Paula Vogel’s Advice to All of Us Right Now: “Follow Your Joy”

Paula Vogel

If you think Paula Vogel is upset that the Broadway premiere of her Pulitzer-winning play How I Learned to Drive was delayed because of COVID-19, think again. “I’m just figuring it’s gone,” she said of the revival, that was supposed to open in April and star Golden Globe winner Mary Louise Parker. The actor also starred in the play when it premiered Off-Broadway in 1997.

“[The play’s] given me one million times back. And if it gets done on Broadway, all right. So I’m fine about that part,” said Vogel on a video call from her home in Wellfleet, MA.

The esteemed playwright is not sitting idle. After getting sick in March, she’s since recovered, Vogel decided to produce the plays she’s always wanted to see. She has started a series of play readings called Bard at the Gate, of plays that have been overlooked in the American theater. The first play, Kernel of Sanity by Kermit Frazier, written in 1978 and has never been produced, is about the marginalization of Black actors in entertainment. The reading of the play that was done last month had more than 2,000 viewers.

The next reading, The Droll {Or, a Stage-Play about the END of Theatre} will be on July 15 at 7 pm EST (if you want a free preview, the play is available to read on Vogel’s website). The next three will be Bulrusher by Eisa Davis (Sept. 17), Origin Story by Dan LeFranc (Oct. 7) and Good Goods by Christina Anderson (Oct. 29). Every reading will benefit a different charity.

Vogel sees this moment as a time to get back to basics. “It’s almost like we had to burn the entire country down in order to see how terribly broken and morally bankrupt America has been,” said Vogel. “I’m feeling some hope. I’m still in love with the art form because of the writers I’ve worked with.”

Vogel likes to speak in pages, so instead of truncating her words in a through-written piece, below is our conversation with her, with only a little editing. Read below to see how she’s finding joy in this time, how she always wanted to be an artistic director and her advice for all of us.

Jose: Every day in 2020 seems to be getting even more preposterous and there are things happening, that sometimes I see them and I laugh. If God or the universe or whatever, is writing this script, it is the most cliche script of all time. So what would your advice be to this universe or this God, that has given us this script that really looks like one of the trashiest disaster movies ever made?

This is history. This is a hysterical and historical period. And they will pass. I’ve been thinking about Elizabethan drama a lot. And the notion that when there is moral corruption on the human scale, it actually triggers natural disasters. It’s tied to the natural world. And if we think about it, actually, I think that everything has been reflected in the trailers for what we would call high-concept movies for a long time. I do believe that studio films are actually a very good mirror of cultural anxiety. Whether it’s aliens bursting out of Sigourney Weaver’s stomach. Just look at the films in the last five years, there’s something in the very high-budget disaster film that I think was an awareness of how morally corrupt our government is.

I think at some point, the trailers will change, there will be different movies. We may go back to low-concept films, which means character-based—everything that I feel great playwrights give us, which is not necessarily high budget, epic Broadway musicals. It is the listening and the empathy and the character. So, I’m thinking that’s going to flip. But for now, it’s like a car crash that you can’t not watch.

This is the first time that I haven’t been able physically to protest. So I feel very indebted to people who are marching and obviously, there’s a lot that I can do—writing the letters, barraging the representatives. But I have to watch as much as I can on every news program, just to witness because if I see something, even if it’s by the phone or through my computer, I have to respond to that. I actually am feeling so much better, to see the bodies on the streets, to see Black Lives Matter in neon letters outside the White House, to know that now that’s going to be on Fifth Avenue in front of the Trump Tower. But the other thing that’s really touching for me is: this is a fishing village and I see BLM in letters posted on the pine trees here. That’s how much this movement has changed the DNA of small towns. We did have a protest, there were 300 people in front of our tiny little town hall.

The reason that I started Bard at the Gate is because I have asthma and diabetes. I was actually in rehearsal in New York, and all of us got tremendously sick and we thought, Oh, no. And I came back home to Wellfleet. And then I thought, “Well, it’s possible that the virus has my number.”

I don’t want to die before I see the play that I quit my job over in 1978, Kernel of Sanity [Vogel read the play when she was a 27-year-old assistant to the artistic director of American Place Theatre in NYC]. So I started with that. And now I actually have about four seasons worth [of potential plays].

So starting with Kernel of Sanity, The Droll—which is looking in a critical way at the whiteness of theater in the period of time that the theaters were shuttered, and looking at theater and authoritarianism in a really interesting way. Bulrusher, which has been done, but they’ve been done in smaller theaters. Origin Story by Dan LeFranc, which has never been produced and a lot of people think it can’t be produced—it’s a mind-blowing look on gender and looks at suburban whiteness in a way that could only be done in a graphic novel.

And Christina Anderson’s Good Goods, I thought, you know, I should see if we can put the Zoom together right before the election. It’s an extraordinary play. I think it’s only been produced once or twice. But it is an exorcism of racism, a literal exorcism. That is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen.

Apart from this, I would love to do Dipika Guha’s work. I think she’s a genius. But I’m also thinking that if this increased, what would be wonderful is that we have different curators. Like David Henry Hwang, all of the work he’s mentored, and say to him, “Can you show us four writers, four plays, where it just tugs at you?” And then he would tap the next curator and on and on we go. 

