Q&A With Caleb Palmer, The Devil On Your Shoulder Playwright

Caleb Palmer, BFA ’19

Emerson Stage’s production of The Devil On Your Shoulder, winner of the Rod Parker Playwriting Award, opens at the Greene Theater on Thursday, March 14. I reached out to playwright Caleb Palmer, BFA ‘19, about the process of writing The Devil On Your Shoulder and working with Emerson Stage.

Give us the elevator-pitch description of The Devil On Your Shoulder.

The Devil on Your Shoulder is a comedic play about a young woman who summons the Devil to battle her loneliness after starting college but gets more than she bargained for when the Devil appears as two brothers—Satan and Lucifer. Caught between their sibling rivalry and her aggressively friendly R.A., Nikki introduces the Devils to a whole new world, as they do the same for her.

Where did you get the idea for a show about summoning devils? How did the play develop from this idea?

I’m a nerdy person, and the occult tends to feature prominently in nerd culture. While I was doing some research about the devil, I found there was no direct statement in the Bible saying that Lucifer and Satan are the same person. People just assume that they are because Lucifer’s story ends where Satan’s begins. I was really fascinated by this, and from that idea, I began a play about three sorority sisters having to deal with Satan and Lucifer, who I envisioned linked together as brothers. Eventually, I cut out two of the sisters and the play focused on Nikki working against the Devils.

What’s it like having your play produced for Newfest? Do you have an active role in the rehearsal process?

Having The Devil on Your Shoulder produced for Newfest has been an extremely humbling and wonderfully surreal experience. I was so honored when my play was chosen. I’m in Los Angeles this semester, but Joe and I email back and forth about script changes and decisions. I was able to fly back to Boston for one weekend and attend a rehearsal. It was great seeing the blocking and the actors having fun and playing around with my words, and we made a few changes while I was there.

What kind of research did you do while writing this play? Did you look into the history of things like the Necronomicon and the religious themes?

As I wrote the play, I looked deeply into Satanism, as well as the history of Satan and Lucifer in the Bible. I learned a lot about the core values of Satanism, such as self-discovery and finding power within yourself. I also looked into D&D creator Gary Gygax’s history while writing the play.

The role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons is featured heavily in The Devil On Your Shoulder. First, what is D&D for those who may not be familiar, and do you think it informs your playwriting?

Dungeons and Dragons is a game where people play characters, which they create, in a story set in a fantasy world. It’s a little like acting and writing all at the same time, with a bit of math thrown in too. I’ve made many strong friendships and have had a lot of great experiences through playing the game, and it’s definitely impacted my writing.  D&D is storytelling with structure and rules, which empower the players. I think there are clear parallels to playwriting, and in The Devil on Your Shoulder, D&D helps showcase Satan’s emotional journey in the story.

What do you think Emerson students and audiences will take away from seeing The Devil On Your Shoulder?

I think the struggle of dealing with loneliness in a new environment is a pretty broad experience and something that rings true for many people in college. I hope that people come away from the play feeling that they never have to be alone and that no matter what it feels like in the moment, they’ll find their own way.

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