Sarah Ruhl in Conversation with P. Carl

Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s collection of short essays is called 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater. The first chapter, “On Interruptions,” appears at the end of this interview.

P. Carl: Part of what was so intriguing to me about your book is that these essays are short, but almost every one felt like it could be its own book, and every final sentence begged a thousand questions for me—I just loved that. As I said to you, this could be a six-hour interview, but in lieu of that, give me a sense of the overall reason you felt you had to write this book.

Sarah Ruhl: It’s interesting you say that the last sentence asks other questions and could be a longer piece. Part of the form for me was wanting to invite the reader in and wanting the reader to complete the essays for me, not in a completely lazy way, but in an invitational kind of way. I suppose there’s nothing grand about the choice of the length—it was really based on necessity because I wrote the book without meaning to write it. I wrote it in pieces, thinking, oh, I’d like to think about this, and I was doing this in the context of having three young kids, including twins. I was having trouble thinking in a sustained way or writing in a sustained way, so in a sense the essays are a placeholder for writing a play and a way to keep my mind alive during a time when it felt like I couldn’t work. In a way it was very moving to me when it became a book because there’s a time in your life when you think, “Oh, I wasn’t working,” and then you think “Oh, I was working all the time, I just was working in a different way. I was writing these essays.”

I was having trouble thinking in a sustained way or writing in a sustained way, so in a sense the essays are a placeholder for writing a play and a way to keep my mind alive during a time when it felt like I couldn’t work.

Carl: I love how you found a way around that pressure that every writer feels about what’s actually getting accomplished by writing these little essays, like you could be doing something even when you weren’t perhaps doing the play you thought you were going to do. But there’s so much, I would say revolutionary thinking about the theatre in this book.

You have an essay called “Calvino and Lightness,” in the collection and I remember reading that wonderful piece on you in the New Yorker where you talk about Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Your essays feel like a hundred short essays for the future of the theatre. That’s how I read the book. So, what’s that future look like to you?

Sarah: Such a grand title, and in some ways the essays came from such humble beginnings, but if I were to take that on and think in a kind of grand way about the future of the theatre—I’m really optimistic about the future of the theatre. When I look at my students at Yale and other young writers that are coming up, there’s a really vital poetry on the stage that’s happening, and really new ways of making theatre and new ways of having conversations about theatre, new ways of developing theatre. I think the future of the theatre includes stories from all walks of life, has a new and engaged populist relationship with the audience, has a new and more diverse audience. I mean these are my wildest fantasies, I suppose, as much as they are predictions, but I really feel it happening.

Carl: In your teaching are you seeing a new generation that’s really thinking about audience and the dialogue in conversation as much as they’re thinking about the play itself?

Sarah: I do see that a lot. And maybe it’s just that I’ve had the privilege to work with some really extraordinary theatre makers who are thinking in those broad terms, but I see less careerism and thinking of the play as a single product to be sold and marketed, and I see much more broad thinking about what is this live medium, what is it doing, how can I reach an audience that I want to reach, how can I expand and stretch language and have my own language in the play?

Carl: That brings me to my poetry question. Let’s talk a little bit more about language—I think that’s an important theme that runs through the book. You have a wonderful little essay called “The Drama of the Sentence,” in which you address the difference between the story—as in everyone seems to have a story to tell these days, everyone has a blog or a platform to express their story—and you talk a little bit about Hollywood and our obsession with Hollywood stories. I think you’re kind of arguing there’s something special about the playwrights’ relationship to language. Do you feel that playwriting’s been hurt at all by so much emphasis on getting the story right, instead of focusing on getting the words right? Has playwriting in your mind lost its poetry? How does that essay fit into your thinking about playwriting and language?