I think the blessing of COVID is that we can take this moment, that everybody takes this moment and say, “It’s not about returning to the status quo. It’s about redefining what brings us joy.”

“It’s not about returning to the status quo. It’s about redefining what brings us joy.”

Paula Vogel

Diep: You’re self-producing Bard at the Gate. As a playwright who’s always dependent on other people saying yes to your work, you’re the producer now. Has that given you another lens into the theater? Has it given you some of your autonomy back?

I’m really happy. I have enough money to get Netflix. I’ve got everything I need. I’ve got a senior shellfishing license so I can pick up my own oysters. I’m living high. But when I was working the three jobs in New York, I was so frustrated that I started a theater company called Theatre with Tea. And realized I’m not good at asking for money. It lasted two shows. Then in Providence, I started something called Theatre Eleanor Roosevelt. I just like starting theater companies because I loved coming up to friends saying, let’s come up with a name. And that lasted a year. So for a very long time, I thought about being an artistic director because of the lack of autonomy.

And then the last go round, I was a finalist for artistic director at American Repertory Theater [in Boston]. And I knew that if I got that job, it would end my writing forever. But I also thought, what an opportunity because I still think that theater is actually about community and community education. And I thought, what an opportunity to take down the gate around Harvard. So I basically pitched and started making up seasons of new plays and playwrights, and matching them to classes and workshops. And opening up the classical canon. I could see the Provost going, “Oh man, this is a money loser” [laughs]

I made it in front of the hiring committee, and they were like, thank you. And then Diane Paulus got that gig. So that was the last time that I actually went for it. But what I actually do believe is that every 10 years, we need to be able to change over artistic directors, we need to be able to change over university faculty to be able to keep up and push the field forward. And that push is very important.

“I think it’s very, very hard for us to believe in ourselves. We are our first worst critics.”

Paula Vogel

Jose: I want to talk a little bit more about joy, especially because we’re all writers here. And sometimes the process of writing is something that we have a hard time finding joy in. And I would love it if you could share how you find joy in the process.

I need to put it on my wall: “Follow your joy.” Because what you’re saying so resonates with me. I think that’s right. And I think that the difficulties is that we internalize the gatekeepers, and we sit down and we’re hearing the gatekeepers—I’m still hearing people who literally said to my face when I gave them And Baby Makes Seven, “You’re a sick woman.” One agent called me up and said, “I wouldn’t pay $20 to see this, I wouldn’t see it for free.”

Once somebody says something like that, how do you get rid of the poison? Because what I think what we are all fighting against as writers is that there’s an exposure that’s necessary for the theatrical form. And you have to put up the breastplates. But when you find the remarkable artists, when you’re in a room with an actor or a director, it’s our obligation to quickly dismantle the breastplate and take it in and be absolutely visible. So the question is for me being visible, and getting rid of the poison when I write. I have to say, the poison accumulates, it takes me longer and longer and longer.

But what I do is, I literally take scenes and lines and characters, and not until it’s written do I tell people. There was a stage direction in Indecent [Vogel’s Broadway debut in 2017], when I wrote: “Lemml shows them America.” I felt that was a Sarah Ruhl line, here’s a Valentine for her, you know. Sometimes I’ll think about Quiara Alegría Hudes and the amazing things she’s told me about music and theater. She’s really changed the way I look at it. And sometimes I’ll try a scene where I actually try to do just a rhythm. You know what I mean? And then I’ll say, this is my love poem. This is for her.

Always in my plays, always, always, I put something in for my brother Carl [who died of AIDS in 1988]. And I think no matter what I’m living through, what I’m experiencing isn’t anywhere near the experience he felt being an out activist in the ’60s and ’70s. And so I’m trying to find ways that even as a kind of insider fun game to myself, that I bring in the positive energy.

The other thing that helps is really being very careful to accumulate your fellow travelers. To accumulate the first readers around you, to accumulate people who will do you no harm, but actually believe in you more than you do. I think it’s very, very hard for us to believe in ourselves. We are our first worst critics. And so I asked my friends, “Will you hold me to a deadline where I have to send you 20 pages?”

And all they have to say back is, “I read it, keep going.” I don’t need them to critique, I don’t want a critique. I just want someone saying, “Come on. Keep it going. Keep it up.”

And then likewise, when the thing is finished, I have first readers. The other thing that I feel that we do accrue, which is wonderful, is that we accrue actors and directors. Now we need to have at least five accrued, that’s all we need—that will tell us the truth. So five mentors who will invest that emotional commitment. And that’s it. I mean, that’s basically the lifetime. All of those things I think we all can do and not wait for the permission.

Andre Bishop is a remarkable artistic director, but I’m not sitting around waiting for permission to get into Lincoln Center. And the truth of the matter is, is that Andre did me a favor, he’s like, “I’m not your mentor.” And that’s so much better than pretending to be. And a lot of theaters do that. And they do it as tokenism. And then they’re not there. They’re not there. They’re not giving an emotional investment. Quiara had the courage to write about that. And to say, “I need to take care of myself.” Because if they’re not true mentors, you’re getting poisoned. So that’s about it, I think.

And I’m so glad you’re feeling joy. And the thing that I really am wishing is that both of you are taking this positive, incredible energizing step and then using this as the fuel when you sit at the computer—this is what you have to put into your own writing, that you are giving others that energy.

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