Likening her students' anticipation of KO’s latest Baird English Symposium author Sarah Ruhl's visit to campus as waiting for the ‘beat to drop’ due to a postponement in her plans, Upper School English Symposium teacher Michelle Caswell said, “Our students are so often criticized for their want of instant gratification and in the last few months I have witnessed them in the buildup of this joy. Our students and colleagues have forestalled their satisfaction. Sarah's impending visit reminded us how to wait...the sweet feeling of arrival and intellectual indulgence.”
Sarah Ruhl, playwright, essayist and poet, marks the 38th visit of an acclaimed author to KO’s campus who works with a senior class who reads the works of the author exclusively. Cai Kuivila ’20 shared that the class began with reading Letters to Max, a collection of emails, letters, and poems, from Ruhl to her former student at Yale, Max Ritvo, who since passed away from cancer approximately three years ago at the age of 25. Kuivila said, “Ms. Ruhl’s layered writing fabulously juxtaposes the seemingly ordinary workings of daily life with greater themes of death, love, technology, the extremes of emotions, and human connection. Her works are perfectly absurd. Her stage direction is creatively provoking, and she actively challenges the audience to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.” Kuivila described the class discussions on Ruhl’s work to be both wonderfully profound and outrageous.
English Department Chair Cathy Schieffelin compared the act of reading aloud to a children’s story circle group and invited the audience in Roberts Theater to revel in the time that Ruhl was to read excerpts from Letters to Max. Ruhl shared that Max was a funny poet “a rare and wonderful species of human.” What followed were vignettes, musings, and poems from the book that were spiritual and metaphysical as her relationship deepened as Max’s cancer recurred. “Our conversations about life and art took on a new urgency,” she said. Describing him as a colleague with his teachers, the first poem he sent her depicts being in an MRI scanner.
Following her reading, students and faculty from the audience asked questions about Ruhl’s process and themes. She finds love and death to be the great motifs. Death informs her work because “art is making a little bridge to those who have passed,” she said, “Plays are a fitting place for ghosts because we conjure the invisible on stage.” Her use of windows in many of her works is a metaphor for both being inside and outside. In a lighter moment, one student asked her what her favorite soup was since soups figure prominently in her work. Although she is an equal opportunity soup slurper, Ruhl favors potato leek, chicken soup, and spicy Moroccan tomato bisque.
One student inquired about Ruhl’s process for creating memorable characters. “Being a playwright is being somewhat schizophrenic because you are trying to hear all these different voices you hear in your head. You are the happiest when characters write themselves and when you don’t feel like you’re puppeteering. For me, character is about finding the voice. Once you find the voice, you just follow,” she said.
Upper School teacher Stacey Savin asked Ruhl who her favorite writer was, and Ruhl responded, “Everything is in Shakespeare. The whole world is in Shakespeare. Everything you could ever want to know is already in Shakespeare. The plots are strange and weird. He is who I go back to time and again.” She cited contemporary playwrights as deeply important who were her teachers: Paula Vogel, Maria Irene Fornes, Mac Wellman, and Nilo Cruz.
Although Ruhl writes across many genres, she tells many of her stories through plays instead of novels. “There's something about the book that is intimate and closed and feels really cozy and it feels like you can go anywhere with ideas; you don’t have to move through time in a compressed way. I think what intrigues me about a play are things that have to live on stage. Things that have spectacle. Music. Where you really want to unearth something emotional and make a present connection with the audience,” she said.
Ruhl commended so many of the students for coming forward to ask her questions, something that she said she could not have done at their age. “You are an extraordinary group of students that give me hope for the future. We live in cynical times, and you give me hope.”