Sarah Ruhl: The Interplay Between the Actual and the Magical

This Thursday, playwright Sarah Ruhl will pay her first visit to campus for this year’s Outside the Box playwright’s residency. (Past playwrights have included Tony Kushner, Charles Mee, Moises Kaufman and David Henry Hwang.)  As a part of her residency, Ruhl will give a lecture on Thursday evening, visit classes and meet with the cast of the Theater Department’s upcoming performance of her Melancholy Play.

Ruhl, who grew up in Illinois, started her career as a poet and published her first book by the age of 20. Now she writes imaginative and unusual plays that often feature unlikely, dreamlike occurrences. In a 2008 article in The New Yorker, Ruhl said that her characters exist in both “…the real world and also a suspended state.”

Routine activities continue amidst strange developments—in Melancholy Play, for example, one character turns into an almond!—and highlight “the interplay between the actual and the magical.” Amidst its elements of fantasy, Ruhl’s work raises serious questions about human experience and psychology. Melancholy Play presents moments of genuine sorrow. But Ruhl creates these moments while maintaining a witty humor that keeps the tone of the play lighthearted; she explains: “Lightness isn’t stupidity. It’s actually a philosophical and aesthetic viewpoint, deeply serious, and has a kind of wisdom—stepping back to be able to laugh at horrible things even as you’re experiencing them.”

Ken Prestininzi, the director of a 2007 production of Melancholy Play at Brown University (where Ruhl received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in 1997 and 2001) suggests that Ruhl’s upbringing could be responsible for the distinctive tone of her work, pointing out that Ruhl “grew up in the Midwest, where there’s this assumption that you’re supposed to smile, mow your lawn and get on with things. You’re not supposed to stare out the window and think of a line from a poem for a week.”

Pamela Tatge
Director, Center for the Arts