Sheila Cowley2018-05-04T11:09:32+00:00

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.


August 27. . . Madness Dance, Music and Visual Art

August 27. . . Madness Dance, Music and Visual Art

Paula Kramer and I meet dancers Helen Hansen French, Crystal DelGiudice, Ethan Barbee and Deisha King at The Studio@620 for our first exploration of the movement in Madness – in particular, how The Contraption made of dancers will work.

Helen, Crystal, Ethan and Deisha are skilled and inventive, solid good sports and full of surprises. They first figure out how to dress the set, since part of the action early on is watching the dancers construct the imaginary Forest where the play takes place.

Paula and I unfurl all the many lengths of lovely cloth we found at Creative Clay – and several fiery lengths of cloth that have now shown up in three or four of my plays. The 40-foot red scarf I just keep writing in, to Paula’s bemusement.

Working with dancers is always full of pleasant surprises. I knew things were going to go well when Helen and Crystal, tasked with draping gold cloth over a ladder to make a sunset, figured out that they could stash the cloth under a couple of chairs in the first row of seats, and tug it out between the legs of a surprised audience member, like a magic trick. They tried it out and it looked so good I wrote it in another time or two.

Tom Sivak came to get an idea of what the dancers would be doing, while experimenting with The Studio@620’s piano. He forgot to bring the nuts and screws he was planning to use to prepare the piano, so our excellent house manager Chris Rutherford pointed him toward some forks in the kitchen, which worked like a charm. Tom took the piano’s sound from scary to celebratory by adjusting the forks.

Printmaker Coralette Damme came to watch, to get ideas for the homemade woodland creatures she’s kindly creating for our forest.

We worked our way through the many movement cues throughout the story, as Paula and the dancers figured out the different ways The Dance Contraption could work, how their bodies could become a garden, and a campfire. And best of all, how they’re going to make an actor fly.


August 26. . . Madness Music

August 26. . . Madness Music

I’m madly rewriting Madness after my conversation with dramaturg Dana Lynn Formby. Digging into questions of fathers you want to be like and fathers you don’t, and The Flying Man’s connection to our dancers.

I’m glad to tackle the script’s darker undercurrents of loss and longing, since otherwise the play is just too funny. Funny’s good, but better when there’s something underneath it. I keep thinking about descriptions of abstract art like Matisse, where bright vibrant color can be balanced by a single dark line.

I talk with Matt and Tom Sivak about the music that they’ll improvise for the Madness workshop – music to accompany the dancers’ actions and spur the varied dance numbers, and sound effects for objects onstage.

Tom is a musical theatre composer and terrific piano player – and piano tuner. Matt’s a drummer who plays every style and does stage sound design, including live sound effects for The Radio Theatre Project at The Studio@620.

They both ask excellent questions about how, why and when the music is part of the play. Since it’s a workshop, they decide to focus on one signature Dance Contraption tune – one they can play straight or “broken,” as The Machine evolves during the script. They’ll provide a glimpse of the many different songs mentioned in the script by letting Matt change the rhythm to swing, salsa, a Paso Doble and the final mambo breakdown.

Tom suggests using the technique of a “prepared piano” – altering the sound by placing objects on or under certain strings. We’ve seen this a jazz concert, which surprises Tom. He’s never done it on an upright piano before, but since that’s what 620 has, he’s going to try.


August 24. . . Madness Dramaturgy and Prop Hunt

August 24. . . Madness Dramaturgy and Props Hunt

I get back to the long-delayed rewrite of Trio after seeing the Austin production, tightening some dialogue and smoothing out transitions. Making final changes on mural tour scripts – and now we’re measuring the murals as part of the process, making our third trip out trying to get the laser measuring tool to work.

This week I’m recording the St. Pete Arts Alliance’s audio tour of the 2017 SHINE murals with Eugenie Bondurant. In many ways, these audio tour recordings are like working on a play script – you only know what’s working and what’s not when you hear it aloud. I’m making adjustments to scripts as we go, simplifying language, cutting words and clarifying details – and despite our careful writing, fixing the inevitable tongue-twisters.

Choreographer Paula Kramer and I go on a props hunt for Madness – and get pretty much everything all in one go, as she cleverly suggests we try Creative Clay’s Arts Thrift Store.

