Artist Interview with Sarah Ruhl
Tim: So we did Dead Man’s Cell Phone about six years ago, and you let me read a draft of The Vibrator Play about the same time. Stage Kiss was at the Goodman first. Was that a commission from them?
Sarah: It was a Goodman commission.
And when did they give you that?
Probably four years ago.
And did you have a relationship with them?
They did Passion Play and The Clean House.
Oh that’s right, now I remember you telling me how much you liked that production, directed by Jessica Thebus.
Jess I’ve known since I was 12. I love working with her.
Wait, it’s coming back to me. Didn’t your mothers know each other?
Jess’s mother is a very fine actress. My mother is an actress too. In fact, they probably vie for the same roles.
In your bulletin article, you talked about the play being a tribute to actors you’ve loved working with over the years. But that relationship obviously began when you were growing up.
My mom often took us to rehearsals when I was growing up, and she took us to see plays that she was in, or that she directed. And I remember she directed a community theater production of Enter Laughing. And I thought the actors were so glamorous. This actor Harry Tinowitz played the lead, and whoever played Angela Marlowe, and I was besotted with the whole thing. And I would watch it over and over and over again. And I remember I wasn’t able to come on the last night, maybe it was a school night, and I remember weeping bitterly. So I always loved actors, sort of from a distance, and loved what my mom did.
Did you do any acting yourself?
Yes, I did a little as a kid. I went to the Piven Theater Workshop and Joyce Piven was my teacher.
Did you ever kiss someone yourself onstage?
Yes, when I was in Joyce’s scene study class. I was 13 and I’d never kissed a boy before, and Murphy Monroe just went in with full tongue, and I’ll never forget the look on Joyce’s face. She said, “Oh, Murphy, you need to ask permission.” [Laughs] But I was not a very good actor. It was clear that I was meant to be in the back writing and watching other actors even though I loved, I loved rehearsal but I didn’t love the audience to come and see me.
So how did the idea for the play come to you?
The idea was very simple. Over the last decade or so of working, I thought, “How weird, to watch actors kiss. It’s their job, and what a wonderful job, to get to walk in and kiss attractive people all day, but also what a weird job.” And sometimes there’s no chemistry and you have to sell it and make it work. And that’s odd and a little bit like prostitution, but yet it’s not. It’s an art form. And there are so many technical things about it, and yet it’s also about these undefinable things, like chemistry. And I wondered—hormonally— what was going on inside actors, having to do that physiological thing, this real physical action, that must affect your body chemistry, and then to also keep your brain compartmentalized when you go home. And a lot of actors can’t do it and they fall in love with whoever they’re working with, and a lot of actors are complete professionals about it. So I really just wanted to write a play about actors kissing. And then somewhere along the line the idea came to me that it would be ex-lovers acting together, in a bad 1930s chestnut, and they would have to kiss each other many many times.
So when was the premiere at the Goodman?
It was three years ago.
You told me it was a hard time for you with your kids. How old are your twins?
They just turned four. Yes, it was hard. I was just sort of in the midst of weaning them. They were only a year old, William was having asthma attacks while I was gone—I just, my heart was not in Chicago at the time.
So you had distractions from really fine-tuning the play the way you would want to.
Yes, I wrote the first act very quickly. And I wrote the second act a little later, and I think it wasn’t as fully investigated as the first act. That’s the area that has changed the most for this production.
Stage Kiss is not the first time you’ve portrayed actors as actors in a play. But Passion Play and Stage Kiss are different in that one is based on a real Mystery Play, while the other makes up a faux-thirties style play of your own invention, and then a kind of kitchen-sink-realistic play in act two.
Yes, and I would say in a funny way Passion Play is a more Western interpretation of acting and illusion, and this is a more Eastern interpretation of acting and illusion.
Would you elaborate?
Well, I think it’s about the world as a dream, the world as illusion, and theater being a metaphor for that. It’s not anything that they didn’t talk about in the Renaissance, so in that sense Buddhism doesn’t have a market on that notion, and Shakespeare said it: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” or “All the world’s a stage.” So it’s an old, old archetype, looking at the theater as a microcosm. But I think this play, because it’s about love and whether or not love is an illusion, and whether or not our lives are a dream, what’s real… These are, one might argue, Eastern questions. And I think Passion Play was much more about role playing and questions about scapegoats in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
I see what you’re saying. There’s a kind of Western, competitive, “I want the best role” vibe to it, and a kind of methody realism to some of the scenes. Isn’t there a scene set in Arizona?
