Of Page and Stage
- The works of playwright Sarah Ruhl rewrite history and document tragedies from her own life.
- Michelle Dorrance is an embodiment of the history of tap dance, a uniquely American art form.
- Along with Hunter S. Thompson, Ralph Steadman is the Godfather of Gonzo journalism—a famously irreverent form.
Ralph Steadman is a renowned illustrator known for his distinctive style and his longtime collaboration with writer Hunter S. Thompson.
Steadman was born in England in 1936 and attended East Ham Technical College and the London College of Printing. He was working as a freelance illustrator when he received an assignment to accompany Thompson to the 1970 Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly. The resulting article featuring Thompson’s quirky narrative and Steadman’s signature sketches is credited with kicking off the satirical gonzo style of journalism. The pair would work together for the next fifteen years, including on Thompson’s notable 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Steadman’s spindly figures, ink blotted canvases, and whimsical imagery has also graced numerous books, album artwork, advertisements, and performance posters. Among his best-known work, he designed the art for cult 1987 film Withnail and I, won a Francis Williams Book Illustration Award for illustrations to a 1967 edition of Alice in Wonderland, and created the labels for Flying Dog beer.
Sarah Ruhl is a celebrated playwright and essayist. She has been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and a Tony Award for Best New Play.
Ruhl was born in Illinois in 1974. She studied poetry at Brown University and switched to playwriting at the urging of Pulitzer-winning author Paula Vogel. She earned her MFA at Brown in 2001. Since then, she has written over fifteen original plays and adaptations that have been staged by theaters across the United States and elsewhere.
Ruhl is known for her deeply psychological work that reexamines history and literature from a woman’s perspective. Her breakthrough play, The Clean House, a whimsical story of a maid who would rather tell jokes, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Her Broadway debut, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) (2009), a period piece about the history of the vibrator, received a second Pulitzer nomination and a Tony nomination. In 2020, her retelling of the Orpheus myth, Eurydice (2003), was adapted into an opera at the Los Angeles Opera.
Ruhl teaches playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.
- Stage & Screen
- Art & Design
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how art tells all of our stories. Coming up on this episode, the works of playwright Sarah Ruhl rewrite history and document tragedies from her own life.
Sarah Ruhl: The body is an amazing teacher, and my own father died of cancer, that prepares you for death in a way that I think in a funny way like pregnancy prepares you to have the baby. It’s like you can’t get any bigger, and something has to give.
Michelle Dorrance is an embodiment of the history of tap dance, the uniquely American art form.
Michelle Dorrance: This is the way the dance looks, because this is how you have to articulate it to hear it this way. You are constantly a musician as a mover.
And along with Hunter S. Thompson, Ralph Steadman is the godfather of Gonzo Journalism, a famously irreverent form.
Ralph Steadman: It means hinge. So I guess if you’re unhinged, you’re kind of Gonzo.
That’s all coming up on Articulate.
Though she’s now one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, Sarah Ruhl once believed she was destined to be a poet, but at Brown University she met a teacher who would change everything. The Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel, a dedicated and occasionally devious mentor.
Sarah Ruhl: So, she snuck a play of mine into a new play festival, it was called Passion Play. And I got in a car accident on the way to the theater. My mom was driving, we got blindsided, and I hit my head and I blacked out. And I woke up, and my mom said, “Oh my God, are you okay?” And I said, “Yeah,” and she said, “We should take you to the hospital for an MRI, make sure you don’t have a concussion,” I said, “No. We have to get to the show. We have to go see my play.” So, we went to the play, and it was so thrilling that night, seeing the thing in three dimensions, seeing the audience react, and I kind of, that was it. And I thought I’m never looking back. But there’s part of me as an origin story that feels like, did I die? Has my whole life been a dream since? I mean, it’s just strange to me that there was a complete and total blackout before this change of vocation happened.
