Playwriting Prof Unearths Unusual Inspirations

Jac publishing and promotions

Playwright Paula Vogel is inspired by hallucinations.

During her lounge-style interview with approximately 20 Harvard students in the Barker Center last Thursday, the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright and head of Brown University’s Graduate Playwriting Workshop described her own writing process, which usually includes seeing an image and then “hav[ing] to write the thing [in order] to get it out of my head.” The Harvard production of her play “Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief” started last night at the Adams House Pool Theater.

Before she penned the controversial 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “How I Learned to Drive”—the story of a young woman sexually abused by her pedophiliac uncle—Vogel “saw an image of a girl adjusting the mirror in her car and a dead uncle materializing in the background.” For Vogel, seeing this type of turning point in the play is what compels her to begin writing, leading her towards endings that “always surprise” her. “This is where we [the writers] seem schizophrenic, because we either see images or hear characters.”

Vogel’s unique inspirations set her apart from more traditional playwrights. Most recently, Vogel visualized anthropomorphic puppets and decided to center an entire play on this concept, “The Long Christmas Ride Home.”

“I saw the puppet body literally come to life,” Vogel said. To write the play, Vogel immersed herself in an unlikely combination of Christmas music and the ancient Japanese puppet theater, Bunraku.

“I must have looked interesting with Christmas, Japanese, and ’60s music blaring from my car in the middle of summer,” she said.

2003’s “The Long Christmas Ride Home” tells the story of a mother, father, two daughters, and son who are miraculously spared from teetering off a cliff during their drive home from Christmas at Grandma’s; however, it largely focuses on the after-effects of tense family dynamics.

Drawing on Bunraku traditions, each child in the car is represented by a puppet operated by an actor who will later play that child as an adult. After almost falling off the cliff, however, the siblings grow up to experience other personal tragedies. One sister has an unwanted pregnancy, another sister struggles with her homosexuality, while the brother, Stephen, is dying of AIDS contracted on a post-breakup sexual binge.

Much of Vogel’s writing finds its basis in her own life. Her own homosexuality undoubtedly influenced the character of the daughter and, like the character Stephen, Vogel’s brother died of AIDS. As a writer, Vogel says, she wants to be as intimate with anyone who works on or reads one of her plays as she is with one of her lovers.

She cites an epiphany-like experience she had years ago while reading Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” as the cause of this frankness. “I stopped in the middle of reading and thought, ‘Oh my God. I’m having a conversation with Tennessee Williams,’” she said.

As last Thursday’s group read aloud from “The Long Christmas Ride Home,” it was clear that Vogel’s conversation-like stage directions and narration are a far cry from, say Arthur Miller, with whom Vogel contrasted her work. One stage direction reads, “[Stephen and anonymous partner] simulate a sexual act that means this play will never be performed in Texas.”

Vogel was rejected from the American Repertory Theater (ART) years ago, she said, because the theater’s director read Vogel’s “Baltimore Waltz” and decided she didn’t know how to write a play. “Baltimore Waltz” later won her an OBIE Award.

“He [the ART director] was basing his judgment on the classical play construct [the style of Williams and Miller], but I was writing a modern play,” she says.

It is her own experiences with closed-mindedness that now drive Vogel to encourage theaters to step outside modern constructs and approach the work of her Brown graduate students with open minds. Using a post-modern approach, the graduate playwriting students are, as Vogel describes them, “20 years ahead of us,” and thus, more likely to be misunderstood.

“Theater is always about the younger generation, who are the iconoclasts, and how they are being translated to [all] the generations,” Vogel said. Having already passed through this iconoclastic phase herself, Vogel is now experiencing widespread critical and popular success. And luckily for Vogel, the masses of people filling the theater seats are definitely not figments of her imagination.