The third act is in South Dakota.
The irony of course is they’re elbowing each other to get to be Jesus, but that’s the directive set before all Christians, to try to be like Christ.
Well the impulse for that play was typecasting; if you’re a guy who’s always cast as Pontius Pilate and you want to play Christ—what is that about? What is it to be born to play a certain role and to always be cast as the bad guy?
Well in American film it would mean you have a British accent, like Alan Rickman in Die Hard. Certainly the life and illusion dichotomy can be found in most of your work. You often have a kind of parallel world, like a spiritual or dream world. That was true of Dead Man’s Cell Phone and Eurydice. In Stage Kiss, the parallel world seems to be the theater, but it hardly feels like a dream world. The play they’re working on—well both of them—are kind of awful, as “She” says. And the challenge at hand is to find some dignity and importance and make something of it. But that’s the challenge to life too, filled with indignity and repetitive labor. The other thing this play has in common with Dead Man’s Cell Phone: Rodgers and Hammerstein. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in the one, “Some Enchanted Evening” in the other.
I was definitely raised on those musicals. There’s a great pleasure for me in them just erupting into song.
And in your hands they just seem stranger and stranger. It’s worth noting that a lot of your plays have had songs in them, dating all the way back to Late, A Cowboy Song, and most recently, Melancholy Play.
I think it’s also about an attack on naturalism, which is persistent for me, I suppose, and the notion that when you burst into song you’re automatically not in naturalism. And yet, the American musical form is something that’s embraced by the broad culture in America, whereas other kinds of onslaughts on naturalism are not as readily accepted in the culture. So in a funny way I feel like the delight of someone bursting into a Rodgers and Hammerstein song is about the delight and pleasure I take when we get vaulted out of a slavish devotion to naturalism.
One of the things I love about Act II Scene1 is that it’s set up to be “Oh, here’s the realism scene. We crash down to earth and we’ve got the dingy walkup in the East Village.” And yet she’s still in her dress and he’s still in his costume and there’s a poster saying Opening Night—which you didn’t write but I think is actually a very clever underlining of what’s going on here.
Yeah, that’s Neil Patel.
And they keep talking in the 1930s dialogue. And it’s kind of like reality is no more real than anything else.
And then they find themselves drawn into playing these roles. First Laurie comes in, super nice, then the aggrieved husband, and the exasperated teenaged daughter. It’s almost a farce structure. Then they sing.
I think that’s exactly right—this notion that reality is no more real than anything else, and they’re all just forms, they’re all just apertures to aesthetics and to living. If that makes any sense.
It does make sense. And it’s also like the scene after that is sort of a do-over.
[Laughing] Yes! It is.
We’re back in the same place and the Chinese food is still sitting there. It’s probably the most surreal thing about Act II Scene 2—we wonder, where are we? Did that just happen?
Yes, it’s deeply weird.
It’s deeply, profoundly weird. But I want to go back to kissing for a minute. We’re doing a play by Melissa James Gibson called Placebo next year and it strikes me that the kisses here are similar. Are they real kisses or are they sugar pills? Although actually, there’s a slight difference in that the kisses are always “real” but sometimes they ignite feelings, and sometimes they’re just pretend. Presumably, the biology is the same. I should have your husband come in to take over this part of the interview.
My husband would talk about oxytocin and studies with prairie voles. There’s this thing in your body called oxytocin that’s a social bonding chemical that gets released when you breastfeed or when you kiss. It inspires love and trust and actually monogamy in some cases, but it’s also to do with chemicals in your body that are released when you orgasm, when you kiss, when you touch. So it would be interesting, as an experiment, to measure the oxytocin levels in these actors after they run the play, to see if it differed from their regular level.
What is the scientific explanation for it, that the body has developed this biochemical reaction because we are healthier as a species if we have longer relationships and take care of our children?
