The Select Equity Group Series on Playwriting
Most of us do not know what place we possess as students in our teachers’ thoughts. Unless we ourselves teach, how could we know? That we teachers share our students, bring the work home, mention their names over the dinner table until they become household words.
And so in my household there is a name: Sarah Ruhl. She came into my intensive advanced playwriting seminar some 15 years ago. A sophomore, but I thought at first she was a senior: she was quiet and serious, but so obviously possessed a mind that came at aesthetics from a unique angle. I assigned an exercise: to write a short play with a dog as protagonist. Sarah Ruhl wrote of her father’s death from that unique angle: a dog is waiting by the door, waiting for the family to come home, unaware that the family is at his master’s funeral, unaware of the concept of death.
And, oh yes, the play was written with Kabuki stage techniques, in gorgeous, emotionally vivid language. I sat with this short play in my lap in my study, and sobbed. I interrupted my then partner, now wife, Anne Sterling, at her computer in her study, and read it to her, and the two of us shared that playworld, and the recognition of who this young woman could become: Sarah Ruhl.
This former student has become Sarah Ruhl in a way that has made an impact on the next generation all over the country: her Passion Play, done at Brown, Arena Stage, England, and Germany; her plays Late and Melancholy Play, done all over the country; her exquisite play Eurydice, done coast to coast (Berkeley Rep, Yale, and in the spring at Second Stage in New York); her Pulitzer-nominated play The Clean House, recently done at the Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center—and since last fall, when Ruhl received a MacArthur Grant, she has become even more of a household name.
I have worked with many stunning young voices, but I have been blessed with a continuing conversation with Ruhl over the years. I think of discussions in booths over tea that became talks in bistros in New York and Los Angeles over wine—a hungry exchange of viewpoint and experience, rushed for lack of time, between two playwrights in the field, and now I turn to Sarah as a trusted and beloved colleague who still has one of the most unique minds in theater I’ve encountered.
Paula Vogel We’re coming in the midst of a discussion. . . .
Sarah Ruhl The longer I do theater, the more shocked I am that you can get the play’s punctuation, the story, the casting, even the director right. Still, you have to deal with variables like: Is this the right audience? Do I have the right month of the year, the right city? Is the right reviewer coming? So much of it is chance in terms of how the aesthetic object is received. Sometimes it makes you just want to write a slim volume of poetry.
PV The architectural design of the theater will impact the perception and the choices in directing your play. So, yeah, the variables are intense.
SR As my grandmother used to say, “You play the hand you’re dealt.” In that sense, I love the materiality of the theater; you have a set of material givens and you work with them. For example, the Newhouse Theater is three quarters, and in some ways the intimacy of the audience wrapping around the stage is good for the play, but it’s very hard to play a comedy in three quarters. It’s hard to have visual surprise. It’s hard to do subtitles.
PV There is a perceptual switching of framing in your plays that is pre-twentieth century. In Clean House, or Passion Play or Eurydice, you can see the structural bones of a different theatrical relationship with the audience, be it medieval, Jacobean, or impressionist. Clean House works very well within a proscenium arch, which predates the twentieth century. What’s exciting about your work and that of the other rising playwrights in your generation is that there’s a reclaiming of theater out of that mishmash of assumptions made about realism. Assumptions that were not even theatrical issues in previous centuries.
SR I think our generation has to look at Freud and Freud’s impact, and many of us say, Oh, maybe Freud didn’t have it right. Something that he was right about he got from literature: the Oedipal complex, from the Greeks. So maybe we ought to go back to the Greeks instead of back to Freud on the Greeks.
PV When you put a chorus on stage, as in Eurydice, there’s a focus on the theatricality. There’s no way that you can be in that intimate, fourth-wall realism once that happens. Freud’s legacy in America is anti-realism. Think about those extraordinary, wild flourishings of the Provincetown Playhouse that are in conversation with Freud. Your Melancholy Play is in conversation with Freud, and yet it does not lead to a surface reality that clings to the Stanislavsky method of performance.
SR For me, it’s putting things up against Freud. In Melancholy Play, one character is so depressed that she turns into an almond. (laughter) It’s a more medieval sensibility of the humors, melancholia, black bile and transformation. If you excavate people’s subjectivity and how they view the world emotionally, you don’t get realism.
PV Has anything prepared you for this moment in time? The impact of success is actually a shock.
