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Paula Vogel talks newest work, hope, political exorcisms
Second in a two-part feature on playwright Paula Vogel
by Karen Topham
2018-10-03

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Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel is angry.

"We're in a terrible place in this country," she said. "I'm really happy that I get to make at least a little contribution, and spend my nights and days thinking about forming community—because that's what theater-making is," she said. "[Theater is] about making something where people come in as individuals but leave feeling part of the audience. Hopefully the conversation goes on past the conversation in the lobby."

The conversation Vogel is focused on at present is the one sparked by Cressida on Top, making its world premiere Saturday, Oct. 6 in a staged reading at the Goodman Theatre. The piece has ancient roots and contemporary relevance. "[Cressida] is my channeling the Don Juan story, and looking at women in the military in the future, and what happens if we continue down this road with a pseudo-President in the White House. It's a funny, dark comedy," Vogel said. "I just want not to be alone in feeling these things," she added.

Vogel's feelings run deep, but she senses something positive happening in the country today.

"I'm hoping that the #metoo movement is transformational, I really am. I'm hoping that the Donald Trump presidency becomes transformational and that [although] we are experiencing this uptick in racism and hideous treatment of immigrants, women and children, we [also] experience a turning point," she said.

Vogel has been dramatizing social issues—honing in on LGBTQ+ issues in particular—for decades. The Long Christmas Ride Home [2003] and The Baltimore Waltz [1990], both deal with her brother Carl, who died of AIDs in 1988. Indecent [running through Nov. 4 the Victory Gardens Theater] is about a 1923 play viciously censored because of its lesbian love story.

All of her plays reflect Vogel's belief that being a playwright means being an agent of social change. "I think as an artist you're always saying why didn't I go to law school? Why didn't I do something more politically aware with my life? But at a crisis time like this I feel at least the ability to express some of the anger and fear and resolution," she said.

At 66, Vogel is now an elder stateswoman as well as a revolutionary.

"When I was a kid I used to sneak into the butch femme bars in Washington, D.C., and it was just thrilling: all of these older women who, if they saw me, would say, 'oh honey go back home.' "

Perspectives on identity and orientation has changed over the years, she said. Where there was once a rigid binary, there is now "there is all of this flux in terms of what sexual identity means. I think of even heterosexuality now as a spectrum," she said.

"I think of queerness as a perspective; I think of it as teaching me that identity is always fluid, that there is constant change and flux," she said.

"It's impossible not to be aware of this at least on a subliminal level," Vogel said. "Even in the smallest town or the reddest state, people [are] aware—otherwise we would not be having so much of a backlash. [F]ear has divided us. The ability to redefine what gender is has created this fear.

"Still, there is an even greater fluidity in gender now and that is pretty thrilling," she said.

Fluidity is a watchword for Vogel's style as a playwright. All of Vogel's play's have different structures or forms. People don't live inside a tidy "beginning-middle-end" structure and neither do Vogel's characters.

"I try to have a different plot structure for every play I write," Vogel said. "A beginning middle and end doesn't begin to encapsulate how we feel when we age, how we process our dreams in the morning, how we remember things."

Using a beginning-middle-end format can "really restrict the way people tell their stories. [T]here are so many more ways to play with form and time together with an audience," she said. The Baltimore Waltz, for example, tells the story of her brother's death through a fictional series of semi-connected scenes set during a tour of Europe. The Long Christmas Ride Home tells its story with puppetry and scenes that move forward and backward in time. Indecent is told by a troupe of dead players putting on a play-within-a-play. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive [premiered in 1997] uses driving lessons as a glue to hold together a series of monologues and scenes that tell the story of a young girl who is molested by her uncle.

Their structures differ, but Vogel begins every new play with the same questions: "How do we tell this story? How is this story different from any other story? How do we feel together in the room as an audience traveling through a different kind of time?

"Each and every time I write I go through the cold sweat: 'How do I write a play I've never written before? How do I tear up everything I've ever done and go a far out there as I can and fall on my face?'" she said.

"If you tell stories in new ways, they have a better chance of breaking through the old ways of seeing. We stop seeing the problems in front of us because they are continual. So how do I make someone stop and see something that is right in front of their face? If you tell me the story in a way that you've always told me the story, with a beginning, middle and end, I might not remember that story," she said.

How I Learned to Drive is extremely memorable, but it's also a source fo frustration for Vogel. "If anyone had told me that it would be more pertinent now than when I wrote it. ... I don't know what [my] younger self would feel like. We should not still be in this time of continual assault," she said.

But despite the present turmoil, Vogel looks to the future with positivity.

"In my 60s, I believe that it's necessary to have resilience and resolve," Vogel said. "It's necessary to hope."

Cressida on Top will get a staged reading at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 6, at the Goodman Theatre, 170. N. Dearborn St. For ticket info, go to www.goodmantheatre.org, Indecent continues through Nov. 4 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.; visit victorygardens.org .


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