Poet Meets Poet: An Interview With the Artistic Team Behind 'Dear Elizabeth'

On the Upper West Side, in a room filled with different generations of female theatre artists, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell are talking to each other. Well, actually, many Elizabeth Bishops and many Robert Lowells, different pairs for different weeks. The oldest theatre company dedicated to producing works written by female playwrights, Women's Project Theater, is inaugurating their new theatre space with Sarah Ruhl's Dear Elizabeth. This piece is taken directly from a published series of letters written between intimate friends and world-renowned poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. As a fan of Ruhl and the Women's Project, I took this opportunity to talk a little more with some of the creative team behind the New York premiere of this work, to find out a bit more about this auspicious occasion. The following words come from a series of interviews I was lucky enough to have with Playwright Sarah Ruhl, Director Kate Whoriskey, and Producing Artistic Director Lisa McNulty.

Dear Elizabeth's subtitle is "a play in letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and back again." It's clear from this phrasing that the epistolary play is about more than a series of letters between two poets. In fact, the play is also about bringing to life documents that record a strong friendship through a distinctly different kind of written medium. And not just any kind of friendship, but a complex one. Providing what perhaps ought to be the tagline for play in the future, Ruhl describes Dear Elizabeth as: "It's sort of poet meets poet. Poets sort of love each other, but can't be together, and yet continue to tell each other their lives to each other until the day they die."

Adding to the levels of complexity in the relationship between Bishop and Lowell, the medium of communication becomes an interesting complexity in an era when letter-writing does not hold the place in our lives that it did for these historical figures. In the age of email and texting, we communicate through words in a way that depends upon immediacy of contact. As Ruhl says of focusing on letters in this play, "I think it's a really interesting time to look at it, because I think we're changing so radically in the culture how we talk to each other, how we write each other, and therefore how we experience ourselves and each other." What does it mean to have to write a letter and wait for it to reach the person you've written to? And then again to wait, hoping that their letter is on its way back to you.

This experience of time is a fundamental difference between how Bishop and Lowell experienced communication and the way we communicate everyday. Theatregoers familiar with Ruhl's works such as Dead Man's Cell Phone will recognize a similar questioning of communication versus intimacy in this distinction. As Ruhl says,

These letters would also take time to cross oceans, so in that time there was solitude and privacy. So you would think about the other, and imagine the other over time. That is so different from the way we text each other, and even the way we email each other. [...] We're sort of zipping these thoughts through the ether, and these emotions through the ether, and then they're bouncing back at us. Sometimes I feel like it's one of those bathrooms with infinity mirrors, you know? Where the images are back and back, but there's no depth really.

Yet at its heart, this play is about the friendship between Bishop and Lowell, which is something that McNulty, Whoriskey, and Ruhl all discuss as fundamental to the play's spirit. When asked what drew her to the play, Whoriskey says,

What compelled me to do the play was the extraordinary friendship between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Two people, who between them suffered through manic depression, alcoholism, and isolation, maintained this incredibly strong friendship that was partially based on poetry - on finding the right language. For me it's beautiful to see the extraordinary poetry that two people who lived hard offered their community and by extension, now us.

Ruhl echoes the same sentiment when asked how she would explain the play to someone who knew nothing about it. She says,

I think that the most universal thing is that it's a play about friendship. It's a friendship that spans over 30 years in letters. So, it's about how intimacy accrues over time, how people love and keep each other over time, whether or not in proximity. How writers long for, and sometimes get, intimate relationships with other writers where they're imaginatively matched, where they can meet each other in a kind of imaginative space that's not embodied. I think first and foremost it's a love story, and a story about friendship. And then I think it's also about how we write our lives, and how we tell our lives to ourselves, to our friends.

McNulty says that the play is "a conversation in letters between Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell and Sarah Ruhl about friendship, love, pain, and poetry over half a lifetime. It has been thrilling to see the lives and work of two of the best poets of the twentieth century through the eyes of one of our most gifted and vital contemporary playwrights." Indeed, the fact that this story unfolds from two poets through another poet (Ruhl herself) is also an important aspect of this production. Whoriskey makes the point that Ruhl's generosity in lending her talent to shaping a piece like this is no small triumph. Forming the letters into a coherent piece of theatre is as difficult a task as the other adaptations, from novels (Orlando) and other plays (Three Sisters), that also exist in Ruhl's oeuvre.

Add to this the impressive casts that will take on these roles in the coming weeks, especially the who's who of actresses who will portray Bishop, and its easy to see why Women's Project would choose to begin their new season in a new space with this work. As McNulty puts it: "we are all about celebrating brilliant work by brilliant women!" Whoriskey gives McNulty a great deal of credit for "doing a really beautiful job of revitalizing the mission [of Women's Project Theater]." She continues by noting that McNulty has been able "to get multiple generations of women in a room together, so that, for me, has been a real treat."

This is one reason why Dear Elizabeth is such an excellent choice for the Women's Project's new space. McNulty says of the project that, "Sarah and I cooked this up together, actually!" Ruhl's connection to the Women's Project, where she once served as a WP lab member, and her friendship with McNulty means that this collaboration has actually been years in the making. Ruhl says that McNulty,

was the first literary manager who ever called me into her office, when she worked at the Women's Project as the Literary Manager, years ago - I still remember because she was wearing a leopard-print mini-skirt - and we've kept in touch through the years. [...] And when she got this job, I was thrilled for her. When she talked to me about opening the new space with Dear Elizabeth, I was really excited at the idea of opening the season at a time when Women's Project was sort of planting their flag in a space. Lisa and I came over and looked at the space together this past summer, or maybe last spring, and I was really excited to think of women occupying this space. Thinking about: could there be a writers' room? Could you have a room of one's own? Could you call it the Maria Irene Fornes room, because she did all her work here and she was also a teacher of mine. So, thinking about the lines of continuity of women theatre artists mentoring each other, giving each other a leg up, taking over a physical space seems really important.

The physical space and the emotional space in Dear Elizabeth come together to stage the strength of friendships, words, and collaboration, which have always been important in supporting female theatre makers. When I saw Apple Cove several years ago, I was handed a pin that boldly declared "50/50 in 2020," once again reminding everyone that Women's Project wants to be a part of a world where female theatre makers account for as many of the theatrical offerings as we do in the general population. I have, and always will, be grateful to Women's Project for that mission and that drive, and even happier when the work they champion is as vibrant and poetic as Dear Elizabeth.