Published on August 21st, 2012 | by Alicia Coombes0
Interview with Sheila Callaghan, Playwright
Sheila Callaghan wants the theatre world to know that it has not “lost her to television.” Her goal has always been to write for both stage and screen, and right now she’s successfully doing both. She’s settling in to life in L.A. (“after living in denial and Brooklyn for awhile”), has written for the popular show United States of Tara on Showtime, shot a pilot for the USA Network and has produced over a dozen plays featured at prestigious theatres all over the country – from off-Broadway to Louisville to Los Angeles.
Her latest play, Port Out, Starboard Home, is a production over three years in the making, and will be opening September 10 in San Francisco as a coproduction of Z Space and foolsFURY Theater. Port Out, Starboard Home (POSH, for short) is set on a cruise ship and explores what happens when people pay for a spiritual experience, and the fallout of getting the experience they paid for.
Callaghan took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to Art Animal about her new show and starting a career in Hollywood.
Art Animal: This play is described as “written by Sheila Callaghan with foolsFURY Theater. ” What was your first encounter with foolsFURY Theater, and what has the process of developing POSH with them been like?
Sheila Callaghan: I heard of foolsFURY in the 90’s, when I was trying to learn all I could about collaborative groups in theater. They had a good reputation, but I hadn’t seen any of their work. Then years later I had a play in the Bay Area Playwright’s Festival called Lascivious Something. Ben Yalom [the Artistic Director of foolsFURY] was on a retreat with the playwrights and artists of the Playwright’s Foundation, and that’s when we met. I want to say the first time we really talked we were stoned around a campfire. I remember him telling me that none of my work was right for his theatre company, and I was irritated at that – but he was right! His company is highly collaborative, and uses techniques to move through time and space in a way that my text-based plays can’t really take advantage of. He mentioned during that retreat that sometime in the future we should try to put something together, and I agreed. A few years later he and the Bay Area Playwright’s Foundation teamed up to commission me to write Port Out, Starboard Home.
AA: Why a cruise ship?
SC: I was working with this new gang of people, watching them do their work: Viewpoints, Sharing Weight, moving their bodies through time and space and navigating each other’s speed and gravity. I started thinking about how they might move in a confined space, a tight room. I wanted it to have a significant context, explore a bunch of people who can’t leave – like Sartre’s No Exit, except not really, they can leave, but something like that. It seemed like a place to start, and Ben never said “no,” so, there it was. Plus, we had some grant money so it was a great way for all of us to go on a “research” vacation. I’d never been on a cruise. FoolsFURY went on a cruise in 2008 as part of the development process, and they did their excercises on the ship while taking notes and impressions of the experience.
AA: Is this how they contributed to the writing of it?
SC: The writing was very collaborative. It turns out that I got pregnant a few months before the cruise, and for health reasons the cruise company wouldn’t let me go. So foolsFURY went on the cruise without me! They brought back footage, pictures, anectdotes, and I collected it all and read through it. Some of the text is actual notes taken from what they overheard on board. Some of it was just ideas that they played with and I watched and then we sketched it out into scenes.
AA: The play features a baby. How did being a mother-to-be affect your writing of the play, and how has being a mother affected the development of it?
SC: I’ve actually always been fairly ambivalent about being a parent. The baby thing came from Michelle [Haner, a company member of foolsFURY], who brought her 7- to 8-month-old kid and carried him around the whole time in a BabyBjörn. She was more internal about her material since she was carrying this baby around. Her experience was all about her connection to her son’s experience. Most of the other material from the other company members was less introspective. They were more interested in the people around them as a sociological study, but this woman with her baby, she was more interested in her own experience.
AA: Switching gears for a bit – what was your first foray into writing for Hollywood? What was your impetus for heading in that direction?