Ruhl stayed at Brown to earn her masters under Vogel and work on well-received adaptations of Virginia Woolf and Anton Chekhov, but her breakthrough came in 2004 with The Clean House, a story about a maid who’s more interested in telling jokes than tidying up.
(Excerpt from The Clean House)
Virginia: I’d be very happy to come here and clean Lane’s house for her, before Lane gets home from work. That is what I’m telling you. Only don’t tell her. She wouldn’t like it.
Matilde: I will let you clean the house if it will make you feel better.
Virginia: Let’s start in the bathroom! I love cleaning the bathroom. It’s so dirty. And then it’s so clean.
Ruhl says that all her plays have a point of interest, where an idea takes hold. In the case of 2009’s In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, Ruhl’s starting point was Rachel Main’s 1999 book The Technology of Orgasm. It explains how, in the earliest days of electricity, vibrators were invented as a medical tool for treating hysteria.
Ruhl: The doctors said it was this amazing time-saving device, they were so grateful, but they really didn’t see it as sexual because they just thought they were giving women medical paroxysms, that apparently was helping as many as two thirds of women, which of course, two thirds of women probably could use an orgasm. So, the point of departure for me was sort of how can this be, how could the doctors have been, you know, it’s not prurient, but really thinking they were providing a medical service.
AJC: And with that, were you attempting to shift the needle on anyone’s ideas or behaviors apropos their attitude to women’s sexuality?
Ruhl: I think I don’t have a conscious, “I will perform this action on the audience.” It’s just not how I write. But if I were to analyze it after the fact, I think even just the act of putting women on stage having orgasms in 19th century frocks, I mean I think it does something. I don’t know exactly what it does. But there’s a stage direction in the play about wanting the actress who has to perform the orgasm to do it in such a way that it’s not how we imagine that all women orgasm, because now we have a lot of pornography and a lot of cultural references, we think we know how women are supposed to sound when they orgasm, but in the 19th century women didn’t know how they were supposed to sound or how they were supposed to register this strange paroxysm. So, I was really interested in how could that experience for the actress, too, be a really internal discovery.
(Excerpt from In the Next Room)
Mrs. Givings: Wait, Elizabeth. Before you leave, perhaps you can settle a question. Mrs. Daldry and I have had two experiences of the very same event. Have you ever had the sensation? Either you feel shivers all over your body and you feel like running, and your feet get very hot as though you’re dancing on devil’s coal.
Mrs: Daldry: Or you see unaccountable patterns of light, electricity under your eyelids, and your heart races, and your legs feel very weak as though you cannot walk.
Mrs. Givings: And your face gets suddenly hot, like a strange, sudden sunburn.
Mrs: Daldry: Or there are red splotches on one side of your entire body, a strange rash here.
Mrs. Givings: And a feeling of burning, as though you’ll get no relief, and your mouth is dry and you lick your lips and your find your face is making an ugly expression so you cover your face with your hands.
Mrs. Daldry: And sometimes a great outpouring of liquid and the sheets are wet.
Mrs. Daldry: But it’s not an unpleasant sensation, but a little frightening.
Elizabeth: Is that a riddle?
As well as plays, Ruhl still writes in other forms. In 2014, she penned a collection of 100 essays she didn’t think she’d ever have time to write. Four years later came Letters from Max, a compilation of correspondences between Ruhl and a beloved student, Max Ritvo who died of cancer in 2016.
Ruhl: He was clearly an exceptional human being, and it’s almost like he had this ancient light bulb hovering over his head, and then at the end of the semester he had a recurrence of a pediatric cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. And I felt as his teacher, it was really important to see him through it. And so, we became close, but then when he graduated he went to Columbia and got his MFA, and he just said all I want to do is write with the time I have left.
AJC: So, he knew at this point that he wasn’t going to live to be an old man?
