An Interview With Sarah Ruhl
Andy Sanchez, Issue 37
Sarah Ruhl defies categorization. Her plays dance down the page, incorporating line breaks into their dialogue and stage directions to blur genre and communicate something more immediate than the form normally allows. Her stage directions, some of them “impossible” or somewhere next to metaphor (e.g., “Virginia has a deep impulse to order the universe”), act as a kind of commentary: less dictating motion across the stage than suggesting the undercurrent beneath it. Ruhl’s sense of space, of the selectively permeable walls around us, manages to buck expectation while holding true to her characters’ emotions and conflicts. Unsurprisingly, her work has garnered a great deal of acclaim, including Pulitzer Prize nominations for both In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, and The Clean House.
Her book of essays, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater (Faber and Faber, 2014), redefines argument, opening the reader to conversation and reevaluation rather than claiming to have concrete answers. Her insights treat both theater and writing with warmth and accessibility, even as her questions challenge traditional notions of character development, plot structure, and relationship with audience.
Ruhl’s newest works, Stage Kiss and The Oldest Boy, continue to disrupt the cross-section of theater, life, and poetry, asking her characters to examine both the past and the ways we perform in our own lives. All the while, Ruhl conducts her scenic magic, revealing so much about intimacy and loneliness, whether with a vibrator or an almond. Originally from Chicago, she received her MFA from Brown University where she studied with Paula Vogel; she now teaches at the Yale School of Drama.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: For you, what is the relationship between dialogue and character? Mrs. Givings, in The Vibrator Play, comes alive to me in the way she jumps from one idea to the next, and I think part of that is born out of the lack of commas in her dialogue. How much develops from the punctuation and line breaks you use?
RUHL: For me, it’s really about finding a character’s voice, and listening to a character’s voice. I think rhythm is part of that. I don’t think rhythm is completely deterministic; I don’t think rhythm will give you everything you need to know about a character. But I certainly believe that once you can hear the way a character talks, you can sort of follow the character, and the character gets born, and the character has, hopefully, desires, and intentions that are almost opaque to you as the writer. Which is a little bit mystical, but for me that’s how it goes.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you play with sound and vocals when you’re writing? Do you act anything out?
RUHL: I don’t, actually. I know a lot of playwrights do and really need offices where they can mumble and walk around. But I pretty much hear it in my head. That’s why the first day of rehearsal is so important and so fraught with danger because it’s the first time you’re hearing the play out loud, the first time you’re hearing those characters speak.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I can imagine it’s kind of exciting and also terrifying.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Can you talk, then, about your great use of line breaks and enjambment? What do you look for when you’re doing that?
RUHL: For me, it’s about the rhythm of thought. A lot of actors ask me, “Oh, do I need to take a big pause there?” No, I don’t think you need to take a breath there; it’s more about how a thought follows a thought. It’s more like poetry—when you’re reading a poem out loud, you respect the line breaks to some extent, but you don’t necessarily take a big pause between the lines. It’s more a way of articulating imagery for me.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I think you do that a lot, too, with your use of the dash. To me, it communicates the pauses and the sense of mental connection really well.
RUHL: I love so much what Virginia Woolf does with the dash. There’s so much in her dashes: there’s so much mental quickness and so much associative thinking, in terms of how one thought leads to another. So, I think I was heavily influenced by Woolf and the dash.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What do you think is the dynamic between natural speaking and poetry? Does that feel at all altered with the expectation that it’s going to leave the page?
RUHL: So the relationship between natural speech, theatrical speech, and I guess poetic diction. I mean, the stupidest answer I can give is, there are certain actors who know how to do it, and there are certain actors who don’t. It’s partly why I find auditions so helpful: you can hear at once if the actor has that kind of relationship to language. So, it’s less of an artful, highly trained, Shakespearean sense of voice, and it’s more of a simple relationship to language and emotion and transparency that I’m looking for, in terms of how actors relate to language in my work.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And I guess you’re probably looking for similar things in the directors, too.
RUHL: Yes, absolutely.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You talk in some of your essays about theater as a synesthesia, and your writing, to me, is almost a synesthesia of forms. There’s a lot of fun and excitement in that.