SR Hmm, yes and no. Every production prepares you for the next production, and in that sense it’s cumulative. We think: Oh, New York is definitive. In a way, it’s just another production of one of my plays in another city. I’ve worked so much regionally that it gives me less of a sense of living or dying by one interpretation.
PV Good, because in essence, the vocabulary of the Sarah Ruhl play is formed by layers of production and a national sense of what those plays mean.
SR The New York model is an old one: You premiere in New York, and if it does well, it’ll be done regionally. If it tanks, its life is over. Now people are starting to premiere things regionally and build up the momentum and then take it to New York. New York theaters are so scared of the press that fewer risks are being taken.
PV I think that in New York, we are still experiencing a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. And it’s a stress level for critics and audiences as well as the artist. When you’re stressed, you don’t want to be told a story that is going to disturb your sleep, or make you think. And theater really is communal; an audience comes into a public space, and then must be open or receptive. It’s part of the ritual.
SR I come into the theater wanting to feel and think at the same time, to have the thought affect the emotion and the emotion affect the thought. That is the pinnacle of a great night at the theater.
PV The shift in your writing embraces the emotional vocabulary of theater, which a lot of plays avoid. We’re used to plays that build into their structure a kind of rational mousetrap, but you’re exploring emotional resonance without embarrassment. There is an impulse to be ashamed of emotions in theater, which is rather odd because one would think that’s why we have theater.
SR I love that term, rational mousetrap. Ten years ago, if you were writing, as e. e. cummings would say, about such trite themes as love and death, you were considered a hack. I felt that theater was actually a place where the voice could be attached to emotion. Theater is still a living tradition of speech and emotion. It’s something that deeply attracts me.
PV Now, you’ve worked in many, many productions with many directors and actors. What are your actors teaching you? What kind of impact does that have on your sense of the characters you’re now writing?
SR I’ve worked with so many actors with different methods and vocabularies. In almost all the productions I’ve had, it’s been the usual mode: You cast the play out of L.A. and New York, and the actors meet each other on the first day of rehearsal. I’ve been very pleased and honored and moved by the integrity of all the productions. But I’d like to discover what would happen if I worked with the same actors and designers over and over in a concentrated way. If the actor and I were able to know exactly what we meant if I said, “Give this line a little more space.” As opposed to one actor who thinks space is a subtext and another who thinks space is a technical pause.
PV Have you experienced performances where you think, A: Oh, I never saw it that way; or B: [gasp] That was the image in my head that I’d forgotten?
SR I had a remarkable time going to the Goodman production of The Clean House, directed by Jessica Thebus. It was exactly the play and yet more so, because there were elements I would never have thought of that were so sublime. For instance, there’s a scene where Lane, a doctor married to a doctor, imagines her husband kissing the breast of his new lover, who is one of his patients. The stage direction says, “Ana wears a gown. Is it a hospital gown or a ballroom gown?” Well, Marilyn Dodds Frank, who plays Ana, walked out in a renaissance ball gown made of lavender hospital-gown material. It had a train that was about 20 yards long. So she begins walking out in this purple gown, and it just keeps coming and coming and coming. I would never have thought of that. That was a high point of my life really, watching that production and thinking: They really read my mind. Also, the living room was very architectural, spare and abstract. There had been a beautiful skylight in Act One and in the second act it cantilevered down and became the balcony. It was so shocking—you wouldn’t think that it could just come out of the air like that. The designer completely understood abstraction and transformation of space.
PV The production of Eurydice at Yale also has a transformation of space. It seems to me your work actually calls that out of designers and directors. Whereas the theater of the rational mousetrap, when it insists that characters change, it means the furniture remains stable. (laughter) I get so visually bored when the emotional space doesn’t change, that thrill, as you describe it in your article on Maria Irene Fornes, the embrace of the state of being. Where the emotional state changes, but not the psychological character. Some of the descriptions in Melancholy Play produce those resonances. Music always does that.
SR If you transform space and atmosphere, you don’t have to connect the dots psychologically in a linear way. It reminds me of an essay I’ve been wanting to write, about the death of combat and duels on stage. We used to go to the theater for bloodlust, to watch people kill each other on Shakespeare’s stage and see a good fight. The advent of guns stopped that: You can’t really have a good gunfight on stage. We’ve replaced that physicality with the idea of drama as conflict, with people bickering on stage. I’d rather watch a clash of swords. I mean, an argument, the idea of opposition and dialectic, is very important to me, but the bickering I could do without.
