Catching up with Paula Vogel:
|by Fay Jacobs|
|An Interview with the Pulitzer Prize Winning Playwright
Earlier this summer, playwright Paula Vogel was in Rehoboth for a special evening spotlighting her works, presented by the Henlopen Theater Project. Organized by HTP Executive Director James FitzSimmons, the evening included special guests reading scenes from Vogel's plays, a conversation on stage between the playwright and FitzSimmons, and a discussion with the performers and the audience. Special guests included actors Sada Thompson, Cotter Smith, Christopher Peterson and the stars of Vogel's play The Baltimore Waltz, being presented by HTP at the time. Vogel, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning play How I Learned to Drive, and The Mineola Twins among others, proved to be a warm and engaging presence in an evening that was funny, emotional and intimate (and a sell-out!) Afterwards, at a reception at Celsius Restaurant (to benefit the CAMP Rehoboth Women's Project) and later via e-mail, Vogel spoke with Letters columnist Fay Jacobs. Photo Paula Vogel (center) Sada Thompson & Roo Brown.
FJ: What was the first thing you said when Fitz told you he wanted to do An Evening with Paula Vogel?
PV: Oh LordI'm not even dead yet!
FJ: Did you know in advance what Fitz had in store for you, the special guests, readings of your scenes, etc.?
PV: NoFitz wisely kept it secret from me. We'll just talk on stage, he said. No pressure, everything low-keyand then when I got there, he sprang it on me.
FJ: What, if anything surprised you about your special night at the beach?
PV: I guess I never realized that I had a "body of work"you know, as a playwright, you do the work piecemeal, one rewrite at a time. I was also a bit overwhelmed by the generosity of all the participants, and the warmth I felt.
FJ: As far as we know, you are the only "out" lesbian to have won a Pulitzer. What has the honor meant to you as a writer, and also, if anything, for the community?
PV: I remember walking in New York with my partner shortly after the announcement, and the New York Blade has this large banner headline in bright red ink: LESBIAN WINS PULITZER. And it so looked like one of the headlines on the Star, or National Enquirer: MOM WITH THREE HEADS EATS BABIES or MARTIANS IN SUBURBAN SWIMMING POOL that we broke down laughing.
The truth is, there have always been trailblazing women who loved women before me, that made the way possible for me: Maria Irene Fornes, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson (yes, we should claim her!), Willa Cather, Jane Bowles. Women who had to abide by conventions and mores of their times. And I feel very blessed to live in a time when we can claim that part of ourselves openly. I think it's not only important, this openness, for all the lesbian and gay students I've taughtit expands the possibilities for men and women who love each other as well. Our love in the lesbian and gay community serves as a model for everyone.
What was also wonderful is that the very next year, after my play, How I Learned to Drive won the Pulitzer, another woman, also from D.C., won the Pulitzer for her brilliant first play:
WITThe first time women have won two years in a row!
FJ: How I Learned to Drive, is about the difficult themes of trust and adolescent sexual abuse. Why did you feel the need to write it and what do you hope your actors and audiences take away from it?
PV: I wrote it, in some ways, as a gift to the younger people I've taught and continue to teach. I know how hard it is to reach the empowerment of adulthood, and I wanted to give something to them: that we sometimes receive gifts from people who have hurt us. And we should use those gifts, look at the pain as truthfully as we can, and hopefully, we can move on.
FJ: The Baltimore Waltz, is another "memory play" that deals with subjects much deeper than they first appear. We know it was written as you dealt with the AIDS death of your brother, and you had some touching and insightful things to say about it when you visited here on July 31. What do you hope audiences will be thinking about when they leave the theatre?
PV: I hope we all remember to treasure the ones we lovethe living and the dead.
FJ: I know you were here in Rehoboth for a whirlwind trip, and didn't even get to the women's beach (next time!) but did get a feel for gay and gay-friendly Rehoboth? Did you get a feel for the enormous sense of community hereand is it something you might want to use for playwriting inspiration (hint-hint).
PV: You know, I've been to Rehoboth on brief visits several times now, and I can feel the sense of community. But the truth is, I'm writing this now at the home I've created with my partner in Truro, ten minutes from Provincetownand so when we need a little sisterly inspiration, we hop into the car and drop in at the Vixen to catch a stand-up comic, a singer, see plays at one of three local theatres, or we just walk the streetsand I know you know what it feels like to live in a town where you can walk the streets without fear, and see your lives mirrored by those around you.
FJ: Why is the notion of "community" so important to you? You spoke a lot about it on July 31.
PV: Theatre is all about communityit's a communal activity. In these days of increasing isolationwhere we watch small screens in the dark, or huddle around the computertheatre gives us a spiritual bread not offered by any other art form. Theatre gives us the chance to gather together in public to look at parts of our lives, and as a community think and feel about these issues which touch us all. Only communal response changes our world.
FJ: I know we talked briefly about your coming back to do a quick playwriting seminar or workshop. What kinds of things do you tell your students to spur their imaginations?
PV: I basically tell people that everyone can write a play. It's a basic human instinct that we're born with: the storytelling gene. And that we have to allow ourselves to play, to write for each other in the circle, to tell the stories that have been given to us. And if each person doesn't tell their story, it may never be told. We just need to have fun; the work comes in the rewrites.
FJ: Fitz and HTP are becoming a big part of the beach community. Can you tell us a story about Fitz we might not know?
PV: Oh no. I'm keeping those storiesyou probably know what you need to knowhe's a passionate, determined artist of the theatre. Fitz, hon, just send the check to my Providence addressmy lips are sealed.
FJ: Christopher Peterson, our Rehoboth Eyecon, did a spectacular job reading from your script of The Mineola Twins. What did he, playing the role in drag, bring to the role?
PV: It was really a revelation for me. He brought a dignity of almost Greek tragedy to the role. FJ: A screenplay of your script for The Oldest Profession is in the works. Roo Brown and Sada Thompson were simply exquisite in their reading from that play. Tell us a little about your plans for it.
PV: Oh, it's been rewritten some thirty times now, with six optionswe're still a bit short on the budget, but hopefully Fred Berner (producer of Vanya on 42nd Street, The Ballad of Little Jo) will be able to film it in Toronto this fall with the actresses who have worked on it with me in readings: Olympia Dukakis, Rita Moreno, and Cloris Leachman.
FJ: So, when are you coming back to our area? We've got a mile-long list of gals who've volunteered to escort you to the women's beach!
PV: Be still my heart! I'll keep this inducement as a carrot to urge my work along.
FJ: What else might you want to say to Letters readers?
PV: Please, please support the Henlopen Theater Project! I've seen the miracle that can occur with a great small theatre company and a communityeveryone gets enriched. Please get involvedif not with money, then with time, with your hearts. I hope to come back for a tenth anniversary season to celebrate this community for keeping the flame burning!
For more information on the Henlopen Theater Project, call Donna Moore or James FitzSimmons at 302-226-4103.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 11, No. 13, September 21, 2001.