Paula Vogel is making her Broadway debut this season with “Indecent.” There is nothing surprising about this — except that Vogel is just now making her Broadway debut. She’s an accomplished playwright whose many credits include “The Baltimore Waltz,” “Desdemona,” “A Play About A Handkerchief,” “The Oldest Profession,” and “And Baby Makes Seven.” She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for “How I Learned to Drive.”
Besides her work on the stage, Vogel has led the graduate playwriting program and new play festival at Brown University and served as Chair of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama. She has also mentored many important playwrights, including Lynn Nottage, Gina Gionfriddo, and Sarah Ruhl.
The idea for “Indecent,” which explores the impact of the 1923 play “God of Vengeance,” came to her as a PhD student in the library at Cornell 40 years ago and eventually evolved through a collaboration with theater director Rebecca Taichman. The original work by Sholem Asch in 1907 about the erotic awakening between two women also happened to be Taichman’s thesis project at Yale.
“Indecent” recently moved uptown from the Vineyard Theatre to the Cort Theater, where the play opened April 18th. It was nominated for multiple Tony Awards, including Best Play.
I recently spoke with Vogel about making her Broadway debut, being female in a male-dominated industry, and her hopes for “Indecent.”
W&H: How does it feel seeing your name on the marquee?
Pv: I’ve been telling everybody that even still today when I go to the theater, my first assumption is that there’s been an accident, that there’s a fire alarm and everybody is out on the street. I can’t quite process it yet.
W&H: What’s it like seeing “Indecent”on the Broadway stage?
Pv: It’s as beautiful as it was in my mind. It rarely happens that something is as beautiful as you dreamt.
W&H: How has gender impacted your career and the choices that you’ve made as a playwright?
Pv: Gender has been a constant chip on my shoulder. It has had an enormous impact. I have all of these ideas for Broadway-sized plays that I’ve never written because I just knew I couldn’t get them produced. This idea has too many women in the cast; this one would take two to three hours and if I got past one-hour-and-forty-five minutes I’d be told my play is too long.
I also really feel that the reviews that women directors and playwrights and screenwriters get are very gendered. Critics say different things about plays written by a woman than [ones] written by a man. I think that most of us know that it’s going to be a much deeper climb. It means that as artists we have better table manners because behavior is judged differently if you’re a woman artist.
It also means that I’ve chosen to underwrite my healthcare and my rent by teaching, and I’ve loved it. Most of the women I’ve mentored who are younger are doing more and more television, and I completely understand. For the first time in my life, I’m writing full-time. I’m about to go on Medicare, and that’s the biggest grant/scholarship I’ve ever gotten in my life as a woman writer.
W&H: Since you wrote “How I Learned to Drive,” did you envision gender equality being different today in theater?
Pv: I have actually thought that since I was 15 years old. I didn’t think I was going to be a playwright. Once I started writing in my 20s, I thought I’d go to Broadway. Now it’s 45 years later. But gradually you start to think: how can I write a play with three characters? How can I write a play that can be done on $10,000? How can I do a play that when the theater company runs out of money because of the large plays written by men that didn’t go well at the box office, they’ll suddenly go, “Oh crap, we need a small play with three characters. Quick — call Paula Vogel! I think she has a three-character play.” That’s kind of the mathematics of how we do it.
I have had the kind of unique experience of seeing “How I Learned to Drive” done on a large stage in Icelandic in Reykjavik — a much larger stage than I’ve ever seen in New York up until now. “How I Learned to Drive” was produced in Beijing two years ago in Mandarin. Yet I am constantly told it’s a women’s play and it’s not universal. Meanwhile, it’s on tour in Latin America!
It’s just a part of our lives. I could grind my teeth down but I have to keep writing. You have to write for the joy of it. I have to write so I can get back into the room.
The Vineyard Theater has been my home. It has one-tenth to one-twentieth of the annual budget that most New York City theaters have. So, I think about how I can do plays to speak to audiences of about 125 seats. I think about getting the play in front of an audience and a rehearsal hall, and that’s what I live for.
