Sarah Ruhl in conversation with Sophia Chetin-Leuner

Sarah Ruhl, originally from Chicago, studied at Brown University before beginning her prolific career as a playwright. Her play’s include In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (Pulitzer Prize finalist, Tony Award nominee for best new play), The Clean House (Pulitzer Prize Finalist, 2005; The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, 2004);  Dead Man’s Cell Phone (Helen Hayes award); Orlando, Three Sistersand most recently Stage Kiss and Dear Elizabeth. Her plays have been produced all over the USA as well as internationally, from Australia to Israel. She is currently on the faculty at Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn with her family.

While her subject matter ranges from the origin of the vibrator to the crucifixion of Christ, Ruhl’s work always contains a surreal poeticism and a profound insight into the human condition. She is now one of the leading contemporary playwrights in America, and her work is rightfully receiving international acclaim.

 SCL: Your plays are highly popular with both professional and amateur companies worldwide. Do you find it rewarding or difficult to see your plays interpreted in such different ways?

SR: Rewarding! I suppose I would find it difficult if I were controlling or micro-managed productions that I haven’t been involved with, but my feeling is once they are out in the ether, they belong to a large extent to the people who are putting them on. Because I have small children, I don’t often travel to see far flung productions, so I’m not aware of any major aesthetic departures from how I intended the play to be experienced.

SCL: What are some of the best productions of your plays that you have seen? Why were they so good?

SR: I have to say that my favorite production is always the one I’m working on at the time. I don’t know if that makes me like a bat or a horse, that I just see

what is right in front of me. But I was very fond of Les Waters’ production of Eurydice in New York. It had a luminous, emotional quality, an effortless quality and the collaboration between the designers and actors was profound and serendipitous. One thing that led to depth in the production was that we had three times to get it right—it went from Berkeley, to Yale, to New York. So there was texture and history in the production. The other thing was chance. The director, all the designers, and I had recently lost someone dear to them—so I think there was a personal and emotional weight to how the design came together.

SCL: Your plays’ subjects span from Greek myths and Bible stories to the origins of the vibrator and the isolating effects of modern technology.  How does the concept for your next play come to you?

SR: Sometimes a subject is something I’ve been meditating on for a long time. Other times I overhear a chance conversation at a dinner party.  Right now I’m working on a play about polyamory and the ethical slaughter of animals–it came to me by listening to a conversation at a dinner.

SCL: Your plays often feature a female in the leading role. Is the lack of roles for female actors a concern of yours? Do you prefer to write about women?

SR: I don’t suppose it’s a conscious concern while I’m writing, though I certainly agree it’s a big concern. I think for me it’s more a question of writing stories that interest me, and I happen to be a woman, so the idea of a woman protagonist is natural to me.

SCL: In the introduction to your translation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, you wrote that Mira Rostova observed that the Russian playwright’s work is ‘full of laments with humor’ and ‘a forbearance with a touch of philosophical humor that seems so rare in America.’ This could easily describe your work with its sardonic overtones and explorations of the human condition. How typical do you feel your work is of contemporary American playwriting?

SR: First of all, that’s so lovely of you to say so. I’m trying to think about whether philosophical forbearance and humor is typical in the theater in this country…hmm…There is a hyper-real trend now in American drama that to me is a bit affectless and influenced by television. I think we are happily exiting the phase of issue plays that focused mainly on a topical issue at the expense of contemplating bigger human questions. Some of my favorite playwrights who are coming up right now are incredibly inventive and theatrical and language based. So I think we’re in a renaissance of writing for the theater.

SCL: You once said that the best theatre is ‘populist, emotional and pleasurable’. I think your plays cover all of these. Is that something you strive towards while writing?

SR: Again, you are so lovely to say so. I suppose while I am writing I trick myself into thinking that I am the audience rather than the writer, and I hope I am not terribly different than the average audience member in terms of what moves me, interests me, or makes me laugh.  And then I proceed under that assumption.

SCL: Adaptations and re-workings are a common recurrence in your work. You translated Chekhov’s Three Sisters and adapted Woolf’s Orlando. The Passion Plays and Eurydice have a well-known source that they were based on. And one of your more recent plays, Dear Elizabeth, is developed from the love letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Why are re-workings of ‘the classics’ such a dominant occurrence in your work?

SR: I think that the history of literature is really the history of writers talking to each other, and audiences or readers talking to each other, rather than the history of single voices in the wilderness shouting from a vacuum. I think our common myths make our singular stories bigger and more comprehensible. And I think in a medium like theater, where the play is an occasion to weave together the audience in one time and place, myth can help provide glue, or string, or commonly breathed air.

SCL: Dead Man’s Cell Phone contains a wonderful blend of surreal and real. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times said it was a ‘surrealist fantasy that happened to be populated by eccentrically real people’. Developing this, do you think this is key to a lot of your plays: surrealist staging with naturalistic acting?

SR: Yes, and I suppose one reason is that I usually don’t like what is referred to as “stylized acting”. I think what gets called stylized acting is usually general, non-specific acting. So I’m happy for the actor to be truthful and grounded while the world shifts under his or her feet.

SCL: You said in an interview that ‘I’m interested in extreme states – if comedy were pushed to reduction ad absurdum, could it be dangerous?’ Would you care to expand on what you believe to be the dangerous side of comedy?

SR: I think the dangerous side of comedy is when you’re laughing, and you think you’re laughing at other people, and then you realize the person is you, and you’re laughing at your own behavior or thoughts. You move into identification through laughter. And I think there can be a political edge to that kind of what I might call laughter of recognition, or it can be very personal.  A play I’ve loved recently is An Octoroon and it’s incredibly political and charged and also very funny and dangerously so.

SCL: Finally, and rather ironically, I’d like to ask you about the beginning of your plays. You admitted that you aren’t fond of them and that they are often difficult to stage. What advice would you give to a company in staging the opening scene of one of your plays?

 SR: I guess I would tell them to draw comfort from Wittgenstein’s ladder, which I don’t really pretend to understand, but it has to do with the concept that the unsayable begins with the sayable, and then you pull this shabby ladder of words away as you climb.