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A Talk with Paula Vogel
by JONATHAN ABARBANEL
2007-11-21

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Professor, playwright, social radical, Pulitzer Prize-winner, lesbian ... Paula Vogel is all of these things, although not necessarily in that order. She is the author of a score of plays over 30 years, among them The Mineola Twins, The Long Christmas Ride Home, The Oldest Profession and—most famously—How I Learned to Drive, the work about the sexual molestation of an adolescent girl by her uncle that won her the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Vogel's play The Baltimore Waltz also is widely produced and admired, a fictionalized version of her relationship with her brother, who died of AIDS. All of the above plays have been produced in Chicago at the Goodman, Next and Northlight theaters, among several others.

Vogel recently made a rare visit to our town to conduct weekend writing workshops at Chicago Dramatists, and she made a precious half-hour available to talk with Windy City Times. Compact in the best Judi Dench sort-of way, Vogel is warm and relaxed and speaks with ease, enthusiasm and great intelligence without ever lecturing. She is free with information about her own upbringing amid economic hardship in Washington, D.C. 'We lived below the poverty line,' she says. 'No one in our family went to theater; we didn't have money to go to theater, so it's highly improbable that I'm a playwright.'

Vogel began writing musical skits in high school and then started writing plays as a scholarship student at high-toned Bryn Mawr College. 'And then I wrote a play about the breakdown of civilization at a women's college, based on Lord of the Flies. The students and faculty loved it; the administration was not amused. It was no surprise that my scholarship wasn't renewed.' She moved on to Catholic University back in Washington where, she says smiling, 'a lesbian feminist was not exactly welcome in 1972.'

Cornell University was her next academic stop, where she found a teacher who definitely steered her towards a theater career and guided her into the doctoral program. She paid her way as a clerk-typist. 'I typed my way through the first year at Cornell,' she recalls. 'I could type 85 to 90 words per minute, which is a very useful skill for a playwright to have.' Having completed her dissertation, she fell victim to a coup within her department in which her liberal faculty advisors were replaced with their politically opposite numbers. They ordered her to trash her two years of dissertation work and start over. She told them to shove it and quit.

After some years as a struggling playwright, although one whose plays was produced, Vogel was recruited by the very prestigious Brown University where she has remained for close to 25 years. She's now a Professor of Creative Writing and famous for the playwriting workshops she organizes each year. Despite her success and fame, she says that even within the liberal milieu of an Ivy League university and the world of professional theater, she has found a surprising degree of prejudice and bigotry.

'I think I was fired at Cornell in part because I was open ( about being lesbian ) . ... There has been some horrific bashing in the field of theater as well as academics. I've had graffiti written in my notebooks or on the blackboard, jokes told to my face ... .' Her inspiration as a writer and role model—not that Vogel claims to be one, but she is—has been Marie Irene Fornes, now 77, a New York writer who was born in Cuba and is a legend of Off-Broadway theatrical innovation, progressive values and the women's movement. 'Marie Irene Fornes is my mantra. Being in the closet is not an option because of her. Being in the closet is just not an option because of my brother.' She chuckles, 'Been gay so long, looks like straight to me. Yet I don't feel I can speak for young lesbians.'

Despite her own lengthy and successful career, Vogel says 'The American theater remains homophobic. In fact, there's a peculiar misogyny combined with homophobia that's very potent. If we say that only 17 percent of all plays produced are written by women, can you imagine how few of those are written by lesbians?'

Vogel's own current writing project is work of musical theater, A Civil War Christmas, combining literature and music from the great War Between the States, and set on Christmas Eve, 1864. She's spent eight years researching the history, literature and music of the period to shape the work, which will see two developmental productions next year under the direction of the gifted Tina Landau ( a Steppenwolf Ensemble member ) .

'My first love has always been musical theater ( but ) I took a 30-year detour,' she says, explaining the gap between the musicals of her high school and college years and today. 'The musical is the American art form. It's the most like Brecht's work was ( in 1920's Germany ) as an expression of Americanism.'

Vogel has a great deal to say about contemporary America, to be sure, and none of it is very good when it comes to the current state of our politics and our government. She decries the Bush administration and its compulsive need to foster subjects of hatred, whether Islam, immigrants or gays and lesbians.

She does believe that the creative impulse within everyone is a saving grace, or might be if it were not wrung out of most of us as children by conformity-driven social and educational systems. 'I come from the point of view that we are all born innately artists; that creating in the arts is a human impulse. ... If all men and women are artists, then every man and woman is gay or lesbian.'


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