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Rising star: Ruby Rae Spiegel

American playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel was only 21 when her debut play received a rapturous review from the New York Times. She talks about her motivation for the controversial Dry Land and what it was like juggling her studies with writing

Playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel

You've probably not heard of Ruby Rae Spiegel, but it's likely that you will hear of her soon. The 21 year-old Yale graduate's debut full-length play Dry Land, written while she was still at university, was shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and scored her a juicy five star review from New York Times critic Ben Brantley last year. The play was called 'remarkable' and spurred Brantley to say "What is it about very young women in the theater these days, and whatever it is, can it be bottled?". Dry Land receives its UK premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre this week.

What was it like getting the reaction to Dry Land when it premiered in New York?

It was very crazy. I actually read the Ben Brantley review while I was in class. I just made a noise to myself and then had to sit there. It was an amazing feeling.

Did writing the play interfere with your studies?

I wrote it in my second year in college and the summer after that. I got a C minus in a class that year because of how much I was working on the play, but my parents didn't mind.

Had you always wanted to be a playwright?

I was really lucky. My High School had a playwriting programme that started in seventh grade. My mum is also professor of performance studies at New York University so she took me to plays and performance art all throughout my childhood. But basically I had a crush on a boy and wanted to write a play so he would be in it and we could hang out. He ended up being really bad, but I enjoyed writing the play, so I got rid of him and kept doing that.

What is Dry Land about?

It's about two High School girls in central Florida, one of them is pregnant and she gets a new girl on her swim team to help her self abort. It's the story of their struggles with each other and with their bodies and with growing up together. And I think the play is as much about abortion as it is about female friendship and loneliness. But it's not a solemn play, it has humour and darkness, the way life does. The title of the play is about safety, trying to find that safe place to swim ashore.

How did you get Dry Land onstage once you'd written it?

I had an agent because in High School I wrote a short play that was produced off-Broadway in a bill of one act plays which did really well. Dry Land was my next play and I sent it to my agent and he sent it out. I met with a lot of companies in New York and often they said: We love this play but we can't do it because our audiences would not be OK with this. One company even asked if one of the scenes could be cut.

Was it a pivotal scene?

It was the abortion scene, so very pivotal. My philosophy is that I'm trying to show the experience of abortion without shame. What does it say if it's offstage? But eventually a company said they wanted to do it and it was just a really fantastic experience.

Was the fact that people were unwilling to stage it disheartening for you?

It was, but also it was heartening to think I was pushing something that people were afraid to confront.

Was there something specific that made you want to focus on the subject matter?

I read an article in The New Republic on the rise of DIY abortions and I was really shocked. This article looked at how American abortion rights are being rolled back: clinics are disappearing and young women across America have to resort to these self abortion means.

Who are your heroes?

Sarah Kane's work changed me and my approach to my work, so definitely her. Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive was really important for me. Annie Baker is somebody that I really idolise right now, I think she's an amazing playwright and is doing interesting things with real dialogue and representation.

Are you working on something?

At the moment I am writing for a new Netflix TV show called VOA which I can't tell you anything about, but it will be on next fall. But I definitely have another play stewing in my mind.

Dry Land is on at the Jermyn Street Theatre until November 21.