One hundred incisive, idiosyncratic essays on life and theater from a major American playwright
"Don't send your characters to reform school!" pleads Sarah Ruhl in one of her essays. With titles as varied as "On lice," "On sleeping in theaters," and "Motherhood and stools (the furniture kind)," these essays are artful meditations on life in the arts and joyous jumbles of observations on everything in between. The pieces combine admonition, celebration, inquiry, jokes, assignments, entreaties, prayers, and advice: honest reflections distilled from years of working in the theater. They offer candid accounts of what it is like to be a mother and an artist, along with descriptions of how Ruhl's children's dreams, jokes, and songs work themselves into her writing. 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write is not just a book about the theater. It is a map of a very particular artistic sensibility and a guide for anyone who has chosen an artist's life.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Sarah Ruhl's plays include In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play (Pulitzer Prize finalist, Tony Award nominee); The Clean House (Pulitzer Prize finalist, Susan Smith Blackburn Prize); Passion Play, a cycle (PEN American Award); Dead Man's Cell Phone (Helen Hayes Award); and, most recently, Stage Kiss and Dear Elizabeth. She has been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Helen Merrill Emerging Playwrights Award, the Whiting Writers' Award, the PEN Center Award for a midcareer playwright, the Feminist Press's Forty Under Forty Award, and the 2010 Lilly Award. She is currently on the faculty at Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.
Read an Excerpt
100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write
On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater
By Sarah Ruhl
Faber and Faber, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Sarah Ruhl
All rights reserved.
I remember reading Alice Walker's essay in my twenties about how a woman writer could manage to have one child, but more was difficult. At the time, I pledged to have no more than one, or at the very most two. (I now have three.) I also remember, before having children, reading Tillie Olsen, who described with such clarity: thinking and ironing and thinking and ironing and writing while ironing and having many children—she herself had four. I myself do not iron. My clothes and the clothes of my children are rumpled. The child's need, so pressing, so consuming, for the mother to be there, to be present, and the pressing need of the writer to be half-there, to be there but thinking of other things, caught me—
Sorry. In the act of writing that sentence, my son, William, who is now two, came running into my office crying and asking for a fake knife to cut his fake fruit. So there is also, in observing children much of the day and making theater much of the night, this preoccupation with the real and the illusory, and the pleasures and pains of both.
In any case, please forgive the shortness of these essays; do imagine the silences that came between—the bodily fluids, the tears, the various shades of—
In the middle of that sentence my son came in and sat at my elbow and said tenderly, "Mom, can I poop here?" I think of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and how it needs a practical addendum about locks and bolts and soundproofing.
But I digress. I could lie to you and say that I intended to write something totalizing, something grand. But I confess that I had a more humble ambition—to preserve for myself, in rare private moments, some liberty of thought. Perhaps that is equally 7.
My son just typed 7 on my computer.
There was a time, when I first found out I was pregnant with twins, that I saw only a state of conflict. When I looked at theater and parenthood, I saw only war, competing loyalties, and I thought my writing life was over. There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me (truly you have not lived until you have changed one baby's diaper while another baby quietly vomits on your shin), and finally I came to the thought, All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses.
I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.CHAPTER 2
Umbrellas on stage
Why are umbrellas so pleasing to watch on stage? The illusion of being outside and being under the eternal sky is created by a real object. A metaphor of limitlessness is created by the very real limit of an actual umbrella indoors. Cosmology is brought low by the temporary shelter of the individual against water. The sight of an umbrella makes us want to feel both wet and dry: the presence of rain, and the dryness of shelter. The umbrella is real on stage, and the rain is a fiction. Even if there are drops of water produced by the stage manager, we know that it won't really rain on us, and therein lies the total pleasure of theater. A real thing that creates a world of illusory things.
I have an umbrella with a picture of the sky inside. My daughter Anna said, when she was three and underneath it, "We have two skies, the umbrella sky and the real sky." When I went out with her in the rain recently without an umbrella, she said, "It's all right, Mama. I will be your umbrella." And she put her arms over my head.CHAPTER 3
On the loss of sword fights
We lost sword fights sometime when we lost swords. But our primal bloodlust still seems to require a good fight on stage. It's one thing to fight with our bodies and swords (it requires skill) and another to merely bicker. The gunfight on stage will not do; it will not do because it has no virtuosity and because we all know guns are fake on stage, so there is no real fear. Conversely, swords have a reality on stage even if they are fake. Fake swords make a better sound than fake guns for one thing; the sounds come from the object itself rather than a sound cue.