Sarah: I think there is a contemporary obsession with story and original story. In an ancient way the practice of playwriting depended on stories that were already there, so the story was both really important and completely immaterial, in a sense. There was no single authorship of the story, so you have the Greeks and their mythology, you have Shakespeare stealing from Ovid. You don’t have this thing of “Oh I have to make up an original story and there’ll be six people to help me refine it,” which is the way it goes in Hollywood. So I find it strange in a way that in playwriting programs you don’t see the teacher teaching “what is iambic pentameter anyway?” Sometimes I’ve found that my students are writing in iambic pentameter without knowing it. I had Will Eno come talk to my class once, and he was talking in such a specific way about language and about masculine and feminine endings of lines, and I saw my students open their eyes really wide because they hadn’t had a playwright come in and talk to them in such a specific way about syllables.

Carl: Do you see in your students a difference in the poetry between the way men and women are writing—or is that a division that you wouldn’t make?

Sarah: In a way I’m feeling more incandescent androgyny in the room, with men writing amazing poetry and women writing muscular brutality. I don’t think there’s any essential gender really connected with voice. I have an essay in the book about the male orgasm and thought structure, which I just found so funny. One time a student was describing a structure like, “It’s like I’m going and I’m going and I’m going and then bam, it’s over,” and I was like, “Oh my gosh, you just described a seventeen-year-old male orgasm,” Then some women were describing their structures a little more diffusely—like “this happens, then this happens, then this happens,” and I was like, “Oh, that’s like several orgasms over the course of an evening, much more moment-to-moment.” I really hesitate at describing storytelling in such a way because it leads to these weird essentialist assumptions, like we’re doomed to write the way we orgasm, or we all orgasm the same according to our gender. I do think there’s something in the culture that has held up this arc as the only and the normal story structure, and this kind of moment-to-moment experience of unfolding is newer territory.

Carl: That’s interesting because you actually get at that same idea in the wonderful piece “Don’t Send Your Characters to Reform School,” and also in another essay in the book called “Investing in the Character,” where you talk very specifically about American dramaturgy. You question the premise of the famous dramaturgical question, which I feel certain I’ve asked at some point, what’s the character’s journey? Or how do we track the character? I think you’re getting at some sense of a limitation with regard to our theatrical notion of what a character’s arc looks like.

Sarah: I think there’s something a little puritanical about our obsession with journey and also that other common question—what did the character learn? It’s not that I don’t think characters should learn something—why not? They should go on a journey, they should learn something—that makes total sense to me—but if the answer to your question “what does the character learn” can be written in a five-part essay, I just think that’s odd. I think what characters learn is sometimes so unutterable, or else totally encased in the poetry of language—the answer is the play in a way. If as playwrights we could tell someone, “this is what the character learns,” it sounds very digestible. I think if the playwright can give a digestible answer to that question, “what did the character learn?” then I think there’s a chance that the play is too easy.

An older man and women on stage drinking scotch.
Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis as poets and friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell in Dear Elizabeth at Berkeley Rep. Photo by kevinberne.com

Carl: How does that play out for you in your own writing? The most recent play of yours I’ve seen is Dear Elizabeth, and there’s a way in that even as you were chronicling this sense of history, there was still so much room to imagine Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell as characters, I felt that you left space for me as an audience to enter the imaginary world between them as much as it was also historicized, so I just wonder how intentional is that, are you consciously thinking about the elasticity of your characters?

Sarah: In Dear Elizabeth it was so particular because I was constrained in a way by the estates to only use the words of the letters and they really didn’t embellish, but in a way I loved that confinement and loved the empty spaces that then spring up because of that—I always loved unfinished paintings. There’s a Michelangelo painting that’s unfinished that I find so beautiful, or fragments of Sappho, and so I think I always find plays beautiful that have a little bit of that sense of the unfinished, and then the audience—or the designer, or the director, or the actors—fills in the empty space.

Carl: There’s always that kind of room in your plays, that is a kind of poetry in a way, because in poetry you have so much room for interpretation—in your plays I feel like it’s up for grabs what we’re supposed to talk about at the end of the play, versus knowing what the conversation will be about, and I find that a refreshing theatrical experience.

