Callie Kimball, award-winning playwright of Sofonisba currently playing at TAM, talks art, research and how getting fired launched her career. 

The following interview was conducted by Lydia Cochran, 2021 Arts Administration Intern at the Theater at Monmouth in Monmouth, ME. 

LC: I guess to start; how did you first start writing for the theater?

CK: So here’s the story. I got fired from playing Juliet. And yeah, it’s a very dramatic story that I only have recently come to terms with. It was 1999, I think, and we were a week from opening, and I was off book and everything. But I was actually not the Juliet that the director wanted. He had wanted a younger Juliet. So there was just this weird tension between the director and I. He wanted me to actually be physically hit in the face. And I had told him I didn’t feel quite comfortable with that. But he said it was artistically necessary for the play. Oh, and he wanted me to be one of the people in the opening fight and get thrown off the stage into some folding chairs. So it was just strangely aggressive and weird. It was clearly a bad situation. So when that ended, I had all this unused, tense energy. And I poured it into writing a 10-minute play, and it went up at a festival in Washington, DC. And I remember sitting in the audience, hearing people laugh at it, and I thought that was amazing. It was like the greatest feeling and I loved it. So I decided to become a playwright. I usually don’t tell the first part.

LC: Thank you for sharing. How did you learn about Sofonisba Anguissola? And, why did you decide to write a play about her?

CK: I just have always loved art. When I was an undergrad, I was always looking through art catalogs and museum listings, just trying to educate myself. I came across a magazine, I think it was called Art and Antiques, and it showed her art on the cover and on the inside, and I was just captivated. I found her work so compelling and mysterious, and curious. So I photocopied the magazine and I’ve always had a copy of this article.

Then I became a playwright in 2005, and two years later I applied for a grant to write a play about Sofonisba Anguissola. And I got the grant, which meant I had to write the play! And it was interesting, because the work I was writing then was just sort of people being horrible to each other. Rougher characters, in toxic or difficult relationships. So for me to write a play with a king and a queen, a bishop, and a painter, it was all very nerve wracking. But people responded really well to it. We did our first reading of it at the Kennedy Center. I had only written the first 40 pages, but I got so much encouragement, and people really wanted to know what happened next. And that kind of boosted me and kept me going with it. And it turned out to be the play that received the most recognition and awards. And, it’s my heart play. It’s the one that I feel really close to. The one probably I’m most proud of. So it’s a case of stretching. I was doing something I wasn’t sure I could do. It was definitely outside of my comfort zone. And then it became something I was very proud of.

LC: Before you applied for the grant, did you have a good sense of her story? What dramaturgical research did you use?

CK: I think it’s really important when you apply for a grant to know those kinds of answers. And I didn’t. I didn’t know enough about applying for grants to even know I should have researched beforehand. But by some miracle, they liked my proposal. Once I got the grant, I started that work. I had a giant spreadsheet, I mean, giant, and it had every year that she was at the court, and every character, plus the world events that were happening at that time. I tried to make the shape of the 20 year timespan of the play. And that’s really what informed the writing. I think there’s more scholarship about Sofonisba Anguissola now, but back then, 13 years ago, when I started, there wasn’t a lot. The internet was just a bunch of articles that had the same text pasted over and over again, so I couldn’t find consistent information that was reliable. I did not know really anything other than she had studied with Michelangelo and had gone to the court of King Phillip but at the age of 28. I knew that and that’s about it. So I ended up making a lot of dramatic choices.

Stay tuned for Part II…