Could you hold my hand a minute?
Cross-legged at the bottom of the sea and my arms are heavy and my skin is heavy and the heat is pressing down
the news… the news… the news
dumping water on their heads
a girl on a roof
a woman with a mop
a mop singing
a waterfall stretched over a wide space
wondering what to do next
flood and disasters
people writing their stories
people reading their stories
water on objects
water on random objects
listening to the voice of water while remaining very very still
* floating excerpts (in italics) and images from (NOT) Water
Why did we start this?
Why are we ending this?
Does it work?
If not, does it fail in service of the ideas?
If not, did we learn a lesson about combining politics, art, and audience?
If not, are we dummies?
If so, are we ok with that?
Are we capturing the subject matter in a full way?
In an emotionally satisfying way?
Are we global enough without being insincere about our limited knowledge?
Research is so different from living with water disasters - are we entitled to make this piece?
What will the audience’s journey be?
Are we in the piece too much?
Is that interesting or naval-gazing?
Will our company of 6 actors feel small or can we truly make it feel expansive?
Should we be busy/active or micro-specific/still?
What is the relationship between accountability and empowerment?
Do we ever really lose a precious thing?
Can we be vulnerable enough to ask ourselves what we ask an audience?
Is there such a thing as objective history?
What am I doing here?
**some of the always-present flood of questions by the co-creators about process
Works on Water will be June 5-30 at 3LD (80 Greenwich Street, Manhattan). More information: worksonwater.nyc or newgeorges.org
KATIE PEARL makes plays and performances for traditional and non-traditional sites. Her play ARNIE LOUIS and BOB recently premiered at Trinity Rep Theater. She is co-Artistic Director of the OBIE Award-winning company PearlDamour.