In "How I Learned to Drive," Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about child molestation, the central character, Li'l Bit, is a girl whose breasts develop somewhat earlier than the rest of her does. Her bosom is almost a character in the play, a confounding pair of glands that force early maturity, earn her suspect popularity and become in their own way a metaphor for the pain and pleasures of being female in America.
"Maybe someone's implanted radio transmitters in my chest at a frequency I can't hear, that girls can't detect, but they're sending out these signals to men who get mesmerized, like sirens, calling them to dash themselves on these 'rocks,' " Li'l Bit speculates in one scene. She's just been told she should be flattered that the boys like to watch her "jiggle."
There aren't many playwrights who have tackled the breast issue.
"What other feminist would dare write so many jokes about tits?" wrote Vogel's friend David Savran in "The Playwright's Voice."
Not only that, the published version of "Drive" and an earlier work, "The Mineola Twins," is titled "The Mammary Plays." It's her little pun on the Memory Plays--a sly reference to two one-acts by the august Arthur Miller.
This is very Paula Vogel. A literary tweak, a joke, a firm political sensibility, a provocative choice of subject matter. Her major influences are her late older brother and an obscure Russian writer. Her plays, carefully designed to express language theory, experiments in form and academic concepts like "negative empathy" and "defamiliarization," are actually full of bawdy or perverse sex, good people who do bad things, and emotional power.
Her play "Hot 'n' Throbbing" began performances at Arena last week, a follow-up to last year's production of "How I Learned to Drive." First staged in 1993, the 90-minute "Throbbing," about domestic violence and pornography, has been reworked for director Molly Smith, who described it as the play "that I was afraid to do, the one that kept me up at night."
This will be its third major production in six years, a familiar path for Vogel. She is not what you'd call an overnight success. She has worked at writing and teaching for 25 years, suffered homophobia, rejection, bad reviews, failed productions and personal grief. If she is now at a kind of pinnacle--lauded by the New York theater world that barely knew her name before she won the Pulitzer, had her work produced all over the country and made enough money to buy a vacation house in Cape Cod--it is because of determination rather than luck.
After she graduated from Catholic University, Vogel was rejected by the playwriting program at Yale Drama School. "I put my head down and cried," she says. "To a 22-year-old it meant the world. I didn't know how else to become a playwright. I've tracked the people who were in that class, like Christopher Durang and Wendy Wasserstein, and it would have cut 10 years off the process of my professional career. But now I think I'm fortunate it took a longer time. It was probably a blessing."
She is short and chunky, with close-cropped gray hair and dark-rimmed glasses. Fashion is not her friend. Language, and the arts of the theater, are.
Prologue Paula Vogel learned to drive in Beltsville. She was not molested by her driving teacher as Li'l Bit is by her uncle in "Drive"--as she recalls, it was the football coach who taught Driver Ed, and there were always four teenagers along. Vogel remembers that one girl became hysterical with fear every time she got in the car.
Born in Washington, she spent her first five years on Evarts Street NE before her family moved to Prince George's County. She sounds like a pretty perfect kid: National Honor Society, class president, student council, prom organizer--very social, very smart.
Family life was less perfect. Her father left when she was 11, remarried, and saw his two youngest children infrequently over the years. Her oldest brother, Mark, left to live with him when he was 15, a year after the separation. Her mother, Phyllis, a secretary, struggled to make ends meet with a series of government jobs, settling eventually at the Postal Service Training and Development Institute. They moved to a different apartment almost every year.
Donald, the father, was in advertising. According to family lore, it was he who wrote the immortal line "Don't say drugstore, say Drug Fair," so familiar to Washingtonians of a certain vintage. He also got them into Glen Echo for free, and supplied them with unlimited Briggs hot dogs. He was Jewish, and her mother was Catholic, a combination almost always guaranteed to produce interesting children. Her mother was a fierce liberal and a memorable character. Once she defied the school's ban on bluejeans by wearing an entire outfit made of denim to her son Carl's induction into the National Honor Society. The kids applauded her.