I suppose that you have to have a bond to create a family and then take care of the babies.
There’s a chicken or egg question here: do we love and bond because of the chemical or do we have the chemical because we love and bond?
I think it’s quite symbiotic, and I don’t think it’s either or. It’s like that old acting question: Are you an inside-out actor or an outside-in actor? And in a way it doesn’t matter because they’re both playing on each other at all times. Do you craft a kiss by thinking about what it looks like and then you develop an internal life around it, or do you just think about your intention and the kiss emanates from that? There were very funny moments in rehearsal where Rebecca would have to say something technical like, “Oh, I think this is really an open-mouth kiss.” God, what a weird job.
You mean like when Kevin is—what is it?
Right, other than that I don’t see any tongue.
No, I think it was the lady kiss that Rebecca [director] said needed more tongue.
So as you were developing the idea for the play, you thought, maybe they’re ex-lovers doing a play together, and immediately, once you decided you were going to show rehearsal and putting together a play, you made your play much more complicated. It’s almost like a whole other thing to explore.
Well that’s often what happens. I set out to write about vibrators in ...The Vibrator Play, and it ended up being about marriage and all kinds of other things. And I thought I’d write about cell phones [Dead Man’s Cellphone] and ended up writing about the attempt to connect with strangers.
So what happened here?
You start with a premise but if it stops there then it’s sort of dead, there’s nowhere to go. You can’t write about a noun forever, you can’t write about a kiss forever. So I think the play is also about this—I hope—universal thing, not just relevant to actors, about holding onto a relationship in your mind and what would happen if it sort of materialized, if you were presented with the option of that “what if?” person in reality.
And the play within a play, how did it come to be this ’30s play?
I love that period, I love those costumes, and I’d never done anything in the period before. I think I’ve always had a great love for that period. And one question I had was whether that heightened language of the ’30s was any more fake a way to talk about love than the way we talk about love in our contemporary dialogue.
So when it came time to assemble the characters for the play, it feels like the four of them, “He” and “She” and “Husband” and “Daughter,” are sort of required by the story about the affair, maybe Laurie too. And then the Director and the Understudy are required for the play within the play. When I read it, I didn’t realize how central they were and all the great hijinks they provide. And I thought maybe you were sending up the director, more than I do now when I watch it.
Well that’s good. I didn’t mean to send up directors. I’m very fond of the Understudy role; I’m very fond of Michael Cyril Creighton. I’ve been in so many auditions where there’s the reader who’s not acting. And I find it so painful and so funny. This poor actor trying to act, and the reader’s just sitting there eating a scone and reading off the page. And then all those little roles that you get in those 1930s dramas—the butler, the maid—which we’re not allowed to have anymore because of our dogged six character rule.
I’m sure my colleagues in the theater consider me spendthrift for doing an eight-character play.
Sure, well fuck ’em. Stupid.
I feel passionately about this—you can strike “fuck them” from the record but I guess I mean, fuck it. Fuck that notion that everything is six characters.
Isn’t Passion Play sort of big?
It’s twelve. And most of my plays actually are at least seven. And Stage Kiss I really think of as seven, but here we have the wonderful Todd Almond who is the accompanist; I don’t think every production will have an accompanist. At any rate, I taught a class at Yale called “Big and Little” where I had my students read really massive plays and really minimalist plays, both in terms of ambition and character size and language, and we sort of looked at scope in all those different ways. And the class was inspired by going to see Death of a Salesman with Paula Vogel, and we said, “Look, there are fourteen people on the stage.” In our heads, we hadn’t remembered that it’s such a big play, because you sort of remember Willy Loman and the wife and the kids, you remember it domestically, but then you think, “Oh no, actually Arthur Miller wasn’t content to write about just the family.” He was writing about the family as a microcosm for these larger vicious, societal, and political and moral dilemmas. And to do that, you have to have the outside world; you can’t just have the people who live in the nuclear family.
So I feel pretty passionately—I mean, I know it’s expensive—but if there’s a way to cut back money for set or clothes, you know, the stuff, and throw money at more artists, I think it increases our range and breadth.
