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.


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September 16. . . Madness Workshop

September 16. . . Madness Workshop

Eight hours of rehearsal over two days seemed like a generous amount for a script around 70 pages. It becomes barely enough as director Dan Granke, choreographer Paula Kramer and I test Madness for the first time with dancers Helen Hansen French, Crystal DelGiudice, Ethan Barbee and Deisha King. . . actors Stephanie Roberts, Susan Haldeman, Jim Wicker, Eddie Gomez, Jan Neuberger, Tonia Krueger and Matt Frankel. . . improvised music and sound effects by pianist Tom Sivak and drummer Matt Cowley. . . and visual artwork by Coralette Damme and Ana Maria Vasquez.

Actors are speaking the words and dancers are working from the words. And as ever, it starts out a little awkward. Dancers are searching for the perfect way to turn a ladder into a sunset, actors are maneuvering around the set with scripts in hand.

But after a fair amount of stops and starts and wrangling, magic starts to happen when the actors begin working with the dancers. And things suddenly shift into something beautiful when Matt and Tom add music. It’s beautiful and wistful, grand and gentle.

As Paula’s sharp eye notices, the dancers truly get in sync because of the music. But the music is inspired by the dancers, so that’s some wonderful creative collaboration.

Director Dan Granke is a delight to trust and work with, spotting possibilities for visual storytelling that deepen many scenes or add opportunities for humor, and keeping our array of moving parts under control. The actors make funny words funnier and emotional exchanges powerful, and make me shake my head and wonder what I’ve done as characters begin to come to life in poignant and outrageous ways.

So many moments are more beautiful than I imagined, with the sound and visuals. The words become a starting point for startling emotions, and throughout the process I’m cutting and moving lines so as not to interrupt what’s turned into a lovely, aching moment.

Like Air-Earth-Fire-Water earlier this year, Madness is a creative collaboration that grows stronger the more artists have a hand in it. Thankfully, together, we build something that in a few hours truly has a throbbing heart.

By hour eight of our rehearsals and not long before tonight’s staged reading, we feel like we’re just beginning and we’re wishing for another week, or even just another hour. But with everybody’s busy schedules and 17 artists in the room, it’s all the time we have and we do the best we can.

Tonight’s performance of a play-in-progress isn’t my first script that has actors, dancers, an improvised score and visual artists on the page – but thanks to the Creative Pinellas Professional Artist Fellowship, it’s the first chance I’ve had to try all that out onstage. And thanks to the wonderfully welcoming Studio@620’s space and audience, tonight we prove it all works well together.

To my surprise, the free staged reading is featured in the Tampa Bay Times, St Pete Catalyst and I Love The ‘Burg, and we have a full house and enthusiastic audience who thankfully laugh and cheer and even cry – and many stay and share their thoughts and helpful feedback afterwards.

And despite a few missed cues that a little more time would have ironed out, our imperfect presentation of a work that’s in development is passionate and funny, with moments of heartbreak and moments of breathtaking beauty.

Wherever else the script will go and however many more versions of it will be on a page or on a stage, Stephanie Roberts flying with dancers, in goggles with a sunset at her throat.  .  .  Susan Haldeman and Jim Wicker dueling with umbrellas in a hint of the hilarious battle Dan Granke is longing to stage. . .  Eddie Gomez as a woman waving silent and unseen. . .  Jan Neuberger and Tonia Krueger as macho men promenading across the stage. . .  Matt Frankel becoming a multi-gender person thanks to a multicolored scarf. . . and Helen Hansen French slowly, beautifully, guiding in the Moon, will always be part of this play.

Thanks to kind feedback from our audience, I’ll get to work tightening and clarifying, deepening the character of the fiercely funny woman warrior, and trying for an ending that echoes change and transformation.

But the comment I’m most grateful for was one of the first – that the words and dance and music weren’t separate but united. Which is everything that we’ve been hoping for. That for the second time this year, we told a story equally through words and sound and movement. And that story was a celebration.

In the morning, I start transferring the multitude of hand-written cuts and changes to the ever-changing script, and readying a new draft to send to developmental opportunities.

And as we always do, Paula Kramer calls me and we talk about what’s next.


September 9. . . Madness Table Read

This week is the table read before our Madness workshop, the first time our dancers, one of our visual artists, and half of our band will hear the script out loud.

Our actors are terrific and the reading is a help to me, hearing the words through their voices – and as ever, finding things to cut or clarify.

I rewrite the first scene completely to humanize the husband, since he comes off too negative and that’s the writing, not the lovable Eddie Gomez.

The next day I send notes so everyone can make a few hand-written cuts and line additions, and reprint the first scene for everybody. We recast a couple roles due to last-minute scheduling conflicts – and I send out other scripts until Friday’s workshop. And start a challenging online class through the Dramatists Guild taught by Edith Freni, on adventurous play structures in works by women playwrights.

Coralette Damme is already drawing lovely creatures – and lovely leaves! – for our homemade forest. Painter Ana Maria Vasquez creates this gorgeous work that’s part of the climax of Madness after listening to the script tonight, her vision of beautiful and heartfelt dancers in a forest.

And in the center, is Ana Maria’s version of The Dance Contraption.


September 6. . . Readying Madness

September 6. . . Readying Madness

I finally get a new draft of Madness done a week before the table reading, to give the cast time to look it over and give me time to let it go before we all start working on it.

Recent changes to the script connect the dancers to the missing Flying Man, which affects the movement as much as the story. And deepening and darkening the character of the man who’s trapped by classic standards of masculinity, and humanizing him before and during his transformation to a woman, and afterwards.

Working now on development pitches for Madness and for The Burlesque Astronomy Play. Trying to articulate where the script is and where it needs to go, and crucially, where is the heart of the script.

I talk with Madness workshop director Dan Granke, a Certified Fight Director who’s just gotten certified as an Intimacy Director. He’s excited about new ways to tell stories, ways that balance gender and power more equitably.

He explains that Intimacy Direction is not “here’s how to do a hug” – it’s figuring out where that contact evolves from, what leads up to it and what does it mean as actors approach each other. What kind of story is that contact telling, and what do the movements mean afterwards?

He’s asking a lot of the same questions dancers ask, in an exciting new field of drama that’s almost as much about ethics as storytelling.

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