On Tuesday, Feb. 25, playwright Sarah Ruhl visited KO as the 37th Baird Symposium author. Ms. Ruhl’s visit was met with much anticipation following its postponement in December, and both the Symposium class and the whole community were eager to finally welcome her to campus.
During her visit, Ms. Ruhl attended a dinner and masterclass with the Symposium students, a dinner with faculty, as well as a lunch with students selected by their English teachers. She also spoke at two assemblies: one for the Upper School and one for the Middle School.
The Upper School assembly was opened by English Department Chair Catherine Schieffelin. After providing some history on Warren Baird’s creation of and vision for the Symposium, Ms. Schieffelin described the assembly as a large story circle to “revel in ancient forms of communication.” Senior Cai Kuivila then took to the podium to introduce Ms. Ruhl.
During the presentation, Ms. Ruhl read from her book “Letters from Max,” a compilation of correspondences between herself and her student Max, who passed away from cancer around three years ago. She describes the book as “part letters, part dialogue, part poem, part nonfiction.” She paused to discuss different aspects of her relationship with Max, as well as to read his poem “Scan” about an MRI scan. Her reading ended with a bit of the epilogue of the novel and then moved onto questions from students and faculty.
Questions ranged from inquiries about her writing process to her favorite type of soup; while potato leek and chicken soup were the first to come to mind, Ms. Ruhl couldn’t pick a favorite. “I like equal opportunity as far as soup goes,” she said.
Junior Ahana Nagarkatti asked Ms. Ruhl why she so often writes about love and death. She replied by touching on some of her own experiences with the passing of loved ones. “Art is a way of making a little bridge to them,” she said.
Sophomore Elsa June Ciscel wanted to know where the inspiration for “Melancholy Play” came from; Ms. Ruhl replied that she wanted to comment on how our culture views depression, and how melancholy is distinctly different.
History teacher Stacey Savin asked about playwrights that inspire her. “The whole world is in Shakespeare,” Ms. Ruhl said. “Everything you could ever want to know is already in Shakespeare.”
English teacher Michelle Caswell, who chose Sarah Ruhl as the Symposium author, felt that having a playwright made this year’s Symposium unique. “I wanted to choose a writer who wasn’t a novelist because I feel like we’ve done prose writers the last few years,” she said. “I thought it’d be interesting to look at a contemporary playwright.” Not only was Ms. Ruhl the first playwright Symposium author since Tony Kushner in 2013, her distinctive writing style also set her apart. “I chose Sarah Ruhl because her style is totally different than those other playwrights,” Mrs. Caswell said. “It’s kind of like magical realism and really surreal sometimes and creative and humorous and light, and it’s really accessible language.”
Symposium students agreed that Sarah Ruhl is unlike any author they’ve studied before. Senior Benjamin Zamstein said the class forced him to consider writing in a different way. “Studying a playwright has been different because unlike novels, plays are supposed to be watched and experienced,” he said. “While reading her plays, I have considered how I would experience and interpret things differently if I were in the audience watching it.”
Senior John McLaughlin said he agreed that studying Ms. Ruhl has been a unique experience that he’s enjoyed. “I personally enjoyed studying a playwright rather than a novelist because there are multiple media through which to consume her work,” he said.
Senior Alma Clark said her favorite part of Ms. Ruhl’s visit was the masterclass. “The masterclass was pretty epic because she prepared a couple of writing games for us to do, so we made a bunch of Mad-Libs style soliloquies which was very fun,” she said.
Senior Esha Shrivastav particularly enjoyed the dinner with Ms. Ruhl and her fellow symposium students. “We just asked her a series of questions about her writing process, where she gets her inspiration from, and life events that have affected her writing,” she said. Ms. Ruhl also offered advice to any aspiring writers or poets, saying that poetry will always have a purpose so long as it makes the author happy.
Despite scheduling setbacks, the 37th annual symposium was a huge success that the entire community enjoyed. Thank you Sarah Ruhl for sharing your writing expertise!