Shakespearean sword fights became in the nineteenth century Hedda having to bicker with her husband and shoot herself off stage. Theatrical death by gun trumped death by language; gun wounds are final, they do not inspire soliloquies. As for the duel ... fake swords are mano a mano, whereas fake guns are merely, Did you remember to bring your gun or didn't you? Of course there is the matter of the quickness of the draw, but that is better captured on film than on the stage.
Perhaps people go to the movies instead of theaters today because their bloodlust is more accurately satisfied at the movies. Movie gunfights really do inspire fear and anxiety—as do car chases. But large-scale gunfights and car chases are no good on stage. Should actors then be trained in karate or some other fighting art? Should they be trained in physical fighting rather than in the art of the verbal duel? And if all actors were trained combatants, how would it affect our writing? Would our writing grow more teeth? More muscle? More blood?CHAPTER 4
On titles—comedy and tragedy
Tragedy is often named for the tragic person— King Lear,Hamlet,Julius Caesar—whereas comedies draw from the world at large—As You Like It,The Comedy of Errors,A Midsummer Night's Dream. Tragedy has proper nouns, and comedy has regular old nouns that signify the world and the structure of the world over and above the individual. Is this because tragedies are about the loss of one individual soul? The tragic perspective privileges one person over the continuity of the system, whereas comedies (which often end in marriage) use linguistic structures that describe life in general persisting after the play is over. You can still "like it" after As You Like It, but after Hamlet, Hamlet is dead forever, keeps dying, keeps on being dead.CHAPTER 5
On titles with participles
Many titles of plays, movies, and novels these days use participles or gerunds. For example, Leaving Las Vegas,Remembering Ernest Hemingway. It would be crass for me merely to say that I have a prejudice against these participle titles, even though it would be true. It is perhaps more interesting to think about why we are in a land of the perpetual present, with no action having happened or about to happen. It is happening, unfolding, all the time, with no subject! What of these alternative titles: "I Left Las Vegas" or "I Remember Ernest Hemingway" or quite simply "Las Vegas." I Remember Mama would now be called "Remembering Mama." As You Like It would be "Liking It." Was Beckett the first participle giant with Waiting for Godot? But Beckett was specifically looking at the act of the participle, the act of waiting; it was not incidental, or in vogue. Plus it is in French, and doesn't that make all the difference? In French you have that little "En"—"In Waiting for Godot." If we are "in" waiting as opposed to just waiting, we are at least located. More nouns and fewer participles! More event and more nouns, and less becoming out of time.CHAPTER 6
On titles and paintings
I often long to call my plays something like "Untitled #3" or "Red #4." I tend to feel neutral and utilitarian about titles, favoring nouns. However, theater is a different medium from painting, and we don't call our plays "Untitled." How is painting different from theater, and why does theater require that titles have content instead of numbers? Is a nameless play somehow not a play? Beckett occasionally called his plays things like "Rough for Theater 1" and "Rough for Theater 2." Sonnets we often call "Sonnet." Dances can be similarly untitled. In the theater do we object to the idea that a playwright might be working on a series? Or are titles simply devices to try to get people to come to the theater, in which case "Untitled" does not help? And what titles make people want to come to the theater and why do people want to come to the theater anyway and would people come to untitled works or would they be too hard to list in the newspaper? A lack of a title implies a lack of a decision and I suppose a lack of drama insofar as drama requires decisiveness. I would be interested in seeing a short series of plays, all called "Untitled." So that the eye might be redirected and the play might become ever more interior and private, with no recourse to a title that might restrict meaning. Titles by their nature imply that the play's architecture is like a bull's-eye (and some are) with the point being in the center. Sometimes the point is in the margins, or in the experience of throwing the dart.CHAPTER 7
On Andy Goldsworthy, theatrical structure, and the male orgasm
I am inspired by Andy Goldsworthy's outdoor sculptures. Like a playwright, he spends his time structuring decay. In his case, the natural world destroys the form, whereas in the theater, time itself and the audience's movement through time destroy the form. Structure implies subtraction or repression; without the taking away or the hiding, there is everything, or formlessness. Goldsworthy documents how already structured nature is by using subtraction and repetition. He complicates what is natural and what is artifice by pointing to already existing natural forms.