Sarah: I was so influenced by [María Irene] Fornés who was my teacher at a point. She would say this hilarious thing when someone would ask her, “what am I supposed to take away from this play, Irene?” She would say, “my play is not a doggy bag. You can’t take anything away.” She was so fierce and so insistent about how irreducible plays are.

Carl: In your essay on Ovid you say that we praise transformation as much as we crave verisimilitude. I think a number of the essays in the book question our obsession with Aristotelian form or that notion of realism in its most tried and true way of telling a story. I felt like the book was really saying something about realism as a kind of fallback for what constitutes the American theatre. I wonder if you have a comment about that idea.

Sarah: When I reread the book I did notice that there was a lot of assault on realism in it, which I didn’t set out to do, but it is probably an obsession of mine—this notion that realism isn’t real. I was thinking about why in the context of this book, or this creative time, I was particularly obsessed with it, which led to thinking about the experience of motherhood for me, having a different relationship to the real—it was very embodied with a lot of blood and milk—a lot of reality in a different way than what I’d experienced before. And so I suppose I’ve always thought realism was a big fat lie, but there was something about grappling with all the incursions of reality that made me want to write even more about how I think realism is not real.

Carl: There’s something in the way that you write about the parenting part of it—it is almost dreamlike. In your essay on interruptions that we’re publishing with this interview, you get at that sensibility of these questions that are coming at you, these little interruptions that are almost dreamlike.

Sarah: I wrote that essay completely in real time with my kids running in and out. And you might say why, why did I do that? Why didn’t I go away and shut the fucking door? In a way I think yeah, why didn’t I? But I think I really wanted to be present to the idea I wanted to write about, so part of the book was trying to navigate that.

I was thinking about why in the context of this book, or this creative time, I was particularly obsessed with it, which led to thinking about the experience of motherhood for me, having a different relationship to the real—it was very embodied with a lot of blood and milk—a lot of reality in a different way than what I’d experienced before.

Carl: You have this quote in that essay that really hit me in a beautiful and hard way. You say, “One must not think of life as an intrusion. Writing has very little to do with writing and much to do with life.” I noted that that’s how I think of love, and in fact when my spouse and I got married, when all of a sudden it became legal for gay people to get married, we exchanged vows and we talked about the ways in which marriage is a series of interruptions. There is something so beautiful in that sense of interrupting your trajectory for someone else to enter, and so I know that it’s cliché to ask how is your writing like love, but I told you I was going to ask it anyway.

Sarah: I love that question and I love what you said about two trajectories giving permission to interrupt each other as an act of love. I do think there’s something about a marriage—I mean my marriage sometimes feels like one long conversation with a series of interruptions—and do I think of writing like love? I don’t know what writing is without love. There are certainly writers who I think are writing without love and I don’t enjoy their writing as much as the writer who I feel like is really writing from a place of love, whether it’s love for their characters, love for their readers, love for the audience, love for the world. Just as you can sometimes feel actor hatred in a production, from the director, and you can also feel in a production when there’s a lot of love coming from the director to the actors, coming from the actors to the audience. It seems like you’re asking a deeper, more philosophical question about love and writing. Can you explain more?

Carl: Your book caught me in a lot of really personal ways—one of the things I was thinking about was how my own essay writing has come out of the love of my spouse teaching me how to write well, that part of what we do is sit and write, and there’s so much love in the silence of our writing. So I was thinking about the way in which the writing and love are intertwined for me, as someone who does my own writing, and then as someone who lives with a writer, and so I felt there was something about that little tiny essay that we’re publishing from the book that is just so filled with love of those interruptions, so, I don’t know—I’m not really getting at anything deeper than what you’re saying.

Sarah: You are, I find it very moving hearing you talk about it in fact, but I might have absolutely nothing to say except that I am moved by what you say.

Carl: You talk a lot about plays being about knowing, which is part of the conversation we’ve already had about realism, but when did we become obsessed with knowing as the path of storytelling? I’m getting close to twenty years now working as a dramaturg and knowing is an obsession in storytelling. But as I get older in the business of making plays, I feel like I know less and less, and that I was wrong about all these things I was so sure of ten years ago, the way I gave notes ten years ago versus the way I give notes now.

