Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz one of the most widely produced new American plays of recent seasons–confronts the scourge of modern times obliquely, never mentioning AIDS in its 30 brief scenes. Instead, the playwright reimagines the absolute through fantasy. Anna, an elementary school teacher stricken with “Acquired Toilet Disease,” tours Europe with her brother while allowing her senses (and her sex life) unfettered indulgences–until her journey of the imagination and her brother’s life come to quiet ends in a Baltimore hospital. Written for Vogel’s own brother, who died of AIDS in 1988, the play hurtles forward with the inexorable logic of a dream and the pressing urgency of a nightmare.
It’s impossible to talk about, let alone talk to, Paula Vogel without mentioning her breakthrough play. Although she has been writing for 20 years, Vogel must now, at 40, bear the burden of being perceived as an overnight success–a newly romantic angle to a long career she has fashioned as an artist and educator. In addition to her ongoing duties as director of the MFA playwriting program at Brown University in Providence, R.I., Vogel has taught, and hopes to continue, a theatre workshop for women in the maximum security Adult Corrections Institute in Providence. In June, she added trustee to her list of titles when she joined the board of New York’s Circle Repertory Company–for several years one of two important homes (the other is Perseverance Theatre of Douglas, Alaska) for the development of her work.
Not easy to decode
“If you try to explore the boundaries of what you’re doing, it’ll always take a gap in time until somebody decodes you,” Vogel says with characteristic forthrightness about her late-blooming success. “I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being decoded; I thought I was speaking the language perfectly clearly.”
If Vogel’s plays defy easy decoding, it may be because they are stubborn, troubling, prickly things–difficult, certainly, but capable of great leaps and, like their author, firmly resistant to the predictable. “Theatre is about structure and sequence, and not about words,” Vogel avows. “Once you go flying and trust that the net will be there, you suddenly realize that you don’t need gravity at all.”
And Baby Makes Seven, an early play now having a belated premiere at Circle Rep (where it runs through May 16 with Peter Frechette, Cherry Jones and Mary Mara appearing under Gordon Edelstein’s direction), covers the same absurdist terrain as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The title characters are a lesbian couple, one of whom is pregnant, the man who has fathered the child, and three imaginary adolescents, all boys, who are portrayed by the two women. Structured without a hint of exposition, unencumbered by psychological analysis, And Baby Makes Seven progresses entirely through Vogel’s sly, edgy sense of situation and character.
Her latest play, Hot’N’Throbbing, provoked fierce audience reactions last October when Anne Bogart (who directed the premiere of The Baltimore Waltz at Circle Rep, and for whom Vogel wrote the new play) directed a workshop production for the Circle Rep Lab; writing about domestic abuse, pornography and desire, Vogel blurred the line between representation and endorsement in a way that proved both discomforting and challenging.
Virtually every playwright will profess to be more interested in questions than answers, and Vogel is no exception–although that statement is as close as she comes to a cliche. “This is a racist, misogynist, homophobic society, and after a while it becomes the air you inhale,” she says. “I’m not an academic who believes in a cure. I don’t believe in fixing plays. I believe we have to get out there and write flawed plays that disturb everybody, and change the atmosphere.
“For a while, institutional theatre felt it had to fix plays and do plays that were safe,” Vogel continues. “In the 1980s, we had a decade of good but harmless work, because people could afford the status quo. Now, the shrinking of our ambition and our stages is leading to the elimination of our stages. We have to take risks or we will close–only by having unlimited imagination are we going to be able to keep going. If the only time I’ll get produced is with a three-character play, then how do I create the world with three characters? We get backed into corners, and all our handicaps have to become gifts of exclusion.”
Vogel is critical but fair-minded about the economic concerns that can influence the operations of today’s resident theatres. “How can you be rational and courageous at the same time, as a producer in the nonprofit theatre?” she questions. “There are no villains in this scenario. It’s the apparatus that is failing all of us.”
Her success in the major institutional theatres now allows her access to the opportunities accorded star playwrights, but that success has been achieved only recently, and she is keenly aware of the doors that remained closed during her journey. As a lesbian who writes plays, moreover, Vogel is acutely sensitive to issues of representation. (“I do not write lesbian plays,” she states firmly. “I will not speak for all women, and I will not speak for all lesbians.”) She does speak as a passionate advocate for the virtues of a nonhierarchical community of artists. “My real frustration,” she reveals, “is figuring out how we can best share all the resources of acting and directing, because that’s what develops the new playwrights.”
Listen as much as talk
At Brown, Vogel balances philosophy with the practical necessities of education. “This is my feeling about teaching: I’m training people to be my colleagues. Anyone who writes in my class and puts their hearts into it, I will support, encourage and love, period. But I also have to say, ‘I’m not fond of this play or that play, here’s why, and this is what my bias is.'”
If any single quality underscores Vogel’s approach to theatre, it may be her desire to push the boundaries of expectation. As a trustee, for instance, she has the opportunity to help influence the power-based structure often linked to play development.
“A lot of people think playwrights are isolated eggheads who sit down and think pure thoughts filled with righteous anger,” Vogel says with impatience. “Every playwright I know has been an actor, or director, or producer, or grants writer or arts administrator. You can’t write plays in a vacuum. You have to know how the system works, and we need to find new ways to produce plays. All boards need artists to listen as much as to talk, and trustees to listen as much as to talk. There are ways of being creative and artistic with a budget, with a vision. It takes incredible courage to do that. All I’m hoping is that we’ll share our convictions.”
A generous woman who repeatedly acknowledges those who have influenced her work (among them Maria Irene Fornes and John Guare), Vogel propounds the virtues of openness and inclusion. “I don’t believe there’s any such thing as the universal in theatre anymore; what’s universal is the fact that you’ve got a collection of people sitting in the theatre at one given moment who have to unravel the play for themselves.”