Soft-spoken and humble, Sheila Cowley is content to work behind the scenes. With multiple irons in multiple fires, the playwright, this script writer and audio engineer is always occupied, always busy, always dreaming up some new form of expression to quietly unleash upon the universe.
In 2018, the universe is answering back. The cherry on top? Cowley is the MUSE Award winner for Literary Arts this year.
“I work with a lot of actors, directors, dancers and visual artists around here, so I’m pleased that playwriting that involves collaboration is something of a literary art,” Cowley says. “It’s kind of a multi-genre literary art, but it’s alive and thriving.”
Along with dancers Paula Kramer and dancer Helen Hansen French, she’s collaborating on a series of outdoor dance/theater pieces (Air-Earth-Fire-Water) for the Creative Loafing GASP! Festival this March. And Cowley’s play Trio, featuring extensive use of masks, mime and movement, is being produced in April by a new commedia dell'arte theater company in Austin.
“There’s a humanity that threads through her work that I find easily accessible,” says French, “and then I can layer a dance idea into it. Her work isn’t closed off and inaccessible in a way that other artists can’t find a sense of themselves in it.”
French remembers her first exposure to the works of Sheila Cowley, at Keep St. Pete Lit’s 2016 Fantastic Ekphrastic event.
“My mind started swirling with ideas of ways dance and movement could be incorporated without changing her thoughts, but how it would continue to support what she’s writing. I think it’s because she allows there to be so much space between her layers of work, you can find a way in.”
Cowley, likewise, is effusive in her praise for dancers French and Kramer.
“Those pieces came off the paper and were suddenly full of all these visuals and life,” she gushes. “They’re both not just dancers, they’re storytellers using that to tell the story and making it so much better than just all by itself.”
She not only welcomes input from her collaborators, she solicits it.
“People almost invariably say yes when you ask. And it’s so interesting to me to work with visual artists — dancers — who think about the same kind of storytelling questions that I do. But they think about it in different ways, and always surprise me by thinking of things that had not occurred to me, that are so perfect for the piece.”
A former operations manager and newswriter for WMNF, Cowley and her husband Matt — a gifted audio artist — began a series of fictional radio dramas and comedies. This led to the Radio Theatre Project, which exists to this day — in fine form — via live performances at TheStudio@620.
Together, the Cowleys write and produce audio tours for The Dalí Museum and the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance. Sheila Cowley also produces the Creative Pinellas podcast, Arts In.
That’s her bread and butter. Theater, and its endless possibilities, give her sustenance.
Her full-length play Flying was produced last spring by Chenango River Theatre in New York, at the Austin Playhouse’s Festival of New American Plays, and in both Tampa and St. Petersburg (“This play does more than fly; it soars,” raved CL reviewer Cathy Salustri).
And the news keeps getting better. In Charleston, the South of Broadway Theatre is producing Stay, Cowley’s very first play (a collaboration with Eugenie Bondurant, another MUSE winner), in February and March. Then her short play Teatime will have a festival production in New York City.
Just recently, Cowley says, “The Burlesque Astronomy Play got chosen as one of two plays picked in a national search for the Phoenix Theatre Festival of New American Theatre. So they’re flying me out there in March for a week of rehearsals and staged readings.”
She also has two new full-length plays in various stages of creation; both, she hints, involve movement and sound.
“I've got a lot of work lined up this year, collaborating with actors, directors, dancers, designers and visual artists. Because our artistic lives took off when we moved to St. Pete, and we're grateful every day to live here.”
Cowley says she’s grateful, and greatly honored, to be acknowledged with the MUSE award.
“The energy that revolves around The Studio@620, the St. Pete Arts Alliance and Creative Pinellas, all the museums and galleries and arts organizations, is thrilling to be part of,” she declares. “Every creative project we do just leads to more possibilities.”