PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Sarah Ruhl

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Sarah Ruhl
 
We catch up with the prolific playwright Sarah Ruhl, who talks about her literary influences, Orlando and the future Stage Kiss. And her musical with Elvis Costello.

Sarah Ruhl
Sarah Ruhl Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Tony Award-nominated playwright Sarah Ruhl has tackled a variety of subjects, from Greek mythology to Christian theatrical pageants to — how to put it delicately? — vibrators. Many of her plays deal with gender and sexuality, whether introducing the use of a machine to cure feminine "hysteria" in In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), examining the effect a maid who refuses to clean has on her married employers in The Clean House, or theatricalizing the nature of love that is lost in Eurydice. Ruhl, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, explores gender roles across time and space with Orlando, her adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel, which is being presented by Off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company through Oct. 17. The play follows an English nobleman who wakes up one morning to find himself a woman and immortal. We caught up with Ruhl — in between tending to eight-month-old twins — to chat about the play and her latest (and upcoming) projects.

I understand that the majority of Orlando's language comes directly from Woolf's novel. Is that true?
Sarah Ruhl: Yeah. I felt pretty passionately about staying faithful to the novel, especially when there was prose involved. If I was inventing dialogue, it might be mine, because there's not a huge amount of dialogue in the book. [When I found dialogue] in the book, I made an effort to use it. But most of the prose is Woolf's, and sometimes it's reordered or it's taken from a different spot, but it's hers.

Is there anything major that you cut out or reshaped?
SR: Yeah, I took out huge swaths and chunks. I think the novel is so exquisite and incandescent; I would have just put the whole thing in if I could have and done something like they're doing [at the Public Theater] with [Gatz, the Elevator Repair Service's word-for-word staging of F. Scott Fitzgerald's] "Great Gatsby." I think one of the major things I cut out was — there's a sense in the novel that she's making fun of different literary epics, and there are a lot of literary allusions and there's a critic — the character Nick Green — and I just felt like it was so self-conscious and so much about readerly pleasure that that part wasn't terribly theatrical. So that's all gone…

Francesca Faridany and Annika Boras in Orlando
photo by Joan Marcus

In spite of so much of the play's language being literary, I felt that the piece's particular theatrical style was distinctly "Sarah Ruhl" — potently visual and with a unique emphasis on ensemble work. Did that come mostly out of writing on your own, or did it come from rehearsal with your director, Rebecca Taichmann, and your other collaborators — your choreographer, Annie-B Parsons, for instance?
SR: Well, I wrote it about 12 years ago for a theatre in Chicago called the Piven Theater Workshop. They commissioned the piece, and I worked on for about a year with them, evolving it with a group of actors, and then we did it at The Actors Gang in L.A., with the same director, Joyce Piven, so there was a huge amount of playing around with actors and with a group. And then when I did rewrites in New York, I tried to take away things that were specific to those productions and pare it away a little bit more, and we experimented a lot with the choreographer. I mean, Annie-B Parsons I just adore — we didn't want there to be redundancy between the language and the movement, so I worked on that a little bit here, too. But at the end of the day, I had to go away and write the thing. I mean, I worked on it with a group, but I think ultimately, I did write the thing in isolation. I imagine you must have read a lot of Woolf growing up.
SR: Yes. I love Virginia Woolf. I think every century a writer comes along who's a great gift to humankind, and I think she's one of them. I think I probably only started reading her when I was 17 or so, but she's kind of the touchstone for me.

Were there other writers — novelists, poets or playwrights — that inspired you when you were younger?
SR: Yeah. One person I really loved was Katherine Mansfield, who Virginia Woolf said was the only writer she ever felt jealous of. Kind of fascinates me. I love some obvious people, like Shakespeare. I love Caryl Churchill, Maria Irene Fornes. Poets — I love Elizabeth Bishop, [Pablo] Neruda, Wallace Stevens. I could go on.

