Sheila Cowley’s Flying Soars Nationwide
Flying is taking off. Sheila Cowley’s full-length drama premiered in an Equity playhouse on May 26 in Upstate New York, earned inclusion in the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston and was part of new play festivals in Chicago and in Austin in May.
The historically authentic drama follows the post-war life of a war hero wife who, among other female civilians, flew warplanes in World War II drills. Apart from featuring three women in major roles and a historical dramatization, the play touches on family dynamics, the roles we adopt in life and inner tensions.
Getting Flying produced has been a long journey. Cowley’s script had its first table reading on Feb. 26, 2013, at the University of South Florida. The cast included Eugenie Bondurant, Jim Wicker, Bonnie Agan, David Frankel, Karla Hartley and Paul Wilborn.
Flying’s Tampa Bay full-production premiere will feature Becca McCoy as the lead, and Robin Gordon directs the co-production spanning both sides of the bay at Tampa Repertory Theatre in September and The Studio@620 in October. Auditions and personnel assignments will be held in the coming weeks; husband Matt Cowley will be sound designer.
“The play captures in the most gentle and profound way a transitional moment in the lives of five people, each of whom are trying to move forward without knowing how,” shares Gordon.
Gordon says she connected with the script’s interpersonal and personal challenges. “It speaks to me on many levels. The story of strong, skilled and talented women being asked to step back from their own personal success to fulfill the dreams of others. The story of someone desperately trying to hold on to the past in order to avoid the uncertainty of the future. The story of grief and loss, and being in the place of internal, paralyzing chaos. The story of how war has no winners, only broken survivors. These are the things that move me deeply in the play — and that’s before really delving into the rehearsal process.”
Judging from her Facebook posts, Cowley was joyous as Flying took full form in New York. “The play got a very good response,” she says of the Chenango River Theatre premiere in New York. “It was lovely to see Tampa Bay actor Jim Wicker onstage on a very realistic ’40s set. Jim has been helping me workshop the play over the last five years, and has read more different versions of the script than anyone but me. And the women in the cast were so enthused about the play that they all took a flying lesson together.”
Cowley’s research included poring over a number of oral histories and memoirs of women who flew military planes in WWII so men could go and fight. “Their stories are not widely known but they’re amazing,” she says. “These were all brave women working hard, flying back and forth with target flags so men could practice shooting airplanes from the ground, dive-bombing pilots in training so they could learn how to dogfight, working as test pilots before and after planes were repaired because no one wanted to risk a male pilot’s life doing that, and getting broken-down planes off the ground on their last flight to the scrapyard.”
Though Flying is a work of fiction, Cowley painstakingly portrayed everything the women pilots say about airplanes or their work truthfully reflects what really happened to the WASPs or Womens’ Airforce Service Pilots.
“The main thing was, these women truly loved to fly,” she emphasizes.
It’s also noteworthy that Cowley begins the play post-war, a choice made for practical reasons (“There are other works about the struggle to form the Womens’ Airforce Service Pilots, and the challenges of doing that work,” she says) and as an exploration of how the flyers went forward in their lives.
“I thought it was much more interesting to explore what happens when you have to stop doing that kind of thing,” Cowley explains. “The WASP program was shut down and the women were all sent home to get back to normal. And they had to go home to a world that hadn’t changed as much as they had. That’s a very difficult transition, one that a lot of women doing vital war work faced when men came back and took over the jobs they had been doing. It’s not unlike the difficult transitions veterans face coming home. Which is the other story that Flying explores.”
Lead actor McCoy — a local triple threat lauded locally for her broad talent range, which spans from comedy to drama and belted-out cabaret gigs in between — says she feels a strong connection with Susan.
“Susan is such a beautifully constructed, multi-dimensional character,” McCoy says. “What I relate to about her is what we all can relate to, which is what makes the play so affecting — when your potential and your circumstances are at odds, when you feel trapped, restricted, censored … how what we hold onto internally, what secrets we keep, and how we choose to cope impacts the way we connect with others, and shapes us into the person we are in this moment in time.”
At this time, women in the performing arts scene still endure challenges for equal recognition and opportunity.
Producing more work by women playwrights, producing work that features strong roles for women and hiring more women as directors and designers is a big effort in theater these days, Cowley says. “The National New Play Network, the Dramatists Guild and the New Play Exchange are working hard on that. And I’m constantly encouraged by seeing beautifully diverse casting in UK productions, where they’re exploring classics with both gender-blind and race-blind casting.”
She also recommends submittinglikeaman.com, a blog project by writer Mya Kagan, who details what happens when she resubmits scripts to previously rejected opportunities, using a man’s name. Kagan has also initiated a nationwide all-female playwrights festival.
According to a December 2016 NPR report, a wage gap of more than $13,000 still exists between men and women working in the arts.
“Gender Inequality is still a major issue in the performing arts,” echoes McCoy, “but it is so complex and there are no simple solutions. I work in a profession where it was perfectly legal for me to lose a job when I became pregnant, where I’ve had to sign riders to contracts asserting nothing about my appearance, including weight, will change, and where I am often assessed on physical attributes before experience and skill. It is still statistically true that there are more men in theatre administration positions, more male playwrights, more male directors, and more roles in the shows being produced for men, but we know this because this disparity is being quantified and openly discussed and I believe we will continue to see shifts towards balance in the coming years. I have been fortunate in my career to amass a resume that somewhat defies logic, including playing roles intended for men, so I think for me personally, I’ve been treated pretty fairly overall.”
Cowley stresses that she’s always writing about gender roles in one way or another. “I write scripts where the characters are gender-blind when I can, and racially-blind always,” she says. “Even for Flying, where the truth is that most of the women who flew in the WASPs were white. But I don’t ever want to write a play that only works with white actors. So I made a point of saying that diverse casting was encouraged, just know that it’s historically inaccurate. And I’m delighted that the pilots have been played by African American and Latina women in Austin, Chicago, Charleston and in Tampa Bay. And I hope that’ll just keep happening.”
Adds Gordon: “One of the terrific things about Flying is that it has three wonderful roles for women in a play that is not a play about ‘women.’ It is simply a story about five unique and complex individuals. When I was doing television in the big-hair, bad-acting 1980s, in any story there would usually be four or five men and two peripheral women — the attractive one and the funny one. There wasn’t room for any complexity, or heaven forbid, overlap. That led to very few opportunities. That was before cable and all the wonderful work for actors of all types that opened up because of it.
“There are more and more women directors in film and in the theater, and we have to continue to support this trend whenever we can. The more diversity in our stories, the richer our art, and our world, becomes.”
Sheila Cowley’s plays have been developed in Chicago at Chicago Dramatists and The Equity Library Theatre, in New York with Athena Theatre and Reverie Productions, in London through American Actors UK and in Florida at American Stage, The Gorilla Theatre, Stageworks and the University of South Florida. There have been productions of her work from New York to Texas and Ohio, Illinois, California and South Korea.
Flying was featured in American Stage‘s 21st Century Voices series, with a staged reading on March 2, 2017. With Natalie Symons, Ricky Wayne, Eugenie Bondurant, Colleen Cherry and Rich Rice. Directed by Vickie Daignault, stage manager Sadie Lockhart, artistic director Stephanie Gularte.