Playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose Eurydice has just closed at NextStop Theatre in Herndon, called upon writers to work “with new urgency” as she accepted the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award at New York’s Lincoln Center last Monday.
Ruhl, a former recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant,” asserted that the results of this month’s American presidential election must compel writers “to extend the light of our minds into dark hollows.”
“When it seems that the country has had a referendum on values like culture, kindness, and common decency—and said ‘we choose none of these’,” Ruhl said, “what can the artistic community do but insist on modeling culture, kindness, and common decency.”
Ruhl said that the writer’s mission was to both write his own mind and to reach out to others. “We write to create and model empathy in a ragged land. We write because our minds can always be free in the face of tyranny. We write to make our minds known to other, different minds. We write with the hope that we may understand other, different minds. We write to produce knowledge in the face of ignorance. We write because we must.”
Ruhl warned writers away from insularity. “My father wrote me a letter when he was ill with cancer, warning me against an excessively inward literary life. He wrote: ‘Continue to give yourself to others because that’s the ultimate satisfaction in life, to love honor and respect others.'” Ruhl gave that line to the character of the father in Eurydice, she said.
Ruhl urged writers to be durable. “One reason this award is rare and moving to me is its insistence on the whole life cycle of the writer, and its hope for a playwright’s longevity and duration. Duration, that unsexy thing—the turtle, not the hare.” Durability is a particular challenge, Ruhl said, for women writers. Ruhl’s own formula for durability may be a little difficult for other writers to follow: “[M]arry my husband [and]study with Paula Vogel.”
Ruhl may have surprised her Lincoln Center audience with an anecdote describing the perilous financial life of playwrights, even the most successful ones. “On the morning of the day when I heard about this award, I realized I was about to bounce a check I’d just made out to my babysitter.” As a result, Ruhl says that she will dedicate a portion of the $200,000 award she received to a fund to assist women playwrights with any child care costs they might have.
A group of highly accomplished theater professionals, including Arena Stage’s Molly Smith, selected Ruhl for the Distinguished Playwright Award on behalf of the Steinberg Foundation.
“The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust is incredibly honored to recognize the outstanding career of Sarah Ruhl this year,” Steinberg Foundation board member Jim Steinberg in announcing Ruhl’s selection. “Her work sparks conversation in audiences of all ages with its emotionally vivid language, and we look forward to seeing — and experiencing —what comes next.”
In addition to Eurydice, Ruhl’s plays include For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, The Oldest Boy, In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, The Clean House, Passion Play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Melancholy Play, Orlando, Late: A Cowboy Song, Dear Elizabeth, and Stage Kiss. Washington area theatres have produced all but three of these plays.
She has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist twice and was nominated for a Tony Award for In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play. Her plays have been produced internationally and translated into more than 12 languages. She is also the recipient of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the Whiting Award, a Lilly Award, a PEN award for mid-career playwrights, and the MacArthur “Genius” Award. Her book of essays, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2015. She holds an MFA from Brown University, and she currently teaches at the Yale School of Drama.