Sheila Cowley

Sheila Cowley is a playwright and audio producer based in St. Petersburg.

Current projects include collaborative work with choreographers Helen Hansen French and Paula Kramer. . . The Burlesque Astronomy Play about women, science and art. . . plays onstage in Charleston, Austin, NYC, Dubai and Sydney. . . and new plays involving movement, sound, music, gender roles, warfare and aging.

Sheila Cowley is a 2018 Creative Pinellas Professional Artist Grantee and was chosen by the St Pete Arts Alliance as the city’s 2018 Literary Muse.

Her play Flying, about women who flew military planes in WWII, was featured in new play festivals in Chicago, Austin, the Piccolo Spoleto and American Stage’s 21st Century Voices Festival. Flying was produced in upstate New York, followed by a co-production with Tampa Rep and The Studio@620 that made Creative Loafing’s list of “The 10 Best Arts, Culture and Entertainment-y Things of 2017” and the Creative Pinellas feature, “2017 Best in Shows – A Year of Creative Collaboration.”

Sheila and her husband Matt produce audio tours for The Dalí Museum and created the Accessible Audible SHINE Mural Tour for the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, with vivid descriptions geared for visually-impaired visitors.

Sheila produces Arts In, the Creative Pinellas podcast series of conversations with visual, literary and performing artists.



Artist’s Blog


July 27. . . Flying in NYC, Dramatists Guild National Conference

July 27. . . Flying in NYC, Dramatists Guild National Conference

This week we’re headed to the national Dramatists Guild conference, held this time in Manhattan. The Dramatists Guild is a professional union for playwrights, and I made sure to join right after my first staged reading.

The Guild are ever-helpful and lovely people, and it’s wonderful to catch up with long-distance colleagues and get to know people doing good work all over the country.

With brilliant timing, Urban Stages scheduled a staged reading of Flying the night before the conference as part of their Summer Reading Series, so we were able to attend.

They contacted me months ago, after choosing several scripts out of 500 submissions. It’s lucky we were going to be in NY for the conference.

Urban Stages is a lovely, intimate black box theatre with comfortable seats sloping up so everyone can see. Everyone involved was very welcoming, and loved the script. They only had that afternoon to rehearse, but delivered a beautiful story for an enthusiastic small crowd.

What director Melissa Skirboll and artistic director Frances Hill did that no other theatre had done, is embrace diverse casting in a lead role. Almost all of the women in WWII’s WASP program were white, but I wrote the script for deliberately diverse casting, knowing it’s historically inaccurate – but I don’t ever want to write a script that only white actors can be in.

African American and Latina actors have played the pilots wonderfully in readings, and this was the fourth time an African American had played the aviatrix, with Bernadette Drayton embracing that role.

It was the first time anyone had cast an African American as the wounded combat veteran, which was wonderful to see. Serge Thony was a natural fit, the audience took him for granted as a WWII veteran whose career as a high school coach has been derailed by injury. So I was very glad that I’d been proven right, and casts of any ethnicity can make Flying work.

Mariel Matero, Taylor Graves and Bernadette were terrific as the pilots, along with Kim Allen as Doc.

And it was wonderful to meet Emily Andren of Playwrights First, who got in touch with me when Stay was a semi-finalist in 2010, and suggested I cut one of the characters. She was absolutely right and I wound up cutting two and that was a big step in that play’s growth. She and James Harter had read Flying for the competition and James performed in Teatime in the NYC production at Schreiber Shorts, so it was lovely that they came to see the reading and we got a chance to talk.

The surprise guest in the audience was actor Johanna Griesé, who was in an early workshop of Flying scenes and is living in New York now and working as an actor.

The Dramatists Guild conference was energizing and inspiring, with workshops on site-specific theatre, self-production, writers’ collectives, finding your audience and networking, and plenty of chances to talk with old friends and make new ones, and lots of good information. It’s a wonderful reminder that we’re not alone, and that everyone is writing, rewriting, sending scripts out and getting rejections, and growing as a playwright.

Matt and I are fortunate to both get chosen from a random lottery to attend Paula Vogel’s four-hour bootcamp. As famous as she is, she’s a funny, generous and encouraging teacher, and we come away with many new ideas to try.


