In the Next Room, or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl

University of Minnesota, 2017

Annie (Madeline Wall) and Sabrina (Isabel Enns) in the operating theatre while Catherine (Tessa Dahlgren) eavesdrops

The cultural moment and the rehearsal process

Fall 2017 turned out to be a very peculiar moment to be working with undergraduate students on a play that is about discovering and exploring one’s sexuality. When I accepted the project last spring, I had, half-jokingly, urged the Chair of the Department of Theatre & Dance at the U of MN not to fire me before talking me when a student inevitably arrived at her office door in tears. As a guest artist and an adjunct, I have been thrown under the bus at other institutions, so I had some real anxiety as I thought about how to build an ensemble and begin to explore this tender terrain with undergraduate actors, even as I said that the play seemed like a very sex positive response to having a Pussy Grabber in Chief in the Oval Office.

It was important to me from the start of the process to ensure that all the students knew that their voices would be heard in our rehearsal room, that they had agency. We spent the first few days of rehearsal on ensemble-building and acting exercises, slowing ratcheting up the ask in terms of vulnerability and emotional risk. We then spent a week or so on what I might call physical dramaturgy; we spent some time at the table, talking and listening, but we spent as much time feeding the scenes into one another, and discussing what the students discovered in this way. I spent a lot of time urging them not to make decisions too soon as well as coaching them to push constructively back on directors who demand an answer during the early days of a process. We took good care of one another. We asked permission. We shed some tears. We disclosed some trauma, but I believe everyone felt safe to do so because of the foundation we had lain together at the outset.

And then the Harvey Weinstein story broke. And then the Kevin Spacey story broke. And then … I sat my seven actors and three women stage managers down in a circle one night. “I wish that all ten of you might have careers devoid of sexual harrassment, unwanted gropes, grabs, and assaults, but based on my own experience and that of my colleagues, I think it’s statistically impossible.” We talked about what to do when that moment arrives, about who to speak to. I urged them to call me if they didn’t know who else to contact.

The show played to approximately 200 people each evening of its eight-night run. Some audiences seemed more anxious with the subject matter than others, some more desperate to laugh, and some opened themselves right up to the vulnerability and discomfort the play engages. I observed that the post-college adults in the house had lots of questions at our post-show discussions about how to engage with younger people around issues of consent. Professors from various departments pulled me aside to ask their questions about what they have always perceived to be casual physical contact. Good questions. Good discussions.

Director’s Notes from the program

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, is based on historical fact. It is also a cry from the heart, and maybe also the clitoris. ‘Hysteria’ comes from the Greek, and refers to “suffering in the womb.” Hysteria was a kind of catch-all of ‘female troubles,’ and its symptoms depended largely upon who one asked.

In the fifth century B.C., Hippocrates suggests that it was treatable with exercise and massage. Vulvular massage was a standard treatment by the time of Celsus, in the first Century A.D. For more than 2000 years, medical men (and I mean men) have perpetrated the notion that the overwhelming majority of women were, in some way, defective, because they were not able to achieve orgasm through penetrative heterosexual sex. Women have been told for millennia that they are broken. Our patriarchal culture continues to struggle with the documented reality that the almighty penis just isn’t enough to drive many a girl to ecstasy.

In the 1880s, the brand new vibrator was used by doctors as a treatment for hysteria, and was considered far more efficient than the manual stimulation of the clitoris, because the vibrator required less time and, significantly, less skill.

Dr. Givings is alight with enthusiasm for all the wonders that electricity promises, and has, like so many actual men of his time, managed to persuade himself that he is delivering medical treatment. In The Technology of the Orgasm, Rachel Maines writes, “Since no penetration was involved, believers in the hypothesis that only penetration was sexually gratifying to women could argue that nothing sexual could be occurring when their patients experienced the hysterical paroxysm during treatment.”

Catherine Givings is struggling to find her place in her own life. Having been raised to believe that her ultimate achievements will be dutiful subservience in marriage and faithful motherhood, she discovers that cannot feed her baby and she can scarcely catch her husband’s attention.

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, is ultimately a story of women learning to ask for what they want against the nearly impossible odds of the patriarchy working hard to constrain their very ability to dress themselves, much less express themselves fully, pursue careers and scholarship, or even learn the vocabulary that will allow them to understand their own bodies fully. It’s a journey of discovery and sexual healing through a world lit by lightning.

Latest Tweets

Follow your bliss: it will lead you to the black pit of despair.
– Jeff Watkins, The Shakespeare Tavern

You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation…
--The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, scene i