In between writing plays, lecturing at the Yale School of Drama and raising three children, Sarah Ruhl somehow managed to write a book.
Funny, poignant and wide-ranging, “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write,” is a collection of musings on topics as diverse as motherhood, art and the future of American theater.
The New York-based playwright took some time away from rehearsing her latest play, “The Oldest Boy,” (which comes to Lincoln Center in November) to speak with amNewYork about her new book.
What drew you to the short essay form?
It was really born of necessity. I wrote the book over a period of time where I had three young children and I had very limited time to write. I would have an idea and I’d try to remember it all day long and if I had time at night after the kids went to bed then I’d write it down. So I think the form was a kind of survival mechanism.
You wrote, “Actors used to be akin to prostitutes in the public mind. Now we are akin to professors.” How do you think that happened?
I think it’s really about the professionalization of theater in general and the rise of MFA programs. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I wish people thought of us in the theater as prostitutes, but the unintended consequences of MFA programs is that theater has a danger of becoming dry and academic rather than thriving as a burlesque or as a vaudeville.
You wrote that contemporary theater is afraid of failure. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s partly because of subscriber audiences and money and real estate. All of these forces are conspiring to make us safer and to avoid risk and I think theater is a risky proposition. All of us who make it know it. But you can’t vaccinate yourself against theater. You just have to take a dive.
Why does there need to be, as you wrote, “a revolution in the concept of subscriber audiences?”
Subscriber audiences are really keeping American theaters afloat and that’s a wonderful thing. But sometime it feels as though half the people in the audience don’t want to be there. So much in theater depends on who you’re in the room with and whether the people in the room are receiving what the actors are putting out. There’s something automatic about the subscribers because they come to a certain number of plays per year at the theater. We need to find a way of shaking that up so they feel a sense of urgency when they come to the theater. We need more diverse audiences; younger audiences, audiences who pay what they can. In a way I think the subscriber system came in as a solution when Ronald Reagan tried to shut down the NEA. So I don’t blame subscriber audiences. I blame Ronald Reagan.
You wrote, “When American playwrights have had some success in pleasing audiences, the next logical step is for them to write for other genres.” Why haven’t you disappeared from theater?
I think the simple, easy answer is that I love it. I love it and it feels like home to me. I think another reason is that I’ve been really lucky to support myself doing theater and part of that is because regional theater has been so kind to me. And another reason I suppose in film and TV is I just haven’t found the right collaborator. It’s not that wouldn’t ever write a film. It would just need to be the right project.
You bemoaned people texting at the Tony Awards in your essay, “The age of commentary.” What should happen when a phone goes off in a theater?
I heard John Guare once give a woman a talking whose phone had gone off, which was so wonderful and terrifying. I think John Guare should give everyone a talking to whose phone goes off in a theater. Or a hologram of John Guare should do it. Or we should all have to put our cellphones in a bag before we go into a theater. Or maybe they can make it so the phones don’t even work in the theater. I think it’s one of the few sacred spaces we have left. It’s sad when people can’t control themselves in that space.