Sarah Ruhl is a Tony-nominated playwright, MacArthur Fellowship recipient and 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Now she teaches a graduate seminar and the undergraduate course “Ovid and the Plays of Transformation.” Her plays often deal with transformation and look beyond the ordinary — she’s taken on subjects from Greek mythology to the early history of the vibrator. Ruhl’s most recent book, “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write,” made it onto the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2014 list. WKND spoke with Ruhl over the phone about Louis C.K., never growing up and what she’s working on now.
Q: You’re teaching classes at Yale this semester. What are you learning from your students?
A: In general, they always are teaching me about the innocence of the blank page, and how exciting it is to be entering into the playwriting world.
Q: I actually learned about your work when I wrote an article about the last time Yalies put on a production of one of your plays, “Eurydice,” last fall. Did you get a chance to see it?
A: No, I was so sad that I didn’t. I knew the actress [Lucie Ledbetter ’15] who plays Eurydice and I really wanted to come, but I had a play at the Lincoln Center in New York at the same time and I was previewed for it and I couldn’t go see it.
Q: Which play was this?
A: It was the premiere of “The Oldest Boy.”
Q: What was the experience of doing “The Oldest Boy” like?
A: It was wonderful. It was the first time I’ve worked with puppets. It’s a story about a woman who is married to a Tibetan man and they have a child who is thought to be a reincarnated lama, and so they have to go through a series of examinations to see whether or not the child is a reincarnated lama — and then they have to decide whether to give the child to the monastery. I learned an incredible amount about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism and about puppets and how to operate dramatic puppets, so it was a really incredible process.
Q: Since you didn’t get a chance to see “Eurydice,” what were some stand-out (or just impressively bad) plays you might have seen while you were in college?
A: One play I remember seeing which had a huge impact on me was Paula Vogel’s “Baltimore Waltz,” and it was in a tiny black box theater at Brown. I had lost my father — he died when I was 20. The play had an enormous emotional impact on me, and I think also taught me about abstraction and humor and how they can be right up against really profound loss.
Q: I read this BOMB conversation you had with Paula Vogel, whose playwriting seminar you were in as an undergraduate at Brown, where she says that she cried over the first work of yours that she read. This really resonated with me — the day before spring semester started, I sat down and read “Eurydice” and cried. How do you learn how to tap into that sort of emotion — and, perhaps more broadly, cathartic emotion in general, with readers and playgoers alike?
A: I think that for better or for worse, most writers and most artists are made with a thin veil between their emotions and the outside world, and I think it takes a lifetime for a writer to learn how to modulate that — how to both protect yourself and be brave enough to be vulnerable in your writing and share it with other people. With “Eurydice,” I had so many stage readings and so many workshops [that], by the time it was done, I felt like the emotion in the play was not mine anymore. The first time I heard it read, it felt like a private funeral for my father. By the time it was in New York, it felt like a piece of art that was for other people, so I think that there’s a transformation that takes place over time, and I think that theater is an amazing vehicle emotionally because emotion really does transform through repetition and through sharing it.
Q: How do you maintain a personal connection with a work of yours after it becomes transformed so many times for a wider public audience, and how does this transformation happen?
A: In the case of that play, I don’t think I could have not had a personal connection because it’s sort of the architecture of the myth. From verbatim conversations I had with my father [to] the directions he wrote out for how to get to my grandparents’ house, artifacts of personal connection are all deeply embedded in the play. It’s a lifelong question for playwrights: how you create something personal and then share it; how you maintain your connection as a storyteller to the material and then turn to the audience and give it to the audience, so that you’re not revolving in a little hermetically sealed fob of your own emotional life. I think it’s something I really love about the theater — you’re assuming there’s a reader, you’re assuming there’s a watcher, so you’re transforming something that’s public.
Q: You recently published a book of 100 essays you don’t have time to write. As far as I can tell, it’s the only published work of yours that isn’t a play or adaptation.
Q: What compelled you to put these smaller pieces together in book form?
A: It was totally unintentional. … I was just trying to write to stay afloat when I had little children. I had twins sort of unexpectedly, and was having trouble finding the time to write a play. And writing the essays was my way of maintaining sanity at the time. At a point I had 50 essays, and I thought, “Hmm, maybe I could make it to 75,” and at that point my agent said, “I think it’s actually a book,” and I thought I would try to write 100. But I never thought it would be a book and it’s moving to me to feel like there are periods in one’s life where you don’t think you’re working and then you look back and you realize you were working all this time, but just in a really different way.
Q: One of the essays — well, at least according to the random essay generator on your website — answers “no” to the question: “Is there an objective standard of taste?” If there isn’t, then what is your standard?