But it was Vogel's brother Carl who was her true soul mate. Only two years older, he took over the fathering when Donald moved out, overseeing her academic progress and plotting where she would get a scholarship to college.
"They were very much alike," recalls Mark Vogel, now a real estate developer in Prince George's. "School was very important to them. They were always reading. Listening to classical music and Broadway musicals."
Mark, in turn, looked after Carl in high school. Because Carl, like Paula after him, was gay. He was often harassed, and Mark, a 6-foot-1 football player, tried to protect him. Carl, meanwhile, got a scholarship to Johns Hopkins, and decided that Paula would apply to Bryn Mawr.
"He'd done his research," she says. "He said, 'You're class president, you come from a one-parent family, you're eligible for financial aid.' " He was right.
She came out when she was 17, a moment of independence she now sort of regrets. "I wish I'd kept my news to myself for another seven years," she says. "It would have been better for my ego development not to have been fighting about my identity at such an early age."
Her mother thought she'd "get over it," a notion she clung to nearly until she died two years ago. "But being openly gay made me extremely aware of class, race and gender," Vogel says. "You see who's not getting the best table, and why."
She'd quite liked being class president, but gave up her political ambitions once she understood her sexual identity, believing she would have to hide in the closet to be successful. At Bryn Mawr, being openly lesbian drew attention and didn't help her quest to major in drama, which at the time was not an approved degree course. "It was as if I suggested majoring in table dancing," she says.
She was encouraged to leave. "I think they were afraid it would become a popular major," she says. Nonetheless, she wrote her first play there: a musical version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Just a little ahead of her time.
She transferred to Catholic University, whose well-respected drama department had been around for years. With financial aid, living at home and two part-time typing jobs arranged through the Good Friends Temporary Employment Agency, she could manage.
It was at CU that she first met Molly Smith, who was also a transfer student. "She was the smartest one in room," Smith recalls. "We were both in that awkward-junior phase, but what I found about Paula was that she could ask the professors questions that made them sweat." They became lifelong friends and co-conspirators--if there is a New Girl Network in the performing arts, they are part of it.
Vogel found a home in the theater, a feeling she first had in a high school rehearsal of "Skin of Our Teeth." She'd been entranced by the Broadway musicals at the old Shady Grove Music Fair in Gaithersburg, and like many another star-struck teen in Washington, she remembers also peering down at the stage from the top balcony of the National Theatre. The Washington Theatre Club's sassy "Spread Eagle" revues offered even more possibilities.
In high school and college she tried out all the roles--acting, directing, a lot of stage managing, building sets. At CU she and Smith and others sat long into the night drinking cheap red wine and talking about what they wanted to do in and with the American theater. And to a surprising extent, their dreams have come to pass.
"One thing we wanted was to change the corporate ladder so that it would lie flat," Smith says. "Everyone has a seat at the table, everyone brings ideas to the table." As Vogel went on to become a teacher and to have her work produced in theaters large and tiny, she carried this non-hierarchal model with her into the classroom as well as the theater.
"Paula is one of the most generous playwrights I have known," says New York producer Daryl Roth, who moved "How I Learned to Drive" from the nonprofit Vineyard to the commercial Century Theatre in 1997, and has also underwritten her residency at Arena. "She treats everyone--producer, director, actors--with a knowing kindness. You really feel you're on the same team. She listens to people and digests what they say and puts it to use."
There were 25 years between the wine-fueled college discussions and the Pulitzer, years in which Vogel slowly earned respect as a playwright with a strong modern voice and as an innovative teacher in Brown University's creative writing program, and in which she suffered rebuffs and sadness as well.
Setting the Scene In his introduction to the published version of "The Baltimore Waltz and Other Plays," Savran told a story from Vogel's childhood that he thinks relates directly to her writing. It seems that when Vogel was about 13, her mother complained to the Board of Health about the lack of trash collection at the apartment complex they lived in. After the landlord was charged, he sent her an eviction notice.
