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Following the Ruhl: How to Master the Stage Kiss

Playwright Sarah Ruhl divulges the story behind Stage Kiss, her latest work Off-Broadway

In Stage Kiss, the new show from playwright Sarah Ruhl—now playing at Playwright’s Horizons in New York—an actress is unexpectedly reunited with an old flame when they’re cast as, well, old flames and forced to lock lips repeatedly during a tumultuous run in New Haven. It’s the kind of situation that makes for high drama, big laughs and a stirring night at the theater—just what Ruhl, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-nominated creator of the 2009 Broadway show In The Next Room, is known for.

DuJour spoke to Ruhl about her new work, writing purposefully bad work and those times when a kiss isn’t just a kiss.

We watch people kiss on stage all the time and never really think about what it might mean for actors. How did the idea to create a play based around the stage kiss come about?

It was a commission from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and I think it really came about from going to work for the past 10 or 15 years, watching people kiss in my plays and thinking what an odd job that is. I just really wanted to write about artists kissing. As the play grew, I became interested in these two actors who were cast in a bad 1930s drama, and they’re ex-lovers and don’t realize that the other one is in the play.  It’s really about what happens to their relationship when they have to kiss 10 times a day.

Did you have any specific couples in mind whose stage kisses inspired you?

Yes, and I will never tell.

A scene from Stage Kiss

What’s your stance on writing kisses into a show? Is it something you’re careful with?

I’m not careful about it.  I’m careful about nudity onstage; I have feeling that nudity should only be in the service of something very, very particular and not put the actor through trauma for no aesthetic principal.  Kisses I feel fairly lighthearted about.

A big part of Stage Kiss involves the actors playing actors in a not-so-great 1930s show. How did you write for that show as opposed to your own?

Well, I read a lot of them. I read a lot of the ones that are out of print that you can only get in rare bookshops and are written by two to three people. And I loved them! My mom was an actress in Chicago, and I grew up going to rehearsals with her and would kind of see the 1930s dramas that she would take me to.

I imagine it was a lot of fun to write those parts.

So much fun. Believe it or not, at a point I considered writing a play about a woman who’s cured by seeing her former love. And then I thought, oh that’s terrible, I can’t write that play.  Somehow I felt that it would work in the zeitgeist of the not-very-good 1930s drama that was resurrected.

Your two main characters are thrown together years after an acrimonious split. Why do that to them?

I think they were meant to find each other in terms of unfinished business, in terms of saying goodbye. The play is about that person you dream about, who you left behind but can’t quite leave behind. What happens if they appear on your doorstep and then you have to kiss them 10 times a day?

Have you ever been thrown into a situation where you’ve had to work with someone like that? 

Playwrights are always hiding. We’re always hiding in the back, in the dark, so no—I’ve never been in that situation. I do think it’s fairly universal, the feeling of hanging onto an old love and wondering what would happen if you were thrown into a circumstance once again.

Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl

At one point in the show, a character tells another the way to stage kiss is by pressing together the dimples of their chins. Is there actually a proper way for people to stage kiss?

I don’t think there is anymore. I think in the olden days there was, but now they just kiss. The dimple on the chin thing was a technique that people used in the movies and sometimes onstage, but I think with the rise of realism people demand actual kisses onstage.

Do you think repeating a kiss over and over eventually makes it boring?

There’s definitely hilarious points during rehearsal where [director] Rebecca Taichman had to say, “Oh, I think that’s definitely an open-mouth kiss”:  and just had to be really technical about it.  I think it’s hilarious that that’s someone’s job. What a wonderful job to have to go and kiss really attractive people all day long.

You guys must have a huge Chapstick budget.

I think they bring their own—it is Off-Broadway.

 

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