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Playwright Sarah Ruhl on Her Book of Essays and Chicago’s ‘Healthy’ Theater Community

The award-winning playwright will read from her first collection of nonfiction tonight at Andersonville’s Women and Children First bookstore.

Photo: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

In a year of banner essay collections by women—Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams and Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist among them—accomplished playwright Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House, The Vibrator Play) has quietly contributed to the bounty, with 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater. Cloying title notwithstanding, Ruhl writes pithy ruminations on language, art, and theater with a roving intelligence and compassion that are refreshingly accessible. The book even notched a slot on The New York Times’s list of 100 Notable Books of 2014. Not too shabby for the playwright’s first book. In advance of Ruhl’s reading at Women and Children First (5233 N. Clark St.) tonight at 7 p.m., Chicago chatted with the Chicago-raised two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist about the book’s conception, ‘having it all,’ and what she’s learned from Chicago theater.

How did this book begin?

I started out writing essays as a way to preserve some semblance that I was still a thinking person after having three young children. Being up much of the night, they were almost like a daily practice just to keep thinking. And after I got through 50 [essays], I thought, ‘maybe there’s a book in here.’ And then when I got to 75, oh, there is a book, and then I thought ‘let me try and make it to 100.’

Why essays over poetry, your professed first love?

Some of the essays are like prose poems. A lot of them are reflections about theater and reflections about parenthood, and they felt more reflective than poems do to me.

Even though the title of your book suggests it’s going to be about balancing work with children, few of your essays actually directly address that issue. Was that intentional?

I think that the form itself was my answer. How do I balance having these little kids and writing…well here, I’ll write these short essays in the time that I have to write them. I didn’t set out to create a kind of companion piece to Lean In. I didn’t have an agenda I was putting forward about the subject matter.

Were there any essayists you looked to for guidance during your writing?

I love Virginia Woolf’s essays, they’re very close to my heart. I love Maurice Valency’s essays on the theater. They were out of print for a while and I think they’re amazing. I love Montaigne’s essays and those are also in short form. There are these little attempts at meaning and distillation.

You grew up on the North Shore but now live in Brooklyn. How did Chicago theater influence you?

I think Chicago is such a great theater town, and in so many ways, a much healthier theater town than New York because people do theater for the right reasons in Chicago. They’re not doing it to transfer [it elsewhere] or to make it run forever, they’re in it because of the love of doing it. I grew up going to a lot of community theater with my mom when I was little, and then when I was in fourth grade I took classes at the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston. It was a major influence on how I thought about theater. [Artistic director emeritus] Joyce Piven often put literature onstage, and there was an understanding that the language itself could make things happen, there was no need for huge sets or fancy props. The emphasis was really on the words, the quality of acting, and the ability of the actor to be a storyteller and affect transformation. That made a huge, huge impact.

Do you approach your readings theatrically?

I’m not a terribly theatrical reader. In fact I remember I did one reading at Yeshiva University and one of the students asked afterwards, “Is it on purpose that you have so little affect when you read?" I said, “I’m from the Midwest and I’m not an actor." When I read I’m really trying to honor the words written on the page rather than trying to act them, because I’m a terrible actor.

A lot of successful playwrights migrate into television or film writing. Has that been a temptation for you?

It’s not a huge temptation for me mainly because I love the theater so much and I actually think having started as a poet, the theater has so much more in common with the poetic form than it does with the cinematic form. I haven’t had massive amounts of requests to turn my plays into films either, I think because they are so clearly written for the stage and so clearly written for an actor to be speaking to a live audience. So if the right inspiration came up where I loved the material, I loved the director, I would definitely try it out, but I don’t think there’s any danger of me leaping off the precipice into film or TV.

Do you feel like the climate is good for playwrights?

People always moan about how theater is endangered, but I think it’s an exciting time to be a playwright. We’re in a real renaissance. We’re starting to see foundations create jobs for playwrights at theaters where they’re a part of the theater. And I also think there’s a lot of exciting writing happening right now, and a diverse group of writers coming up who are incredibly gifted, such as Christina Anderson, Katori Hall, and Julia Cho. I’m seeing and hearing so much glorious new writing that is fit for the stage, and maybe that’s part of my bias. A lot of what I see happens in New Haven in a classroom or on a stage in New Haven and it’s really, really exciting.

Do you have plans to do more prose writing?

I would love to. I don’t know what the topic would be exactly. I think in some funny way, the essays were placeholders for writing a new play, and I wrote them at a time in my life when I didn’t have the wherewithal to write a new play. I stopped writing the essays about the time I wrote The Oldest Boy [now running in New York]. So I don’t know. I don’t know where my next idea will come from.

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