Ruhl: There was the hope, but also he knew what the numbers were like. And so, for a while we just wrote the normal kinds of logistical emails, but at a point they got more philosophical, and considering things like the afterlife, and poetry. And at a point we thought it would be a fun project to intentionally write to each other. And partly he traveled a lot, he went to the NIH for trials or California, and I thought it might distract him from chemotherapy, and also, I felt a sense of mission to get more of his words into the ether, because I knew he was a genius, and I knew that there was limited time.
(Excerpt from Letters from Max)
Rain falls on the house.
My mother dries dishes
in the dark house in the rain.
“I’m your little dish,”
I tell her, even though I ought to be a man.
“You’re a big dish.”
“You mean I’m very wet.”
I haven’t seen much,
and don’t see much:
The jungle of my short life is one row of white, straight
The vines are white and fall apart in my hands,
as if dissolved under the tongue.
Every living thing is screaming dust.
To imagine a heaven is to admit
there are things in this
world you think you could never bring yourself to
even given an unlimited number of attempts.
“Learn to love everything– the world becomes
“That sounds hard, I have a better idea, pass the soap.”
Ruhl: It was a really sad time, after he died.
AJC: And there was none of that consolation of it was a release, or was there some consolation in that? Because the body he was occupying at that point was no longer functional?
Ruhl: That’s true. And I do think the body is an amazing teacher. And my own father died of cancer, and seeing that up close twice, that prepares you for death in a way that, I think in a funny way like pregnancy prepares you to have the baby. It’s like you can’t get any bigger, something has to give, and with Max or my father, the body was so riddled with pain. Something had to be released. So, I do think there’s that preparation.
Today, Sarah Ruhl is continuing to move forward preparing to revive, or maybe even revise history. Her next play, Becky Nurse of Salem is a comedy about the Salem witch trials, that takes great pleasure in repudiating many of the supposed facts of those events as told by the great 20th century American playwright Arthur Miller in his 1953 opus, The Crucible. In Miller’s version of events, which has been told and retold, the panic that leads to the trials is sparked by a gaggle of young girls led by Abigail Williams, a villainous 17-year-old desperate for the attention of John Proctor, a 30-year-old family man, with whom she once had a brief affair. The girls accuse innocent townspeople, including Proctor, of witchcraft, which ultimately leads to his hanging. The play has traditionally been read as an allegory for McCarthyism, the US government’s persecution of so-called communists during the Cold War.
Ruhl: It’s as though Arthur Miller has relocated the witchery, and he’s put it in these young women. Like, not the women who died, and certainly not the valorous John Proctor who died, but put the evils in these young girls who want to have sex with John Proctor, Abigail Williams, and I thought something’s fishy. I thought Abigail Williams doesn’t want to have sex with John Proctor. Why does Arthur Miller think that? Apparently at the time, he really wanted to have sex with Marilyn Monroe, and he felt really guilty about it because he was married. So, his libidinal way into the play was to have a man saying, “Oh I can’t have sex with this young wench, I’m married to a really virtuous boring woman, but I want to.” And the truth of the matter is Abigail Williams was six years old, historically. So, he aged her up, and he aged John Proctor down from 60. What I find maddening about that, I feel like we all have libidinal impulses where we write our plays and whatever, we transmute things, we transform things, fine. But he is so pedantic in the stage directions, making it seem like actual history, so you kind of look at it as Arthur Miller’s writing a history of what really happened, but he fails to mention what he changed, and that’s sort of the heart of the play, Abigail Williams wanting to have sex with John Proctor and then taking revenge and creating this hysterical problem.
AJC: So, are you righting the wrongs of The Crucible?
Ruhl: I’m trying to.
AJC: Good luck.
Ruhl: I know, it’s an impossible task.
But Sarah Ruhl, it seems is undaunted by the impossible.
Michelle Dorrance is a dancer and a musician, a choreographer and a percussionist.
Michelle Dorrance: This is the way the dance looks because this is how you have to articulate it to hear it this way. You are constantly a musician as a mover.
Nothing exemplifies American multiculturalism like tap. The rhythmical dance form was born before the 19th century in places where African slaves and Irish indentured servants were forced to share each other’s cultures.
