Meet Passion Play’s Sarah Ruhl: Playwright, Healer, Theatrical Animal

Hometown: Wilmette, Ill.

Most Prized Possession: Her lucky charm

Funniest thing she can remember her daughter saying: “I need poetry to poop.”

if not a playwright, she would be: A portrait painter

Q:Where did you get the inspiration for “Passion Play”? Did you think at all about Virginia Woolf?

A: I had been traveling in England my junior year of college, and I had a favorite childhood book with me, and the main character, Betsy, goes to Oberammergau. She is impressed by how holy the family seems, playing Jesus and the Virgin Mary. I thought, “Hmm, I wonder what would happen if that weren’t the case.” I wondered what Oberammergau would be like between the wars. The play started with a germ of an idea: What if a guy played Pontius Pilate his whole life and his cousin played Jesus, but the guy always wanted his cousin’s role? I wouldn’t have thought of Woolf as much for this play, but she has influenced my other work, and I did an adaptation of “Orlando.” The thing that I love about Woolf is her insistence on the moment, finding what’s actually happening in the moment.

Q: Are there certain regular sources of inspiration or support that you draw upon whenever you write?

A: I read a lot of poetry and essays. I try not to read novels when writing plays because I think it’s too hard to be in two imaginary worlds at the same time. I also send drafts of my plays to Paula Vogel, who was my teacher.

Q: A character in “Passion Play” — the visiting Englishman in the second iteration — says he prefers to take refuge from politics in art. How do you see the relationship between politics and art? Do your plays take political stance?

A: There’s no escape from politics. Theater, because it began at the dawn of the democracy in Athens, has always had people on stages thinking about what it means to be a political animal in a political contract. Even in a domestic drama you’re dealing with the relationship between men and women and different ethnicities. Even if it’s not overtly political, you can’t escape that in some way. But rather than an article or an op-ed piece, theater allows you to do something really miraculous. In “Passion Play,” I dealt with things like propaganda. It may be my most political play.

Q: Moments in your plays seem to be marked by a tension between — or perhaps a merging of — the banal and the transcendent, finding insight in seemingly normal situations. Can you explain your interest in mundane things? Do you find similar insight in everyday events in your own life?

A: The ordinary is where the most meaning gets made. In some ways theater is about the extraordinary day. The question, “Is this day different from an ordinary day?” is often asked about a play. In a sense my plays go against the notion that every moment has to be one of dramatic conflict or dramatic apotheosis. I think I was really influenced by an essay by Maurice Maeterlinck, a Belgian playwright. He wrote an essay called “The Tragic of Daily Life,” or, depending on how you translate it, “The Tragic in Daily Life.” It’s about tragic, quieter moments in the everyday drama.

Q: Why do you write? What’s the point?

A: I think I’ve always had to since I was a young person. Since I was five, I’ve always been writing something or other. I think writing theater right now feels incredibly important to me. We’re living in such a media-saturated and digital age. The world gets disembodied and is distilled through several corporate conglomerates before meeting you in your living room. It’s such a crazy time we live in, some artists might think, “I could be doing something more patently useful.” But if you imagine a world without art or beauty, it would be such a terrible place. I read an article recently about people in an experiment who were given little electric shocks and asked to look at paintings. If they thought a painting was beautiful it would alleviate the pain in a small way.

Q: Do you see your work as fitting into a larger canon of dramatic literature? Who are your creative “parents”?

A: You can divide the theatrical world into two streams if you want to be Manichaean about it. There’s medieval drama on the one hand, which is cyclical, and then there’s linear drama, Aristotelian drama, which goes in a more straightforward arc. I think I would be more interested in the shape of medieval drama. Sometimes I’ve talked about the difference between Ovid and Aristotle — Aristotle being more linear, and Ovid being more Shakespearean — with crazy points of departure.

Q: What’s the best thing a director, producer, actor or any member of the cast and crew can do when staging one of your plays? And what can be the most annoying thing about that process?

A: The best they can do is to bring all of themselves to the process. You get a more interesting outcome if everybody, from the designer to the director, is doing that, rather than robotically implementing some idea that you wanted. The most annoying thing a director can do is to try to put their stamp on a scene when it’s really not organically coming from the play at all. You feel that they’re really just trying to make a splash. I don’t know if that goes against what I was saying about everyone being their creative self, but I think there’s a difference between forcing the meaning and letting it emerge from what the text is doing.

Q: What about misinterpretations of your work? Have there been any particularly troubling ones?

A: I know that they’re out there, but I try not to read reviews because I think it can be damaging in terms of trying to write the next play. My husband reads reviews for me, so sometimes I get the sense of what people are saying instead of actually reading them. I know my work is controversial, and there are some people who don’t get it.

Q: Who is your ideal audience member or reader?

A: It’s a woman named Pat Watkins, who is a retired librarian in Madison, Wis. That’s a town where “Eurydice” was done. Pat came up to me afterwards and talked to me and she was so eloquent and down to earth. Sometimes when I’m in an audience, I think, “Who is the Pat Watkins in this audience?” I’m writing for people who are happy to have an emotional experience in the theater in a really opened-hearted way and don’t have to intellectualize it from the get-go, who can ask questions about it analytically, but who can experience it in the moment. And that insistence on the moment goes back to what I was saying about Woolf.

Q: On a more philosophical note, what do you see as theater’s purpose in society?

A: Speaking in an unmediated way is really important, and the idea of getting people in a room together is really important, especially in a day and age when we’re all isolated with technology. Also, the great thing about theater is anyone can do it at any time. You can pick up “Our Town” and do it in your basement, unlike making a movie, which can cost millions of dollars. I mean, you can do a movie with your digital camera, but there’s just something local about theater. It’s a shared experience that’s really vital towards who we are as animals. The concept of play and playfulness is actually vital to our mental health and social fabric.

Q: Finally, a “would you rather” question that takes its inspiration — for form and content — from “Passion Play”: Would you rather all your food turn to smoked fish on your plate (while retaining its original nutritional value), or yourself stink overwhelmingly of fish whenever the person you love entered the room?

A: I mean, I like fish. I think I would rather stink of fish. I think I’m lucky with my husband and he would override the stench. He’d be okay.

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