Well, and what does your audience want, too? That’s what I always say. I feel like there gets to be a fatigue when the plays are too small. There’s deliciousness to the experience of seeing a bigger play that hopefully pays for itself with more people wanting to see it. There’s another theme in the play besides this love and illusion idea, and the idea of the play-within-the-play. There’s also an anatomy-of-a-marriage notion in it, which I guess also relates to the question of, beyond oxytocin, what is a marriage? The play gets very eloquent and passionate about it and we’re not sure where you’re going to take us, and we obviously land in a place that you’ve invested with a lot of feelings. How did that come to be?
Well, I probably was married about three years when I wrote the play. And I think too often marriage is an end point in literary genre. It’s sort of, “and then they get married.” Period. The end. So it’s a sense of marriage as an evolution. How can you make the ordinary, non-narrative, repetitious form that is a marriage, how can you imbue that with some poetry or some transformation? It interests me as a married person, as someone who loves her husband a lot, but also as someone who loves stories and the unexpected.
The structure of it cleverly forestalls that investigation until that scene we referred to, Act II Scene 1, which kind of becomes its own stylized farce. So the argument put there is slightly undercut by the silliness of the nature of the characters coming out and all, and it gets much more earnest and emotionally invested at the very end. The first act cleverly steers us away from this question. We don’t see the husband at all. He sends flowers and she avows love for him, but we don’t have a context for what her actual marriage is. All we see is the husband character in the 1930s play, and the actor’s kind of stuffy. It kind of helps us not judge her in a way for whatever her temptation is. I’m sure there’s quite a range of assumptions from the audience about why she’s tempted: “Oh well, she must be in a kind of boring marriage.” Or what really is motivating her besides the oxytocin firing in her system. Or maybe people will think her love affair was left unresolved, as the’30s play suggests. Did you think about that as something to have to calibrate as you were writing it?
No, in the sense that I don’t ever think about the audience when I write. Adultery is such an interesting narrative. It would be fun to teach a class about adultery just as a trope. Because we love to root for adulterers, we just love it. It’s like we don’t have a literature without it.
What adulterers do we love to root for?
Well, you root for Madame Bovary until it all goes to shit. You’re excited for Anna Karenina to have her big love affair until it all goes to shit. That’s a classic narrative, that you’re seeing it as a liberation until it all goes horribly wrong. And in plays? I don’t know. Is it always women having these affairs? Maybe you don’t root for men.
Well I thought of one! Three Sisters.
Oh, sure. And Kulygin you think is just a bumbling pedant. You absolutely want Masha and Vershinin to get together.
And Vershinin is an adulterer too. He’s always getting notes from home, “Oh, my wife has tried to kill herself again. How boring.”
[Laughter] Yes, that is kind of an amazing line. Maybe it’s the nineteenth century that built adultery into the narrative structure. Because, I think prior to that, marriage was the end point.
But when you were writing about an adulterer, how much was the nature of adultery your topic?
Well my husband always points out that adultery is in nearly every one of my plays.
Really? Well, he’s the therapist.
Yeah, okay. Is he right?
Mrs. Givings almost has an affair with an artist in Vibrator Play. Passion Play has affairs. The Clean House has affairs.
And this one. I think you should ask Tony to see if he’s projecting something. [Laughter] So, life and illusion.
I think realism being a great lie is a big topic.
Well, realism as an ostensible reflection of reality is, itself, a form. It’s a trick.
Which is why the gunshot moment has become one of my favorite moments in the play.
Well, because I find it funny I guess. But also I find guns to be so stupid onstage and so absurd, partly because the sound is often divorced from the object. I think it’s the stupidest thing. I find them completely non-dramatic. I don’t want to see a person die by gunshot on the stage. So I really enjoy having a moment in tech when someone is supposed to be killed by a gunshot and the blood pack is supposed to go off during the performance, but she just walks out the door. I think that Blurry, the second play-within-the-play, is also responding to received stories about women as whores. I feel like if you took a sample of the American theater, you’d think that men were off to see whores every other day. Because you have so many interesting prostitutes in the annals of literature. I don’t know, maybe there are that many sex workers. It gives me pleasure that in this play, she just walks out the door, and doesn’t engage in the narrative of a fallen woman who dies tragically at the end.