PV Arnold Aronson blames it all on the introduction of the chair to the stage. Once you put a chair on the stage, we sit down and have a chat. You know, “Mrs. Tesman, let’s have a little chat.”
SR Do you ever tell your students to write a play in which there are no chairs?
PV No, but that’s a great idea. I’m going to do that.
SR I think Eurydice has no chairs. Maria Dizzia, who played Eurydice, said when she was scared at one point in the process, “There are no pillars to hide behind.” And there are no chairs to sit on.
PV Your plays challenge actors. They have to get up there and emote. It’s about those larger-than-life moments; there’s no hiding and you can’t work your way up to it in a logical sequence of events. You have to jump in the cold, deep end of the pool.
SR That’s how I experience emotions. They come at you so suddenly sometimes. I watch my daughter, who’s in the middle of crying, and then you do a little dance for her and she starts laughing. Not that we’re all infants—
PV Yes, we are. (laughter)
SR I don’t think that our emotions are easily bendable to dramaturgical reason. Emotions can come out of thin air in my work and it can be difficult for actors, especially if their training doesn’t allow that.
PV I think of each production as a Tower of Babel. Everybody comes in with different training, speaking different languages, and you have four weeks to speak the same language. Here’s a question for you: How do we get critics or audience members to ask the right questions? Is it simply by writing play after play and creating a body of work that breaks out of the rational mousetrap?
SR Well, in life, how do we get people to ask the right questions of us? A love interest, for instance. How do you get them to ask you the right question about yourself or about your day? Part of it is training. In Thai marriage vows (my husband is half-Thai), training is one of the precepts. But you don’t have breakfast with critics. There’s such a gulf between critics and playwrights right now; I know it’s necessary for objectivity, but I don’t think it’s a very good gulf. What do you think?
PV Well, it’s an ongoing debate I’ve had. I very much respect a lot of the critics’ writing. For example, Linda Winer is a passionate, caring critic. The problem revolves around this notion of objectivity. I had a private tour of O’Neill’s house when I was visiting the lovely Wendy Goldberg, who is doing an amazing job of turning around the drift of the O’Neill Theater. Upstairs in his study, the curator pointed to a trunk and said, “That was given to the O’Neills as a gift from the critic Brooks Atkinson, before they took their European trip.” I felt stabbed through the heart. There was a time in New York when critics and playwrights and actors and directors drank at the same bar, got into their fist fights, had affairs, kissed and made up, stormed at each other, but they did it face-to-face and occasionally, critics would ask to be cast in plays. It was a world that we shared together.
SR That trunk, and the idea of gift-giving, interests me. What do you do when a critic changes your life for the better? Can you send them a bottle of champagne and a letter thanking them? Charles Isherwood changed my life for the better. I find myself wanting to send him a crate of citrus for the winter months, but I know that I can’t; it would compromise his next review of my work. Ben Brantley probably changed your life for the better. But you can’t thank them, can you? And when a critic destroys you, there is no recourse. You can’t tell them, You destroyed that play. That was seven years of my life. I think in a town like Chicago critics and playwrights are more likely to meet each other, but I could imagine going a lifetime without meeting a critic in New York.
PV You cannot afford to waste any resources if you’re living in a smaller town. Anyone who loves the theater has to be your friend, your community, including the critic if you’re a playwright, or the playwright if you’re the critic. Speaking of Chicago, the most interesting theater people come from Chicago. What is it growing up in Chicago? What is in the drinking water?
SR I think what’s in the drinking water is baseball and theater, the fact that in one body might live a passion for both baseball and theater. The city is connected to theater in a grassroots kind of way. You’re rooting for people on the home team, you feel as though you know them and might run into them at the store. It’s that kind of proximity.
PV What plays have you seen lately?
SR I saw The Internationalist, which I was really excited about, by Anne Washburn. I was delighted by it, by the design and the execution, and by this idea that she could precisely denote a made-up language and you could understand exactly what was going on in the play. That’s one of my peculiar monomanias—people speaking other tongues in the theater and the audience understanding them. I saw your ex-student Quiara Hudes’ play Elliott (A Soldier’s Fugue), which I was so moved by. There’s this incredible monologue that begins: “If your son goes to war, you plant wild.”