Different plays have different shapes—spheres, rectangles, wavy lines, and of course the ever-discussed and ubiquitous arc. How will we find our own natural forms in the sense of the elemental, and when should we be suspicious of the word natural? The playwright Mac Wellman has his students draw the structure of their plays, encouraging them to draw wiggly lines, circles, or vases, as the structure demands. Aristotle thought form was natural, but he thought the natural form was always an arc.
I remember once hearing a young male student describe the structure of his play. He said, "Well, first it starts out, then it speeds up, and it's going and it's going, and then bam, it's over." And I thought, Do we think the arc is a natural structure because of the structure of the male orgasm?CHAPTER 8
Don't send your characters to reform school
Sometimes I think that American dramaturgy is based not on Aristotle's Poetics but instead on The Pilgrim's Progress ... that is to say, what has your character learned, how has she changed, what is her journey? All of these questions belong to a morality play. I love medieval morality plays because they are undisguised. And yet realism in the grips of a morality play is a strange genre to me—a morality play disguised as realism seems fake.
The pilgrims who founded our country hated the theater. (Have you ever wondered why Boston does not have a reputation for being a theater town? Which is perhaps not fair.) The pilgrim view of theater is that its only function is moral purgation.
But try applying the generic question "How complete is his or her journey?" or "What did Godot learn from having waited?" to Beckett. The questions fall short of illuminating the play.
And so I say: don't make your play into a reform school. Don't send your characters away.CHAPTER 9
Should characters have last names?
The act of naming a character is sacred and mysterious. In some countries (Tibet, for example) people do not necessarily have last names. The state of having a first and last name is a cultural practice closely aligned to patriarchy, land rights, and the individuation of the self, some would say the illusion of the self. So before giving one's character a first name and a last name, one must consider whether the world one is creating on stage is a world of first and last names.
I remember once the people in a props department asked me the last name of a character in The Clean House. They wanted to make a hospital badge for her. I said, "You can't make a hospital badge for her because she doesn't have a last name." And they said, "Can't you make up a last name?" And I said, "No because she doesn't have a last name."CHAPTER 10
People in plays
The first choice any playwright must make is whether to people the play with people, as opposed to puppets, gods, voices, or inanimate objects—teacups, eggs, spoons. Mostly, this all-important choice goes unremarked upon, as it is by and large assumed that plays will have people. I suppose the choice goes unwrestled with because actors will be in our plays and we assume that actors would prefer to play people rather than stones or snails. But this is not always the case.
The finest actors, those actors with a true calling and a humble nature, might prefer to play stones or snails, or at least be willing. But it is true that some very fine actors do prefer to be people (rather than trees or gods or seagulls), and it is also true that many playwrights live to please actors (actors are so beautiful and have such disarmingly lovely voices, and we'd always hoped to be them, and if not to be them, then to love them from a short distance in the dark). So we want to please them, and we hope to give them the gift of people, if it is people that they want.
When I hear complaints about this writer or that writer becoming less avant-garde and more commercial, I often think that such writers actually have no active interest in the marketplace, but they do, after a time, want to please the very fine actors they work with, and they increasingly try to give such actors satisfying roles, which influences the writer's aesthetic over time, like the steady lapping of water over a rock.
And so it might be worth going back to first principles once in a while and wondering, sitting before the blank page, if one wants to people one's play with people ... or with devils, fairies, furies, and stones.CHAPTER 11An essay in praise of smallness
I admire minimalism.CHAPTER 12
Plays of ideas
What are plays of ideas and do they have big words in them?
The mastery of the longer-syllabled words in the English language is no doubt admirable but is not equivalent to thinking. And I do believe that thinking is an overrated medium for achieving thought.
I believe that there is often an idiomatic confusion in the phrase play of ideas. I think what people mean when they say a "play of ideas" is a play in which people talk about ideas. A talking-ideas play is different from a play where the idea is embedded in the form rather than in the conversation. It is a similar idiomatic confusion when plays are called language-driven that are actually driven by the use of large words. Some language-driven plays might use small words sparingly (Churchill or Fornes or Beckett) as the rhythm of the language is as important as the rarity or length of the words themselves. These playwrights use smallness in the service of bigness.