The night they moved, Phyllis Vogel drove Paula and Carl back to their empty apartment, gave them each a screwdriver and told them to carefully unscrew every screw in the place--the light sockets, the doors on the kitchen cabinets, every switch plate and appliance. They placed all the screws in a big pile on the living room rug. Then her mother wrote a sign and placed it on top of the pile. It said: Screw You!
It could have been a scene in one of her plays, Savran notes.
Vogel, trying to say the same thing to Yale, went to Cornell instead, into a PhD program in which she could explore and develop her playwriting and theories about theater. Although all her teachers resigned en masse in an episode of academic infighting before she could turn in her dissertation--"Hiding Scenes in Restoration Comedies"--she credits those teachers with enormous influence. And she uses that dissertation every day, she said--as a doorstop.
It was also at Cornell that she encountered the work of the Viktor Shklovsky, a little-known Russian theorist who wrote two essays about Formalism that Vogel reads at least once a year and uses in all her courses. One of the key concepts is that form is content. Another is that access to your most creative juices is best achieved if you ignore your subconscious rather than examine it--sort of the opposite of the Method. By "defamiliarizing the known, by making yourself concentrate on your left hand you leave your right hand free to plunge into your own psyche," she explained in an interview published in Savran's recently issued "The Playwright's Voice."
This can sound like so much intellectual mumbo-jumbo if you are not a student of playwriting. What's significant is that it explains that there is method behind her apparent stage madness--in the way a scene will get going, reach an emotional pitch and then cut to something else. It's no accident that in most of her plays an actor will play several parts, switching back and forth with sometimes dizzying speed.
In "Hot 'n' Throbbing," for example, there are two actors who speak the interior thoughts of the main characters and also play other roles. In "And Baby Makes Seven," the actors who play a lesbian couple also play their three imaginary children.
"Every time we write we're talking to other writers," she says. "There's a lot of language theory in 'Hot 'n' Throbbing'--which I hope doesn't show--that is a response to people like John Patrick Shanley, David Mamet, the language of Quentin Tarantino. There's also an homage to Dashiell Hammett.
"I want to make you think as well as feel."
Backstage Another huge influence was, of course, her brother Carl. After Johns Hopkins, he'd gone to the University of Virginia on a fellowship with the English department. But in the Charlottesville of the early '70s, he encountered homophobia--especially after he became active in forming a gay student group. One night he was attacked--Vogel says it was by seven law students--who beat him and ransacked his apartment. She says no one was ever punished for the attack, and her brother's fellowship was subsequently canceled.
A University spokesman confirms that Carl Vogel was registered 1971-73. There is no record of an attack being reported to university security, she said. Today there are two university-sanctioned associations for gay students, including one of law students.
Carl became a librarian in San Francisco. In 1988, he came back to Washington--to die. His brother Mark arranged an apartment for him in Montgomery County, and each sibling and their mother nursed him through to the end. As sad as his death was, his illness became the catalyst for family reconciliations. Paula rediscovered her oldest brother and was reunited with her father. Both her parents died in 1997.
Carl's death from AIDS was also the inspiration for one of Vogel's most popular plays--"The Baltimore Waltz." In it a young teacher has been diagnosed with ATD--Acquired Toilet Disease--that she got from the bathrooms in her elementary school. She goes on a trip to Europe with her brother, possibly seeking a cure from a secretive doctor who drinks his own urine. In the end it is the brother who dies, and the audience sees the whole trip has been a dream.
"I think her writing is a form of exploration, sometimes of history and sometimes of American culture, and of her family and her past," says Savran, who is also a professor at Brown.