Corey Stoll and Hannah Cabell in Ruhl's adaptation of Three Sisters
photo by Sandy Underwood

Would you say that you approach adapting known literary works — like Orlando or Chekhov's The Three Sisters — differently from writing an original piece?
SR: Absolutely. I mean, for one thing, the anxiety is gone because you always know what the ending is. [Laughs.] You always know you're gonna get to the end. But also, I am not really interested in doing an adaptation of a writer who I don't bow down to in my head. So working on Chekhov or Woolf is like being a student and kneeling at the feet of a master. I mean, it's just getting their language in my head and trying to be clairvoyant and trying to think about what they were thinking and what their intentions might have been. So I'm really not trying to put a stamp on it as much as I am trying to think how to make it live theatrically in this particular moment in time — and in English in the case of Chekhov. But I don't really approach it the way I would approach my own original work.

I know that you have talked in the past about memories of your mother doing community theatre in Chicago and studying playwriting with Paula Vogel at Brown. Is there a specific moment that you remember where you thought, "I want to be a playwright. I want to do theatre?"
SR: Well, it was really, I guess, [when] I had written Passion Play in college. My senior year, I wrote the first act, and Paula snuck it into a new play festival, and I went to see it. And I think it was the moment of seeing that where I thought, "Oh, there's no turning back at this point. I'm completely in love with this job, vocation, hobby, whatever you'd like to call it." But I think before then, I felt like I was writing plays as an investigation. I also wrote other things, but it was after seeing Passion Play in three dimensions that I thought, "Oh. That's that."

I heard somewhere that you might be writing a musical. Is that still happening?
SR: I had been working on a musical, and then there were so many musicals about Memphis in the '60s that we just had to abandon ship. It had been a musical about a woman's radio station in Memphis in the '60s, and it just kind of fell apart because of the zeitgeist. [The 2010 Tony Award-winning Memphis, coincidentally, is about a disc jockey in Memphis in the Civil Rights era.]

Who was your collaborator?
SR: It was Elvis Costello, who I love and adore and worship! It was sad not to continue working with him. And he wrote three songs … [Hopefully we'll work together] another time! [Laughs.]

Chandler Williams and Laura Benanti in In the Next Room
photo by Joan Marcus

Are there any film adaptations of your plays in the works?
SR: You know, I would love to do that, but...it really hasn't worked out. In the Next Room, there was some interest in [that], and suddenly there's a film [called "Hysteria"] about the history of vibrators coming out. And The Clean House was kind of in development for a long time. So it's not a huge priority for me, but I would certainly love it if the right director came along or the right producer came along and wanted to do one of them. But I'm not really [looking for it]. And you would be interested in writing the screenplay if one of your plays got the green light for film?
SR: I think so. I mean, it's difficult, because I feel like all my plays are so written for the stage that you really have to find a new idiom for them in film. But I've never written a screenplay before, so I would be coming to it as a complete novice. But I'd be curious to see how the translation happened, if the right timing and the right people came along.

Do you have any projects in the works?
SR: I am working on a play called Stage Kiss which is for the Goodman [Theatre in Chicago]. [It'll open at] the Goodman [in the] spring and then hopefully it'll come to New York [in] the fall in a year. It's basically about the phenomenon of actors kissing on stage, which just seems so weird to me. … [Having spent] the past 15 years working in theatre, I've always thought it so odd that this is people's job, that they have to come to work and kiss each other in front of other people, and I wanted to investigate that. So it's basically about two ex-lovers who unwittingly get cast in a revival of a bad 1930s chestnut in New Haven, and they have to kiss each other, like, 14 times in the course of the play. So it's a little bit about what's reality and what's not reality, when there's this act of having to kiss someone onstage.

Are there any young writers that you are particularly interested in? Maybe anybody you've mentored or whose work you just enjoy watching and following?
SR: Yes. I just did a panel yesterday with Annie Baker, who I think is really something. I thought Circle Mirror Transformation was really lovely. And all my colleagues at 13 P — a group of writers. There are 13 of us, and we're our own artistic directors of our own plays. The group came about because we were all sick of [the endless development of our plays], so here, we don't just develop our plays but can throw them up without a huge budget. Young Jean Lee is in the group. Rob Handel, Winter Miller, Anne Washburn. I'm really fascinated by everything that that group does. Julia Cho is another colleague of mine who I love. I loved The Piano Teacher that she did last season, and this new play, The Language Archive, that's coming up at the Roundabout — it just has an extraordinary premise. … Jorge Cortinas — I mean, he's not younger than me. He's really my colleague, but I think he's an extraordinary writer. I don't get to the theatre enough, because I just have all these babies. So I'm looking forward to going out and seeing more work in the near future.

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