Small, forthright words, used in the service of condensing experience, might have an idea buried in them as large as the most expansive work that wears its intellectualism on its sleeve. The unshed tears of the deeply felt are akin to the unused large words in the service of a thought.CHAPTER 13
The drama of the sentence
If it is true that there is nothing new under the sun and that there are only two or three basic human stories worth telling, then the contribution of the playwright is not necessarily the story itself but the way the story is told, word for word. So that there is a drama in the linguistic progression: what word will follow what word? I might call this the drama of the sentence, how it will unfold, how it will go up and down, how it will stop.
And this drama of the sentence, of the phrase, has been largely robbed from playwrights in a culture that loves movies more than it loves poetry. In the Hollywood model (which influences the world of playwriting more and more) every person appears to be an expert of stories and shares his or her opinion with writers about how the story should go. But a writer's special purview and intimate power is how a word follows a word. And the cultural dependence on stories has slowly deprived playwrights of their province—to be the only person in the room who should know which word should follow which word, or (in Virginia Woolf's words) how a voice answers a voice. Instead, playwrights are viewed mainly as storytellers whose stories might have flaws that can be fixed by experts.
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Table of Contents
Part One: On Writing Plays
1. On interruptions
2. Umbrellas on stage
3. On the loss of sword fights
4. On titlescomedy and tragedy
5. On titles with participles
6. On titles and paintings
7. On Andy Goldsworthy, theatrical structure, and the male orgasm
8. Don't send your characters to reform school
9. Should characters have last names?
10. People in plays
11. An essay in praise of smallness
12. Play of ideas
13. The drama of the sentence
14. Investing in the character
15. The future, storytelling, and secrets
16. On Ovid
17. Miller and Williams; or, morality and mystery plays
18. Calvino and lightness
19. Satyr plays inside tragedies
20. On knowing
21. The necessary
22. Can one stage privacy?
23. On neologisms
24. Bad poets make good playwrights?
25. The place of rhyme in theater and is it banished forever?
Part Two: On Acting in Plays
26. On nakedness and sight lines
27. The four humors: an essay in four parts
28. Greek masks and Bell's palsy
29. Greek masks and star casting
30. Subtext to the left of the work, not underneath the work
31. On Maria Irene Fornes
32. What do you want what do you want what do you want
33. Non-adverbial acting
34. Being in a pure state vs. playing an action
35. Speech acts and the imagination
36. Everyone is famous in a parade
37. Conflict is drama?
38. The language of clear steps
39. The death of the ensemble
40. The decline of big families and the decline of cast sizes
41. Color-blind casting; or, why are there so many white people on stage?
42. Eurydice in Germany
43. Eating what we see
44. Dogs and children on stage
45. On fire alarms
Part Three: On People Who Watch Plays: Audiences and Experts
46. On sleeping in the theater
48. Is one person an audience?
49. Chimpanzees and audiences
50. On pleasure
51. Reading aloud
52. Buber and the stage
53. God as an audience: a non-syllogism
54. Do playwrights love the audience and should they?
55. Hungry ghosts, gardens, and doing plays in New York
56. Advice to dead playwrights from contemporary experts
57. What of aesthetic hatred, and is it useful?
58. More failure and more bad plays
59. It's beautiful, but I don't like it
60. Is there an objective standard of taste?
61. Why I hate the word whimsy. And why I hate the word quirky.
62. A scholarly treatise on the parents of writers
63. William Hazlitt in an age of digital reproduction
64. The strange case of Cats
65. Can you be avant-garde if you're dead?; or, the strange case of e.e. cummings and Thornton Wilder
66. The American play as audition for other genres
67. O'Neill and Picasso
68. Confessions of a twelve-year-old has-been
69. Is there an ethics of comedy, and is it bad when comedies make people laugh?
70. On writing plays for audiences who do not speak
71. The age of commentary
72. Writing and waiting
73. Theater as a preparation for death
74. Watching my mother die on stage
Part Four: On Making Plays with Other People: Designers, Dramaturgs, Directors, and Children
