First in a series of four profiles of the playwrights of the 2013 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays.
The Hotel – a Hollywood insane asylum for fallen starlets: all young, all beautiful, all damaged. In walks Agatha Moll. She seems perfectly normal. She’s a rising actress with a hit beach movie. Agatha has her whole career in front of her. Yet instead of lining up her next big paycheck, she finds herself at the Hotel. She’s more than willing to square things. She’s got a plan. But then the wall moves. By itself. Behind that wall is her dead sister. What is this place?
Witness to an Accident, a new play by Darren Callahan, puts the spotlight on Hollywood of the 1950s. Not on debonair musical numbers or red carpet premiers, but on tragic disappointments and illicit affairs, on powerful executives brought down by poverty wage thugs, on electrocution and subterfuge, on failed ingénues and, yes, dead sisters. In May 2013, the play, directed by Wm. Bullion, will be featured in the Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays, an annual event garnering stacks of submissions from local contenders, whittled down to only four selections by a committee of the best and brightest theatre artists that Polarity can find.
Known for bringing something different to the stage, Callahan’s plots are often full of contradictions or misinformation, featuring beautiful women and handsome men wading through sex, violence, and labyrinthine plots with sharp dialog that, at times, is tough for actors to get their tongues around. Rooted in the genre thrillers of the past, his work is mostly known as horror, sometimes as mystery, rarely as romantic, and his plays successfully stand out from the crowd.
“Some consider my work experimental,” he explains in an interview from his Chicago home, “but I’m really trying to be commercial! I guess my idea of commercial is a little bent. My plays are exploitation cinema for the stage, injected a bit with high art. I just want the stretch the form. There are enough plays that are realistic; they seem like TV shows. Probably the only two plays in the last five years that rocked me were Daniel Caffrey’s Ozma and Harriet and Bob Fisher’s The Meatlocker.”
With a sustained cult following, Callahan’s work has been produced and published since the middle 1990s. He hasn’t had a mainstream hit, but that may come in time. “I’ve been the next big thing for a few years,” he says. “I stay focused on what I like. If I like it, a few other people might like it, too. But I’m not kidding anyone – what I’m doing isn’t fast food, it’s a big meal – bigger than it looks – and it can be frustrating for a first-time audience not used to my sensibilities and influences. I don’t mind if something is confusing, either. A lot of writers explain too much. Not just plot exposition, but by making everything neat. Confusion is an honest state and should be dramatized without critics thinking you’re lazy. People enjoy my work with one viewing, but it is absolutely better the second time.”
This is the third play of Callahan’s to be featured since the festival’s inception. His first, The White Airplane, was in 2006 and received a 2009 production. His second, The Double Negative, was featured in 2008. “I get no special favors having been in the fest before. I’m there to work – as are the other talented playwrights. We’re notified months in advance so there is time for multiple drafts, readings, and other collaborations.”
“The committee unanimously felt the play was strong,” says director Bullion. “During the selection process, the play jumped right out at me as a very dynamic, theatrical piece, full of suspense and high energy. I’m still getting chills during my fifth reading of the script imagining how we’re going to play it out in the festival.”
Adds dramaturg and committee juror Sarah Grant: “I was drawn to Witness to an Accident for its playful style and homage to those 1950s noir films, so full of psychological horror. The play is about Hollywood, which makes it intriguingly self-reflexive. It’s a play about movies. There is a dark and, I think, fairly serious subtext: try as they may, these women cannot help but get lost in Hollywood. We can only hope none of this is real.”
Callahan’s work has always had visceral response. The first Dionysos Cup reader for The White Airplane threw the script in the trash in disgust, where it was rescued by another committee member who nominated the play as a semi-finalist (thus leading to the rule that all scripts must be read by multiple people).
Even with detractors, Callahan has remained a presence on the national scene for some time. Diversification is his secret weapon. As the author of several novels, screenplays, and stage plays, Callahan’s work is becoming more and more known. This summer, cameras roll on a new feature-length horror movie entitled Desperate Dolls. Like Witness to an Accident, that script features more Hollywood doom, leading one to wonder if Callahan despises L.A. and all its trappings. “On the contrary, I love that town! I have lots of friends and opportunities on the West Coast. But!” he reminds, “A happy Hollywood story is not nearly as cool as a messed-up one.”
Read more about the Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays.
# # #
Darren Callahan has written drama for the BBC, SyFy Channel, National Public Radio, and Radio Pacifica New York. As the author of several successful stage plays, including The White Airplane and Horror Academy, both published by Polarity Ensemble Theatre Books, he is highly involved in Chicago theatre as a writer and a director. His novels include The Audrey Green Chronicles and City of Human Remains. Screenplays include Documentia, Nerves, and Summer of Ghosts.
# # #