RUHL: Thank you. I think that synesthesia of forms is an interesting way to think about playwriting. I was teaching the other day, and we played this little game that friend of mine, Shira Piven, who’s now a film director, invented. Someone shouts out a noun—like, cabbage. And then someone else shouts out the genre, like essay, rant, or short story. And then you write a two-minute micro-piece about the noun that was shouted out. And what I love about it, for the purposes of training playwrights, or just opening them and having fun with them, is I do think plays contain all the other genres. You know, plays have poetry, plays have story, plays have rant, plays have little essays in the form of the play’s argument. So, you really get to play with genre. I suppose you could argue that the novel is the same, that it includes all the genres. Obviously, po-
ems can include dialogue and voice and story—so maybe all genres include all other genres, and I’m just, you know, biased in favor of playwriting.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I think it makes sense, though, just with how physical play-making ends up becoming. That exercise sounds a lot like what they do in improv.
RUHL: Yeah, Shira Piven is the daughter of Joyce Piven, who was my teacher in Chicago and taught improvisation. And I think that’s where I came from in terms of theater background, was improvisation. So, it was very much about the moment, and less about craft.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: It seems like writers with an improvisation background often have a more intimate relationship with language and with the idea that one word follows the next, that that’s where the story is. That seems like the case for you.
RUHL: I think it all goes back to not planning in a cognitive way. It goes back to your question about character, actually: not creating a psychology of character and then using language to reflect that or represent that, but instead finding character as you go, just as you’re finding one word to follow the next. It’s a kind of listening practice.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: With that in mind, how do you approach structure? One of your essays includes the different pictorial representations of plot—a vase, wavy lines, as opposed to the ubiquitous arc. Do you ever use that? Is there a certain stage in the process where you feel the need to use that?
RUHL: The truth is, I don’t find structure until I’m about two thirds of the way in, that’s when structure starts to emerge for me. And some writers are much more formalist and plan structure right from the outset, and for me it’s more about . . .
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The words.
RUHL: Yeah, or like sculpting: you’re messing around with the clay, you’re messing around with the words, the structure begins to emerge, and as you start to see it emerge, then you really start to subtract and add around the structure you see emerging.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s great. One of my favorite moments in your plays is in The Clean House, when an apple falls from one scene into another scene in a totally different geographic location. How do you create that sense of space as you’re writing? What does it look like at different stages of the process?
RUHL: I have to say the apple looked really good in my head, but it’s really hard to make apples fall beautifully. They really don’t—they’re kind of like, plonk. It’s hilarious, sometimes, moving from your imagination into the theater and the world of props. You know, finding the fake apple that falls beau-
tifully, or else using the real apple that you just kind of chuck into the living room and then it thuds. I think finding space in your head for synchronicity, for one scene moving into another reality—I don’t really know how to describe how to find space for that, actually.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What was it like for The Vibrator Play, when you had to synchronize events happening simultaneously—the concept of something in the next room?
RUHL: Well, again, hilarious. Hilarious because there’s this element of playwriting that’s very pristine in your imagination. And the fun of it, really, is then you deal with making it happen on stage. And it becomes really dumb, and really technical. I remember with The Vibrator Play, it was done in Berkeley first, and I couldn’t be at all the rehearsals because I had little children (I still have little children, but then they were really little). So, I would Skype with Les Waters, the director, and he would say, “We’re having this problem where it’s taking Maria Dizzia like forty-five seconds too long to unbutton her corset. So, we need forty seconds of dialogue in the other room.” And that’s when you feel like, you know, this desperate hack, but “Okay, here’s forty seconds of dialogue to time it up.” You’re always, as a playwright, negotiating between this world of the imagination that’s more poetic, and this really crass, dumb stuff of the theater, like, how does an apple really fall? and how long does it take to get a corset off? And I actually think it’s something very, very profound about the theater, because it’s one negotiation we’re making in our daily lives, too: our aspirations, our wishes in the invisible word, versus how cruddy and hard it is to be a human being and make it all happen.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Let’s talk about your stage directions. They often complicate the scene in such an emotive way—it’s almost like they’re a character of their own. Do you see stage directions as a sort of narrative figure involved in the action?