What’s driving me crazy is I now have taught four decades of brilliant women playwrights. I’m not grinding my teeth because it took me forty years to get to Broadway; I’m grinding my teeth because it took Lynn Nottage to bring “Sweat,” a play I produced years ago, to get there. My aim in life is to see the brilliance that I carry around with me that I know in these women writers. I want everyone to know about them.
W&H: Tell me about your collaboration with Rebecca Taichman.
Pv: When I talked to Rebecca, I already knew I wanted to work with her because ever since I had heard about her thesis project when she was in her 20s I thought, this woman is brilliant. It was just a matter of when we’d work together — [not if]. I loved this play, “God of Vengeance,” and had never forgotten it. I knew all about the obscenity trial. There was a little article in The New York Times about a conference she organized about the playwright, Sholem Asch, as her thesis play. So I started to see her shows and thought this woman is an extraordinary director. I’d seen four or five of the plays she directed.
I actually saw the play in my mind. I saw actors in an attic. They were wearing rag tag clothing in an attic room. I knew the time and the place and I knew that’s where the play needed to go. I saw it as a much larger play and she agreed. She handed over the trial transcripts, diaries, and letters and I dutifully read everything.
I wrote several drafts where I tried to put the obscenity trial on stage, but I couldn’t make it work. I told her I didn’t see it, and she said, try it, try it, try it. The relationship was us together reading every page of the first draft in a cabin in two weeks. I wrote more than forty drafts in the last seven years.
W&H: Did you speak to Holocaust survivors and/or Yiddish actors? Was that a part of your research process?
Pv: I talked to Holocaust survivors only when we got to New York and we were in rehearsal at the Vineyard. Up until that point, I had read novels and poetry by Holocaust survivors. I did history about Poland; I did research about theaters in ghettos and camps; I did research about 1920s and 1930s theater; I read a lot about Yiddish theater in early America; I did a lot of migration history. I just read anything I could about the time period.
W&H: It seems that you’ve tapped into modern issues of resonance including equality, censorship, and immigration. How do you feel about all of this and the play coming out now?
Pv: Ten years ago, I wrote a play called “A Civil War Christmas” because I was very concerned we could enter a civil war. I thought that hate speech was increasing, as well as the white supremacists. I thought there was a rise of the confederacy and thought we were going toward a Neo-Nazi rise in this country. It has happened many times. The last time that really happened was in the 1950s when we saw a suppression of freedom and the time before that was in the 1920s and 1930s. Those are the two periods where our pendulum has swung backwards.
I had a concern about hate speech back then… if you remember what was said about Mexican Americans then and about English being the only language. The Muslim hate speech has grown, as well as the hate speech against Latinas and Latinos. We knew this would be an ongoing challenge for us when we started. I was actually still doing rewrites when I saw the image of the little Syrian boy being washed ashore.
We also knew that the immigration laws changed right before “The God of Vengeance.” Jewish refugees could not enter the country. Anne Frank’s family was trying to get to America. We could go on and on and on. Rebecca says it best when she says that it’s terrifying that the themes are more relevant now than when we started.
W&H: What are your hopes with the play and do you think it will prompt more writers to tell stories about real issues of adversity that will lead to real social change?
Pv: I actually think that writers are writing those stories, but I hope that theaters are not doing a benign censorship of the plays that are out there. People are saying they can’t produce a play because it’s political. I’ve been told that I’m too political, but that’s the purpose of theater. I hope that theaters realize they need to be part of this conversation by doing the plays and films that are being written that are resonant right now. I’m hoping this conversation encourages other producers.
I certainly hope that “Indecent” runs everywhere. I hope that people go and see this play and leave the theater thinking, “I’ve got to talk to my grandmother,” or “I’ve got to find out what happened to my family,” or that they ask questions in order to be a witness in the time we are living in right now.
I have visions of the play being cinematic on the big or small screen. We’ll see.
Interview: Paula Vogel Talks About Being a Woman in Theater and Making Her Broadway Debut with… was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.