Ruby Thomas in conversation with Rivka Jacobson
‘I’m really interested in love, relationships, human connection, empathy, and the struggle to see things from someone else’s perspective. I think the language, the struggle to communicate, is to some degree, inherent in theatre because theatre is about language in a live context.’ Says Ruby Thomas, the young playwright.
Ruby Thomas’ enthusiasm and youthful charm hasn’t faltered throughout the interview. She is a playwright and an actor. At the age of 32 she has three performed plays under her belt and a number of serious assignments that are likely to propel her career to new heights.
We met at the Hampstead Theatre where her play Linck & Mülhahn is performed in the main theatre until 04 March 2023. This is not her first play to be performed at the Hampstead Theatre. Her first staged play Either, was produced in 2019 and The Animal Kingdom, in 2022, performed here at Hampstead Theatre downstairs venue.
Thomas worked hard to get where she is now. “I did a lot of writing. Sitting in your room and writing alone in my room. Believing that all I need is just to get the script done. You have to do that, as a writer, because all of us have so many ideas, but until it’s there on the page, you can’t work on it. Then you must find collaborators. I had a friend called Rebecca who is also a director. She was just so great. She read my plays, she did readings of them, she got actors round to work on them with me. She was a dramaturgical voice. Then I did some of those courses. I did the Soho Theatre Writers Lab, and I did an invitation course at the Royal Court once I got an agent.”
Can you give us a glimpse into your first two plays “Either” and “The Animal Kingdom”?
Either is a play about, I guess sort of monogamy and the paradox of choice where, you know, if you’re an open-minded person and everything is possible in our modern culture, then it’s hard to make up your mind about who to be and what you want. There are two characters, but they’re played by at least three or four actors. We had six actors swapping in and out playing the same characters to give this sense of changing aspects of identity and the person they are in love with, changing, so that they are trying to make up their mind about who to be and who to love within the formal kind of structure of the play. And then The Animal Kingdom is a sort of a family play in the context of family therapy. It took place across six sessions of family therapy where a family is dealing with the fallout as one of the children tried to kill himself. It depicts a long-term mental health kind of complicated situation in a family. The core issue is emotional communication and the lack of it, the struggle to communicate, even within the family unit. The themes of love and the inability to communicate feelings, is at the core of the play.
Thomas credits her physiotherapist mother with The Animal Kingdom ‘Mother inspired me a lot’ she reflects. ‘Probably all of my family inspired me in different ways, you know, my dad’s a very visual person, being a photographer, my sister, a fashion designer, the same, very visual, very creative. And, um, yeah, my mom is super emotionally intelligent and wise and, it all comes together to inspire you and, in a way, makes you what you are.’
The title of the play Linck & Mülhahn’s title does not roll off the tongue easily. Unlike Romeo & Juliet, the characters’ first names – Anastasius and Catherina – are used in the more intimate dialogues, where there is strong sense of endearment. Here, from the outset the audience are confronted with surnames, leaving their gender ambiguous.
Those not familiar with the play the three leading characters are – A widow with a daughter without a dowry, who has been attracting suitors. The daughter Catharina Mülhahn, of strong independent mind, does not allow the issue of a dowry to determine her matrimonial future. And there is Anastasius Linck, a male soldier in a female body. These characters are based on real people that have been fished out by Thomas, from the archives at the British Library, dated 1721.
“The characters are created in the draft process.” She explains ‘I think you often start with an idea about a character that is maybe sketched. I do tend to sit with an idea, if possible, for a long time before I start writing. It’s just like in the back of my mind. It’ll be a while before I write the first draft, which is quite instinctive. At this stage I have an inkling of a character but not the whole character, it’s often in the drafting process, like second draft, third draft, fourth draft that the character resembles the final character in the play. I often write their whole biography like in prose or I write character questions and try to answer them. I try to get to know them better. ‘
Thomas ponders momentarily and adds ‘a production draft is when it feels almost like they’re sitting right behind you and talking into your ear, you know, and they exist and then you get this deep love for them. I always feel like this deep love and affection and friendship with my characters, like real, really respect them and try to understand them. So, it’s funny, it’s sort of like seeing a person in the mist or in the darkness and slowly you get closer, and more details appear.’
Thomas is clear that her views have been formed by her personal experiences. “I’m really interested, always interested in pushing against conventions and stereotypes in some ways. So certain assumptions that are made about what it is to be a woman or what it is to be a young person or anyone, really. I have been intrigued by these issues because I feel that life constantly contradicts what you are, these assumptions, identities you’ve been given. And you’re like, I’m not that one thing. I’m so many things. I guess I’m interested in pushing against the idea that identity is very fixed, and that people are one thing. “
Thomas reflected on writers that left their mark on her. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf and Tennessee Williams are in the top of her list.
“I love their characters who engage in relationships and try to connect with people, falling in love and falling out of love and drifting through the world and, trying to make sense of their experience, through language, in a sort of immediate way, I guess and a bit of romanticism.
So I guess, the reason I mention those writers is because particularly Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams, like there’s so much joy and pleasure and beauty in their writing, but also sadness and lostness and the sense of things sort of slipping away. Virginia Woolf obviously just writes about women so amazingly and writes about the boundaries of what it is to be a woman and what it is to love other people. Her boundaries are very porous, she’s not one thing, she’s many things.”
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