75. On lice
76. Mothers on stage
77. On motherhood and stools (the furniture kind)
78. Must one enjoy one's children?
79. The meaning of twins on stage
80. Is playwriting teachable?: the example of Paula Vogel
81. Bad plays and original sin
82. A love note to dramaturgs
83. Children as dramaturgs
84. Democracy and writing a play
85. What about all that office space?
86. Ceilings on stage
87. Storms on stage
88. Snow on stage
89. Gobos, crickets, and false exits: three hobgoblins of false mimesis
90. Oh the proscenium and oh the curtain
91. Exits and entrances and oh the door
92. Theatrical as a dirty word for architects
93. Archaeology and erasers
94. On standard dramatic formatting
95. On the summer Olympics and moving at the same time
96. The first day of rehearsal
97. On watching Three Sisters in the dark
98. The audience is not a camera; or, how to protect your audience from death
99. On endings
100. On community theater
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Sarah Ruhl
Sarah Ruhl is a busy woman. She's a prolific, award-winning playwright, a poet, and now an unintentional essayist. The mother of three found herself searching for artistic inspiration and the answer came in the short but thoughtful essays she wrote in her spare time that now make up 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater. The title might be a mouthful, but the essays themselves are poignant examinations of imagination, the artistic life, mothering, and performance. She covers an impressive amount of topics in a book that is perfectly suited towards the attention deficit society we now live in. The essays range from "Dogs and children on stage" to "Archaeology and erasers" to "Why I hate the word whimsy. And why I hate the word quirky." The short format is deceptive; much like poetry, the reader occasionally comes across a few lines that say more than an entire chapter of a book. In the first essay, for instance, Ruhl points out how important it is to live one's life in order to write about it. "At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion."
It's "life" in all of its complexities and nuances that allowed Ruhl to write her book and she has been hard at work for years now. Two of her plays (In the Next Room, or the vibrator play and The Clean House) have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of the most prestigious prizes in the country. The first Pulitzer for Drama was awarded almost 100 years ago, in 1918.
I spoke to Ruhl, at a café in Brooklyn Heights. The writer is soft-spoken yet a presence in the room jovial but serious, attentive and thoughtful. "We are now supposed to have opinions before we have experiences," she says in ?The age of commentary.' "We are supposed to blog about our likes and dislikes before a piece of art is over." That may be true, but as I was reminded from talking to her, we all have a lot to learn and experiences are what shape us. Michele Filgate
The Barnes & Noble Review: What made you want to write a book of essays?
SR: The idea came upon me in stages, I guess, because I never envisioned making a book until I had about fifty essays. After I had three kids, the twins in particular, I was having a hard time finding a rhythm writing. I thought, well I'll just write one little essay at a time. I didn't think of them as essays necessarily at that point, I just thought they were thoughts, and if I could write them down, it would be a kind of victory over the inertia and chaos that was my life. So I just started writing them so that I would be writing when I wasn't writing a play, and then there were 50 and I thought, oh, maybe I can add them as an addendum to a book of plays. And then there were 75 and I thought this seems to be a book, somehow, and I kept going until 100.
BNR: Were you intending on publishing them when you first started writing them, or were they more just for yourself?
SR: No, they were for my own sanity.
BNR: You talk about this in the book a little bit, but what made you want to become a playwright instead of a poet?
SR: I think truly the reason [I became a playwright] was that Paula Vogel showed such faith in me. If a poet had showed such faith in me at the same generative time, I might have become inured to the pain of rejection and keep going. ... It was like an inoculation. Somehow with poetry I felt so vulnerable. I did make a little chapbook, like a manuscript, that had a letterpress cover for my husband for our fourteenth anniversary, and part of the gift of it was that I made extras so I could give it to people because he thinks it's bad of me that I don't share my poetry.
BNR: At one point in your book, you talk about how you're writing words, but some people see plays and remember the visual aspects of it. So how do you feel about that, when you're the one who's writing it?
SR: I feel really good about it. It's like the direct indirectness about it. I think good, I'm glad you remember something that I'm not directly responsible for!
BNR: In a bunch of these essays you talk about the changing state of the world that we're living in, and what that means for theatergoers and professionals who work in the theater. In one essay you talk about looking around at the Tony awards and noticing that everyone is texting. Does this age of distraction impact the way you write both your essays and your plays?
