Interview: in her new smile from memory, Sarah Ruhl tells the story of a face, hers
The first thing I did was apologize to Sarah Ruhl.
For a full decade, I worked on the red carpets on Broadway and off-Broadway as the opening night photographer of TheaterMania, caught in a melee of cameramen desperate to get “the picture” – and to do. flash all their subjects, famous or not. their a big toothy smile.
So when I got to this point in her new memories Smile: the story of a face, the moment Ruhl describes the characteristics of his smile and illustrates it with a photo taken at an opening night on Broadway, a photo not unlike the one I have in my personal archives, I felt really bad. “You can see that my left side makes a little attempt to smile with closed lips, although the left eye squinted in protest and my chin reacted accordingly.” I realized you don’t really think about the people you photograph – you just want them to tag, smile, and get on with it. But everyone has a story, and Ruhl’s is particularly heartbreaking.
Diagnosed with Bell’s palsy in 2009, shortly after the birth of his twins and just as his drama In the next room (or, the vibrator set) premiered on Broadway, Ruhl has lived with the effects ever since. His experiences, however, are only a small part of Smile, a magnificent and honest work that also explores marriage, love, motherhood, Buddhist philosophy and theater, all in Ruhl’s inimitable poetic style. Here she discusses the process and what comes next.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You say in the book that you are not the type to sit down and write revealing text. Knowing your reservations about this genre, what made you change your mind?
I was even resistant to the word memory. I never thought I would be a person who would even write something like this. But I had written an essay on the subject – a very short little essay – and my husband pointed out to me that it was something I thought about a lot, and something that pained me a lot, and when something thing hurts me and i think about it a lot, i write about it. So he was kind of asking me why I wasn’t writing about it. I discovered, once I started to write, that I had a lot to say that was pouring out.
Has your process been written Smile very different from the way you work on a play?
Yeah, it was different. I mean, either way, I find that once I really go, it’s like time stands still and I don’t know I’ve been writing for two hours. So it was similar in that sense. But a play has more of a beginning, middle and end form for me as a process. And it was more of a kind of diving and whirling outward. I guess in all genres I find writing has its incredible pleasures and pains, to the point where you think “is this even a work of art, or is it just daydreams?” There is always a moment in a room where I say to myself “is this even a room?” So there is that.
But I also think there are two kinds of writers: those who really like to be in the writing process, and those who like to have written. I find that I enjoy writing when I’m really on the inside, and writing this book, in particular, felt cathartic and necessary. Even though it was painful, I enjoyed writing it.
And it was scary. Someone was asking me about the honesty of writing a dissertation, and I thought, if you’re not being honest, why are you writing a dissertation? It’s like bathing in your underwear. What would be the goal? So while I’m not interested in the kind of gossip-revealing work that flatters you that way, I’m interested in spiritual autobiography in general, where there’s kind of open-ended progress and you have to follow the writer through this with them. In a funny way, it was heartwarming to think as I wrote this that others might be in a similar situation, or on a similar walking path.
I was going to say, I see this book is very useful for those in a similar situation. Bell’s palsy isn’t something we talk about very often – at least, it rarely comes up in my little sphere. And not just that, you are very candid about postpartum depression and other immediate issues before and after childbirth.
It’s hard to write, and it’s hard to talk about it, so I see why it’s not written. Jonathan Kalb is the only one who has tried to write about this. But I’m glad you said you think it might be useful, because the older I get, this is the main use I see for art. If it is useful, I would be very happy.
I have been hesitant to write about postpartum depression, in part because of my children. I think there is a feeling that if you have postpartum depression you think it could mean that you don’t love your child well enough or deeply enough. And I think this is such a mistake. It made me want to write about it, but you feel tender to your own kids reading this because you don’t want them to think that there was this beautiful arrival and that I was unhappy. . You want them to be aware of your love and joy.
After I wrote the book, I told my editor about it and my daughter listened in the back seat of the car. After I hung up I said, ‘That must have been interesting for you,’ and she said, ‘I guess I always thought of your face as that beautiful house, and one day a wall came up. collapsed and you kept trying to fix it brick by brick, and you spent so much time thinking about it and trying to fix it, but we didn’t care because when we looked at your face, what we have seen was our home. And I thought if I had known that 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have had to write this.
What else do you have to come? I know you have a play at one point, and then there’s a musical you’re working on with Elvis Costello from A face in the crowd.
Most of my theater stuff was really postponed. And it’s just chance. Everything gets carried away and then everyone’s schedules fall sooner or later, and in my case it’s later, which is probably good because I have things to take care of. But I have this game, Becky Nurse from Salem, which was made at Berkeley Rep and will arrive at Lincoln Center next fall. A face in the crowd we’re still working on it and we’re almost done. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, we probably would have done it already, but hopefully we will announce the dates for it soon.
You also have the opera version of your play Eurydice at the Met this fall, which has a score by Matthew AuCoin. You’ve co-created musical adaptations of your work in the past, but how does it feel to operate on this scale?
It really looked more like a distillation than anything else. That’s a lot of cuts, because it takes a lot longer to sing a line than to just say it. Luckily the piece was already split into three moves, so we thought about things we were going to cut, and luckily I like to cut, and because the game version exists, I didn’t feel so protective. And everything is just bigger at the opera. The scale is so huge. The voices are immense. The scene is huge. The sound of the orchestra is immense. To have this coming to you is amazing and in a way addicting. Once you hear these voices singing your words, you wonder, “Why would I just want them to be spoken?” “