Dorrance: And so, you have the footwork, and very straight European rhythmic sensibility. And then you have syncopated African musical sensibility, and movement, and an approach to full-bodied movement in the way you would tap percussion. We also have groups of people that can’t communicate except through this, so you have that immediate blending of culture, and also communication based around something that doesn’t involve words so that’s also powerful. And then you have areas like the Five Points neighborhood here in New York where Irish were called blacks. Black dances were called jigs. You know, you look at that cross-cultural thing that was happening in the 1800s, and you’re like, “Oh wow, so this was happening both in major metropolitan areas in the north, and then on the plantation in the south.” And you see the cultures that carried it.
Dorrance has been celebrated as the face of tap’s future. She’s particularly noted for incorporating more contemporary looking moves into her sequences. But she says however modern her dances might look, they’re always building on the past. Indeed, just as the blues has been the foundation for multiple popular music forms that have followed it, jazz and rock and roll especially, so too has tap been crucial to the evolution of many American dance forms.
Dorrance: I think of the origins of hip-hop, the origins of breaking specifically, are rooted in tap dance. A lot of the footwork, and a lot of vernacular movement if you will, so like vernacular jazz, which is also rooted in tap dance/existed alongside tap dance, played into house and hip-hop in a lot of these cultures that are club and street forms now. So, I love seeing the way the footwork from this form influenced that form, and then cycling it back into tap dance. So that you can see this aesthetic that might feel contemporary or street or these things, but really it’s all rooted in this form, so yeah, if I’ve added that perspective to the way we’re working, I’ll accept that because I’m very excited about exploring that, and if I’m using a dancer of mine that’s a multiform dancer that has a beautiful languid quality to the way their upper body responds to their feet, I’m definitely gonna push that forward. But my origin is never in the other form, even though I know the other forms well. And also, what am I inspired by? I am inspired by groups, I am inspired by space. I’m also inspired by virtuosity, but I think that just there’s a range in my interest, and that I reflect that choreographically. That might be a part of why it feels innovative but the truth is like it’s all rooted in for me it’s all rooted historically inside the form. Maybe what’s different is the way that I’m putting it together.
Dorrance was raised in Chapel Hill North Carolina by parents who were dedicated to excellence. Her mother was an accomplished professional ballet dancer before founding her own school, where a four-year-old Michelle would later begin her training. Her father, Anson Dorrance, is a former soccer player whose 40 years as head coach of the University of North Carolina women’s team have made him one of the most successful coaches in the history of US soccer. Dorrance’s mom and dad were well-positioned to support their daughter’s early and fast-growing obsession with tap. By age 16, she was a mainstay of the internationally renowned children’s tap company. At 21 she graduated from NYU with a custom major in concepts of race and democracy in American culture, themes that still appear in her work today. Shortly thereafter, she got on the radar of the legendary tap master Savion Glover, who invited her to join his company Ti Dii. At 28, Dorrance joined the cast of Stomp, the off-Broadway cultural phenomenon that brought percussive dance to a mainstream audience. Then in 2011, Dorrance struck out on her own and started Dorrance Dance. It was exhilarating, exhausting, and costly, emotionally and financially. Winning the 2015 MacArthur Genius award, a $625,000 no strings attached grant was her saving grace. The prize allowed Dorrance to settle her debts, provide for her dancers, and press on. Now in her 40s, an age where many pros have already hung up their shoes, Dorrance has no plans to walk away. Still, no body is perfect. For the past few years she has suffered several fractures in her feet, but the time she spent on the sidelines recovering brought her face to face with some hard truths.
Dorrance: It just reminded me I wasn’t getting any younger and that I only had a certain amount of time left to explore things athletically, physically. And I will always work with people who of course are capable, but there is a certain immediacy with which you interpret your own ideas as opposed to having to explain something. So, there’s that, but there’s also the thrill of it. There’s also what compels you to move a certain way. And sometimes that happens in an improvisational setting. You try something athletically that you never would have thought, if you were sitting in a chair I’m gonna be able to do this, like no.
