Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jacqueline Harriet
May 1st, 2017
Back in 2014 we talked with Sarah Ruhl about whether American theatre had become too dogmatic and embedded with the idea that there was a singular, correct answer to, “What is this play?” In her view, it definitely had. Her new play How to Transcend a Happy Marriage at Lincoln Center Theater, starring Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei, takes that conceit and runs in the other direction; full of multiplicity and diaphanous symbolism. There is also a live bird (which, among other things, is a helpful piece of information for reading this interview). We recently sat down with Sarah and Marisa as they discussed the many levels and meanings of the play.
Sarah, what was your initial impulse for writing the play?
Sarah: The initial impulse was that I knew of this woman who was the polyamorous hub of two men, and she slaughtered all her own meat for the winter. And I thought, do those two activities have anything to do with each other, or not? And so, in a way, the task I set myself in writing the play was, is there a relationship between slaughtering one’s own meat and polyamory? In some ways the play is about polyamory, but in some ways polyamory is a metaphor for something else, for the different ways we love other people and how expansive that love can be.
Marisa: And how does the animal slaughter relate to that? There’s also love of animals that runs through different characters’ point of view and yours too—vegetarianism, non-vegetarianism—and all the different kinds of spirits that we love and relate to.
Sarah: And inhabit. I think what I came to was that the relationship with animals is how we inhabit the flesh, how the spirit inhabits the flesh, and how that’s expressed in terms of what we eat and in terms of who we have sex with. It’s tricky being embodied. I think, in some ways, the play’s about embodiment and motherhood, and how you’re embodied as a woman at a certain time in your life with kids, and then what that is to see them grow up into their own sexuality and maintain one’s own. Ovid, who was a big influence, talks a lot about transformation and people transforming into beasts and back again. So I was really interested in all kinds of transformations.
Marisa: And then there’s also a cultural level. There’s the motherhood aspect and how we get into our animal nature, as well as where the culture kind of puts a cap on that. How do you find your way to that in a culture that doesn’t really give us very clear pathways— especially when you become a mother, because then you’re supposed to be one thing.
Sarah: And I do think there’s a bit of discontent with the contemporary culture also running through the play.
Marisa: I felt that. In the cathartic scene, the main thing that [my character] George rants about is the culture. And it took me a while to find that that was the thread through all of it because there’s so many of these threads. There’s one way to think of it on just this plane of existence—that corporeal, “what’s going on with my marriage,” the psychological, the emotional, the cultural—and then there’s this spiritual and this transcendent level. And on that spiritual level it relates to the cultural level, because there’s a general soul sickness in everybody who lives under this system that we’re living in. If what I traditionally call women’s values, perspective, and energy is not part of the fabric of our lives, there’s an ache and there’s a hole. And that’s kind of why it comes out [in that scene], I think.
For you as an actor, how do you work on both the metaphoric level and then also the specific actions, scene by scene, of what’s happening in the play?
Marisa: I love it, because the first tact that I took on it was more for the metaphoric level, and it wasn’t what’s going on in the marriage. It took me a long time to actually figure out what was going on in the marriage. I feel that in this play the title is “a happy marriage,” and [it’s about] playing the positive and playing the love and playing “I want more.” It’s not that it’s not something wrong, it’s I want more—I want to expand, I want to keep evolving, I want to be a person who, even in a happy marriage, wants to love more. There’s more, more, and more in a positive way. So I wasn’t really focusing on, “Oh, he doesn’t do the laundry and it’s pissing me off, and we don’t have sex that often,” and what you typically find, which I don’t even think is the case for them. But there’s still more. I just went with the more metaphoric approach, not consciously. I also think about these things a lot—people turning into birds, and what do symbols mean. I really live in that world and have cultivated that. So I circled back to what was going on in the mundane level in our marriage, and I just thought, “Well, he’s a great guy. He just doesn’t even know when he’s an ass because the culture doesn’t allow it.” That’s how it ties into the culture thing. Of course, I’m giving up my job because it’s just something that happens in our culture, it’s not his fault really, and I want to pass that, I want to get to this other thing: what this goddess-like figure represents to me, and that her energy opens up in me. And then it works on this whole other level.