Through all the topical subject matter--domestic violence, AIDS, child molesting, right-wing extremism--one of her ongoing themes is "the way we grow up in America." She wants to "expose that which is in public view." She is increasingly convinced that there is no homosexuality or heterosexuality--that no one can really be categorized. She once said that the great thing about drama is "There is no 'there' there. . . . There's no absolute truth. It's who's in the room." And she also wants every night in theater--be it "The Lion King" or one of her plays--to be some kind of "civic discourse."
Reviews have not always been as favorable as those for "Drive." Her 1977 entry in the American College Theater Festival, the historical drama "Meg," which won the $2,500 best-play award, was called "monotonous" and obscured by "excessive verbiage" by Washington Star reviewer David Richards. The Boston Globe's Bill Marx slammed "Hot 'n' Throbbing" as "sophomoric drivel," and the Seattle Times said the play was "often stilted and stubbornly enigmatic." Other writers have compared it to Greek tragedy or found it "profoundly disturbing."
Another affront came in her adopted hometown of Providence, R.I.: Trinity Repertory Company did not produce any of her plays until recently because a series of artistic directors were hostile to her work, and when a fan came along (Anne Bogart), she was fired just after receiving a grant to produce a Vogel play, said the current artistic director, Oskar Eustis.
"Richard Jenkins, who replaced Bogart, decided not to do it, and that was a terrible choice," said Eustis. "Trinity would have been covered in glory to do the world premiere of 'Baltimore Waltz,' and it would have shown a generousity of spirit toward Anne. It hurt Paula terribly to have the theater in her town refuse to do her play even when they had a grant to do it. She was quite rightly angered and hurt."
Eustis subsequently wooed her back and has produced "The Mineola Twins" and "How I Learned to Drive."
Yet her friends say that one of Vogel's distinctive qualities is her generosity of spirit, her lack of vindictiveness or territoriality. She learns from each experience--even being turned down by the influential Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference 12 times--and moves on, they say, and expresses gratitude for everything wonderful that comes her way. It's a characteristic so rare in the theater (as elsewhere) that colleagues are somewhat stunned to experience it.
Now Playing The collaborative friendship between Molly Smith and Paula Vogel has endured through the years--when Smith started the Perseverance Theatre in Alaska, Vogel wrote their first season brochure. ("Sometimes I think I should have gone into advertising like my father," she jokes.) She taught workshops there. In turn, the theater gave her plays staged readings and then workshops in which to develop.
This year Vogel is an "associate artist" at Arena, which means she has some time to take off from teaching. She will use it to research and write a play for Smith that takes place on Christmas Eve 1864, on the banks of the Potomac. It will be the first Washington example of Smith's commitment to producing works that relate to the community in which they are performed.
Vogel and her partner, Brown biology professor Anne Fausto-Sterling, live most of the time in Providence, but recently acquired a house in Truro, on Cape Cod, where Vogel will go when she is ready to write, which she does in 14- to 18-hour marathons. But before that she does a lot of research, a lot of reading--and the laundry, the traditional female work-avoidance technique.
She'll miss teaching, but will get small doses of it in her playwriting "boot camps."
"Getting into a classroom with 12 to 100 young minds, putting out an argument and watching them descend on you--that, to me, is bliss," she says. Many of her former students have had their works produced, including one, Bridget Carpenter, who is being done at Trinity Rep.
She's gotten into screenwriting, too, starting with the screenplay for "How I Learned to Drive." An earlier play, "The Oldest Profession," which is about five geriatric prostitutes, never had much success on the stage but may soon be appearing on Showtime, starring Olympia Dukakis, Rita Moreno and Diahann Carroll. She has also written a segment (with Terrence McNally and Harvey Fierstein) of "On Common Ground," three vignettes about being gay in small towns in different decades.
Meanwhile "Hot 'n' Throbbing" has had her attention. Some scenes have been rewritten, other elements removed. A new ending was being crafted up to last Tuesday's preview, one she hopes will not produce the despair some of her students reported from the earlier version.
"I hope it grabs you," she said, before dashing back to rehearsal.