PV What playwrights in the theater should we know?
SR Well, Anne, Quiara, and I love my class at New Dramatists, Jorge Cortiñas, who also went to Brown. I studied with Jorge in Mexico with Maria Irene Fornes years ago, and just at the pure level of the sentence, he’s so good. Julia Cho has such a poetry of the everyday, telling stories that have not been told before with a lot of grace. There are so many incredible writers out there right now, and much of it, Paula, is due to your teaching. There’s a renaissance going on.
PV The renaissance is happening from a number of places. I just try to stay out of the way for the ones that come across my path and help speed them on their journey. There’s extraordinary writing out there. In groups like Thirteen P, which you’re a member of, or places like Clubbed Thumb, the work that I see at Ohio Theater, or St. Anne’s. . . . I’m not bored. I’m always surprised. I come out feeling a different emotional state than when I went in, and the writers don’t ask that you understand it logically, they ask that you take the journey of the experience. I think it’s a stunning, fabulous time for this generation of writers.
I understand you’re going back into the room on Passion Play.
SR On Monday. Ten years later.
PV I don’t think people know how long it takes to write such a big play. And the different steps.
SR It’s not only the physical writing, but the time in between each draft, when you become a different person as a writer. You know things that you didn’t know five or ten years ago.
PV So you started it when you were twenty?
SR Twenty-one, maybe. I wrote the first act when I was at Brown with you. I wrote the second act there too, but a draft that was fairly unintelligible at the time. So I spent a lot of time rewriting the second act, and then Molly Smith at Arena Stage, along with Wendy Goldberg, commissioned the third part, and I’m grateful to them. So eight years after beginning the whole thing, I wrote the third act. I need to rewrite that, so that’s the primary thing we’re going to look at, and how the three acts all fit together.
PV And you’re doing this with Mark?
SR Yes, Mark Wing-Davey, who did a really beautiful bare-bones production of the first two acts in London. Actually, the first two acts of Passion Play might not have chairs. (laughter)
PV There was one chair in the second act. They sit at the father’s bedside.
SR That scene’s cut.
PV [gasp] No chairs in the second act! (laughter) I’m really glad you’re going back to Passion Play, because I love the scope of the play. It has an incredible humanity, heart, that really grabs me.
SR See if I’m ever done with Passion Play. Act four!
PV Wouldn’t that be great? Well, now that Suzan-Lori Parks has thrown down the gauntlet—
SR Oh my God, has she.
PV We’re talking about the remarkable 365, a cycle of plays for each day of the year, produced by Bonnie Metzgar. 365’s such an ambitious reframing of how you produce theater, and it makes me think, again: How do we get an audience to ask the right questions?
SR They could start by not asking the wrong questions, in terms of dramaturges leading talk-backs. Here’s a note to dramaturges: You should not begin a talk-back by saying, Now, was everything absolutely clear to you? It’s not a useful paradigm. It trains audience members to be like schoolchildren reading a poem and then deciding they hate poetry. What about asking: What was clear to you? What was so schematic that it bored you out of your gourd? What was beautiful but you didn’t know why?
PV Maria Irene Fornes gave that opacity to American theater. That’s a huge gift, when you feel something but don’t understand it. And as writers, we ask, “How did she do that?” Why am I suddenly scared? Why am I crying? Why did I find that funny? It’s rather like when you’re seeing a dance concert and the whole audience laughs—what was funny without words?
SR This is why I love having a baby. Anna laughs at things, even though she doesn’t understand language. I think that at the most primal level, the intention to be funny, to share wit, is beyond language. When I wrote The Clean House and began it with the joke in Portuguese that probably no one would understand, that was part of the impulse. But people do laugh. Some nights they don’t; that’s a night when we’re in trouble.
PV Do you want to talk about the new play?
SR It’s about the history of the vibrator. This unique moment at the dawn of the age of electricity when doctors, who had actually been manually stimulating their patients to cure them of hysteria, could suddenly use the vibrator. So what had taken hours before, now took a matter of minutes. We’ll see.
PV You must have read that book on the vibrator, The Technology of Orgasm.
SR It was my inspiration. One physician quoted in the book argued that at least three-fourths of women had ailments that could be cured by the vibrator. Which is kind of stunning. The economy for vibrators, even then, was vast; I mean, it was a million-dollar enterprise.