RUHL: I do, really. I see the stage directions as the voice of the play, or the voice of the playwright, communicating with all the people making the play and the reader of the play. So, it’s interesting because they don’t always have that transparency in a production, but they do to anyone who’s putting on the play and anyone who’s reading the play. So, for example, I just did this production of Dear Elizabeth at the Women’s Project, and—
WASHINGTON SQUARE: It was great!
RUHL: Oh, thank you. My friend, Polly Noonan, read stage directions in the production, and I was just writing a letter of recommendation for Polly, and I was trying to think what to call what Polly did in the play. It wasn’t really like she was reading stage directions. So, I said that Polly was playing the voice of the play, which is what I think she was actually doing. And that’s hard to do. So, the first time, when Bill Rauch was directing The Clean House, it was Bill’s idea to project some of the stage directions, which had never occurred to me, and that was really interesting to see them projected. I’ve experimented at times with hearing them or seeing them, but mostly they’re meant as this invisible guide to the people making the play.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: If you don’t mind, I’d like to shift gears and talk about your book of essays. I love how your essays complicate the form: they’re packed with questions, interruptions, brevity—one even has assignments. You leave the reader with moments and reverberations, rather than anything so set or dead as an answer. It feels even, to me, like theater. Can you talk about creating that sensation, or what about this form attracted you?
RUHL: Well, I love your description of them. This was a case in which the exigencies of life created the process. I mean, it was not a cognitive, aesthetic decision to write that way; it was truly, how can I write from where I’m at?, which was three kids, you know, under foot all the time, constantly sick, constantly needing, constantly demanding, and feeling like I still have these thoughts I want to get on paper. I thought of them as an open text, at first thinking, ‘Well, Jesus Christ, I can’t have these complete thoughts; maybe someone else who could read this could complete it for me, either in their head or actually on paper.’ You know, an invitation for the reader.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: It really felt that way, like an invitation.
RUHL: That was definitely the intent.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You have this great quote in one of them: “I do believe thinking is an overrated medium for achieving thought.” Can you talk about that in relation to the creative process, and writing in particular?
RUHL: I had a dear, dear teacher, María Irene Fornés, who had a real genius for communicating a practice for achieving that mentality of writing without writing.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Writing without writing?
RUHL: There is an exercise I sometimes give my students; I ask them to write freely and quickly as though they are translating something that has already been written by a great writer in another language. Thus, they do not need to worry about making it up, their play has already been written (by another imaginary and great writer) and they are only translators. It is a way of writing without asking the ego to puff up and craft and control the work, but instead to let the work come freely, assuming some other great mind has already done the hard work of it. Writing without writing is related to the adage by Atisha: “The supreme effort is effortlessness.”
Going back to your original question, thinking about my own teaching, I was telling one of my students that I didn’t want her to do any research for her new play this semester because she really likes to do research, she tends to feel sort of dependent on doing research, and she says, “Well, I don’t know how to write if I’m not bouncing something off my brain,” and she was sort of terrified. And I said, “Well, you’re going to have to bounce your brain off your brain, I’m sorry.” It’s about not having a brain, frankly. It’s about writing with no self. This, again, sounds a little mystical, but I do believe it, and I think it also goes back to this question of improvisation and how do you get the performer, the writer, out of themselves? How do you get them to abandon self to character, so it’s not about controlling the story, controlling the character like a little puppet. It’s about a freedom from self-consciousness while you’re working. I have high hopes for her.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: From another essay, can you elaborate on the difference between change and journey for a character?
RUHL: I harp a lot in the essays about my impatience with a certain reductive model of moral purgation. Things change all the time, and things change in a play all the time. Sometimes, I get tired of characters having to change in this very, in my mind, sort of antiseptic way. “They were this way, and then the event happens, and see? They’re good. They learned something.” And maybe on a permissive level it’s really satisfying. But I guess it’s one reason I really love Ovid: There’s all these transformations constantly unfolding and it’s not really clear what’s causing them. I guess for me it’s about causation being slightly more mysterious—that transformation is always unfolding, but causality is a little less transparent.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Your essay on Ovid is great, and I love the line you draw between Ovid and Shakespeare.
RUHL: I think we’re in a strange age of Ovid. I think Ovid’s having a resurgence, maybe it’s just my own bias.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Hopefully, there is a resurgence. I think we need more of that, and fewer moralistic tendencies.
