An Interview with Orlando playwright Sarah Ruhl

You are obviously not one “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Can you talk about what attracts you to this high modernist writer?

I am afraid of her. Her mind is so incandescent that she leaves everyone else behind. I barely see the point of reading the novel after Woolf. She is, quite simply, one of the best writers of sentences in the English language. And in that sense I am very, very afraid of doing anything that would lessen her impact.

Of all her work, what made you decide that Orlando was the novel that you wanted to bring to the stage?

The simple answer is that someone asked me. The longer answer is that there is more pleasure in the telling of the tale than there is in some of her other novels, which are more internal. So it seems more intrinsically theatrical than something like The Waves (although I love seeing the challenge of people trying to stage that). I love the playfulness in Orlando, and the pleasure she seemed to take in writing it. She wrote it more quickly than any of her other books, and there is a lightness in it that I adore. I also love the sense of audience in the novel–that she was writing this for Vita Sackville-West. And how could anyone resist a novel in which someone lives three centuries long and changes gender.

You decided not to fully dramatize the novel, but rather to take what has often been called “a story theatre approach” to the material. Could you discuss this adaptation strategy and what drew you to it?

Part of the reason is that her language is so exquisite it would have seemed like a terrible bastardization to just leave the narration behind and make up dialogue. So much of the novel’s pleasure is in its prose, and to lose the prose would be to lose half its pleasure. The other reason is that the theater that originally commissioned the adaptation was the Piven Theater Workshop in Chicago, and Joyce and Byrne Piven spent two lifetimes trying to figure out how best to stage narration, working with people like Paul Sills and Frank Galati, part of the theater community in Chicago. They truly understand story theater, I think, in a fundamentally different way than in some other parts of the country, where story theater is occasionally a dirty compound word or a stand-in for something childish. The best kind of story theater allows the actor to be both inside and outside the character in a Greek, Brechtian, African or Eastern way — in a particular part of the world that decided naturalism was the only kind of theatrical convention for a time.

One of the central themes of Orlando is the question of gender, which has become even more divisive an issue since Woolf penned her novel. Where do you stand on this concept? Is gender a construction or is it all biology? We ask you both as writer/thinker and as a woman who has just had twins: one male and one female. In short: where do you stand on the nature vs. nurture conundrum, and what do you think Woolf is saying with Orlando’s change of sex?

I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t think gender is an absolute performance, nor do I think gender is a biological essentialist destiny….I enjoy androgyny. Without a little androgyny of mind, body or spirit I find things slightly boring. Woolf was obsessed with what she called an androgynous mind, and she thought Shakespeare had one. I’m interested in the work of Paula Vogel’s partner Anne Fausto-Sterling who is studying the construction of gender and watching mothers interact with babies. She wrote a book called Sexing the Body and is now studying tapes of mothers talking with boy babies and girl babies. I suppose she could study me talking to one boy twin and then the other girl twin. I try not to call him “buddy” and her “darling”. I brought one twin and then the other every other day to our Orlando workshop this summer and people thought I was lying about having twins and was just dressing them differently ever day. So why does Woolf have Orlando change sex? I suppose that’s the $64,000 question. She’s very playful about it, and I think we’re only now in this century ready for what Woolf was playing with in terms of gender.