Sanctifying The Quotidian: Sheila Callaghan’s Dead City
“The Upper East Side and toward the East River. 10:00am.”
The day starts sunny and orange.
Beginning the brood. Five mighty steps.
In this opening, playwright Sheila Callaghan embeds the markers of her play Dead City. These include precise locations and times, stage directions open for designers to endow with theatrical magic, and characters seemingly channeled from New York City streets, here for a moment then carrying on into another day.
Director Daniella Topol, introduced to the play through the Lark Theater’s play development program, found herself drawn into the characters, the play’s original style, and its evident affection for New York City. The aesthetic, ethnic, rhythmic, and material diversity of the play brings the shared experience of living in New York onto the page, and New Georges’ production this June will bring it onto the stage at the newly opened 3LD Art and Technology Center located three blocks south of the WTC site.
This play will be the first of Callaghan’s produced by New Georges after a long association. This long association has benefited the production process by enabling pre-production work to begin two and a half years before going into rehearsals. Director Danielle Topol and Set Designer Cameron Anderson were brought in at the beginning, with a Sound Designer, Video Artist, Choreographer and Costume Designer following soon after. For Callaghan, “collaborators bring a lot to the table – their construction of the world and the themes they pull out.” Their theatricality influenced her vision of how the play operates in space, leading to re-writes inspired by the ideas and materials brought into the process.
In 3LD, a venue dedicated to ambitious and technically challenging work, New Georges has a facilitating partner to bring this project into fruition. To realize their mission, 3LD conducts workshops with all participating artists on the capabilities and use of ISADORA, new multi-media software, which, among other things, can project moving video onto actor’s bodies. By learning the possibilities and operation of the technology as a group, a shared language developed among the participants. This has led to an extraordinary amount of cross-fertilization of ideas. During three weeks of rehearsal in the performance space, they will have time to find and work at the edge where human and technological elements meet and play as a duet – seeking to work in concert, without one overwhelming or being imposed on the other.
To Callaghan, this has felt like an ideal model. For New Georges, it’s worked well, complementing their mission to focus on relationships amongst their participating artists. New Georges’ Artistic Director Susan Bernfield intends to use the process as a template for future productions.
Bernfield’s excitement about the production is palpable. New Georges has had a long association with Callaghan and this play marks “a big move forward for Sheila as the play goes, reflecting a maturity, particularly in the writing of the generation gap between Samantha and Jewel.”
The play began in 2001, when Callaghan was in Minneapolis on a Jerome Fellowship. Her prior play had been insular and claustrophobic, and she sought to work on a project that could contain her strong sense of the aural landscape while leaving space for designers to bring their unique visual abilities. At the same time she’d just read James Joyce’s Ulysses. She put down the book and was filled with unmediated impressions, but with no scaffold to hang them on. To address this, she set herself the task of writing a scene for each chapter, a companion play.
Originally the play was conceived as a fantasy set in New York. Callaghan was seeking to write something purely theatrical. Working from the idea Joyce set when he structured his novel of a day in Dublin on Ulysses’ trek home and back again, this would be a day in New York – a dramatic account of the minutiae of the anti-epic. She was inspired by how Joyce absorbed and filtered his city and the experience of his time into his novel, and set out to do the same. Then 9/11 occurred. The city changed and she found herself channeling a very different world as she fulfilled the task she had set herself.
The result is a play loosely based on the book, one that has drawn support from Playwright’s Horizons, the Lark, The Public Theatre and the current production team through its own merits as a play, (neither the producer nor the director had read Ulysses before Dead City) and then delights and surprises with its echoes and congruencies with the novel. Dead City is not a dramatization of Joyce’s book, or even an adaptation. Callaghan describes it as a riff. It could also be considered a channeling – the metempsychosis of an idea finding manifestation in our time through Callaghan’s play.
At the center of Dead City is Samantha, a middle-aged mother of a college-aged daughter, whose marriage to a musician has become a void after the death of a son. At the outset of the play, Samantha casually crosses paths with an acquaintance hailing a cab. After a brief conversation the woman says, “Death. It’s an opiate. Numbs you to the world. Taxi!” Death and loss permeate the lives of the characters, resulting in alienation and loss from each other. Throughout the play, connections and the demystification of fantasies are triggers to the characters’ individual reckonings with their own numbness – their attempts to break out of the opiate trance and feel again.
Samantha’s day brings her into accidental contact with Jewel, a young poet, without material resources, banging around the city. Jewel’s losses, her mother’s death and an aborted love child, hang over like the “patches of barometric gloom” a Public Radio meteorologist calls for at the beginning of the play. The two ricochet off one another as the day unfolds. Jewel’s muse is Patti Smith – seen by Callaghan as a modern counterpart to Stephen Dedalus’s Hamlet. A timeless figure crossing generations that Samantha can share with Jewel, creating a cultural connection with contemporary resonance. Smith emerged from the wreckage of politics in the 70s. To Callaghan, harkening back to that energy makes sense and asks the question, what heroes do we have now? What art now is speaking for our times?
This more than anything answers the question, “why this play now?” Currently theatre is uniquely positioned to take on that political angst, perhaps because much of it operates on the periphery. Airwaves are increasingly regulated, money drives film and music – but theatre? This collaborative form has the potential to reflect this moment in time, to hold the mirror up to nature and let us see ourselves anew.
The particular vision of Dead City reflects the uniqueness of each in his or her own existence. In Callaghan’s words, it touches on the, “meaningful, beautiful, minor-hood – the sanctification of the quotidian.” Her structure, steeped in literary tradition and myth, scaffolds ordinary experience and shares the journey from home and out and back again so that when we find ourselves at the end of the day, wherever our own home is, we can share in the depth of the visual ending of the play in the marriage bed,
“A red circle appears around the bed. Projected: a red arrow with the words, YOU ARE HERE.
They touch each other.”
Dead City will be performed May 26-June 24 at the 3LD Art & Technology Center at 80 Greenwich St. Visit newgeorges.org for details.
Kristen Palmer is a playwright and teacher currently living in Eastern CT. Her plays include Local Story, Departures, The Melting Point, And The Heart In Your Chest.
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