But you don’t object to swordplay?
No. That’s our bread and butter. Because you can really do it. You can really have a swordfight. Gunfights were invented for cinema, I think.
That was an alternate version of your Why Theater is Superior to Film monologue.
Well, I have this little book of one hundred essays and there’s this one essay about this topic, about swordfights and guns onstage.
Who wrote the essay?
Oh, me! I wrote the essay.
You did? Have you published your essays?
They’re coming out in the fall.
Oh, can I read it?
Sure! For the past three years I found it really hard to get any writing done with the twins, so when I started these essays, I was just going to write ten (they’re micro-essays), and then after a while I had written a hundred so I thought maybe I should make a book.
Do you have an essay on the difference between kissing and sex in the theater? I love that monologue but it feels like a fully formed thought. Had you thought about it before? Did that just come to you?”
It just came to me!
Do you agree with him about the audience tolerating kissing in the theater? There’s a lot of kissing in this play. And a lot of different kinds of kissing.
I think the audience enjoys the kisses, but I do think there is a way in which we enjoy it as a projection of fantasy or abstraction, rather than its relationship to a strict reality.
Is there a unifying theme to the essays?
I think a lot of it is about balancing theater and motherhood. A lot of it is about my distaste for realism. They’re pretty wide-ranging I suppose.
You have distaste for realism, but do you have distaste for life?
No, not at all!
That was a trick question. But it’s a way to segue to the question of life-versus-illusion.
I don’t think realism is life, I think it’s just yet another form. It’s been designated as holding a mirror up to nature, but I think it’s just another form. And we’ll see that more clearly in thirty years or forty years. I think you start to see through form when you’re in the next generation. Sometimes I look at the landscape of American theater and it just seems so weird. Did Ionesco not happen? Did Beckett not happen? Sometimes it feels like it never happened.
There’s plenty of weird in this play. We talked about Act II Scene 2 before. I sometimes worry about making sure it’s weird enough because I love that disorienting thing you do.
Which is why I’m really glad it’s being done here, because I think that’s protected here and I think a lot of theaters try to rub away at that. Wipe away the weird, make it more gently chiaroscuro. So there’s a blending and a modeling and form, instead of it being a little jagged.
Actually, now that I think about it, there’s a weirdness factor to all the kissing as well. Some of the kisses are kind of awful, some clinical, and some are kind of dreamy, even surreal.
Another very weird moment I particularly like is in the first act is when “He” and “She” step forward and express their inner thoughts. It’s kind of a poeticized conversation. It’s also a trope that isn’t really repeated in the play. Did you find yourself playing with this moment at all in your process? Did you try to repeat the technique elsewhere? How did you approach it with the actors in rehearsal?
We worked that moment fairly simply. I remember Dom saying in rehearsal that he felt strongly that this play was the sort of play that has permission for the actors to step fluidly into a moment like that one without a lot of fuss, music and lights.
You were talking about realism just being a form. In a literary criticism class I took in grad school, the first book they assigned was called Art and Illusion by E.H. Gombrich, which really talked about the techniques to trick you into thinking that something is real. We all know about the discovery of perspective, but his hero was Constable and all I remember is that it was revolutionary to make grass brown. But it’s a technique to subtly underscore the ostensible realism of the portraits.
Oh, I would love that. I haven’t read it.
It’s definitely an art criticism book, but it touches on a lot that is of interest to us. So I don’t know what the audience expects Act II to be, when we end Act I with this kiss. I think you’re right, that we are rooting for them in some way. They’re a romantic couple. Can you tell me about why they’re named He and “She?”
I would love to. Because in fact, I read your bulletin essay and I thought, “Huh. That’s not exactly what I intended when I named them ‘He’ and ‘She.’” I think what I meant was that there would be a fluidity between the actor playing the role and the role. I didn’t want to give them names because I didn’t want them to feel they had to act it. I wanted Jessica to feel like she could bring in her headshot in the audition scene (Act I Scene 1). And yes, obviously it’s not Jessica Hecht, but she’s bringing who she is as an actor into the room. Not who she is in her personal life, but as an actor. So they weren’t individualized, differentiated characters named, I don’t know, Sylvia Hyde Smith-Gonzalez or something.