I called Sarah to tell her I had this whole Kundalini chakra experience in this show where I wasn’t even really thinking anything; I was seeing colors. And I wondered if she created this consciously, because her plays work on so many levels. So, on that vibration level I felt like there was this chakra awakening that happens through meeting [the character of] Pip, and then energy starts to come up, and the heart opens up as this mini-miracle happens, and it starts flooding in, in an intuitive way, on the third eye chakra, and the end of the play is all in the crown and realizing that love is a vibration, a permanent vibration that’s always with us in this mystery. There’s so much to say about this play. It’s like Shakespearean.
Sarah: Why I love Marisa so much as an actress is because she intuitively understands metaphor and reality are not distinct entities. You don’t have to toggle back and forth between the two in a concrete way; they are fused in her performance, and very few actors can do that. I remember there was a line about the bird, and Marisa had a question about the bird, and what was so wonderful about the question was it revealed that in her psyche it was so intimately lived that it had become a real object.
Marisa: People ask about the bird moment a lot. What do you think was going on? Is it real? People want to know that after the show.
Sarah: I did cut a line about the bird where I gave a little hint, and who knows, maybe I will restore it at some point. But I do think symbols in the theatre, in our day, make people very uncomfortable. I remember I had a play called Passion Play, and in Chicago in particular it was like, “What do the fish mean?” People felt so worried that they might not get the answer right. I don’t like to be overly deterministic and to say, “Okay, Pip is the Holy Spirit, therefore she is the dove.” But one could say that, could say that the triad is Pip is the Holy Spirit and David is the patriarch, and Freddy is Jesus, if you like. But I think that what happens to people is they then are thrown back on a horrible essay that they had to write their sophomore year of English and they suddenly feel stupid and they don’t know what to do. So, rather than letting symbols enter them and become a projection for them, they get anxious and they think they have to write a paper about it. I think so much of our dramaturgy in our present culture is the kind of five-paragraph essay version of a play where an argument is set out and it really is about one idea; it’s not about multiplicities, it’s not about layers. It’s about one idea that then gets revealed, or a secret that gets revealed, and then the play is over. So I think people get uncomfortable with multiplicity. I was talking to my husband about this the other day and my husband said, “Maybe Shakespeare was the first feminist playwright because he’s not uncomfortable with multiplicity.” It really made my night.
Is it a different process to work on something where you have questions but don’t necessarily have the answers?
Marisa: I think I always work from questions that I don’t have the answers to. I feel like there are many answers, and that’s what makes the length of the run very enjoyable. Because there’s always another layer that’s either coming to me or that I’m seeking out. So whether I’m researching and thinking a lot about the Bloomsbury Group, and thinking about Virginia Woolf and George and her name, and how they lived and how they related as couples and triads, or there’ll be other experiences like the chakra waves that just come to me and come as information. And in the case of the bird, the dove has always been a symbol of love, and now peace, but before that it was really a symbol of love and was more associated with Venus. When we were rehearsing, the first time that we did the little mini-marriage ceremony, the bird, B-B, was with us and she had not made a peep at all through any of the rehearsal time. Suddenly when we’re doing this mini-marriage ceremony, Bebe came up and flew around our heads three times. The dove isn’t a metaphor; the metaphor came from the energy of the dove, which was the symbol of love because she feels these types of vibrations and the ancients recognized it. So sometimes it comes to me and sometimes I go and seek it out.
Sarah: It reminds me of Virginia Woolf when she went through that period of madness thinking that birds were speaking in Greek and she thought she could really hear them.
You both touched on the fact that this play starts in an unusual place for a play to start, in the sense that it’s not your traditionally structured, “Here’s the problem, here’s an obstacle, here’s another obstacle.” And I was wondering if you could both talk a little bit about how you developed it working with that non-traditional structure.
