What is your name and where are you from?
My name is Sarah Ruhl, and I’m from Brooklyn, originally from Chicago.
What have you been working on this week?
I did some revisions on a play for Yale called Scenes from Court Life and then I did some work on a screenplay called The New World. The screenplay is for Focus Features. The play is about the Bush family and the decline of the house of Bush but also dynastic power and how it’s expressed through generations and also sibling rivalry in political families but-
[tea kettle whistles; Sarah pours our tea] So it’s about sibling rivalry between Jeb Bush and George Bush and also about the Restoration and the Stuarts: Charles I, Charles II, and Charles II’s whipping boy. I didn’t start with the Bushes. I started with the idea of political dynasties and researched a bunch of different political dynasties and then became most interested in the Bushes, partly because it goes even further back than two generations in American politics. The idea of two brothers occupying the presidency… if it had been George Sr. and then another term and then George Jr. and then another term and then another Bush, it would have really functioned like the Restoration. So I started it during primary season before I knew that Jeb would be ousted. The whole idea of the Restoration and one dynastic line asks the question of how pure democracy really is. In England, the time between Charles I and Charles II, the Interregnum years, was this great experiment in parliamentary democracy, and then they realized, “actually we want a monarchy back.” They shut down the theaters during Cromwell’s time. So I was interested in this idea of, “is there a monarchical impulse in the states in the same way that there’s this parliamentary impulse?” There’s always this dialectic between a longing for dynasty and family as a metaphor for the head of the state. You know the song in Hamilton, “How to Say Goodbye”? Well, I’m obsessed with Hamilton. Along with my kids, as you’ve seen. But that song is about George Washington leaving the presidency and teaching the nation how to say goodbye. It’s this really radical American idea that the old president would create a peaceful transition to the new presidency rather than having factions and families trying desperately to hold onto power.
I feel hopeful that we are living in a functional democracy. But I do feel that there are atavistic strains in the voting population and people vote in irrational ways. People aren’t voting based on reason or rationality. We vote based on these primitive impulses. The idea of family and trust and a family you’ve known over time all play into those same primitive impulses. In the same way that for Hillary Clinton, for whatever reason, so many people have these negative associations with her because she’s been around American politics for so long. So when I started writing the play, I thought it might be a Clinton/Bush election, and that’s when the germ came to me. And obviously we’re not there at all.
At what point do you know that you must write something?
I usually wait about a year before writing something down. I usually have an idea that I let run around like a little mouse in my brain. I don’t actively work on it, but I wait to see if it stays around long enough. Because writing a play and putting it on is about 2 or 3 years altogether; sometimes it can be many more years, I want to have a good idea of its longevity before beginning. Passion Play took me 10 years to write. You want to feel like the idea has enough depth and breadth and emotional resonance for you personally to devote that amount of time to it.
Are you of the mindset that you find the idea or the idea finds you?
I think the idea finds you and then you have to keep it around. There’s a certain amount of will when it comes to keeping the idea around and making space for the idea to grow, but I don’t think you can manufacture the impulses.
Do you know where the structure of something is going when you start to write it?
I don’t. I know a lot of writers plan, but I usually have pretty clear sailing and follow the idea or the characters. Scenes from Court Life began as idea-based whereas Eurydice came from an emotion, and an image; Dead Man’s Cell Phone began as an image of this dead guy at a table with his cell phone ringing. Sometime my plays begin as images, and sometimes as snatches of conversation or voices. They all start in very different ways.
Do you use tangible forms of inspiration? Artwork, music, travel, etc?
Hot tea. That’s it. Yorkshire Gold, preferably.
Where have you spent most of your time here?
Mostly here (Kay Hall) and in my room. I kind of love shutting the door and being in my own little space.
If you were reincarnated as a farm animal, which one would you be and why?
I’ve had so much leisure to observe them here… Hmm.. I would have said a sheep, but their ‘baas’ are really so loud. They’re very jarring. I think I’d go for a horse. I don’t really think of myself as a horse, but they’ve been so beautiful to watch; they’re so graceful and beautiful, and at this farm anyway, they’re not work horses, they just exist. So--yes-- I’ll be a horse.