I hadn’t been there before but Paula’s worked with Creative Clay and led us down a wide hallway covered with colorful, beautiful artwork to a room full of donated art and craft supplies – half-full gallons of paint, frames, instructional art books, a big box of rubber snakes. And a huge bunch of lovely cloth flowers and many, many bolts of colored cloth, exactly what we were looking for to create a garden made of dancers and frame our sun and moon balloons.

The Creative Clay folk are wonderful and welcoming. Their Thrift Store only accepts art supplies and craft materials, and it’s pay what you can. Paula insists we leave the box of rubber snakes. We head out with all we can carry and hope another artist will be thrilled to find them.

I finally get the chance to talk with busy dramaturg Dana Lynn Formby of Chicago Dramatists about Madness. She loves the script, and is full of excellent questions that hadn’t occurred to me – like what is the myth of the missing Flying Man? What’s the most difficult thing a character could part with, to put in the bucket and pay for a ride in The Dance Contraption? Why does Alan wind up transformed in an aloha shirt – does it have to do with the father he’s refusing to be like, and his changing definition of what it means to be a good man? What is the character arc for the dancers.

I’m glad that Dana loves the sound the play’s Drummer will make, when objects get put in the bucket – and suggests I use that even more.

As ever, her questions address depths I hadn’t realized might be there – and help me find answers that shape the script further.


August 17. . . Madness, London, Mural Tour scripts

August 17. . . Madness, London, Mural Tour

Paula Kramer and I sit down with the Madness script again, working on our props list. Simple things like bolts of cloth and a watering can, and a bucket. Balloons are crucial to the script, and old-fashioned flying goggles have grown in importance.

Juggling the schedules of 7 actors, 4 dancers, 2 musicians, our director and our choreographer, I finally get a table reading scheduled before the workshop so we can hear the latest draft out loud – which I’m still working on.

Sky Blue Theatre in London contacts me to kindly ask what music I’d like them to play before and after Teatime is onstage, maybe 10-15 seconds. An interesting question, the first time anyone has ever asked that about any play. I consider a few options and dig up Beirut’s painfully hopeful song, “Elephant Gun.”

Matt and I are busy writing mural tour scripts for the St Pete Arts Alliance, still struggling to describe the punch and impact of visual artworks for listeners who may or may not be able to see them.


August 10. . . Murals, Madness and GASP!

August 10. . . Murals, Madness and GASP!

We need a cool photo for The Studio@620 to use on their website for the Madness reading. The amazing dance photographer Tom Kramer volunteers his services, our choreographer Paula Kramer says we need people peeking out of a forest, and Helen Hansen French suggests the lovely Palm Garden in Northshore Park.

Not many of our large cast can make it to downtown St Pete at 8 a.m. on a hot Tuesday morning, but the intrepid Eugenie Bondurant, Helen Hansen French and Tonia Krueger brave the heat and gamely pose in the palms with Paula and I as Tom directs us.

Actors and dancers are great sports, standing on one leg and lying in the mulch. Paula has a striped umbrella and Eugenie just happens to have a big yellow ball in her backseat, so those become props, along with the pile of hats and scarves that Paula’s brought.

Thanks to everybody’s willingness, and a couple of palm branches Paula talked a maintenance guy out of as he was trimming, Tom gets some lovely shots and the umbrella looks lovely backlit by the morning sun.

Paula and I go through the first half of the Madness script, scouting for props – and of course make changes to the movement as we’re working. For a script I thought was very simple and low-tech, there are more props than I realized – bolts of cloth and ladders and umbrellas, red silk ribbons and a brandy glass.

I’m struggling to schedule a table read so that everyone can meet each other and our dancers and musicians can hear the script. But with 7 actors, 4 dancers, 2 musicians, a director and a choreographer, it’s tough to get everybody in the same room at the same time. After many emails, we find a date when almost everyone can make it. It’s a relief that with some juggling of schedules, our workshop cast is set.

In the meantime, Matt and I are writing scripts for the next St Pete Arts Alliance mural audio tour. Once again, it’s the most challenging writing assignment I’ve had, trying to describe huge abstract murals for visually-impaired visitors, and for anyone who’d like to find out more about the stories behind the artwork.

Helen Hansen French and I meet Margaret Murray on the steps of the Museum of Fine Arts to reconnoiter before bringing Air-Earth-Fire-Water to the MFA for an outdoor show during the SPF Festival in October. Helen gets terrific new ideas about the staging as we explore the wide front steps and giant pillars, and the lovely arcing colonnades on either side.

We get jazzed about museum performances, and talk in the parking lot afterwards, buzzing with ideas.


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.

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