Early in the afternoon on November 8, Election Day, Sarah Ruhl says, “It’s sort of like the strange calm before the storm, I feel like.”
However, she doesn’t have more to say about the current state of politics. “I don’t want to count any of my chickens, in terms of where we are on Election Day, because I’m too superstitious,” she adds.
With so much at stake, Ruhl prefers to shift her focus to women in theatre. “I think we’re really in a renaissance right now, with women writing plays, and women directing plays, and women designing plays,” she says. “It’s a really exciting time to be a woman making theatre in New York.”
It is. Theatre luminaries will gather November 14 to honor Ruhl with the 2016 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, presented by The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, and a body of her work will be presented at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater by a group of esteemed actors—most of them women—who count themselves among a fortunate few who have originated roles in her plays.
Celia Keenan-Bolger will perform the epilogue from The Oldest Boy; Blair Brown, Jessica Hecht, and Polly Noonan will perform essays from 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write; Maria Dizzia and Joseph J. Parks, original cast members from the Off-Broadway production of Eurydice, will perform a scene from that show; and Kathleen Chalfant will perform a monologue from For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday.
“We have a great group of, actually, mostly women performing, which is very moving to me,” says Ruhl. “It feels a little bit like: ‘This is your life—being surrounded by a community like that.’ And, to me, it’s an incredible metaphor and lived experience of how interdependent we are in the theatre—to see my work reflected back at me like that.”
Her plays The Clean House and In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) have both been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and she was a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Grant by the age of 32. In 2009 she made her Broadway debut with In the Next Room, picking up a Tony nomination for Best Play.
Still, Ruhl is candid about the work ethic and dedication required to face a blank page.
“I think the hurdles are daily,” she admits. “I think there is a daily hurdle of maintaining focus and coming back to the blank page day after day and not getting distracted. Honestly, I think the long goal for writers is to stay with a blank page every day… This is very moving to me [and] a reminder, I think, to stay focused over the long haul and not to get distracted.”
Ruhl says that she felt demoralized when she realized how long it took to get a play fully produced. Eurydice had about 13 readings before it was mounted. “I remember at that time sitting at my kitchen table with the man who would become my husband, and I was just weeping and said, ‘No one will ever produce my plays!’ That feeling of despair that work is not going forth and finding its collaborators or its audience, and it’s a message in a bottle that keeps washing up back on the shore to you… I think a lot of writers feel that way and continue to feel that way. In a certain sense, it was having a first production that then led to other productions that got me out of that wash cycle of development.”
Ruhl continues to explore dramatic possibilities. She is currently working alongside songwriter Elvis Costello on a musical (that will have a workshop at the Public Theater), which speaks to the current state of the United States. The musical is called A Face in the Crowd, and it has been adapted from the short story by Budd Schulberg that later became a 1957 film directed by Elia Kazan.
“It’s about this populist yokel, who walks into a radio station one day, and is incredibly charismatic, and a woman puts him on the air, and he blows up, and suddenly he’s telling people what to do and what to think, and he thinks he can single-handedly declare war on England because of his vigilante followers,” she explains. “The woman who created him and made him a media sensation is horrified, so she puts him on air one time when he’s talking about the American public, and he doesn’t realize it, and he calls them a bunch of sheep—his own flock of sheep—and he has this terrible downfall. [It was] made it into a movie, really contemplating the effect that television would have on politics, and I just think that it’s enormously prescient, so it was incredible to hear Elvis singing some of the songs [at the Beacon Theatre] the night before the election.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.