In Conversation: “Melancholy Play” by Sarah Ruhl
A two-part interview by Shaina Silver-Baird
THE QUICK AND DIRTY: The Empty Room’s Melancholy Play (by Sarah Ruhl)
Play in 5 words: Quirky, thoughtful, funny, sad, musical.
What is melancholy?: It’s a longing for something.
What makes you melancholy?: Oh god. What doesn’t? I’m a sap so: commercials, books, my friends, my lovers, pretty much everything.
What makes your character melancholy?: Francis is going through a depression in the play. She wants fulfillment in her life and she’s not finding it with her partner or with her lover or with her job.
What’s one reason people should come see this play?: Completely different than anything I’ve been a part of before. It challenges the idea of theatre as I know it.
Play in 5 words or less: Truly, madly, deeply.
What is melancholy?: A sadness of the soul.
What makes you melancholy?: The fact that my children are growing up.
What makes your character melancholy?: Love.
What is the best part of this process so far?: The company. I’m having a blast working with everybody. First of all, it’s a very collaborative process, and everybody has very strong ideas of what they want, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not willing to adjust and play with other people.
What’s one reason people should come see this play: Eva.
Role: Set and costume designer.
Play in 5 words or less: The poetic discourse on depression.
What is melancholy?: A pensive condition. It is when one isn’t projecting enthusiasm. I don’t personally equate it with sadness, I think of it as pensiveness. One might appear melancholy when retreating inwards.
What makes you melancholy?: I’m a very cheerful person. Things make me mad but they don’t make me melancholy so much… I suppose loss. I’ve experienced loss, in fact this year, the loss of a family member. I think loss of choices – a sadness about opportunities that have passed that can never be regained.
What makes the characters in this play melancholy?: Loss.
What the best part of this process so far?: In terms of approaching it as a designer, the non-linearity of the text is very freeing because it allows me to not make a literal space, because it doesn’t describe literal circumstances. It is a very freeing thing in terms of design.
What’s one reason people should come see this play?: It does offer different perspectives on melancholy and on compassion.
THE IN DEPTH DISCUSSION: with director Jeff Pufahl and lead actress Eva Barrie (Tilly)
Shaina: Why this specific play?
Eva: Jeff and I were looking for something to work on together, since 2013. We were bouncing back and forth between a couple ideas, never anything that was really sticking. And then I heard a snippet of text from this play in an open Viewpoints session, and I went to the reference library and I just started reading it, and midway through reading it I texted Jeff and said “What do you think of this?”
Jeff: I did my thesis on Sarah Ruhl in my MFA, and the second play I directed after that was Dead Man’s Cell Phone, which is another one of her plays. So Eva said: “Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play”, and it was a natural fit because I have some experience in that area and I love this text. I read all her plays when I was doing my Masters and had noted this was a really fun and interesting puzzle to work on. This play is so much like a puzzle.
Shaina: How would you describe the play in 5 words or less?
Eva: Red, yellow, blue… (She laughs)… quirky, curiosity inciting
Jeff: Exploring sadness & love through the lens of poetry.
Shaina: I’ll accept it.
Shaina: I know you guys met at the SITI company. Has that informed the way in which you’ve been working with this play?
Jeff: Yes. I think my experience with Viewpoints, has informed my whole way of looking at theatre. Especially as far as looking at theatrical elements as building blocks: time and space and architecture and text and character being all pieces of a puzzle that you can move around horizontally as opposed to stacking up vertically.
Shaina: Does that change the relationship of players and audience in any way?
Jeff: I’m not sure, because an audience’s experience and perception of a play is unique to their experience. So it’s difficult to say what the outcome will be.
Eva: I think this play specifically is so hard in that way because it is so reliant on audience involvement. I mean most are, but in this one specifically, I play to the audience a lot. They are partners.
Jeff: They’re really part of the conversation.
Shaina: So is the audience close enough that you can see them?
Shaina: That has to change things for you, Eva.
Eva: Yeah. Sarah’s also very specific. She writes: “Don’t talk at them, talk to them.” One thing that Jeff said on day 2 from her book is that “there’s no pillars.” An actor is worried and scared and in Sarah Ruhl’s plays there are no pillars, nothing to hide behind. And she meant set, but it’s just you up there. You cannot fake this language and you cannot fake the way we’re doing it either.
Shaina: What has been the best part of the process so far?
Jeff: These past couple of days when we’re starting to see how the play begins to live and breath as its own entity, to put it together piece by piece. Right now we’ve worked on all of the pieces, so for me, starting to see it coming together is very exciting, from a directing standpoint.
Eva: For me, what is most funny about this whole process is I had this instinctual urge to do this play, but I couldn’t name why. And it was never a play that I could say “this is the way this should be performed”, which is why I like it. But during the first couple days of being thrown in it, I thought: I understand now why this play resonates so strongly with me, on so many levels. It was amazing to un-peel that and examine how I work with this kind of topic. Discovering how our humanity is in this play. Confronting my own humanity within this play. It’s made me weep A LOT.
Shaina: What does Melancholy mean to you?
Jeff: Melancholia, melancholy is a sadness. It’s a kind of longing. It can be thought of as: you’re missing something, a person who’s no longer there. Or the melancholy we experience when we realize that our youth has passed us by or is passing us – that we may experience a certain sadness just understanding where you are in life. The beauty that we witness in an experience and then the sadness when we realize that it’s going to end, can be thought of as various forms of melancholy.
Shaina: So what makes you melancholy? And what makes your character melancholy?
Eva: One thing that makes me very melancholy is nostalgia. Just looking back in time. And I think that makes Tilly very sad too, but in a big way. She’s nostalgic for times she’s not experienced. For example, she is nostalgic for King Arthur and she carries that with her.
Shaina: It’s like humanity’s nostalgia.
Eva: These are the moments that are fleeting and passing and it’s overwhelming.
Shaina: Almonds play a huge part in this production. What do they mean?
Jeff: Well, yes the symbolism of the almond is threaded throughout the play. Sarah Ruhl likens it to the amygdala, which is the organ in the brain which is our emotional centre. It’s also a symbol of the mandorla – two circles overlapping, an intersection – which is the shape of an almond. And religious figures are often portrayed in that symbol, so it symbolizes figures in transformation or transfiguration – between two worlds. For the character Francis, her journey in this play is very clear. She transforms. And so the symbolism of the almond is key.
presented by The Empty Room