Meet A NYFA Artist: Sheila Callaghan

Meet A NYFA Artist: Sheila Callaghan
Benjamin Stuber, Josiah Polhemus, Jessica Unker, Debórah Eliezer, and Calder Shilling in Port Out, Starboard Home

NYFA talks to Sheila Callaghan (2004 Playwrighting/Screenwriting Fellow) about her current show,
Port Out, Starboard Home, at La MaMa E.T.C., theatre as a collaborative process, the inspiration for her work, and her favorite play.

NYFA: What are you currently working on?

SC: We just wrapped Season Three of Showtime’s Shameless (I’m a writer/producer on it), so I have some time to focus on my theatre again… I’m writing a play based on an internet meme (“Women Laughing Alone With Salad”) in the CTG writer’s workshop, as a commission for UMBC. I also have a commission from Yale for a play based loosely on a series of events from my life, which I’m anxious to get cracking on. And, I have a multi-media piece called WATER (A Meditation On…) created in collaboration with a bunch of amazing designers and my director Daniella Topol, which is basically about a global flood (and suddenly feels horribly topical). And ’m pretty sure Rattlestick is doing my new play Everything You Touch in their 2013-2014 season. I’m also on he hunt for some new film projects… we’ve just started looking for funding for my film The Nakeds which I wrote for the director Steven Shainberg, and we have an incredible cast attached to that. So basically I’m keeping myself busy to stave away the crazy.

NYFA: Theatre is a very collaborative process; are you a good collaborator? Are you more often grateful for the insights and feedback of those involved in getting a play on its feet or do you wish they’d just do it the way you intended?

SC: I think the particular process for creating Port Out, Starboard Home (opening at La Mama, etc. on November 8) has actually helped me to become a better collaborator. With my other plays, I’m used to having complete control of the text. But working with foolsFURY, an ensemble group who is accustomed to generating its own material, quite often I had to sit back and allow my collaborators to inform the shape of the piece. Luckily, the results have been pretty marvelous. The gang came up with wildly creative solutions that I couldn’t have ever conceived on my own, not in a million years. I’ve found the process quite liberating. But it helps that I got lucky enough to team up with such a great, game group of folks.


Josiah Polhemus, Debórah Eliezer, Brian Livingston, Angela Santillo, Jessica Unker, Benjamin Stuber, Calder Shilling in Port Out, Starboard Home

NYFA: Do you ever want to direct either your own work or that of other writers?

SC: I don’t think I have the patience to direct a play of mine, or anyone else’s for that matter. I definitely exist in result-land with my plays, and don’t seem to have that nurturing, calm, steady demeanor that allows actors to feel supported while they make huge discoveries about their characters. My energy is a bit more manic and urgent. But I am definitely interested in directing for film and TV. The process seems more formal in a way, more structured, which I feel compliments my personality. I had the good fortune of having a pilot of mine shot for a major network last fall, and watching my director work was a gift. I also love that so much of the story gets told in the editing room. I think I may have a knack for editing, which is a surprising discovery to make so far into my writing career.

NYFA: Where do your ideas come from? Is there a similar starting point for each or is every play different?

SC: Each play is different. P.O.S.H. started with the idea that my collaborators and I should take our grant money and go on a cruise, then riff on the most evocative aspects of the experience. My new meme play is a result of my obsession with the internet and its affect on the modern female gaze. And my Yale play comes from my desire to write a simple play about family. I try to vary the play-making experience from one project to the next, to keep the writing process engaging and challenging. Lord knows it can be a terrific slog otherwise.

NYFA: Do you think about the audience when you’re writing? If so, who do you imagine they are?

SC: I write with a very small audience in my head, which is comprised of my fellow writers and close collaborators. I feel so much more fulfilled as a writer if the people whose work I admire and respect also admire and respect mine. That said, I never like to leave an audience in the lurch… I’m a storyteller, and if the majority of my audience is not on board for the experience I’m providing, maybe I’ve failed at my job a little. But as long as half are digging it, then I feel okay.


Angela Santillo, Calder Shilling, Debórah Eliezer, Josiah Polhemus, Benjamin Stuber in Port Out, Starboard Home

NYFA: What other playwrights do you think we should be keeping our eyes on?

SC: Yikes. I can’t answer this, I’ll get into trouble for leaving people out. Also I don’t know what you like!! Not everything is for everyone.

NYFA: What’s your favorite play?

SC: Historically, Zoo Story by Edward Albee. But that’s the play that changed my life, so it’s probably unfairly weighted. 🙂

NYFA: What did getting your NYFA Fellowship mean to you?

SC: The NYFA award was I think the first writing grant I applied for that I actually received. It was awarded purely on the strength of my work, which was validating beyond belief for me. It made me feel like a professional working artist, which was so incredible for a young writer with three day jobs and no public acclaim. I felt very very lucky. And still do.

Port Out, Starboard Home played at La MaMa E.T.C from November 10 – November 25, 2012.

Amy Aronoff
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