PV Lucky person who had the patent on that. (laughter) So that’s what you’re working on now, in between rewriting Passion Play, in between productions, and the birth of your daughter with your husband, Tony, and seeing the occasional play and making dinner.
SR I haven’t made dinner in a while. I’m longing to have some normal time. It’s bad when you no longer feel the connection to a piece of garlic or ginger. My life’s been all out of whack for a couple of months.
PV That’s always my great concern in this field: How do you get balanced? So that we’re not feeling like we’re living out of a suitcase in hotel rooms, and your own house can become a hotel because of this dimension of time shrinking.
SR For me the work emerges out of the ordinary. I mean, of course work emerges out of extraordinary moments of loss and ecstasy and all that, but it also emerges from day-to-day observations, having time to stare out the window. And I think that many, many people right now are losing the ordinary, we’re so plugged in all the time.
PV I believe that’s why the theater is actually going to grow in the twenty-first century, because it forces us to slow down. The circadian rhythms are being lost, technology is speeding up, so we have to go somewhere and literally have a one-to-one relationship with the tick-tock of the clock.
SR The theater’s the only time when I turn my cell phone off. The other play I should be working on is called The Dead Man’s Cell Phone, and it’s about this issue of cell phones and feeling constantly plugged in.
PV Do you have any desire to direct again?
SR I would like to. I find it physically exhausting and it’s hard to do rewrites while you’re directing, so it would have to be a second production, if I’d already finished rewrites.
PV Or you could direct another playwright’s play.
SR I want to direct The Long Christmas Ride Home.
PV You’ve got a blank check for that. We have to go back to the way in which theater was produced in other centuries.
SR The group theater, Moscow art. I would love to have a long process where everyone has a chance to look deeply at all the theatrical choices that we make by rote now, that we take for granted. For example, one thing that bores me lately: scene endings. The lights change and there’s a sound cue, and we’ve just accepted that. It’s as simple a device as a velvet curtain opening. Nothing’s wrong with it. But I find that it’s technological, so it pulls me out of the play, but not in the Brechtian sense of, “You’re at the theater!” Instead, it lulls me in a kind of televised way. In the next play, I’m curious to look at what the director does with scene transitions. We don’t say we want to illuminate a transition or explore it—we say we want to “cover” it.
PV So you’re saying, what if you wrote a play without furniture; what does that force you to do? One of the great things about the Elizabethan stage is that they didn’t have lighting. So people just came on with lanterns when it was night. Maria Irene Fornes wrote Danube as outdoor theater; it was meant to be performed during the day, so she had to think of how to change the scenes, using puffs of smoke. Of all of the groups that I miss from the ’90s in New York, certainly the Circle Rep, but I miss EnGuard even more. That site-specific challenge of writing work for an abandoned cancer ward, or on the elevated West-Side highway that’s about to be demolished, or in a Lower East Side tenement, the lake in Central Park: all of those productions challenged our theatrical habits.
Now, let’s talk about Mac Wellman for a second, because we just have to, as we have been paying homage to Irene. Without Mac and his critique of the psychological—
SR Mac has this great essay about what he calls non-Euclidean character. He says psychology is not a rounded state—that it’s less real to round people out, to smooth people’s edges. Character is what people say; it is not the things that they don’t say. And so he has these great indulgences in language, this great frenzy and excess and pleasure that has inspired a whole generation of playwrights.
PV Yes. Mac has given permissions that theater artists desperately needed. In the same way, Anne Bogart has given us different vocabularies with which to break the habitual method acting.
SR I love Anne Bogart. One of the great productions I never got to see is her Baltimore Waltz.
PV That was the first time I felt: I saw heaven tonight. Anne Bogart has done for directors what Mac has done in terms of writers. They are deeply revered.
SR I remember being inspired by seeing Anne Bogart’s students make things out of nothing at her summer institute. The lighting was done with clip lights, the costumes were made of paper, and they had 24 hours to do it. It was so magical. And talk about new ways of making scene transitions; there wasn’t a lightboard, so they did it in totally inventive ways. Take people’s money away and give them back their imagination.
—Paula Vogel’s play How I Learned to Drive received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Other plays include The Long Christmas Ride Home, A Civil War Christmas, Baltimore Waltz, and Hot ‘n’ Throbbing. She has taught at Brown University since 1984 and divides her time between Providence, Rhode Island, and Truro, Massachusetts.