Talking with Paula Vogel is the easiest thing in the world. Her friendly, open demeanor makes it feel like a long, warm conversation with your grandmotherif your grandmother happened to be a prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and a social radical, unabashed feminist, and proud lesbian.
Vogel has written 16 plays in the last 40 years. Her work has been produced in more than 30 countries and received more awards than can be listed here. Following the brilliant Artistic Home production last spring of her Pulitzer-winning How I Learned to Drive, this fall brings two new Vogel plays to Chicago.
The Chicago premiere of Vogel's Indecent is running through Nov. 4 at the Lincoln Park's Victory Gardens Theater. At the same time, the Goodman Theatre is workshopping Vogel's newest creation, Cressida On Top. Despite a packed schedule, Vogel took the time to speak with Windy City Times in a wide-ranging interview.
Beyond The Children's Hour
Indecent is the story of a 1906 play written by a young Polish Jew named Sholem Asch. God of Vengeance proved very successful all over Europe, but when it came to America and was translated into English, authorities didn't take well to its unfettered lesbian content. God of Vengeance was shut down. Its entire cast for indecency. Vogel, 66, first became familiar with the play roughly 40 years ago.
"It just floored me that [Asch], a newlywed man, a heterosexual man, could write such a beautiful love scene between two women," she said. "Up to that point, I was a little depressed and concerned that the Lillian Hellman Children's Hour was going to be the model of theatre and film in which a lesbian commits suicide or a lesbian is eternally alone and unhappy and her lover marries a man and lives happily ever afterthat was kind of the model of the 1950s.
"There were not a lot of plays about lesbians," Vogel said, and what plays there were tended fo be about lesbians in primarily unhappy relationships. "I wouldn't call God of Vengeance particularly a happy play, but it basically says that the love between two women is a pure, passionate love," Vogel said.
Variations on a theme
God of Vengeance haunted Vogel for decades. In 2009, she received a phone call from director Rebecca Taichman. "She called and said 'Do you know of this play, God of Vengeance?' and I said 'Oh my God, do I!' As we talked on the phone it started to take shape."
Like all of Vogel's work, Indecent plays with structure and form. "I think the thing that made me start to want to write plays is that it wasn't just paint by numbers and that every person has a story and that story demands a new structure for it, one original to it," she said.
The unique structure of Indecent involves a play-within-a-play and lots of music.Vogel and Taichman came up with the notion of a dead troupe of actors rising from the dust to tell the story of God of Vengeance. From there, they took off, trying variations over multiple drafts and workshops.
The process was a departure for Vogel: For previous plays, she had written in a fury, often finishing them in as little as two weeks.
"I became adept at writing quickly in intense bouts; that's basically how I've written my plays," she said.
Seven years to premieres
Indecent proved more elusive: "It took me seven years to do the research, and then after every four or five drafts, Rebecca would do a reading or put on a workshop; I worked on it a long time. This is a large-scope piece."
Indecent premiered in 2015 in simultaneous productions at Yale Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse.It opened on Broadway in 2017 to positive reviews. ( The Tribune's Chris Jones called it a "deftly structured." ) It won two Tony Awards, and was nominated for three.
"At age 67, this represents the first time that I can actually travel to Chicago and work a little bit with the director and simultaneously work at the Goodman on a new play, so that's pretty exciting for me," Vogel said. "I no longer have an 80-hour-a-week day job that precludes me from traveling."( In addition to playwriting, Vogel served for years as a department chair at the Yale School of Drama and oversaw the playwriting department at Brown University. )
Letting go, leaning in
Now, Vogel says she's excited to see how director Gary Griffin will interpret Indecent at the Victory Gardens.
"Gary and I had a wonderful 24 hours together on Cape Cod exploring his ideas, talking about the play," Vogel said. "He showed me the costume design, the set design. It's never been done this way before. Every production is radically different; it's really a director's vision. When you're doing a premiere it's a conversation and I'm in the room making adjustments."
Letting go of her creation doesn't bother Vogel.
"It's an honor, it's a thrill to see other people's' visions. If one is a control freak one, writes novels. But if one enjoys the party and the conversation, you basically become a playwright.
"As of opening night, the playwright starts to say goodbye. We're the first ones to leave the party, and there's always a kind of mourning, but it's very rewarding to know that [the play] has future lives," she said.
Many of Vogel's plays have dealt with LGBTQ+ issues. Indecent does as well, but also brings in issues of censorship, immigration, and anti-Semitism.
Human sexuality, human rights
For Vogel, LGBTQ+ issues can't be written about in a vacuum.
"If there is anything I am ardent about concerning my sexuality, it is to not see our issues as separate from issues concerning people of color ( or ) economic issues, inequality, drinking water in Flint, suppression of the press, separation of families at the border," she said.
"There is a divide-by-fear mentality and we have to be united; we have to embrace a coalition. So the only thing I worry about at times is if younger people say 'I can get married now and OK I'm done.' Like that's the end of the conversation. That's the beginning of the conversation.
"It's not about our rights as gay, lesbian, trans, bi, queers; it's about our rights as Americans; it's about human rights."
At its core, like its author, Indecent is political. "I wrote Indecent aware of the rise in hate speech, aware of the bashing of immigration, deeply deeply concerned, and I thought there is an important reason to write this because this happened in our history. In a moment of fear there is no history; there's just fear about the future and the present moment and history becomes completely erased."
Indecent runs through Nov. 4 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $29$74. For more info, go tohttps://victorygardens.org/event/indecent/
Note: This is the first of a two-part look at Paula Vogel and the production Indecent. Next week, Topham and Vogel talk LGBTQ issues, theatrical form and the need for theater in today's political environment.