Arts January 6, 2022

Squirrel in the Hand

Touching writer David Cale’s heart might just make you famous 

With coronavirus, some of us went to the dogs, while others, well, at least one witty Englishman in New York, went to the squirrels.

“All my theatre productions and live performances around the country had been canceled. I was feeding the squirrels in Tompkins Square Park almost every day. They were easy to write about and photograph because they became so tame and were so engaging. Such little characters. The squirrels kept me writing daily because they had gathered an audience on social media who expected daily updates.”

David Cale used his cell phone along with pithy commentary to turn “The Smiling Squirrels of Tompkins Square Park” into a hit. The photos turned into a fundraising exhibition while he juggled myriad creative projects before landing in Sun Valley in October.

The Obie award-winning playwright (“We’re Only Alive for a Short Time”) and performance artist was a guest of The Community Library for a month as the first playwright in residence.

He was put up in the former home of Ernest Hemingway where he spent 30 days incubating ideas beside the Big Wood River. He workshopped a sampling for a delighted audience at the Argyros Performing Arts Center, which he described as “some pressure” but “energizing and encouraging.”

Roughly 48 hours after putting Ketchum in his rearview, Cale reflected, “I came with a view of working on a specific idea that took place in Idaho, but actually being in the area, I was inspired to write a completely different idea, which would never have dawned on me. I write very intuitively, and
I don’t generally know where I’m going. This new play has a plot twist coming that I’m a little giddy with excitement about.”

The untitled play, expected to be ready by the end of 2021, is about a New York writer’s relationship with an Idaho ranch hand and his dog.

“Everything I do is, on some level, emotionally autobiographical. If I meet someone and I think I’d love to try and represent that person on stage, I think there’s often something within them that resonates with something within me, that if I explore it through them, I’ll gain some kind of understanding of myself,” says Cale. “I’m drawn to portraying people who move me, or who are overlooked. I’m looking for the human bottom line.”

Cale delights in trying on different genres for his creations, as most of his career has developed along a whimsical road of redirected energies. He found his way to playwriting after being advised his songs were better as poetry, which then evolved to monologues.

“I’m very, very fortunate to be able to make a life expressing myself in whatever form on stage. I don’t take that for granted. Like any occupation, writing can be hard. Sometimes you feel like giving up. Sometimes you feel you’ve run out of ideas. Sometimes you want to walk away from the business side. Sustaining a long career is not easy. Sometimes putting very personal, vulnerable work into the world and having it assessed by the critics can be emotionally difficult.”

He’s intensely interested in how important an animal can be to a person’s wellbeing. Companion dogs in the Valley were noted, but it was magpies that may be center stage for Cale next.

“I was feeding the magpies, and they also became very used to me. One was eating out of my hand. The black and white photos I took of them in flight are curiously abstract looking. I may ultimately project some of them in a second Idaho-located piece, one I’m about to start work on,” says Cale.

“In a way, the magpies were my Idaho squirrels”

This article appears in the Winter 2021 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.