So how do you navigate experience and criticism, that balance of emotional and intellectual reaction?
RUHL: I used to be a much more critical person, when I was, say, twenty. I was highly judgmental, aesthetically. And the older I get, the more useless I find it. And the less I want to carry that with me when I sit down to read a book or when I go to watch a play. I think part of that is from teaching, when you realize you’re there to facilitate writing, rather than to sit in judgment on the student’s writing. I also think engaging the heart and the mind is what all of the really great works of art do. And I actually think it’s also what really great criticism does. You know, you don’t always see that kind of criticism, but when you do, it’s really beautiful, when you see that there’s a critical faculty responding and a wealth of experience and knowledge responding, but you’re also seeing the critic’s emotional life responding, too.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: It’s a lot more intimate.
You’ve also done some translations. Can you talk about the tension in translation of following the progression of one word to another versus communicating the story? I’m thinking of the tension of improvisation: creating out of words, versus wanting to communicate an idea someone else had.
RUHL: It’s really interesting, because on one hand there’s nothing improvisational about translation—you’re following something that’s already been created. But in another sense, it unlocks you to be completely improvisational because you already have a given structure and then you’re trying to make a character sound alive in another language. And to make a character sound alive in another language, there has to be some liveliness, some life, which for me is an improvisational quality. I loved translating Chekhov; it was so pleasurable. And I sat with this woman, Elise Thoron, who speaks Russian and English and is a theater person. She went through every line in Russian and in English, trying to teach me what the Russian rhythm sounded like. So, part of the challenge for me was rhythmic, and—again, this goes back to your first question about character—trying to find the rhythm of that character in English. She would say, “Vershinin sounds like this in Russian;” it was a sound that was very musical, very lyrical. And then she would say, “Tuzenbach has this rhythm,” and it was quite Germanic and awkward and stilted. That was fascinating to me; I’d love to do it again sometime.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You mentioned a couple of stories from teaching, and you had that brilliant essay on Paula Vogel. Could you tell me a bit more of your thoughts on and experiences with teaching?
RUHL: Paula is such a huge force in my life, so she’s always in my mind when I’m teaching. With Paula, there’s something about her example of generosity in the world, and being close to that, that’s deeply transformative. It’s why, if she writes a book on playwriting (and I think she will, and I think she should), it will be very important. But it’s still not the same as being close to the living person who’s being generous in the moment, who’s being strong in the moment, who’s being an example of the things you need to be as an artist in the moment.
So, I’ve been teaching at Yale for four or five years now, and I guess, slowly, I’m developing my own style of teaching. One thing I’ve thought a lot about is teaching without teaching—it goes back to writing without writing. How can you be present for the student, how can you be an example for the student and not necessarily be trying to pour ideas into their heads, but instead ignite them. I remember with one workshop we did, I had been reading Maria Montessori’s autobiography because I was looking for preschools for my children. Maria Montessori’s whole idea was the teacherless classroom. She created a room where she had what she called manipulatives, things the children could manipulate and learn from without the teacher instructing them. So, I thought, what would that be in a classroom with nine graduate students in playwriting?And I decided the actors would be the manipulatives, which sounds awful, like I have an awful idea of actors, but truly, actors are tools. Actors are who we learn from. Actors are who we listen to; when an actor animates your play, if you don’t listen and learn from them, it’s really, I mean deeply, at your peril. So, I created a class called “The Actor Workshop” where actors would come in from New York and read the playwrights’ plays out loud and then the playwright would have to sort of set up the terms and interact directly with the actors and try to figure out what they wanted to learn from their play and try to set up a situation where the actors could help them learn that.
And that was really successful, and we’ve kept going with that. So it’s this ongoing question of how can I make myself really useless, ultimately? How can the students gain power from my interaction with the students, rather than me having power?
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How can they bounce their brains off their brains, like you were saying. That’s great. And that seems like a very respectful use of actors, trying to remove the idea that the words exist in a vacuum and that they aren’t going to encounter bodies and encounter this art of interpretation.
RUHL: Completely. I think it’s really symphonic. A lot of brilliant composers can hear an entire score in their heads without hearing an orchestra play it, but, ultimately, you have to hear the thing, and I think playwriting is really in that oral tradition, that musical tradition.