The Oldest Boy performed at The Lincoln Center, NYC. Photo Courtesy of T. Charles Erickson.
“If I ever have a living room onstage, it’s going to come apart.”
— Sarah Ruhl
On December 9th, Sarah Ruhl sat down with Ernest Abuba, who is currently performing in Ruhl’s newest work The Oldest Boy at The Lincoln Center, to discuss her success as a writer in conversation with the Theatre department at Sarah Lawrence College, as part of a frequent Theatre Colloquium.
From jokes that are so funny they can quite literally kill you to sadness so depressing it might turn you into an almond, Sarah Ruhl’s writing plays in dramatic truths. Not dramatic as in histrionic, but dramatic as in meant for the stage. As in figurative, transformative, and ultimately poetic. She is the playwright whose stage directions read The father creates a room out of string for Eurydice. Or perhaps Lane cries. She laughs. She cries. She laughs. And this goes on for some time. As once said to her by her former professor and mentor Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, “Stage directions are like love letters.” Ruhl added, “They’re the secret voice to the people putting on your plays.”
Ms. Ruhl discusses these things in her book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, a meditation on all things theater as well as—well, you can take an educated guess based on the title. Here we see that the magical qualities of her writing transcend the limits of a script. Ruhl’s prose is just as poetic as ever, never mind the fact that the subject matter goes from Aristotelian versus Ovidian form to feeding her newborn twins in front of the likes of Tom Stoppard. It is all, somehow, not just poignant, but relevant to the art form. Even more relevant than we thought. Allow me to elaborate.
I am a student at Sarah Lawrence College. Before the colloquium, I sat with Sarah Ruhl for a short interview. I will get to that interview in a moment, but I’d like to share that experience in some form. As I enter the office in which we will speak, Ms. Ruhl is seated on the couch, smiling. She mentions to the director of our program that she has not brought a copy of her aforementioned book, but would like to read from it in front of the department. Pretending not to hear any of this, I slowly pull out my notebook to jot down notes during the interview, as well as my own copy of the book. “Oh, look,” she says, “He has a copy.” I smile.
The interview is over. We are in the theater: Ms. Ruhl, myself, the faculty, and a hundred or so prospective actors, playwrights, and directors. She is onstage, seated next to Ernest Abuba, holding my/her book (she wrote my name in it, so I say that’s up for debate.) It looks like she has torn a pink napkin into strips to bookmark her selections. She reads a couple of essays, but the one I remember best is called “Umbrellas on stage.”
I remember because it is raining outside. Pouring. The old theater is trying its hardest to absorb the sound, but can only do so much for us. It is very loud, banging on the roof above us, but we are very quiet. “I don’t remember a pink napkin sandwiched between the pages of this particular essay—she must have chosen it because it was raining, or was it so serendipitous as that?” And so Ms. Ruhl, in the most primal form of theater, reads aloud to her audience:
“The sight of an umbrella makes us want to feel both wet and dry: the presence of rain, the dryness of shelter. Even if there are drops of water produced by the stage manager, we know that it won’t really rain on us, and therein lies the total pleasure of theater. A real thing that creates a world of illusory things.”
And I think we all may have felt it, what theater really means to us, because in that moment of time, that thin roof above our heads was the largest umbrella I had ever seen. If anything, this was the greatest testament to the potential Ms. Ruhl’s writing has to jump from its pages at any moment, ready to live in a moment of truth. She has gone out of her way to prove that drama is both a real thing as well as an illusory thing. Constantly, and at the same time.
In addition to attending colloquium, I had the honor to sit down briefly with Ms. Ruhl and discuss further her past experience as a poet and the interrelation between poetry and drama.
Derick Edgren, Blog Correspondent: I wanted to start by talking about the timelessness of theater, because that’s something you touch upon in several different ways in your book of essays, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write. A particular allegory you made use of was the butter sculpture in the essay “Theater as a preparation for death.” It seems that to you theater is a very cleansing experience, and I’m curious about what these beliefs have done for you as a playwright and how they have allowed you to shape your own vision.
