An Interview with Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl’s plays — dramatic worlds equal parts lyrical, sprightly, surreal, and strange — include The Clean House, Eurydice, Melancholy Play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play). Ruhl has also published essays, letters, and, most recently, a collection of poetry, 44 poems for you. Among other accolades, she is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award nominee, and has won a MacArthur Fellowship, a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and a Whiting Award. She teaches playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.

Ruhl spoke with Advocate Publisher Eliya Smith ’20 in January at a pastry shop in Brooklyn. This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

EOS: The issue is called Feast, so I thought that I would start with a question about consumption. In one of your essays, you basically argue that theater is the anti-consumptive art, because it's so tangible. But I feel like when you leave a play, you feel like you have consumed it, because it's all gone. Whereas if you put on a movie or if you're scrolling through Instagram, those things are still there after you've finished looking at them.

Do you think there are certain kinds of plays that resist consumption better than others? Also, what's wrong with consumable theater?

SR: I think the question to ask is, is there merch in the lobby? If there's merch, it's a consumable play. If there's no merch, less likely.

It's a really interesting point you make about, you feel full after you leave the theater. In my mind, what's amazing is you feel full, but you haven't eaten. You know? It's like, you have communion, say, at church, and you feel full even though it's a little wafer. It's metaphorical eating, as opposed to real eating.

EOS: I'm Jewish, but I believe you.

SR: Well, I'm trying to think about Shabbat, then.

EOS: We eat regular food.

SR: Right, it's not a metaphorical challah.

Louisa May Alcott's father had that utopia, Fruitlands. If you believe in a step beyond fruitarians, you have people who just sit there all day, Yogi's who eat air. So I think theater is like air-eating. It's like sipping the ether.

EOS: You write in a lot of non-theatrical mediums. I know some plays don’t ever really feel finished, even in performance, but all plays are decidedly unfinished on the page, especially as compared to poetry or prose. Do you think about leaving interpretive space in your plays in a way that you don't with writing that reaches its final form on the page?

SR: Definitely. I think plays have a lot of white space for your collaborators to collaborate with you. Whereas poems have a lot of white space for the imagination of the reader.

In both ways, there's a kind of erasure, so that you're not taking up all the space. Whereas in prose, you're taking up a lot of space. And then a film script you're directing the eye in the moment. I think theater and poems have more in common than theater and film.

EOS: Why is that?

SR: Because of this interpretive space, this white space.

EOS: But in a film script, isn’t there also interpretive space?

SR: There is some white space on screenplays, but it doesn't gleam. It just sits there and waits for a director.

EOS: Can you tell me about your relationship with actors? You’ve said you like people who have a certain intuitive understanding of text. How would you define that? Is it emotional intuition, or is it something else?

SR: I think it has to do with simplicity and intelligence and irony and open-heartedness. And also not confusing the need for pretend with the need to become someone else, the need for backstory — not to over-dramatize those needs at the expense of just saying your line, and hearing the music of the language.

EOS: So do you not like method acting, I assume?

SR: My impulse would be to say, that's right. I don't. But then again, I know some actors are brilliant method actors who I would be like, “oh my god, I'd be so I would be so lucky to work with you.” But I do find with the method actors, they overwork the language, and then with the way TV and film has carried method through, actors kind of add “um's” and “err's” at the ends, to kind of make the language more shaggy, more realistic. And I hate that.

EOS: I wanted to ask about this dialectic that you’ve identified between Miller and Williams, which becomes, basically, mystery plays versus morality plays. My guess is that your work falls on the mystery side of that?

SR: Yeah.

EOS: Have you ever tried to write a morality play?

SR: I'm working on this play called Becky Nurse of Salem. In a way it feels like a morality play as mystery play, or as an answer to Miller's moral that he extracts from The Crucible.

EOS: So you're answering Miller’s morality play with a mystery play?

SR: Well… maybe it's more of a morality play. Maybe it's a hybrid. I don't know. But it definitely feels like the moral that Miller extracts from The Crucible deeply troubles me. So I've been trying to write the answer to that.

EOS: What do you think that that moral is?

SR: Well, so okay, whatever he wants to say about McCarthyism, etc., that's fine. I don't mind. But what he says about women? Not fun. Abigail Williams was 11, historically. John Proctor was 60. And they never met, except maybe in the courtroom. They never had an affair. So what I find really morally mischievous in that play is that Miller acts like it's a big history play, and he puts copious footnotes, so you think you're seeing the stage version of history. But the emotional center of it is a lie, a total fabrication. He blames this terrible tragedy on the lust of a young woman for an old man. Never happened.

EOS: Yeah, totally. In his epilogue, he's like, “Abigail later turned up as a prostitute.” There’s no evidence that happened.

SR: It's so crazy! He's like, “some say.” It's like, who said? He's just making women into witches all over again some other way. Seductress whores. Meanwhile he wants to have sex with Marilyn Monroe, and he feels guilty. So he puts that libidinal energy into the play. There is a whole monologue in my play that this docent at the Salem Witch museum is telling, where she's like, our country's whole understanding of the Salem Witch Trials is based on Arthur Miller's lust for Marilyn Monroe.