July 20. . . Reading and Revising

July 20. . . Reading and Revising

This week I get a new version of Dancing together, thanks to feedback from the teacher and students of the PlayPenn New Play Dramaturgy class. I wrote Dancing during a terrific online class we took from Chicago Dramatists. A married couple who began as a man and woman and are now two men, are getting used to things as they chaperone an awkward high school dance.

And of course I find a tighter draft of Hue and Saturation. Sending both scripts off to contests and competitions, sending Hue to the festival directors at Changing Scene Theatre NW, and sharing both updated drafts on the New Play Exchange.

And I finally find time to get a tighter draft of Stay together after the Charleston production, for another theatre that wants to read it.

I’m also finishing up reading and recommending scripts for the National New Play Network Showcase. It’s the third year I’ve volunteered to do that and it’s a great way to discover wonderful new writers.

For the scripts that really knock me out, I always write recommendations on the New Play Exchange. It’s good to remember that you never know who’s reading what you wrote, and who might like it even if it isn’t chosen.

I’m glad to run into actor Juliana Davis Ditmyer this week at Becca McCoy’s immersive theatre project at ARTS46/4. She tells me she’s got a friend who’s reading scripts for a theatre, and he told her he read a 10-page sample of a script he really loved, by a playwright called Sheila Cowley. Juliana said, “I know her! What’s the play?” And he said, “Trio!”

That is wonderful to hear. And clearly I better get back to work on that spruced-up draft of Trio that I started after the Austin premiere, quick.


July 13. . . Madness, Teatime, Hue and Saturation

July 13. . . Madness, Teatime, Hue and Saturation

Finally, a new draft of Madness. I think it’s much improved, with a stronger vein of loss and longing throbbing through the madcap comedy. I send it off to Chicago Dramatists for Dana Lynn Formby to give me dramaturgical feedback. And send it to director Dan Granke and choreographer Paula Kramer to take a look as we get closer to the workshop in September.

This week I have a very productive cup of coffee with visual artist Kenny Jensen, who creates gorgeous work that looks deeply at the natural world. Kenny’s about to start his first public art installation at USFSP, so he doesn’t have time to build a set for the Madness workshop but kindly offered to give me some ideas.

Kenny Jensen _The Expanding Universe

Kenny’s inventive artwork from found objects makes me think of the homemade Forest in Madness. He takes the project seriously and the more he talks, the more ideas he gets. I write as fast as I can as Kenny comes up with ways for the actors to create the set like a game, with visible pieces that build up meaning as they get put together.

He thinks the key to the set is the dancers interacting with the objects – finding out how things move and where it feels right to place them. Kenny gives me ideas about how to display the balloons that represent the Sun and Moon, and talking with him reminds me that those have to happen on opposite sides of the stage, with the Sun setting in the West as the Moon rises in the East. Kenny understands that the Dancers are the primary set, and need to be the primary decisionmakers on what the set looks like.

We agree that modern dance is very like an abstract painting, and talk about the abstract art in Madness. Kenny suggests we use a very simple set that’s clearly not at all realistic, and rely on the dancers to paint the structures with their bodies, and the bolts of colored fabric that are used throughout the script.

Kenny Jensen__Divine Dance__Creative Pinellas 2017 Emerging Artist Exhibition

He also has the fantastic idea that Matt as our Drummer and sound effects artist use the entire set as a Foley device, creating sounds by playing the space as an instrument.

This week is the third year that Matt’s been chosen to write for Tampa’s annual 4×6 Fest, a popular 24-hour play festival organized by Brianna Larson. This weekend Matt wrote One Fall Over and the Whole Thing Go from an old photo of a game of dominoes and the headshots of three actors, given to him at 7 pm on Saturday night and due at 7 am Sunday morning.

While joining a huge crowd to watch the festive 4×6 Fest performance on Sunday evening, I check my email and get two rejections – plus a notice that Hue and Saturation will debut at the Changing Scene Theatre Northwest’s Summerplay Festival in September. And a note that Teatime is one of 5 scripts that won the British Theatre Challenge, with a production in London in August.

At the 4×6 Fest, Matt’s play gets a great response and we all cheer as Matt Cowley wins the judges’ award for Best Playwright.



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