That makes a lot of sense. I think what I wrote in the bulletin article was partly informed by a conversation I had with Mary-Louise Parker before she had decided firmly to do Dead Man’s Cell Phone. I talked to her about how you turn female archetypes slightly on their head. So Jean is like the classic nurturer, and she just wants to help, so much so that she’s lying and making up stories all the time. It is a variant of a classic female role. And I was trying to look at this play in that regard. Maybe I’m making too much of lines like, “In the American theater there’s only Juliet and Lady Macbeth.”
I think that’s all in there, I really do, but the only thing I would add is the fact that “He” is also called “He.” So in many ways it’s her play, but there was something I wanted in terms of how I placed both the lovers to feel not acted, in a way.
I think I also thought calling him “He” in a way designates him as “the first one,’ kind of like the Chris Noth character in Sex and the City is called “Mr. Big.”
You know in that same bulletin article I accuse you of having written a crowd-pleaser. I hope you did not take umbrage at that.
No, I never feel apologetic about an audience having fun. Why else—we don’t come to the theater to be moralized to; to a large extent we come to be delighted. And that’s one thing I love about those older plays. They were our popular form before film and TV, so they still had to delight people. And now I think movies are supposed to delight people and we’re supposed to come to the theater and be bored and preached to. Like going to church.
I like church sometimes.
I like a good church. Oh my God, I remember one Catholic priest I saw recently who was such a Broadway zealot and I think he started to sing a Rodgers and Hammerstein song in the middle of the service. It was so good.
Did you know that Michael Cyril Creighton got Catholic of the Year Award for seven years running in his Catholic school?
I had no idea.
I just had to mention that.
Well, at the risk of seeming churchy, I do want to ask: She does commit adultery and he forgives her, and then he makes this case about marriage being about the repeatability of choice. And yet narratively, as a storytelling event, they’ve got to get over this thing. Is it achievable because it’s a play?
No, I think—and we’ve talked about this in rehearsal because it’s a little bit singular—it’s not to me a case of a horrible betrayal—an instance of adultery that the husband has an obstacle in getting over. In fact the husband is a man who’s profoundly in love with his wife in a non-attached, non-grasping, non-possessive way, who understands her very well and who sees her getting awash with illusion. He’s secure enough to not be terribly disturbed by it. So I think when he mounts his revenge and puts her in a whore and asshole play he’s pretty confident that that will turn her around. I don’t think he perceives it as adultery in the classic sense. If she suddenly went out and had an affair with her daughter’s gym teacher, I think that would be very disturbing to him. But I think what he sees her do is get really confused after she’s kissed her ex-lover in a play for two months.
And yet, we’re supposed to believe the story is true when the daughter says, “He didn’t sleep all night. He was throwing up in the bathroom.” He’s upset.
He’s upset, he’s worried. Absolutely. He feels that he has to fight for her. But I think his love is more singular and particular than the classic case of the cuckolded guy. I think it’s more sophisticated, and less possessive.
So he’s not completely non-possessive, but the circumstances of this case ameliorate it.
I think he doesn’t want her to leave him, but I don’t think he’s as wounded as one might imagine.
Do you think their marriage grows from this, or survives it? How would it grow?
Well, in the last scene, he makes this plea: kiss me once a week in a theater and pretend I’m someone else. And I think what he’s doing is bringing the world of play and illusion and fantasy, her world, into their marriage. And there’s this sex therapist, Esther Perel, who’s going to do the March 17th panel with us, so I was just reading her book to prepare, Mating in Captivity. She’s a Belgian couples therapist who lives in New York. Her husband is a trauma psychiatrist. She writes about how domesticated we all are, and how we think that intimacy and talk will lead to greater intimacy in the boudoir and actually it doesn’t: she argues that greater mystery and greater fantasy is actually what marriage often needs to sustain itself over a long period of time. So, I’m not saying that my play is a how-to guide about bringing fantasy back into a marriage at all, but I think the husband is throwing down the gauntlet, and making an offer to his wife, a request, that they merge worlds. That their worlds are not so separate, the quotidian world of marriage and this beautiful world of fantasy. That they actually come together.