Deborah Dashow Ruth Interview
On July 2, the Virago Theatre Company staged a rehearsed reading of Deborah Dashow Ruth’s play A Routine Procedure, at the Flight Deck in Oakland. Ruth’s play presents conflicts and tensions that follow an unsuccessful surgical operation, normally a “routine procedure,” that result in the patient—a woman who more than anything else wants to have children of her own—losing her ability to have children. The female surgeon who performed the operation, troubled by her own traumatizing experience regarding a pregnancy, has to face disturbing questions when confronted later by her patient.
After the performance of Ruth’s play, the audience discussed at length the issues of gender roles, expectations, and entitlements, and the extent to which these have changed in the last generation.
On July 11, I met with the playwright to discuss her background and interests as a writer.
dc: How did you get into playwriting?
Ruth: For years and years, I wanted to write plays, but learning out of a book didn't appeal to me, and the only courses I could find were for screenplay writing. Meanwhile, I was doing other writing, first short stories, then novels—I have two unpublished novels in the proverbial drawer—and then poetry. About 30 of my poems have been published.
Actually, ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. I read constantly, although I don't remember learning to read. As I told another interviewer, I feel like I was born reading. One experience that deeply affected me was when I read first read Jane Eyre. I was maybe 14. There’s that part at the end, where Jane, the narrator, referring to Mr. Rochester, says, “Reader, I married him,” and I looked around wondering, who’s she talking to? It was an incredible moment – that a character in the novel could address the reader! Sounds crazy but it really affected me. And somehow even increased my desire to be a writer.
Writing fiction was getting to be a burden, so I returned to poetry, which I'd quit years before. I got accepted into the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop, where, for a week, you have to write a new poem every day. The staff – which included some illustrious, prize-winning poets – have to do the same. I pulled a bunch of anxious all-nighters, and when my seventh (last) poem found approval from Galway Kinnell, it was a transforming moment. I really felt I wasn’t the same person when I got home. The following summer, as we were introducing ourselves, I told the group, “You know how the human body essentially replaces all its cells in seven years? Well, last year it happened to me in just seven days.” Then I began sending poems to little magazines and journals. Many of my submissions were accepted. I even had two poems nominated for Pushcart Prizes, which means that the editors of those journals thought they were good enough to nominate.
But in the back of my mind I wanted to be working on stage plays. Most of the courses available were for writing screenplays, which didn't interest me at all. Finally, I found a one-day workshop in the City just for stage plays, where we actually did some writing. Just before our lunch break, we were instructed to “go out and do some shameless eavesdropping.” So we all wrote down what we heard people saying, then came back to put it together, and we had little instant play readings. It was awesome hearing other people read the dialogue I wrote. Then I heard about Will Dunne’s workshops, and after two of them, I was hooked. The fact that his course meets one weekend every month meant that I had to have something for the actors he invited in to read—I work much better with a deadline anyway.
I also took an online course from Carol Wolf, a terrific teacher and prolific writer of novels, non- fiction, screen plays, and plays. She wrote The Thousandth Night, which was produced at the Aurora Theatre where I met her and ended up taking the online playwriting course she taught at Foothill College. What I learned to do immediately was write ten-minute plays, which I was surprised to find I really liked doing.
The reason I like play writing, which I now regard as my métier, is that like in fiction, it has a narrative, a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and like in poetry, you have to be careful in selecting each word, or at least each statement. So it combines both types of the writing I'd been doing. The fact that I had always been complimented on my natural-sounding dialogue was also a plus.
As for re-wtiting, I actually like doing it. Someone once said, “Stories are not written, they’re rewritten.” No matter how good you think your first draft is, it's still only a first draft. In my opinion, anybody who thinks they can “get it right the first time” has little chance of getting published.
dc: What do you read?
Ruth: My late husband was a lifelong mystery fan, and I caught the bug from him. Before his death two years ago, we read mysteries together, and I became a big fan, especially of English mysteries. We would both just eat them up. However, I mostly read mainstream fiction. My book group that has been going on for at least twelve years, meeting every three months, gets me reading books that I would not normally have selected. Nowadays I’m reading a lot of contemporary plays, especially those written by women.
dc: What writers, or artists of any medium, do you feel have influenced you, thematically, or in terms of style, or perspective?
Ruth: For fiction, Laurie King's mystery series about Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell features complex plots and excellent writing. Also, her novel Folly, about a single woman living alone on an island, was fabulous. I also like Julia Spencer Fleming’s series about an unmarried female minister in a New England town and a married chief of police. As the series progresses, so does the relationship between these two characters as well as the relationship between the new minister and the small town. Except for the fact that the plots involve murder and other nasty deeds, these books read like well-written mainstream novels. They don't really influence me as a writer, though, but it's inspiring – and encouraging – to read books with good writing, good plotting, and good character development.
For plays, I'm a great admirer of Tom Stoppard. When Arcadia appeared at ACT, a friend urged us to read it first. Good advice, because a lot of the funny bits are cleverly intellectually funny, and since my husband and I had read the play, we were often the only ones laughing. Stoppard's frequent play-making technique is to take two events—sometimes newspaper items—that are totally unrelated, hoick them together, and that becomes his play. Very impressive, though so far I haven't been able to do it myself. But as far as inspiration goes, I think somewhere down deep I'd really like to be able to write like Stoppard.
dc: When you think that someone’s work is affecting you as a writer, do you see it as shaping anything specific about your writing, or is the effect something more general?
