In the Next Room, by Sarah Ruhl, is a play set in 1880’s New York that deals with the introduction of the vibrator as a medical instrument to heal hysteria. The play explores important and personal issues including gender roles, the relationship between sexual and emotional intimacy, and the link between the body and personal identity. Dr. James F. Schlatter, the director of the Theatre Arts Program, chose this play for this season because the issues are still relevant in today’s society. For Dr. Schlatter, it has been both a challenging and fulfilling experience to explore such personal themes with the cast. I had a chance to ask him about his thoughts on the play and the rehearsal process:
Why did you decide to direct In the Next Room?
For a lot of reasons. The main reason is that it’s a really great play. It’s a great story with great roles for young actors to play. I like to do plays that have not just great characters, but also great character relationships. This play is built on some existing relationships that are put in great jeopardy, but it’s also about friendship — about women finding each other and sharing experiences with one another. The individual characters are great, too. Sarah Ruhl has a gift for writing eccentric, unorthodox characters who are absolutely real and true and great for a young person to be able to bring alive.
It’s also a great play because the ideas are important. Sarah Ruhl was inspired by a book called The Technology of Orgasm, which is about the history of how the medical and scientific professions dealt with the female orgasm. In Theatre Arts, we like to do plays that are very challenging from a political, cultural, and intellectual perspective.
Finally, I love the fact that it takes place in the American 1880’s. I love working on plays that have a certain historical dimension and doing dramaturgical research. This play is about a whole new world that’s being born. There’s a lot about light and electricity, which is not only important because of the vibrator, but also changes the whole world. It is a challenge for the characters to deal with, and for me, it adds to the excitement of directing the play.
What has been your favorite part of the rehearsal process?
I’m a director, an acting teacher, and an actor, and for me, the most exciting thing about the rehearsal process has always been discovering the play in the moments between actors. In the Next Room is a play with not only wonderful characters, but also, as I said, wonderful character relationships. I love working with two actors on making the scenes come alive as they discover the play between them. I love structuring the action of the play on how the actors work together to portray the relationships vividly and truthfully.
What are some of the challenges of directing this play?
One of the most challenging and exciting things to work on is that the women and one of the men have orgasms, or paroxysms, as they were called in that time, on stage. A very personal and essential aspect of the play is that the paroxysms have to be very truthful — they can’t be clichés from contemporary culture about how a woman has an orgasm, and they affect each woman differently. The challenge is how to deal with the paroxysms sensitively.
There are also a lot of moments when Mrs. Givings says, “Isn’t it strange?” She’s discovering things all the time. She quickly goes from one thought to the next, and before you know it, she’s in a whole new place. It’s a challenge for the process not just to be a recitation of thoughts. Each one of those thoughts needs to be a different moment and experience. The audience needs to believe that Mrs. Giving is thinking an entirely new thought or wondering something that’s never been wondered before.
Why do you think it’s important for the Penn community to see this play?
For all the shows the Theatre Arts Program does, we certainly hope that the audience — whether students, administrators, or professors — will see that simply doing theater is valuable. We hope that their experience in the theater will be exciting and meaningful. Part of that experience will be seeing young actors doing something that they feel completely committed to, creatively and also emotionally.
I also think this is a play that will surprise people into thinking a little bit differently. We live in a culture that is sexually enlightened, but at the same time we live in a kind of cheap, sensationalist culture. We have talk shows, therapy shows, and magazines that send the message that nothing is better than a healthy orgasm. We live with the kind of mentality of “if it feels good, then it must be good.” In the Next Room reactivates something that we think we know about, orgasms, and makes it a much more complex and emotionally challenging issue. I think audiences will appreciate that we’re not just talking about happy, successful orgasms. Instead, the play emphasizes that there is a relationship between discovering your physical self and your emotional and creative self. Mrs. Givings makes discovery after discovery; she finally discovers that what’s happening in her body needs to go with what’s in her mind. That’s what “the next room” means. That’s what has been separated — her domestic life, motherhood, children, friends, from the therapeutic process that Dr. Givings is committed to. Her discovery is that she needs to put those two rooms together.
I think in today’s world, it’s almost a necessary thing for young people to disconnect sexual relationships from emotional relationships. There is a separation of rooms for young people today, too. One room is for being a student, family member, and child; the other room is a place where you exercise sexual liberation.
Another inspiration for this play was an article in the New York Times about spontaneous orgasms, which showed that women could come to orgasm by just fantasy. It struck me that there was a relationship between female orgasm and the imagination. The article connected me to the play because of the way the women’s minds work. They are able to think outside of the box. When they talk about what the world will be like with electricity, their minds run free. In the play, they release their bodies and their imaginations. The men’s thinking, on the other hand, is more compartmentalized. The vibrator is only a medical procedure to reduce symptoms of hysteria.
The connection between imagination, love, and the body is a great thing to be talking about with young actors. As part of the process, we need to talk personally about these kinds of things. It’s the stuff of real life that we’re dealing with — stuff that we hear about in newspapers, that’s happening on campus, that we hear our friends talk about. Even though the play is set in the 1880’s, we talk about issues relevant to our own lives in order to bring the play alive. There’s an urgency and timeliness to the material that I think makes the experience in the theater more profound.
I can’t know whether we change anyone’s mind about anything, but what’s most important is that the audience’s experience in the theater is complex, meaningful, and deep. I think it will be! In the Next Room is a great play, and the actors have put their hearts and souls into it.