A: I love plays that are theatrical, and I love plays that break my heart. I love plays that reinvent form. I love plays that include new people and new stories that deal with really ancient, age-old questions.
Q: A New York Times review of your most recent play, “The Oldest Boy,” notes that it is your most accessible work. (The reviewer, Charles Isherwood, even goes so far as to say he wouldn’t have guessed that you wrote it.) So there’s this suggested clean break between past works and the newest. Do you agree with that? Has anything changed about the way you’re approaching your work?
A: I mean, first of all I don’t read reviews so I don’t know what people say. I wrote that play for a particular person: I wrote that play for my babysitter, who’s Tibetan. She speaks four languages, but she never went to high school or university. I wanted it to be a play that she liked and that she and her family would come to the theater and recognize their own story in. So I did write it to be accessible and inclusive, quite purposefully. I don’t always have such a specific audience in mind when I write a play, and with this play I was hoping that it would resonate with all parents — people who have to deal with the question of how you let go of your child — but I was also writing it specifically for an audience who, historically, has not had their story on American pages.
Q: What else, or who else, has also inspired you recently?
A: I loved the play, “An Octoroon,” [which] I just saw at Theatre for a New Audience — I thought it was incredibly theatrical. [It was] deeply political and totally surprising and just deeply original. I have been enjoying a book about Montaigne, Louise Glück’s new book, and Louis C.K.
Q: Is there any way you could link Louis C.K. to anything you’ve ever written?
A: Did you say if I can see the relationship between Louis C.K. and Louise Glück?
Q: Sure —
A: I think they both have really dry wit.
Q: I actually asked if there was any relationship between Louis C.K. and your work, but I like the mishearing.
A: I really admire him! I admire the way he performs on TV. I don’t like that much TV. I think he’s actually making something new on television that’s deeply personal and very very funny and says something.
Q: What works of other authors do you look at and think, “Wow, I wish I had made this?”
A: I wish I had composed all of Chopin’s music — no, I don’t wish I had done that. I am happy for other people. … If I had made it, I couldn’t enjoy it in the same way that I enjoy and commune with it knowing that another person made it.
Q: Have you noticed any particular themes repeatedly cropping up in your work lately?
A: I think I’ve definitely been writing more about motherhood lately, now that I’m a mother. I think I write about love a lot, death quite a bit — the usual preoccupations.
Q: I’ve also read in a lot of places that you’re not a big fan of the label “quirky.”
A: I’m what?
Q: That you’re not a big fan of the label “quirky.”
A: Oh — this is like a game of telephone. That’s hilarious. This is going to make the best interview because I’ll just make up these bizarre questions between Louis C.K. and Louise Glück.
Q: No, you’re making my questions better!
A: So, I’m not a big fan of the label “quirky” — that is true.
Q: What are you a big fan of?
A: If I had to replace the word quirky [I would use] original or fabulist.
Q: What do you mean by “fabulist”?
A: [By] fabulist, I definitely mean someone who’s creating something fantastical, that doesn’t look like how we imagine everyday quotidian life. I think quirky is something we say when we want to distinguish a writer from being part of mainstream culture, and I find that dangerous.
[The call dropped. Ruhl called me back as she was getting into New York.]
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: [Aside] Oh, thank you! [To me] New Yorkers are so funny. They’re always looking out for each other. I am working on a play for Actors Theater of Louisville called “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday,” and it’s a play I wrote as a gift to my mother, who grew up in Iowa playing Peter Pan in the 1950s.
And then I’m also working on a new play that I know less about, sort of for my own edification, and as a palate cleanser, called — I’m not sure what it’s called yet, but it’s about polyamory and the ethical slaughter of animals and whether or not these two things have anything to do with each other.
Q: I’m a little intrigued that your mother grew up playing Peter Pan.
A: I always grew up with pictures of her on the wall hugging Mary Martin and pictures of my mom flying dressed all in green, so it’s part of my mythology that my mother could fly, my mother could play Peter Pan. And it was so odd to me when she turned 70, somehow, that this woman, who in my mind was Peter Pan, was growing up. So I guess the play is about what it means to be grown up.
Q: Speaking of mythologies, I think we have all have these constructions of our parents that might not necessarily be “real.” You’ve also talked a lot about the idea of motherhood, and being with your children — what sort of mythologies do you think your kids are ever going to have about you?
A: I don’t know. I think it’s very hard to [know] how our children see us. I don’t really know how to answer [the question]. The bond between the parent and child is so intimate. One doesn’t objectify oneself in a neutral way and try to imagine the gaze of the child; [it’s] such an intimate connection [so] it’s hard to do that. I have a lot of fun with my three kids; I try to take them to work as much as I can. They think the theater is a fun place to be, and I’m on my way to see them now before bedtime.