Sarah: In a way that’s a question I have for you, what do you do in a profession that in some ways bills itself as a “knowing” profession and yet you’re working in an art form that’s so full of irrationality and unknowingness. How do you navigate that when you’re supposed to be the expert in the room, and people turn to you, and sometimes the right answer is “I have no idea.”

Carl: You can ask the people who work with me, I pretty much say that all the time—“I don’t know.” The whole enterprise of HowlRound is a really expansive collaboration, but the journal itself came out of my not knowing and starting something because I was so confused by how much everybody seemed to know about stuff such as what stories meant and what they should mean, to organizations and audiences. The whole premise of HowlRound is a listening premise; it’s just listening to the field talk, and hearing from places that you might not ever hear from, and to hear stories that might not be revealed because they don’t fit into institutional structures. So the path of being the dramaturg at this stage of my life is almost 98 percent listening. And periodically hearing something that the writer says, or hearing something that an actor says or the director says, and just reading the play and seeing it in a different way, but HowlRound and being a dramaturg now are like the same thing, they’re acts of listening.

Sarah: I think one thing that’s so undervalued in contemporary life that in a way it’s quite radical to say, my job is to be a beautiful authentic listener. Because, we’re a culture of just wanting to create our opinion, constantly, kind of squirt them out at regular intervals and what if you’re instead squirting out your beautiful attention and your beautiful listening, and how would that change the object? It’s like that physics principle, the observer effect, where the observer changes the object. I’ve seen it with really brilliant directors just by the act of their listening and watching, the actors are brought to a higher standard without them saying a word, and the notion of the brilliant dramaturg is the brilliant listener is the brilliant question-asker, it’s very hard to teach that and in a way that’s why we don’t see it as much.

Carl: What’s the core of teaching storytelling? You teach all these incredibly gifted playwrights. What’s at the core of your teaching?

Sarah: I remember Mac Wellman had a very simple exercise to do with that, which was write down the story of your play, or tell me the story of your play. Really simple. And sometimes I have my students do that.

Carl: That invitation that the book conveys for readers to make sense of these essays for themselves, I wondered what don’t you know that excites you or most sparks your imagination? Does not knowing take you into a play, into an idea for a play?

Sarah: I think every play is a big “I don’t know,” a big “What if?” otherwise, why would you write it? I mean I feel like George Bernard Shaw went “I know this” and then wrote a play, but I don’t—I guess I’m not as interested in Shaw as I am in Beckett or Tennessee Williams. It’s about taste. There’s always a point in the play about two-thirds of the way through where I’m thinking, “is this a play?” I think it’s essential for this to happen, because if that moment doesn’t happen, I think I’m just repeating a pattern—but the play I'm working on for the fall—for the Lincoln Center called The Oldest Boy and the premise of it was actually given to me by my babysitter. She had friends who owned a restaurant in Boston and one day two monks appeared and said, “We think your child is the reincarnated Llama, or high teacher.” They shut down their restaurant and moved to India and gave the child to a monastery. My big sort of what-if or I-don’t-know was, what if someone who was an American woman but converted to Buddhism believed in nonattachment, the abstract principle, and what if she were faced with that conundrum, that she was married to a Tibetan man and was inculcated into Buddhism in a different way. So that big I-don’t-know became a wonderful three years of writing because it was an excuse for reading all kinds of things that I didn’t know about before.

Carl: I love that. Do you feel like you’re going to keep this process going of writing these little essays? Or are you in a different phase in your life now?

Sarah: I really wonder. In the book, chronologically, the essays actually get longer the older the kids get, as my attention span grew longer. So part of me thinks that form was really a product of that time in my life—and also when I finished the book of essays I wrote this new play, and it was the first full-length play I had written since the twins were born. Part of me thinks that I won’t do it again—but then again, little ideas for essays crop up now and again. But interestingly, I haven’t written them down.