SR: That's really interesting. Well, maybe this is a side step, but I was always suspicious of the word blog, and I wasn't sure about blogs. They seemed to have no filtration process. And so I posted some of my essays on my website but I clearly labeled them essays, not a blog, because I wanted it to be clear that they had been through some distillation. You could argue that these essays are a kind of blog, they are written with that attention span in mind, at a time when I had the attention span of what would I compare my attention span toalmost out of my mind with exhaustion. So in a sense I would recommend the essays for distracted people who want to read something between one thing and another. The theater's not that way at all. You have to go, you have to turn your cell phone off, you have to be committed, you have to watch, you have to be in that space for hours.
BNR: In "Wabi-sabi" you talk about the theater being "one of the few places left in the bright and noisy world where we sit in the quiet dark together, to be awake." In this way, there's something holy and religious, it seems, and transformative about being in the theater. Why do you think people are even more awake and alive while watching a play as opposed to watching a movie or TV show?
SR: There's real people there. You're watching those people, and I think that brings you back to the sense of ritual. And there's something about the digitizing process that takes a little bit of that sense of ritual away. You don't have that sense of presence . . . there's no potential for embarrassment or something going wildly wrong.
BNR: That makes me think of one of the essays where you talk about a fire alarm that went off during a performance, and how you went outside and the actors kept going and improvising despite the circumstances they found themselves in and how you almost wish they had stayed outside and kept performing.
SR: That was one of my favorite nights of the theater, ever. It was so beautiful, and the kind of childlike faith they placed in the play by being willing to be that exposed, and not necessarily know if the company would join in. That they all joined one by one, that's wonderful.
BNR: A lot of this book is about your experience as a mother of three and the correlations between being an artist and a mother. How has being a parent transformed your work?
SR: I don't know how yet. I'm a little weary of trying to look at my own work objectively and parse out how it has changed. In an objective way, I have a play coming up at Lincoln Center that's about a mother and a boy.
BNR: One of the things I was intrigued by was your essay on mothers on stage, and how a lot of playwrights don't write fully fleshed out mother characters. Why do you think that is, and also something I'm personally curious about do you think that childless women are treated the same way, as in they also don't get a lot of attention, or are portrayed in clichéd ways?
SR: I mean, I think they are really underrepresented. Childless women of a certain age. I think that will change.
BNR: While reading that particular essay about how mothers are stereotyped, I thought about how you only get the surface, you don't get the complexities. It's also the same for childless women. So is this just a uniform issue for female characters, where there's a lot of surface instead of depth?
SR: I would just say that the more you have women writing, the more you'll get of all of those stories. People have speculated about that Disney movie Frozen, why it's such a watershed for girls, and I think it's because it was the first Disney movie to have shown female subjectivity from the inside out, and that's why I think it's such a big deal. And it's a female lyricist who wrote "Let It Go," and so instead of seeing the outside of the princess, you actually see subjective nuance, a princess with some subjectivity. So I think if you can get it in a Disney movie, there's no reason it shouldn't be across the broad spectrum of the culture.
BNR: Absolutely, how do you feel about that as a mother? Are your kids into Frozen right now?
SR: Oh my God. They've seen it too many times.
BNR: My niece and nephew are obsessed. How do you feel about the current world in which your children are being raised in, with art and the potential for art?
SR: I think it's great. My daughter AnnaI should write an essay about this. She said recently while going to school, she put on something for school and she looked nice. I said, "You look pretty, Anna." She said "Mom, I don't go to school to look pretty. I go to school to learn." Very matter of fact.
BNR: How old is she?
SR: She's 8. I want to make a T-shirt saying that.
BNR: [Laughs] That would be a great T-shirt, actually. In "Speech acts and the imagination" you talk about how five-year-olds understand "that language invents worlds" but that audiences of adults don't normally get that concept. Why is it that we lose our imaginative capabilities? How do you try to overcome that obstacle in your own work and how can playwrights do that?
SR: We just get scrubbed, scrubbed, scrubbed. It's hard to retain that. Even in the theater where you'd think the bulk of people in the theater would be non-literal, how often you'll get confusion about metaphor. Not from the audience, but from like the props department. Well, just not automatically thinking in a metaphor. I don't think we have a very literal culture, do you?
BNR: I think a lot of people think in metaphors, but there are people who can't seem to think in metaphors.
