Acclaimed playwright Sarah Ruhl visited campus in early April to read from a collection of her essays, meet with students, and talk about her new play about Vassar alumna Elizabeth Bishop.
During a Q&A at Martel Theater, Ruhl offered advice to soon-to-be graduates: Fall in love a couple of times. If you can, study with Paula Vogel (a mentor to Ruhl during her M.F.A. studies at Brown University). And live in a theater town.
“Be part of a community of artists—like Austin, Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, Providence, or San Francisco,” she said.
Drama Department Chair Gabrielle Cody says students see Ruhl as a bit of a rock star. The playwright was awarded the MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship in 2006, and two of her plays have been Pulitzer Prize finalists: In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) and The Clean House.
“To have a conversation with a playwright who is young and yet has achieved so much, students are able to see how to get from A to Z—it’s not some mystical path. It’s hard work and tangible things, like having mentors,” Cody says.
Ruhl’s visit to Vassar came just a day before the Drama Department’s staging of her play Eurydice, a reimagining of the Orpheus myth, directed by Ianthe Demos ’00. But this trip to campus—arranged, in large part, by drama professor and theater director Shona Tucker—was not her first. In the summer of 2002, Ruhl brought Eurydice to the Powerhouse Theater’s Apprentice Program, which performed the play outdoors.
“I found the students game and playful and talented and open,” she recalled. “We did Eurydice out by a tree and it was magical.”
Ruhl, who once considered a career as a poet, premiered her new play, Dear Elizabeth, at New Haven’s Yale Repertory Theatre in December. The epistolary play is drawn from letters exchanged between poets Elizabeth Bishop ’34 and Robert Lowell.
Bishop “is a poet I have turned to again and again,” Ruhl says, “for her spareness and restraint, her luminosity, her imagery, and her ear.”
“I think I quite literally wanted to hear the letters out loud because I loved them so much,” she says of the play. “Beyond that, I’m interested in the contrast between poetry and prose on stage, and I was interested in the moments between the letters, moments of story, and silence.”
Through her research and writing, Ruhl has come to know Bishop better. She hadn’t realized Bishop’s alcoholism was so extreme and that the poet had battled it her entire life.
“In Bishop and Lowell’s letters to each other, they represented their best selves. They didn’t go into details about how they, for example, drank the rubbing alcohol when no more alcohol was in the house—as Bishop once did and got violently ill. I also learned that she’d longed for a child and regretted not having one, and possibly regretted not having had one with Lowell,” Ruhl says.
Ruhl spent some time during her campus visit looking through the college’s Bishop archives and says it was a thrill to look more closely at Bishop’s writing.
Next on her agenda: Ruhl will spend time revising Dear Elizabeth before it is performed in Berkeley, California, this May.
—Rebecca Hyde ’92
Photos, from top to bottom: ©Vassar College-Kevin Vehar ’14; ©Vassar College-Amanda Crommett ’14; ©Vassar College