Lemon: I've heard various things about why you gave your play In the Next Room its title. What's the accurate story?
Sarah Ruhl: For a long time, I used The Vibrator Play as a working title. I was never satisfied with it; it seemed so utilitarian. At some point while working on the play's production earlier this year at Berkeley Rep, I told myself: The Vibrator Play is too facile. The play is not a sex farce about vibrators. It's about wet nurses; it's about the body. It's misleading to say it's purely about the object. So I changed the title to In The Next Room, with or the vibrator play as the subtitle. I know that some people will still refer to the play by its subtitle. Subtitles are very 19th-century; a lot of great novels from that period have them.
BL: Are you a fan of 19th-century fiction?
SR: I read Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte as a child, when I was sick in bed. I grew up with a living sense of literary history. I studied it later at Brown. While I was there I was looking at work by George Eliot and Dickens that featured actresses. I wanted to write my thesis on that subject. So I asked [playwright] Paula Vogel to be my thesis advisor. She said, "No, but I will be your advisor if you write a play." So that's what I did. Working on that subject as a play was liberating.
BL: Before I read your play, I happened to have read a 1998 book called The Technology of Orgasm, in which the historian Rachel P. Maines writes about how women diagnosed with "hysteria" for centuries were treated by having their genitals massaged in order to induce "paroxysm." But male physicians considered the practice drudgery, and foisted it off on midwives or, starting in the late 19th century -- the period of your play -- on mechanical vibrators. The book sounded academic, but I couldn't believe how witty and smart it was.
SR: Not surprisingly, I read that book, too. I was less interested in its entertainment value than in its facts -- as you say, how doctors used vibrators to treat hysterical women and the use of manual stimulation before vibrators.
BL: How consciously are you trying to write about sexuality with historical accuracy?
SR: The play is set in the 19th century, so there are some details I want to get right, at least suggestively. When I'm writing the play, I want to have a firm sense of where and how these characters might have lived. But I'm a contemporary woman writing with subsequent knowledge that informs my view of the period. In terms of the sexuality, I was aiming less for self-consciousness than for a kind of innocence. In some ways, people then were innocent of sexuality compared to the biological knowledge we've acquired about the subject since. I didn't want the play to be too knowing.
BL: You've said in other interviews that you've made a few changes in the play since Berkeley. Do you expect other changes during the rehearsal period in New York?
SR: I expect so, yes. Why be in the rehearsal room if I'm not doing something? Working with new actors, as I will be in the Lincoln Center Theater production, could have some influence on revision. But I generally want changes to happen because of what improves the text itself, not to cover for a poor set design or an actor who doesn't quite get it. All the same, when you write for the theater you're writing for something to be performed at a certain time and a certain space. For example, you might have to come up with thirty seconds of dialogue to cover a costume change or another transition. You don't always anticipate all those things when you're first writing.
BL: What's your favorite part of the rehearsal process?
SR: The first day, sitting around the table and listening to the actors read the play. I love that -- hearing a text start to come to life.
BL: What kind of feedback -- reviews, audience response -- influences your writing and re-writing?
SR: If there's a review that my mom or my husband has seen and that they think will be of interest to me, maybe I'll read that. Reviews, though, are talking to the general public perhaps more than to the writer.
I also listen to how the audience responds to the play, absolutely. I'm very interested in that. But I'm not terribly interested in things like talkbacks. I don't think of the audience strictly as a focus group. Theater has been influenced by the processes of TV and film, but I hope it doesn't become purely a function of focus-group marketing. I think we want singular positions from artists. We crave their individuality.
BL: Have you written anything since In the Next Room?
SR: I've written a play for the Goodman Theater called Stage Kiss, about the phenomenon of actors doing kisses onstage. I was inspired by watching actors having to rehearse kissing, and thinking in some ways what a weird, and sometimes pleasurable, job that kissing is. Stage Kiss has a play-within-a-play. I know that's a 1930s chestnut, but it was fun to do.
BL: Anything else that's new for you?
SR: I've just done a version of Three Sisters for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. It will be in rehearsal at the same time as In the Next Room. I don't speak Russian, but I worked with a brilliant woman named Elise Thoron, who went over the text line by line with me. Elise is a director and a writer and she's doing a show at the Public Theater this fall [called County of Kings] with a performer named Lemon.
BL: I like that name.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.