SR: Well that's true, and thank God we have both kinds of people.
BNR: You reference Virginia Woolf a number of times in this book, and you adapted Orlando for the stage. What draws you to Woolf's work? SR: What doesn't? . . . Once a century you get a Mozart or a Virginia Woolf at what personal cost, too, that she arrived. I love her language, I love how she created her own form. I think all of her books are really beautiful. So when I wrote the adaptation, it was pretty close to the book, but I don't really write an adaptation unless I think that the writer is better than me and I can bow down to the writer and learn from them.
BNR: So what was it like to interact with Woolf's text?
SR: I was young. I was too young to be too intimidated. I was intimidated, but I had bravery, I guess. I was 22 or 23 when I wrote it.
BNR: And your first play was about dogs, right?
SR: Yeah, it's a little bitty play.
BNR: Did writing that free you in some way?
SR: It was really important, and the reason it was important for me was because so it was an assignment from Paula Vogel. At the time my father had just died, and I was about 20 and I just couldn't write very much in general. And she said why don't you write a play with a dog as the protagonist? That was the assignment, and I did. It was this huge lesson about approaching a thing indirectly, and how you can write about things you didn't think you could write about if you approach them directly.
BNR: In essays you're writing about things directly, but with plays you connect what you're trying to get at through fictional characters. So how do you deal with that, if you're trying to write things that are truthful in both mediums? In the essay form, does that ever hold you back from saying things because it's so revealing?
SR: It's so interesting. I think it must have felt in some ways liberating for me, to use a form that you could be really direct in. I think there were some things I felt like saying directly that I would never have put into a play, and I felt really uninterested in writing a play about. Maybe in ten years I'll feel differently why did I reveal that?
BNR: What are the themes that you're most obsessed with as a writer?
SR: It's such a cliché, but I don't know what to write about but love and death. Those are the big ones.
BNR: In your essay "On knowing," you say "the importance of knowing nothing is underrated." Why is it underrated, and what can not knowing teach us?
SR: I don't know if I mentioned this in the essays, but Mac Wellman, who is my former teacher, used to say "Sometimes it's good to be really, really dumb when you're a writer, just dumb." And I think that's related to knowing nothing. We're in an age when knowing stuff seems to be a good thing, but I think there's an innocence when you approach a blank page, and if you're too intrigued by your own cleverness, it's hard to know how to begin.
BNR: So it's really about the writer's ego in a lot of ways.
SR: I guess it is.
BNR: Do you usually map out what your play is going to be?
SR: Never. An image, a premise, a line, a dialogue?
BNR: Do the characters ever come to you first?
SR: Sometimes, or oddly enough how the characters speak come to me first, and then the character comes out through how the character speaks.
BNR: In the beginning of your book, you say: "I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life." Are you against the idea of an artist locking themselves in their room and not engaging with the world?
SR: I'm not against it, I just don't know how to do it.
BNR: It seems like your life is influencing your work. Your children are such a part of the book,
SR: [Laughs] My daughter wanted to come to the interview.
BNR: How old are your twins?
SR: They're four now.
BNR: How do they feel about being in a book?
SR: They don't know. The twins don't know. Anna's really happy to have her name in the acknowledgements.
BNR: What are you currently working on?
SR: The Lincoln Center play is called The Oldest Boy. I'm working on another play that's a commission for Actors Theater of Louisville, and it's called For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, and it's a play for my mom, to play Peter Pan. It's about aging.
BNR: Are you trying to really flesh out the mother character, and taking the opportunity here?
SR: In order to write it, I had to reorient my idea in it being about her. Because she's alive, and I wanted it to be a gift for her, and it's a gift for her 70th birthday. I was just trying to think about how you represent mothers on stage. Somehow by orienting it for the mother as opposed to about "the mother," makes a difference.
BNR: How so?
SR: I guess I feel like this spurious activity, of writing about the family, about the mother it's not something I wanted to do. I don't even know if what I wrote is properly called a play, but more of a document. But I guess I'm not interested in objectifying my family in that classic . . . scribbling down secrets about the family.
BNR: Do you feel a lot of writers do that?
SR: I think they do. And maybe I do in other ways and I'm just not aware of it. But I couldn't consciously do it.
September 2, 2014