How Do You Make a Play About Water? Drop by Drop

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The set designer, Deb O, described it as the kind of unruly pile you see in post-flood news photos, where people’s belongings have been removed from their homes and tossed onto their lawns. “You just pull up that 5-gallon bucket and you sit on that and look at what has happened,” she said.

Ms. Callaghan’s problem, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, was that she couldn’t stop looking. The storm didn’t affect her directly; she was living in New York then, and she watched television footage of the disaster’s victims from the comfort of her gym. Outraged, she became obsessed with both the government’s failure to protect vulnerable people and the power of something as essential and everyday as water to “turn on us,” she said.

The piece that became “(Not) Water” has gone through many work-in-progress incarnations in the years since. One staging, at Here, was so early in the artists’ ecological awareness that each audience member was given a bottle of water — a gesture the team later discarded as wasteful, Ms. Topol said. Another version, at the 14th Street Y, featured a doughnut-shaped stage by Mimi Lien, the Tony-nominated set designer of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” with the audience on the inside looking out.

Ms. Callaghan and Ms. Topol had a welcome success when they collaborated on the ambitious, multimedia “Dead City” in 2006, also with New Georges at 3LD. (Two actors from that show, April Matthis and Rebecca Hart, are also in this one.) “It was, both of us, our first big deal,” said Ms. Topol, who is now the artistic director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. But they couldn’t get “(Not) Water” to breathe the way they wanted.


April Matthis in rehearsals for the play. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Then, in November, at a reading the day before the presidential election, Ms. Callaghan presented the company with a fresh draft structured around a couple of new characters named Not Sheila and DT: stage versions of Ms. Callaghan and Ms. Topol. The characters have the same humor and rapport as their real-life counterparts, and they get similarly overwhelmed as they wrestle with the same storytelling problems. As a frame, it’s self-aware, meta and riskily so.

“Daniella was horrified because first of all, I don’t remember asking her permission to put her in the play,” Ms. Callaghan said. “She wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. Because it is so revealing. It reveals on some level that we were lost.” Yet that way of approaching the play, allowing those characters to observe and respond to the world around them, seemed at last to be the key. “It was the first time it ever started to feel alive,” Ms. Callaghan said.

More recently, she borrowed a potent Hurricane Sandy memory from Susan Bernfield, the producing artistic director of New Georges, whose ailing mother was using an oxygen tank and had to be evacuated from her apartment by firefighters after the storm knocked the power out. A character named Susanbernfield Artisticdirector tells that story.

Deb O also has a mom story, and she told it when Ms. Callaghan and Ms. Topol called to feel her out about joining the project. “There was a barrage of questions,” Deb O recalled. “My relationship with water, and have I thought about water, and what have I done with water.” She mentioned the parasite in the water supply in her native Milwaukee that killed scores of people and sickened 400,000 others, including her mother, in 1993.

Plastic water bottles are objects of ecological loathing for Deb O, and a sprawling sculpture that is part of her “(Not) Water” set uses about 2,000 of them, scavenged from various sources and destined for recycling. But for many years after that parasitic outbreak, tap water scared her. She drank her water from plastic bottles instead. Now she wonders how safe that was.

That’s the kind of skeptical awareness that “(Not) Water” aims to elicit, backing even its futuristic bits with science dramaturgy by the group Guerilla Science. And while Ms. Callaghan said she doesn’t know whether, after all this time, the show will mean anything to anyone but its creators, Ms. Topol sounded sanguine about the product of their oh-so-slow journey — a show she would love to tour. Years ago, when they were still dissatisfied, they made the deliberate choice not to rush it.

“Our taste has changed and evolved, and our confidence has changed and evolved, and our sense of courage to say, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing, and that’s O.K.,’” Ms. Topol said. “We’ve just grown up together.

“I would wish that for all artists,” she added. “To trust themselves and to give themselves time and space for the complex things.”

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