Carl: Is there anything else you want to say about the book before we go and you have your vacation that we didn’t talk about?

Sarah: It occurs to me I’m going to Cape Cod to see Paula Vogel later and thinking about her and her influence on the book—she appears several times in the book—and there’s a lot of the book that is for her and that is also for my mother. The dedication says this is for my mother who taught me that the etymology of the word “essay” was “to try.” When my mom taught me that I think it really gave me a sense of permission, that the essay as a basic form was about these little attempts. I think in my grownup years I had thought the essay form was about knowingness. I know something, I’ll write an essay about it. And thinking about the essay as a form of unknowing, as an attempt, was liberating for me.

***

Sarah Ruhls new book cover with an umbrella and cursive writing
The cover to Sarah Ruhls new book of essays. Photo by Amazon. 

On interruptions

I remember reading Alice Walker’s essay in my twenties about how a woman writer could manage to have one child, but more was difficult. At the time, I pledged to have no more than one, or at the very most two. I also remember, before having children, reading Tillie Olsen, who described with such clarity: thinking and ironing and thinking and ironing and writing while ironing and having many children—she herself had four—I myself do not iron. My clothes and the clothes of my children are rumpled. The child’s need, so pressing, so consuming, for the mother to be there, to be present, and the pressing need of the writer to be half-there, to be there but thinking of other things, caught me—

Sorry. In the act of writing that sentence, my son William who is now two came running into my office crying and asking for a fake knife to cut his fake fruit. So there is also, in observing children much of the day and making theatre much of the night, this preoccupation with the real and the illusory, and the pleasures and pains of both.

In any case, please forgive the shortness of these essays; do imagine the silences that came between—the bodily fluids, the tears, the various shades of—

In the middle of that sentence my son came in and sat at my elbow and said tenderly, “Mom, can I poop here?” I think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and how it needs a practical addendum about locks and bolts and sound-proofing—

But I digress. I could lie to you and say that I intended to write something totalizing, something grand. But I confess that I had a more humble ambition— to preserve for myself, in rare private moments, some liberty of thought. Perhaps that is equally 7

My son just typed 7 on my computer.

There was a time, when I first found out I was pregnant with twins, that I saw only a state of conflict. When I looked at theatre and parenthood I saw only war, competing loyalties, and I thought my writing life was over. There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me (truly you have not lived until you have changed one baby’s diaper while another baby quietly vomits on your shin) and finally I came to the thought: all right, then, annihilate me, that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses.

I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.

 

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I so enjoyed this conversation. I especially appreciated the 'knowingness' theme. Look forward to reading the book.

Great conversation. I will definitely be buying the book.If Ms. Ruhl does not use them first, I would now like to write a triptych of one-acts with titles taken entirely from her words in this conversation. Specifically, "Blood and Milk," "Shut the Fucking Door," and "Another Baby Quietly Vomits."

Thank you, Sarah Ruhl, for repudiating in one mini-essay the loathsome notion - which I have heard in so-many-words and in not-so-many-words throughout my career in theater - that "there is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway."

Fascinating discussion. The observation/thesis I most agree with is Ruhl's assertion that in far too many plays these days the transformation the main character goes through is too easily summarized. In fact, I would take it much further by stating that this is one of the reasons theater has been strugging in recent years.

It's bothered me for some time that the "lesson" learned by the main character is often not only simple, but also condescending (toward the main character); he (or she) finally learns something obvious that the rest of us cool writers, actors, and audience members already know. (An extreme example to illustrate the point: "Tommy learns that racism is bad.")

Now this type of theater provides some superficial pleasure for the audience in allowing it to feel smug and superior to the main character, but it is ultimately spiritually hollow and thus not an experience audiences will keep paying for for long.

Whereas if the main character's journey causes an audience member to realize some major flaw in his or her own journey, as upsetting as that may initially be in most cases the person will eventually recover from the initial punch to the gut and realize (subconsciously at least) that the experience is helping lead him or her to a better life, and will value spending the money (and time) to see theater again... and again... and again.