Sarah: I was very consciously trying to write with Ovidian structure, and for me, that’s a structure of continual transformation. It’s actually the structure of improvisation, which is a different structure than Aristotelian structure, which is about obstacle and resolution. The structure of improvisation is, “Yes, this happens,” and then it turns into something else, and it turns into something else; it keeps growing and expanding. When I teach and have my students write Ovidian plays, they have to write one sudden transformation, one non-human, one song, and one magical object. And I thought, “Oh, I’ll do that too. I can’t make them do it and not do it.” So there are two songs, there is a magical object, and there’s a nonhuman—not to be pedantic about it, because I would have let all those scaffolds go if the story was taking me somewhere different. But I really tire of obstacle and resolution; I find it tiresome. We see it so much in movies that you can be kind of be doing a whole other activity, and you could look at your watch and go, “Okay, page 30, the hero must face an obstacle, and then page 90 they have to vanquish a bigger monster.” I know that those are encoded in deep mythic structures, but I guess I like to change things up sometimes.
Marisa: Yes. And my experience being in this play is that it becomes a healing.
Because of the demand for the improvisation, it keeps it in such a living space that I feel very bathed in a healing energy and I think that that’s what happens for the audience too.
Have you found that this is a play that really needed an audience?
Sarah: I think all plays do at a point.
Marisa: I’m talking to them a lot, and how they react doesn’t change the play so much, but it does more than in other things I’ve been in, where I’m not directly addressing and really going through something with them. It’s another element, those ears to hear. There’s really very delicate listening that happens in the play on stage and with the audience.
Sarah: I love that, Marisa. You can feel her openness towards the audience in such a profound way, and there’s such an easy slippage between her and the audience. My friend who just saw the show recently said that what was so extraordinary was it was like there was no space between you and the language, like it was a totally merged performance. And I think part of that is the audience and the actor coming together and kind of communing.
Marisa: I found that you take care of the audience with the architecture that you set up. I mean, she’s got the cojones to put “transcend” in a title and then deliver on it. You take the audience’s hand though. I find that at each turn there’s a place for us to say, “Okay, we’re going to talk about these things; we’re going to go through it together.” And you have lines of dialogue or changes in tempo and, of course, humor that helps break them open and take the next step. So, it’s planted in there.
What was the journey like finding the tone? It’s so specific in terms of getting everything to land and to create that experience. From the outside, I would think that would have taken some trial and error in the rehearsal room.
Sarah: I would actually say that 90% of tone is casting. 90% of that job was done when we entered the [rehearsal] room. And I don’t mean to discount process, but I do find we worked really hard to find the right cast and did a reading together. I just think it’s very hard to rehearse actors into that tone, if they don’t have some intuition about it.
Marisa: Well, and [director] Rebecca Taichman has worked with Sarah a lot and knew the aim. I think her kindness and her incisiveness worked together and helped create and keep us in the realm of the tone. We started rehearsing right after the election, so we would begin with a meditation and really gathering ourselves together as people. We could have skipped over it and been compartmentalized, but what would we have done with all these feelings that were coming up? I think even starting with the meditation helped to set the tone and create and open a channel.
Sarah: I also think Rebecca was very wise about when she would have us talk about specifics and when she would pause the conversations, and [say] actually let’s not talk about this.
Marisa: She was very disciplined about that, staying focused. And she let each person come to it in the way that they come to it.
You both have touched on this, but do your own spiritual lives affect your work?
Marisa: Yes. Your whole life experience does. And that’s so integral to this.
Sarah: I was raised Catholic and I think there are a lot of Catholic themes running through the play. I had just taken refuge as Buddhist right before writing this play, so I think there were a lot of thoughts I was having about love and attachment, even about animal killing, that were tied up with that. I was just teaching this class yesterday and I have a wonderful African-American student who was talking about how to take more plays to black communities that don’t have theatre, and he was talking specifically about Christian communities. So we were talking about the prejudice in secular theatre towards organized religion and religion in general. I was saying, “Well, we do.” I mean New York is a very secular place and the theatre can be a secular and sometimes a very commodified place I think, sadly. But the roots of theatre, for me, go all the way to the Greeks to ritual, and back to the Church to passion plays and morality plays and mysteries. And there was always a profane part of that; there were always satyr plays, there were always funny events. But there were also really spiritual parts for people who couldn’t read. They couldn’t read the Bible, so they went off and made a play about a Bible story. I certainly would never want to sermonize in a play, but I do think the theatre is a place to put one’s whole self and that’s a part of ourselves.
