Haunting World Premiere Tells a Selkie’s Story

by Jean Schiffman

Playwright Sarah Shaefer crafts an intricate tale, steeped in mythology, of a lost soul who can’t remember her past

Human upon land, seal in the sea: The selkies, or silkies, of Scottish and Irish mythology have appeared and reappeared over time in popular culture. Among the many retellings of the myth are the traditional folk song “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry,” from Orkney, popularized by Joan Baez in 1961; the 1994 John Sayles film “The Secret of Roan Inish”; and Neil Jordan’s 2009 Irish film, “Ondine.”

New York playwright Sarah Shaefer’s telling, “Selkie, or When I Look at the Ocean, I Feel Like I Belong,” set in small-town Northern California just after the Gold Rush, makes its world premiere here. The production was collaboratively developed by members of New York’s Rising Phoenix Rep (founder/artistic director: Daniel Talbott), which is coproducing it with local theater artist Wendy vanden Heuvel’s Weathervane; among the shows that vanden Heuvel has coproduced are “Medea” with Fiona Shaw, and the Bengsons’ rock musical “100 Days” at Z Space.

“I’m obsessed with mermaids and the ocean,” confesses an ebullient Shaefer, who lives in Manhattan. When Talbott and vanden Heuvel decided to commission three women playwrights, with a promise to fully stage each play over the course of several years, they chose Shaefer, a playwright and actor who’d been working with Talbott for the past several years on various projects, as one of the three. Two years ago, Shaefer contributed a play to Rising Phoenix’s site-specific series, “The Beach Plays,” at Ocean Beach, and she remained immersed in ideas and images relating to the Pacific Ocean.

In mythology, when selkies leave the water, they must shed their pelt and can only return to their natural home when they’ve recovered it. In Shaefer’s play, the selkie Adele has lost her pelt, her skin—it’s been taken from her—and so she has lost everything, including her memory, and is stranded on land. “I related to that,” says Shaefer. “Being comfortable in my own skin is something I’ve really focused on in my life.” She and vanden Heuvel, conceptualizing together, gravitated toward a story about “accepting yourself as a woman.”

Crafting the intricate tale of a lost soul who cannot remember her past, who cannot even recognize her own selkie mother, who does not know who she is, Shaefer not only researched the mythology but often found herself studying the ocean, the Atlantic and Pacific. “It can be so devastating,” she says, “the waves and king tides, but underneath the water it’s so quiet.”

The post-Gold Rush era, she says, was compelling. “It’s an interesting period. The people who got rich were not the miners but the merchants. That’s how Sandrine and her family are so powerful.” Sandrine, a villager who wears a sealskin coat, and her two grown sons, are crucial to the plot, along with a church lady who befriends Adele, and a beautiful young selkie who appears now and then like an apparition. “Drink this. Swallow it,” she tells Adele on one of those elusive visits, giving her a glass of water. “When you can’t remember. When you forget me. … You can taste home. You can taste your future. All here.”

Like Shaefer, vanden Heuvel, a longtime actor who plays the role of Adele, feels a personal identification with the idea of a selkie who has lost contact with her true nature. A born-and-bred New Yorker who moved here three years ago, she at first felt a loss of identity. She had to go through a process of individuation, she says, without all the trappings of her childhood. But in redefining herself, she found that she is now closer to her original self than she had been in years.

Shaefer created the roles in “Selkie” specifically for vanden Heuvel and other core members of Phoenix Rising. Both vanden Heuvel and Talbott, who directs the play, have been intensely involved in developing the script over the past year and a half, throughout a workshop production in New York and right up to rehearsals in San Francisco, with Shaefer in the room, welcoming feedback from the actors. Shaefer guesses she’s written about 700 pages of script throughout the process, chiseling away to the bare bones of the story with its poetic, fairly formal dialogue and haunting ambiance.
Writing for the actors is, she says, one of her favorite ways to write, and it feels intuitive. “Most of the time I was sitting and thinking about everybody and who they are and free-form associating things that come up in my brain when I think about them.” Being an actor herself (in New York, L.A. and here) also helps her to shape roles around the actors. And working with Talbott has helped her formulate her ideas. “Daniel’s very specific, he’ll have a point of view and I’ll have a point of view,” she explains, “and they might agree or disagree. If I disagree, it’s on me to fight for it, and I think that helps inform the work. He asks tough questions and I have to answer them.”

“Sarah is one of the hardest working playwrights I’ve worked with, and a generous collaborator,” says Talbott, an erstwhile localactor who grew up in the East Bay and trained at A.C.T. before heading East to study at Juilliard. Now
he works not only with Rising Phoenix but also New York’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, where he is an artistic associate. He and Shaefer met years ago at a theater retreat in North Carolina. “Like one of my favorite playwrights, Maria Irene Fornes, Sarah has a feminine voice and psyche, and steps into a poetic, imagistic world,” he says.

He sees “Selkie” as a play about motherhood and the camaraderie of women—“how women support one another in a world that can be really tough on women. … I feel like all of our mothers are floating about in this play.”

Contemplating the set (designed by Deb O), Talbott wanted it to be “big like the ocean but also intimate like the beach” and came up with the idea of a giant, deconstructed pier that runs the length of Z Space—“almost a map for the entire journey of the play.” The ocean, an ever-present motif in the play, is almost an optical
illusion onstage, he says: it is represented by just “very small amounts of contained water.”
Costumes (by Tristan Raines) reflect a mid-19th-century California town with a touch of magical realism; they blend fashions of the past with modern elements. The characters, he says, “live inside their own, special world, a world that’s make-believe in a way, with its feet in reality.”
Sound designer Jake Rodriguez has recorded waves and seagulls
to form a melancholic score.

For vanden Heuvel, “Selkie” is essentially about a return to the self. “It goes beyond the personal to a modern dilemma,” she says, “I think everybody can relate to a
return to the soul, the spirit … we crave our animal self.”

"Selkie, or When I Look at
the Ocean, I Feel Like I Belong"

Feb. 9 - 24

Z Space, 450 Florida St.,
San Francisco