EOS: Every single kid in this country reads that play in high school —

SR: Yup. You have to.

EOS: And I feel like it’s become the only understanding of the Salem witch trials that we have.

SR: That's right. It's done every day. In some part of the world.

EOS: Right. Okay, this is a question I try to ask every successful artist I meet: Personally, I find that the more I write, the more I begin to worry that I'm starting to develop a complex, where anything I experience could potentially be fodder for art. It's a really terrifying prospect; I don't want to turn into Andy Warhol, where I can't experience my life! So I was wondering how you navigate that — especially when you start with pain, but even when you experience joy or happy moments, and you feel the urge to turn them into art. Are there things that you feel like should never be turned into a product?

SR: I think it's about not seeing art as a product. Which goes back to the consumption thing. If it isn't a product, then it's a very spiritual practice to turn your pain into art. It's not commodification. It's catharsis.

I have my students at Yale every year read [Louis Hyde's] The Gift. At least the first chapter. He talks about, how do you live as, say, a poet, in the capitalist economy. And he says, poetry really exists in a gift economy — and I think most not-for-profit theater does, too. So, you're in a capitalist structure, but you're trying to move around as a maker of a gift. So what do you do with that? It's a mental trick. It's a trick of how to live one's life, because those two things don't exactly match. The culture in which you're living and what you're trying to make.

I would say you, yeah, don't turn your pain into a commodity. Don't. That's horrible. But do turn it into art. That's fine.

And I feel like unfortunately, writers, most of us, were born with a predisposition to observe while in the midst of. It's a peculiarity that I have had since childhood. Maybe I'll grow out of it and become a sage, or something. Or an extrovert. But until then, that's the predicament.

EOS: I have occasionally wondered if I will look back on college and feel like I was the most sincere about my art during this time, because in college you do everything for free. You make art just because you want to.

SR: It's quite possible. I mean, I think it's important to check in with yourself in the course of your life and think, would I be doing this if I were doing it for free? And for most great works of art, the artists would make it regardless of whether they were being paid.

EOS: Back to commodification: Eurydice [Ruhl’s 2003 play] came up in my playwriting class the other day, and my professor was like, “oh, I used to assign Eurydice, but then everyone started coming in saying they'd already read it in high school.”

SR: Oh my god, that's crazy.

EOS: I thought that that was really interesting, because, you know… we were just talking about how everyone reads Arthur Miller in high school; I don’t think of you as having that kind of ubiquity. And [the professor] was saying how, because theater co-opts new devices really quickly, plays that looked like Eurydice started cropping up everywhere. I'm wondering if you feel like — I don't know if mainstream is quite the right word — but as your work has a different relationship with audiences, if you feel like your relationship to your writing has changed.

SR: It's always an unknown sea voyage, whenever you start writing a new play. It doesn't matter what your body of work is, you're always facing a blank page, whether you're 12 or 17, or however old. I do think it's hard when one feels like your work is now being compared to earlier work. But I hope more girls read Eurydice than The Crucible. Ha ha.

EOS: Do you feel excited when you think about the future of theater?

SR: Yes! I think it's thrilling. I think there's a renaissance of women writing, a renaissance of people of color writing. And I think because we're in this weird digital age, I think there is an appreciation of the way theatre mainlines presence.

I will say that in the last couple rehearsal rooms I've been in, sadly, I can feel the difference, now that the phone is sort of almost an extension of the self. Stage managers are typing while the actors are working; the designers or whoever's checking their phone in the middle of a scene. It's not as concentrated and focused. And I wonder if that comes out in the work on stage.

EOS: But on the flip side… I mean, I’m always excited to see plays, but I sometimes think specifically about the fact that I'm going to turn off my phone for two hours, and I especially look forward to being forced to do that.

SR: Yeah! It's like a meditation. At this point.

EOS: I’ve been thinking about how theater might be the most painful kind of art to make — if you write a book, you don't have to watch people reading the book, and then get bored and check their phones. How do you maintain that generosity such that you still want to give them presents?

SR: You have to always get an aisle seat.

So you can be aware of their boredom, but not so aware that it makes you want to die. You have to have an aisle seat. And you put someone you love between you and the next audience member. Pay attention to the bodily signals audiences send you. Like, notice when they laugh. Notice when they're bored. Notice when they get up to pee. Often they have to pee, but if they were really focused, maybe they wouldn't. Notice when the coughing epidemics happen. So you have a porous sensitivity to those things, but you also have to develop a thick skin and follow your internal compass and not be completely beholden to trying to please your audience.

EOS: But you're still giving them a gift?

SR: Yeah, you are giving them a gift. I think that's important, because I think otherwise, artists feel like the world's parasites, or like, succubi — useless, functionless people who are like, please, take my catharsis. But if you imagine a world without art, it's a very dreary, horrible, leaden world.