Marisa: And in parts of the spirituality, there’s an aspect of women’s sexuality that ties into the spiritual very deeply in this play. I would say that’s a part of my spiritual life that I would bring to this play. I want to talk about that. I don’t know what to say though. These things are so gossamer. Because to talk about transcendent things, they get so diminished, and it’s easy to just sound ungrounded or that it isn’t thought through.
Do you think that goes back to what you both were saying earlier? The idea in the play of how our culture feels less grounded?
Marisa: I think it’s always been like that. The ache of the culture that George is feeling is an ancient ache. I don’t think it’s contemporary. I would say it would probably go back to the Greeks and this separation of women. And Diana the Huntress, and what’s behind Diana and the Maenads going into the forest and tearing apart animals? Flesh for one night. And what is that kind of energy about? And why did that division in everyone’s psyche in the society—men and women—render them so asunder that they had to exercise this hysteria and get back to the feelings that were being repressed? And, this is my assumption, your psyche starts to shatter. And so I think these expressions came through at that time too.
Sarah: I also think our erotic lives are very much commodified in our world and it’s an undercurrent that was in my play The Vibrator Play, too. This notion that we thought that the Victorians were so repressed, but at least they could imagine their own erotic lives without a glossy narrative that they were already self imposing, because they saw so many images outside of what it was supposed to feel like to have an erotic life. Now, we walk down 42nd Street and we’re like, “Oh, that’s how I’m supposed to have an erotic life.” There is a monologue that George has, that’s probably challenging for a lot of audience members, that goes pretty deeply into an erotic experience and it’s very internal, and yet she’s sharing it with this whole room of people in a way that I think is very different from how we look at women’s sexuality from the outside in. I think part of the attempt was to go inside out in the play to really enter her mind.
Do you feel that this play would have been a different experience and played differently if Hillary Clinton were President?
Sarah: I wish she would come over and see it and hang out with us.
Marisa: I think it would have played differently. Every play would have played differently. Just the receptivity, and just people’s armor and open-heartedness is going to feel different coming into that space together. We’re all coming with a little bit different things on our minds. I felt like it was a cultural conversation that was ready to be had in a broader sense—the polyamory, the [question of] how do we love, the deep women’s sacred sexuality, the spiritual, combined with the humor and just blowing open relationships, and the value of motherhood as a sacred path, as well. And then I wasn’t sure if the ears were going to be open for it. And I don’t know, because that’s really to the audience, the people that come and hear it, but I think the vibration itself is absolutely something that is really needed. It’s also a play about people willing to change and willing to listen, willing to entertain other ways of being within themselves and in the culture. And so it’s making a place for that too.
Sarah: I feel like in the post-Trump environment there is a little bit of the feeling of that play Gaslight where you feel like you’re crazy, and I think there’s a part of being a woman in our culture where you always feel a little bit like you’re being gaslit and your private experience is not being reflected in public discourse. Then Trump being elected was like the ultimate gaslighting. It was like, “Okay, now that President Pussy-Grabber is in office…” It felt like a huge erasure for a lot of women I know, of their thoughts and lived experience. And interestingly, I’ve seen a disconnect since Trump in the way that critics are talking about women’s experiences. My mentor’s play Indecent, Paula Vogel’s gorgeous play directed by Rebecca Taichman, is connecting with audiences in a deep, deep way. And I was interested in the way one or two critics, in particular, talked about it. It felt like they weren’t talking about it from the inside out and it was like feeling gaslit. The difference between being there on opening night and feeling what the audience felt, and then reading the official record in the press and saying, “Oh my goodness, what a chasm between lived experience and the official record of my experience.” So I think that’s hard. And there are so many things that are hard about the Trump era, and that’s just one little hangnail.