Interview: In Her New Memoir Smile, Sarah Ruhl Tells the Story of a Face — Her Own

Ruhl discusses her struggle with Bell’s palsy in this gorgeous book.

The first thing I did was apologize to Sarah Ruhl.

For a full decade, I worked on Broadway and off-Broadway red carpets as TheaterMania's opening-night photographer, caught in a scrum of camera people desperate to get "the shot" — and to get all their subjects, famous or not, to flash them a big, toothy grin.

So when I got up to that point in her new memoir Smile: The Story of a Face, the point where Ruhl describes the characteristics of her smile and exemplifies it with a photo taken at a Broadway opening night, a photo not unlike one that I have in my personal archive, I felt really bad. "You can see that my left side is making a little attempt at smiling, lips closed, though the left eye squints in protest and my chin reacts in kind." You don't really think about the people you're photographing, I realized — you just want them to hit a mark, smile, and move on. But everyone has a story, and Ruhl's is particularly wrenching.

Diagnosed with Bell's palsy in 2009, shortly after the birth of her twins and right around the time that her drama In the Next Room (or, the Vibrator Play) was premiering on Broadway, Ruhl has lived with the effects ever since. Her experiences, though, are just a small part of Smile, a gorgeous and honest work that also explores marriage, love, motherhood, Buddhist philosophy, and theater, all in Ruhl's inimitable poetic style. Here, she discusses the process, and what comes next.

Sarah Ruhl
Sarah Ruhl
(© Gregory Costanzo)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You say in the book that you're not one to sit down and write a tell-all. Knowing your reluctance about that genre, what changed your mind?
I was resistant to even the word memoir. I never thought I'd be a person who would even write something in that genre. But I'd written an essay on the subject – a very short little essay – and my husband pointed out to me that it was something I thought about a lot, and something that pained me a lot, and when something pains me and I think about it a lot, I write about it. So he was sort of asking why I wasn't writing about this. I found, once I started writing, that I had a lot to say that came pouring out.

Was your process in writing Smile vastly different from your process of working on a play?
Yeah, it was different. I mean, in both cases, I find that once I'm really going, it's as if time stops and I'm unaware that I've been writing for two hours. So it was similar in that sense. But a play has more of a beginning, middle, and end shape for me as a process. And this was more sort of diving in and eddying outwards. I guess, in every genre, I find that writing has its incredible pleasures and its pains, to the point of which you think "is this even a piece of art, or is it just musings?" There's always a point in a play where I think "is this even a play?" So there's that.

But I also think there are two kinds of writers: those who really like to be in the writing process, and those who like to have written. I find that I do like to write when I'm really inside of it, and writing this book, in particular, felt cathartic and necessary to me. Even though it was painful, I enjoyed writing it.

And it was scary. Someone was asking me about honesty in writing a memoir, and I was thinking that, if you're not being honest, why are you writing a memoir? It's like skinny dipping with your underwear on. What would be the point? So while I'm not interested in the sort of gossipy tell-all kinds of work that flays you open in that way, I am interested in spiritual autobiography in general, where there's a kind of open progress and you've got to follow the writer through that with them. In a funny way, it was comforting to think while writing this that others might be in a similar situation, or on a similar walking path.

I was going to say, I can see this book being very helpful for those who are in a similar situation. Bell's palsy is not something that you see written about very often – at least, it rarely comes up in my little sphere. And not just that, you're very frank about postpartum depression and other immediate pre- and- post-birthing issues.
It's hard to write about, and it's hard to talk about, so I see why it's not written about. Jonathan Kalb was the only one who's tried to write about it. But I'm glad you say you think it might be helpful, because the older I get, that's the main use I see for art. If it's helpful, I would be very happy.

I hesitated to write about postpartum depression, partly because of my children. I think there's a sense that if you had postpartum depression, you feel it might mean that you didn't love your child well enough or deeply enough. And I think that's such a fallacy. That made me want to write about it, but you feel tender towards your own children reading that because you don't want them to think that there was this beautiful arrival and I was unhappy. You want them to be aware of your love and your joy.

After I wrote the book, I was talking to my editor about it and my daughter was listening in the back seat of the car. After I hung up, I said, "That must've been interesting for you," and she said, "I guess I just always thought of your face as this beautiful house, and one day a wall came down and you kept trying to repair it brick by brick, and you spent so much time thinking about it and trying to repair it, but we didn't care because when we looked at your face, what we saw was our home." And I thought that if I'd known that 10 years ago, I wouldn't have had to write this.

What else do you have coming up? I know you've got a play at some point, and then there's a musical you're working on with Elvis Costello of A Face in the Crowd.
Most of my theater stuff got really postponed. And it's just chance. Everything gets thrown up in the air and then everyone's schedules come down sooner or later, and in my case it's later, which is probably fine because I have enough to occupy me. But I have this play, Becky Nurse of Salem, which was done at Berkeley Rep and is coming to Lincoln Center next fall. A Face in the Crowd we're still working on and we're almost done with it. If the pandemic hadn't happened, we probably would have done it already, but I'm hoping we announce dates for that soon.

You've also got the opera version of your play Eurydice at the Met this fall, which has a score by Matthew AuCoin. You've co-created musical adaptations of your work in the past, but what is it like to operate on this scale?
It really felt more like a distillation than anything else. It's a lot of cutting away, because it takes so much longer to sing a line than just speak it. Luckily, the play was already divided into three movements, so we thought about things we would cut, and luckily, I like cutting, and because the play version exists, I didn't feel as protective. And everything is just bigger in opera. The scale is so immense. The voices are immense. The stage is immense. The sound of the orchestra is immense. To have that coming at you is astonishing and sort of addictive. Once you've heard those voices singing your words, you think, "Why would I just want them spoken?"