By Ishaa Sohail ’20, Juliana Kulak ’20, and Esha Kataria ’20
On Tuesday, Feb. 25, KO students had the opportunity to hear from renowned playwright and author, Sarah Ruhl. She was originally scheduled to come on Dec. 6, 2019, but due to the world premier of her latest play “Becky Nurse of Salem” and the premier at the Los Angeles Opera of an operatic version of her play “Eurydice,” her visit was pushed back.
The three of us were lucky enough to sit down with the distinguished author and hear her thoughts on her writing, her process, and her life in general.
Ruhl was born in Chicago, Illinois and lived there until she attended Brown University for both her undergraduate and graduate degrees. She now resides in Brooklyn, New York with her husband Anthony Charuvastra and three children, eldest daughter Anna and twins William and Hope.
She is the recipient of the Helen Merrill Emerging Playwrights Award, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the MacArthur Fellowship as well as a Tony nominee for her play “In the Next Room.”
Crediting her desire to be a writer to her family’s appreciation for theater and literature, Ruhl explained that her mother was an actress so she spent much of her childhood attending rehearsals and performances.
Ruhl originally wanted to be a poet and it wasn’t until she took a class with critically acclaimed playwright Paula Vogel that she saw a future for herself in playwriting.
In addition to being a writer and mom, she teaches a class once a week at the Yale School of Drama. Ruhl started teaching eight years ago, when she first offered to substitute a class of Vogel’s.
Writing continues to be her main MO, though. Besides her family and Vogel, Ruhl draws inspiration from many other facets of her life. For instance, director Joyce Piven’s work showed Ruhl that she didn’t need to have a big set, lengthy dialogue, or even naturalistic elements to make plays magical. Instead, Ruhl claims she learned that she could create all that she needed through the language.
For the creation of her characters, Ruhl said she draws from past experiences. For instance, Matilde, the main character in her play “The Clean House,” originated from a conversation she overheard at a cocktail party. Ruhl recounts that a woman was ranting about her cleaning lady being depressed, and Ruhl was so intrigued that the wheels continued to turn in her head, long after that party.
On the other hand, mythology has also influenced the character development of Ruhl’s protagonists. For instance, Ruhl explains how mythology presented her with the “grooves” for her character Eurydice, from which she could just build.
Along those lines, Ruhl said that her favorite piece of literature is Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” which she describes as a great mythological storehouse and timeless source of inspiration.
Beyond the intricacies of each character, Ruhl also has developed a profound and distinct sense of style. She said she continually finds herself interested by the themes of love and death, and courageously backs away from realism and the comfort of it.
She said that in her writing, she tends to make a statement about ethics, demonstrating what it means to make a good life. Yet, she doesn’t always strive to have a central message or lesson.
“There’s sometimes a pressure writing plays to get an extractable thesis,” she said. “I think I write much more with a view towards experience or catharsis. I would love audiences to be able to feel something deeply or be deeply amused when they watch my plays.”
She also said she sees art as a gift of giving, and that is the reason why a lot of her plays are dedicated to the people in her life. For example, she wrote “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” for her mother, and “The Oldest Boy” for her babysitter.
Ruhl said that the riskiest part of her job was dealing with the fear of public humiliation—the possibility that her audience could be disgusted or that she could get excoriated in the press.
In fact, she admits that there was a bleak period over the past three years where her writing received some negative reviews. “It was dispiriting to see the life of those plays getting strangled,” she said. As a result, Ruhl said she tries not to read anything about herself online or give in to the negativity.
When asked about her writing process, Ruhl said that she likes to keep it simple; tea is essential, as is quiet solitude. Thus, she writes from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when her kids are at school.
Currently, Ruhl is working on her next book “Smile,” a memoir about her experience having facial paralysis after giving birth to her twins. Ruhl states, “It’s about the experience of the body and the emotions and what happens when your inner life doesn’t match your face, and also what it’s like to be a woman if you can’t smile.”
She said that this book has been a way to process the physical challenges and health issues she’s been through, and a way of balancing the needs of her body with her family and writing.
Her final thoughts were a piece of advice for KO students: “Read as much as you can,” recognizing that there is a culture in which people want to put out and not take as much in. She encourages students to find a community and cherish it.