SC: To me, there was never a switch. I always wanted to do both. You can’t make a living as a playwright anymore. It’s impossible. So you have to be okay with writing for television and movies and teaching, and I always wanted to do it all. I got my Master’s Degree in playwrighting in L.A., specifically so I could learn to do both. I wrote my first screenplay in grad school and won a pretty prestigious prize: it didn’t get me anywhere but it did give me some confidence to keep going. I did move to New York after graduate school because I wanted to live there and try out theatre there before getting too far in to the L.A./television world without trying the stage.
AA: How has your experience been as a woman writing for both stage and screen? Are there similarities and differences for each, or has the experience been about the same for both?
SC: [Laughs] Well, I’ve never been a guy, not sure how it compares, but now is a great time for women in TV. There are so many strong female leads, strong female voices and stories. With theatre the complaint lately has been that there aren’t enough female voices on stage and backstage, and that’s true for larger theatres, definitely. But I’ve been lucky to be produced by smaller theatres, and there are tons of female playwrights who are getting their work out there. The thing is, I know a ton of female playwrights who have to stop writing for the stage to have babies. If you’re writing for television, you don’t have to stop. You can afford to hire help or you’ll have a more flexible schedule. In theatre, there’s no money. If you aren’t making theatre, you have to teach; if you are making theatre, you have no time. You definitely don’t have money. So maybe it’s just a hard time right now for female writers to keep producing and hustling for theatre. I get so annoyed when people say theatre has “lost” me to Hollywood. I can’t afford to write plays for theatre exclusively: no one can.
AA: Have you noticed the success of one – either stage or screen – translating into the success of the other?
SC: Writing for television teaches you to listen to the others in the room, it teaches you to have confidence and speak up, to be efficient with your storylines, not to be too precious. Those are great skills to build for the theatre, which allows for more indulgences as far as storylines, monologues. They each teach me something that I can take to the other.
AA: Are you a writer who devours reviews of your work, or do you avoid them at all costs?
SC: I would love to tell you I ignore them, but of course I can’t. I don’t pay them too much mind, but I want to know what the temperature is around the production. So here’s what I do: I’ll skim the headline, first line, last line, if it’s bad I’ll walk away for a LONG time. If it’s good, I hate to say this, but of course I read it. But if it’s bad here’s my petty revenge: I’ll go back and read it months later, and by God I’ll find a pull quote from a terrible review to put on my website. Even though I’m a little immune to the emotional fallout of the reviews, since my work gets such mixed responses, I like to do that little bit to feel better.
AA: What has been your favorite project so far?
SC: There’s four that float to the top. The shooting of the pilot for USA [Network] was an amazing experience, I want fifty more like it. Amazing people, enriching, exciting experience – it was not right for the network, but it was lovely. Three of my plays – Kate Crackernuts in L.A. with Jessica Kubzansky directing, Dead City in New York with Daniella Topol directing, and That Pretty Pretty, or the Rape Play in New York with Kip Fagan directing – those were all amazing experiences.
AA: Are there one or two prevailing themes in your work to which you keep returning?
SC: I’m told I have a dead or absent parent in most of my work. I didn’t notice it before someone pointed it out, but it’s true. I’m meticulous at language; I see it as musical. I write about identity and loneliness a lot. Loneliness plays a huge part in Port Out, Starboard Home, actually. All these people stuck on the ship together, and they each have this experience alone.
AA: Do you write characters with aspects of your own personality? Which of your characters most closely resembles you?
SC: Sure, every writer I know is schizo that way. I think every writer seems a little multiple personality disorder-ish. You immerse yourself into each character; there’s part of me in every one. I do research for technical details, not emotional ones. For my pilot for USA [Over/Under] there’s a wife character that everyone says is me, but she’s way more aspirational than me, she’s far more…cool. In my play, Scab, there’s one character that you can pretty much identify as me at the time.
Port Out, Starboard Home will receive its world premiere at Z Space in San Francisco on September 10, 2012, and it will move to La Mama in New York in November. Over/Under will be released as a television movie within a year on the USA Network. You can find out more about Sheila Callaghan at www.sheilacallaghan.com and buy tickets to POSH at www.foolsfury.org.