Ruth: It’s more inspiration. I haven’t found myself thinking, “I ought to try this voice.” I probably should, at some point, try modeling. I’ve done some modeling with poetry but I haven’t done it with a play. So it’s mostly both inspiration and admiration.
dc: What are themes, situations, or issues that you are interested in exploring or exposing in your work?
Ruth: I don’t start out with a theme in mind. Usually it's a situation or a relationship that I want to explore. Actually, I'm interested in long held secrets in families. Many of the blurbs I read about plays nowadays have to do with revealing a long lost relative, or document, or hidden relationship, but this theme has a special interest for me because about ten or so years ago that I learned certain things about my own family that I was totally unaware of. I had always assumed that my family was “normal” – whatever that means – but via rather casual remarks from my two brothers, I began to understand what “dysfunctional” meant. The first play that I ever wrote was called Sibs, about a brother and a sister who have been estranged for years, and one of them says let’s get together and clear the air. In doing so, each one reveals secrets from the past. This play was inspired by a situation with my own older brother.
I also like the theme of girls or women who are assumed to be not capable of x, y, and z, because their fathers or mothers or textbooks say that these pursuits or interests are inappropriate for females. I was raised in the 50s and am especially sensitive to that. In my writing I often have to decide what era it should take place in. With A Routine Procedure, I see that I am going to have to do more with the language to make it contemporary. Generally, also, I have to take away stuff that’s not the play. Wasn't it Michaelangelo who said that in creating the statue of Moses, all he did was take away the stuff that wasn’t Moses?
The second ten-minute play I ever wrote was called True Colors. I did many revisions and submitted it to many places with no luck until it won first prize in a national competition and was performed as a reading in Washington, D.C., in September 2012. The play is about a lawyer, and a lawyer friend of mine who saw the play assured me that, yep, the lawyer stuff was accurate. I need that sort of accuracy. For example, I want to expand the operating room scenes in A Routine Procedure, so I have contacted my gynecologist who helped me with the original play and has agreed to help me again.
dc: What other projects are you working on now?
Ruth: I wrote a complete play, starting early 2013, and had a reading of it in November—the fastest I have ever written a play. Somehow, I think my husband's death the previous year may have had something to do with it, but I've never felt like analyzing that. The play is titled The Fairest of Them All. The cast consists of a King; his son, the Prince; a woman who’s the Palace Wizard; and the Wizard's sister. This was the first time in Will’s course that I came up with something that does not take place in the 50s. After a delightful staged reading last year, I'm ready for the next rewrite. Someone who is interested in seeing the revised version gave me the deadline of August 15, so I have that to work toward. (Remember, I said I work better with deadlines.) I also started something new in Will’s course last year, called Top 40, which – lo and behold – takes place in the 60’s! I have decided to do some mining of my history with my first husband. We lived in Chicago for two years, then moved to Berkeley in 1964 when Mario Savio burst upon the scene. So I set this play in 1965, and I am weaving in whatever seems useful from my own life back then, which I hadn’t done previously. However, I did start writing poems about my first marriage. The most ambitious was a Chaucerian tale in rhymed couplets – the “Aromatist’s Tale.” It's somewhat autobiographical, but I believe that poetry is fiction, so at the end, I have the narrator say, “You know that I would never lie to you./Everything that's not made up is true.”
dc: When artists expose themselves a lot to another artistic medium, whether or not they are conscious of it, it’s likely that they are influenced by that medium. I know that you are very involved in music—you attend concerts at the Freight & Salvage here in Berkeley, you are wearing a Jazz T-shirt, and you always have jazz playing in your home. What is your interest in music?
Ruth: Just as I feel I was born reading, I feel I was born with music inside me. In fact, my most developed sense is hearing. My older brother started piano lessons when he was nine or so. At one point, when I was about six, I sat down at the piano and started playing his recital piece. Obviously, I was the one who should be taking piano lessons. I studied classical, but also bought pop song sheet music to play for fun. Then my parents sent me to the Northwestern University Preparatory Department of Music, where I had a private lesson every week and class lessons on theory and harmony. Meanwhile, my older brother, a jazz fan, would buy a 45 rpm record and play it on his Victrola—remember those?—over and over and over. That rubbed off on me and made me a jazz enthusiast. When I went to Wellesley College, I majored in English and minored in music. My first husband, a music lover, adored Mahler and Bruckner, and always played his records very loud – and neighbors be damned! In the mid-60s, Bruckner was hardly ever performed, and when he found that Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was being performed at the newly opened Lincoln Center, he and I and a friend left Chicago on a Friday night and drove straight through to New York where we went to a matinee of Bruckner’s Seventh. On Sunday, as we were driving home, the recording of that concert was aired, so we heard the entire performance again. That was a big adventure at the time.
dc: When I first asked you about your interest in writing, you mentioned dialogue. It’s possible this is your hearing at work.
Ruth: Hmmm . . . I hadn’t thought of it that way. But you’re right. I have to keep reminding myself, though, that spoken English is much more casual than so-called “written English,” which served me well at college when I had to write term papers!
dc: A whimsical question: If you could instantly become fluent in another language, what would it be, and why?
Ruth: I have an old preference and a new one. Previously, I would have said Italian, because my younger brother has lived in Italy since he was about 25 and is totally bi-lingual. His wife is Italian, so of course, that's what they speak at home. The sound of Italian is gorgeous to me, and I wanted to be fluent enough to carry on real conversations with my brother's in-laws. But my new preference is Spanish. I've been hearing so much of it recently, and I've come to love its sound. It's a beautiful language. Also very practical in twenty-first century California!
dc: So we return to your recurring motif, about the importance of the sound of things!
Ruth: Right. The sounds. Absolutely!