Sarah Ruhl, Playwright: Well, I think that when you get to see a monk make a butter sculpture or make a mandala and float it off to the sea it helps put into relief how ephemeral our own theatrical practice is and also give it a kind of ritual context. Because I think theater is ritual and the temporary nature of it is in a way a spiritual practice but we don’t always see it that way or view it that way.
I know you’ve written some poems as well. I was curious what your poems have done for you as a playwright.
Well, there’s one line in The Oldest Boy that I took from a poem that I wrote and it was during previews where I was rewriting a section and I thought, Oh, I’ll steal a line from that poem and put it in the play. So, I don’t generally steal lines from poetry. I did when I was starting out but I think the longer I wrote plays, the more the play itself became a kind of poetic idiom so I didn’t have to steal from my own work. […] I think they’re very similar and they’re both about animating voice.
You have an essay dedicated to discussing Ovid, who you refer to as “the poet of transformation.” What about Ovid informs or inspires your writing?
What I love about Ovid is his transformation and his love of story as tale and there’s not really moral purgation that happens in the tale. It’s funny because my daughter is working on Ovid now. She’s eight and they’re working on him in third grade and, at that age level, they’re so enthralled with these transformations and these stories with these wild events like Icarus and Daedalus and Demeter and Persephone and I think they speak to the children’s imagination because there’s something so primal about them.
What advice do you have for aspiring playwrights, poets, or storytellers?
One thing I was talking about to someone recently was this old dictum write what you know. And how I would revise it and say expand what you know. And then write. Because I think if you can find yourself to write [only] what you know you’re pretty limited as far as your own gender, your own race, your own geographical point of origin, and that, really, art is about connecting all strata of humanity. I don’t think you actually want to limit yourself to only what you know, that narrowly. And I also think there’s even a question of Do you really even know what you know? And how is it that you know what you know? Because when you say write what you know it seems uncomplicated […] But it gets more mysterious than that.
What’s the last thing you read that resonated with you?
I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s The Asian Journal. He was a Trappist monk in the sixties. He’s really interesting, almost like a St. Augustine of contemporary Catholicism, and then later in his life he got interested in Buddhism. And he wrote two books [that I have read], Zen and the Birds of Appetite, and The Asian Journal when he went and met the Dalai Lama and went to India and went to Thailand. They’re really beautiful, the journals. And then tragically he died in Bangkok by plugging in a fan and he got electrocuted because the fan wasn’t the right voltage.
So, that’s what’s on my bedside.
[Many thanks to Professor Abuba for coordinating the event, to Sarah Ruhl for speaking at Sarah Lawrence, and to Christine Farrell, the director of the Theatre program at Sarah Lawrence, for the opportunity to interview Sarah Ruhl.]
Sarah Ruhl’s plays include: In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (Broadway 2009, 2010 Pulitzer Prize Finalist); The Clean House (2005 Pulitzer Prize Finalist, 2004 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize); Passion Play, a cycle (Pen American Award, The Fourth Freedom Forum Playwriting Award from The Kennedy Center); Dead Man’s Cell Phone (Helen Hayes Award for Best New Play); Melancholy Play; Demeter in the City (9 NAACP Image Award nominations); Eurydice; Orlando; and Late: a cowboy song. Her plays have been produced at Lincoln Center Theater, Goodman Theatre, Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage, Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Yale Repertory Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Cornerstone Theater, The Wilma Theater, Madison Repertory Theatre, and the Piven Theatre, among others. Her plays have also been produced internationally, and have been translated into Polish, Russian, Spanish, Norwegian, Korean, German and Arabic. Originally from Chicago, Ms. Ruhl received her M.F.A. from Brown University where she studied with Paula Vogel. In 2003, she was the recipient of the Helen Merrill Emerging Playwrights Award and the Whiting Writers’ Award. She is a member of 13P and New Dramatists and won the MacArthur Fellowship in 2006. She is a recent recipient of the PEN Center Award for a mid-career playwright.