Sitting atop my bookshelf of plays and academic theatre books is a signed program from 13P's production of Sarah Ruhl's Melancholy Play. It is not just signed, instead it's inscribed as follows: "Dear Bess, Best of luck on your thesis! And thank you for including me in it. Stage Directions: A young woman sits down at her desk. She writes a brilliant thesis, very quickly..." You see, my interest in theatre, and stage directions in particular has a great deal to do with this imaginative, poetic, and kind playwright.
So when I had a chance to sit down and talk with her about her latest New York offering, Stage Kiss, currently playing at Playwrights Horizons, I headed to Brooklyn Heights for the opportunity to pick her brain. In a coffee shop on a sunny winter morning, I did just that. Here is what she had to say.
Bess Rowen: I saw Stage Kiss at the Goodman in Chicago, which is one of the reasons I was extra excited that it was coming here. I couldn't wait to see what had changed, what was different about the productions. So I want to ask you: what has changed, both in terms of script and production?
Sarah Ruhl: I think the second act has gone through more changes than the first act. I think I was never quite satisfied with the second act in Chicago, and it felt newer. I wrote the first act fairly quickly, in a period of days, actually. After I found out I was pregnant with twins, I thought, "Oh my God, I have to get this play out now!" and then I took a little time off and wrote Act II, but it just was less considered, maybe. So I feel much better about Act II in terms of rewrites. And the design is different, and I've been a lot more involved in the design process here than there, just because of proximity.
BR: Right, and you've worked with Rebecca [Taichman] before, the director, for Orlando.
SR: Yes, I have. She's very collaborative, which is wonderful.
BR: How do you know you're done with a play?
SR: I think you're done when it's published. It might not be done, but it helps you to feel done. And I usually don't finish a play until the second or third production.
BR: One of the things that I liked immediately about the play is the title. For me, looking at your entire oeuvre, I love the fact that the stage kisses, especially those between two women, always mean something different. To me, they speak to an interest in all the ways that human beings can relate to each other. So, what do the kisses in this play mean to you?
SR: Well, I think I was interested in the whole phenomenology - for lack of a better word - of the kiss, and what it was on stage. [...] It was surreal to rehearse, because it was this strange meta-mirror happening. I do think every kiss is really different. There are kisses between every gender combination. I mean, the most kisses are the straight kisses. But, I'm just sort of fascinated by how much a kiss is a performance and how much it's an internal experience, for actors and for people - not that actors aren't people - but for actors and lay-people.
BR: I've noticed, especially since the latest production of Melancholy Play also included a collaboration with Todd Almond, that music seems to be playing a much more important role in your work lately. I think it always did, but especially since you're working with Todd Almond here again, can you speak a bit about how you see music functioning?
SR: It's an interesting question. Sound and music has always been a hugely important part of the work for me - language as music, but also music. I got to work with Todd this summer, and it was such a pleasure having a live musician and to have music particularly scored for the piece. [...] He just intuitively gets the tonality that I'm going for. [...] In a way I feel like I was meant to meet Todd and work with him before this play could happen. Because I also think, if you look at the Noel Coward plays, there was just a guy sitting in tails playing a piano in someone's living room. So the tone was immediately marked. You didn't have to play for style in such an inflated way, because the music did so much of the work for you.
BR: In Stage Kiss, the director in the play-within-the-play tells the actors that he told to cross out all the stage directions. I read that as a pretty big joke about yourself, as your stage directions are impossible to cross out - and anyone who's read one of your plays, knows that. Could you tell me a little bit more about how you see stage directions in your own plays?
SR: Paula Vogel, I'll never forget, in a class at Brown, sat us down and she read the first stage directions from a Tennessee Williams play. And Paula said, "these aren't stage directions, these are a love letter from Tennessee Williams to his reader, over time." I thought, "Oh God, that's right." So Paula really gave me permission to think of them in a different way - to not think of them as blocking or props [...] but to think of them a little bit more abstractly, and a little bit more in a readerly way. You're communicating with a reader. Maybe your first reader is an actor who will be in the play, or a designer, or maybe just someone who likes to read plays - which aren't usually very fun to read - but there would be an intimacy of contact with a reader. I don't think I do it consciously, but if I had to be conscious about it, that's what I would say.
BR: Perhaps the most important moments in a play called Stage Kiss are in between the lines - because you can't take the stage kiss out of Stage Kiss. So how do you go about writing dialogue that is so much about what happens in between and what characters aren't able to say to each other?
SR: In a funny way vibrator play and Stage Kiss are companion pieces, when you think about it. Stage Kiss is a little more chaste, I suppose. This play is such a beast written for actors to do all the things that they can do - like kiss each other in various ways that you could never have imagined. And that's, I think the task in general, writing a play, is you're writing language that eats itself. You're writing language that's the icing on the cake. It's your entire toolbox and yet the things that people will remember will not be your language.
BR: What would you like to tell me about Stage Kiss?
SR: I think it's one of my sillier plays, and I don't want to be apologetic about that. It's a bit of a soufflé in the way that 1930s plays are, but I think I really wanted to think about illusion and love and projection, and that was my way in - something that was apparently more insubstantial. But I do want people to come and have a good time.
So what are you waiting for? Head over to Playwrights Horizons to come and see Sarah Ruhl's Stage Kiss!