AJC: And I’m guessing as you move forward at a certain point you’re going to have to find a way of it not being a feeling, that it’s gonna have to be that you look at somebody else and go I want them to do this.
Dorrance: Sure, but you know, we die with our shoes on, man. This is something my dad also talks to me about quite a bit, because he’s like you can train until you’re in your 90s. Like, he loves that. He’s still trying to compete in an over-60 soccer league. On top of, of course, competing as a coach, so there is that part of my dad in me. And my mom also still teaches and dances. Like there is that part of you that never wants to let go. Yes, your approach will change and shift, and there will be things that I ask someone to do that I won’t necessarily do, or maybe I won’t even want to do them anymore soon, five, ten, however many years, but I’ll learn that as it comes.
And so, Michelle Dorrance dances on, pushing the boundaries of body, of style, of form, to create something deeply familiar, yet uniquely her own
Ralph Steadman created one of the most identifiable visual styles of the 20th century. His contributions to journalism, commerce, and the world of art, have made him a cultural icon, but when he was first starting out as a small time political cartoonist, he didn’t have an inkling of what his life had in store, only a burning ambition.
Ralph Steadman: I wanted to change the world. It was my idea as a cartoonist. And I believe now say 60 years later I’ve succeeded, because it’s worse than it was when I started.
Steadman’s signature characters spindly and grotesque, yet weirdly whimsical, nod to a dark sense of humor, forged a long time ago. At age four, Steadman lived through the Nazi blitz on London. For eight months, he was routinely jostled out of bed to take cover in bomb shelters, and for years after he was plagued by nightmares that defined his worldview and his drawings. But today, Ralph Steadman is not a dour-figure. The 83-year-old exudes levity and joy. It’s the kind of jolly sense of humor you can afford to have if you’ve accomplished all you set out to do, though it was a long journey for Steadman. In 1959 he landed his first staff gig as a cartoonist for the Kemsley newspaper group and throughout the 60s, steadily built his reputation, freelancing first at Punch, and later for the likes of Rolling Stone, Private Eye, and The New York Times. In 1969, he published his first book of cartoons Still Life with Raspberry. Then he got a life changing offer to cover the 1970 Kentucky Derby with Hunter S. Thompson. The original bad boy of journalism had already made a name for himself with Hell’s Angels, a book about a year he spent with the infamous motorcycle gang. His subjective take on reporting earned a nickname that came to define his often reckless style, Gonzo, a word borrowed from Portuguese.
Steadman: It means hinge. So, I guess if you’re unhinged, you’re kind of gonzo.
Steadman regularly collaborated with Thompson until the mid-1980s, and though iconic, those images represent but a small fraction of the illustrator’s output. Of his 39 books, some are about history’s greatest thinkers, others lighthearted and fanciful. Still more capture distinct chapters in Steadman’s artistic journey, like Paranoids, a series of disturbing Polaroids made using a technique Steadman discovered by chance on a summer’s day in Turkey.
Steadman: It was very hot there, and I remember the morning, getting up and taking a picture of the sun coming up on a very still morning and the light of the sun coming across the sea. And I got a pencil with me, and I sort of did that across it like you do, like that. And it moved. And I went wow this is amazing, I can use this, do caricatures and things. That’s when I found that out, in ’86 I think it was.
Ralph Steadman has never been intimidated by the blank page. Indeed, his signature style is defined by the confidence and enthusiasm he starts every project with.
Steadman: I mean if it isn’t, in some extent, fun, what’s the point in doing it? So, I don’t use a pencil first and I just go straight in with ink, and people say, “Well, don’t you make a mistake?” And I say, “Well, there’s no such thing as a mistake. A mistake is an opportunity to do something else.”
Today, Ralph Steadman continues to add to his epic body of work, still finding pleasure in each new creation.