Sarah Ruhl on adaptations and delving into the minds of masters Chekhov and Woolf

by Julie Haverkate

in Interviews,Playwrights,TCG Books

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Later this month, TCG will publish Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Ruhl’s Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Woolf’s Orlando, a pairing of adaptations: Anton Chekhov’s classic of ennui and frustration and Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending, period-hopping novel.

Sarah will be at Vassar College on April 10 to read her recent work: a series of micro-essays about theatre-making, being a mother, Eurydice and poetry. For more info: www.tcg.org/publications.

In the meantime, the playwright was kind enough to share a few thoughts on her new book.

Julie Haverkate: In the intro, you state, “Both of the following adaptations are nothing if not faithful. (I see no reason to do an adaptation unless you assume the original is better than you could ever make it…)” Can you explain more about the impetus to adapt these works that you feel such reverence for? Did you feel any hesitance about doing so?

Sarah Ruhl: The impetus in both cases came from an external source: Ed Stern asked me to do Three Sisters, and Joyce Piven asked me to do Orlando. In the case of Orlando, I was lucky that I was too young to feel as much fear as I perhaps should have felt. I was only twenty-two, and, happily, I just went at it. In the case of Three Sisters, there was some degree of trepidation, but it was ameliorated by having the amazing Elise Thoron at my side helping me with the Russian.

Julie Haverkate: Can you tell us a little bit more about these commissions?

Sarah Ruhl: Ed Stern was artistic director of Cincinnatti Playhouse in the Park, and he was set to do Three Sisters with [director] John Doyle. Joyce Piven is artistic director of Piven Theatre Workshop [in IL], and I’ve known her since I was 12 or so; Orlando was my first professional commission, outside of college, and it was extraordinary that she trusted me with it. They went into production, and later I did another production of Orlando at the Actors’ Gang [in L.A.] with Joyce, and then at CSC in New York with director Rebecca Taichman, where I did revisions. Three Sisters went on to be done at Yale Rep and Berkeley Rep with Les Waters directing. I didn’t re-work Three Sisters textually, but the productions were very different.

Julie Haverkate: What did you find most compelling or rewarding about adapting these two works? Are you interested in adapting anything else?

Sarah Ruhl: I loved getting into the mind and world of Woolf and Chekhov. I loved doing translation work because it felt almost mathematical, like a puzzle. I’d love to do The Seagull too. I’d love to adapt some Katherine Mansfield (a New Zealand writer who I love; Woolf said Mansfield was the only writer she was ever jealous of).

Julie Haverkate: What does “adaptation” mean to you? Given your interest in being faithful to the original text (and in regards to Three Sisters), how does an adaptation differ from a translation?

Sarah Ruhl: I think of Three Sisters as a translation rather than an adaptation; I call Orlando an adaptation because I added dialogue and changed things a bit structurally to make it work for the stage. But Three Sisters has no such “adaptation” elements; I simply wanted to make the text sing in English.


Photo by Peter Bellamy.

Sarah Ruhl’s other plays include the Pulitzer Prize finalists In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) and The Clean House, as well as Passion Play, Dean Man’s Cell Phone, Demeter in the City, Eurydice, Melancholy Play, Late: a cowboy song and Stage Kiss. She is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a PEN/Laura Pels Award and a MacArthur Fellowship. Her plays have premiered on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in many theatres around the world.


Julie Haverkate is the marketing associate at Theatre Communications Group. Previously, she has worked at Meadow Brook Theatre (Rochester, MI), as well as in the literary offices of Electric Pear Productions and the Summer Play Festival in NYC. Julie has lectured and presented at conferences internationally, and her book, PARADE Diverges, was published by VDM. In addition to dramaturging every now and again, she also writes the blog Critical Confabulations and is a proud alumna of Florida State University (M.A. Theatre Studies).