To Paula Vogel, Writing Is a 'Hot, Throbbing, Very Wonderful, Brave Act' | Playbill

Playbill Pride To Paula Vogel, Writing Is a 'Hot, Throbbing, Very Wonderful, Brave Act'

The playwright explains the original inspiration behind some of her most beloved plays, including How I Learned to Drive, Indecent, and Mother Play.

One of the most important things a storyteller can do is write toward their own needs, rather than bow to external pressures.

When Paula Vogel, now one of the most-esteemed playwrights of her generation, began her career, she was not immediately showered in accolades. As a lesbian playwright who regularly delves into empathetic explorations of taboo subjects, her work has ruffled conservative feathers for decades, even as she has picked up an ocean of admirers. 

The legend just picked up her third Tony Award nomination, this time for Best Play for her deeply personal Mother Play, now on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre. And in a feat, its three stars have also received nominations. It’s a “semi-autobiographical” piece with Jessica Lange as Vogel’s mother, Jim Parsons as Vogel’s brother, and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Vogel herself. Mother Play is hardly the first time she’s infused her own lived experience into her work: her breakout, 1992’s The Baltimore Waltz, also called upon her complex familial bonds. 

“I wrote The Baltimore Waltz a year after my brother died,” Vogel shared, her continued grief palpable. “I had been his caretaker while he was dying of AIDS. And I just thought I could never write again, I was in such deep grief… so, I went to this beautiful place called the MacDowell Colony. They put me in this cottage, where Thornton Wilder had written Our Town, and I saw his name on the wall. And I went ‘to hell with it.’ I locked the door of my cottage, and I didn't come out for three weeks. When I came out, I had the script in hand.”

Paula Vogel photographed at Alchemical Studios Vi Dang

The play, which was her equivalent of an AIDs memorial quilt for her brother, Carl, ended up winning three Obie Awards. It also launched Vogel’s name into the upper echelon of attention-grabbing playwrights in the 1990s. 

Audiences can, at times, confuse the autobiographical aspects of Vogel's work as unvarnished truth. But in reality, it is her unflinching willingness to go deeper than fact, crafting narratives designed to open the eyes of audiences to greater emotional understanding, that has made her a generational powerhouse.

By the end of the ’90s, Vogel’s play How I Learned To Drive won the Pulitzer Prize. The piece, which follows the uncomfortably close relationship between a girl and her uncle throughout her teenage years, drew pushback from conservative voices. While the piece deals with a number of taboo subjects, including pedophilia and incest, it is, at its core, about the stories we tell ourselves to survive.

How I Learned to Drive had Vogel nervous at the start. “This was a play that had been in my head for 15 years. We did the first reading in Alaska, and it was terrifying. When the play was over, the sound of silence in the room… I thought, ‘Oh, my God, they're going to step on me.’ I didn't realize it was because they couldn't speak.” How I Learned to Drive, which premiered Off-Broadway in 1997 in a seminal production with Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse, has since gone on to be a treasured piece of oft-revived American drama.

Paula Vogel photographed at Alchemical Studios Vi Dang

Also treasured is Vogel's 2017 play Indecent, which marked her Broadway debut after decades of acclaim Off-Broadway. “I had been long interested in doing a play about censorship,” Vogel explains, sharing how director Rebecca Taichman had first brought the idea of translating the Yiddish play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch into English. Asch’s play, which was presented on Broadway in 1923, was controversial because of its depiction of a lesbian relationship—which led to the indictment of the cast and crew of the play in America for obscenity. Vogel wanted to go further—not just to translate the play but to dramatize the conversations around it.

“I told Rebecca, ‘It's not about the trial.' Now, this only occurs every now and then (it happened during How I Learned To Drive). But sometimes, I see something. I said, ‘I'm seeing a dusty Yiddish vaudevillian troupe that have been sitting in the dust for ages. And they start to stir. And they rise to their feet, and they brush off the dust. We've got to go there’.” After nearly a decade of research and readings, and more than 40 drafts, Vogel finally finished Indecent, providing a voice for the artists who had been silenced, and for the audiences who were never able to be changed through the experience of seeing God of Vengeance.

When students from her highly regarded courses at the Yale School of Drama asked how she found the guts to write such visceral work, Vogel’s advice was usually a loving blend of introverted taste and extroverted consideration. “You have to be aware, when you're writing something, of who's in the audience,” she explains. “Whose life story are you telling, if not only your own? How do you give them grace and privacy and respect so they can process their own experience in the play? It’s a hot, throbbing, very wonderful, brave act.”

My Life in the Theatre is filmed at New York’s Alchemical Studios.

Paula Vogel photographed at Alchemical Studios Vi Dang
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