See Me After Class: Paula Vogel on Playwrights as Teachers

paula-vogel

The weekend shouldn’t have to feel like school. But a Humana panel discussion Saturday  morning stayed safely within ivy towers, even though its most revered participant has taken her work to the streets.

Paula Vogel was the key panelist in the “Playwright as Teacher and Student” discussion in the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville’s Pamela Brown auditorium Saturday morning, March 30. Her introduction was disarmingly brief: “Hi, I’m Paula Vogel.” So was the next self-introduction: “I’m Paula Vogel’s student, Sarah Ruhl.”

The way Vogel’s fellow panelists—Ruhl, Deborah Stein (who replaced an absent Adam Rapp as moderator), Jeff Augustin and Mallery Avidon—deferred to her throughout the discussion underscored that, in front of this crowd, she truly needs no introduction, not even from herself.

Vogel has taught for decades at Brown University and then Yale University. (She doesn’t have a full-time office at any university, taking short-term teaching gigs with a number of schools and other institutions.) Ruhl, a famous protégé of Vogel’s, has recently begun teaching herself. Deborah Stein teaches at Yale and NYU. Mallery Avidon (whose O Guru Guru Guru is in the 2013 Humana Festival) has taught playwriting at universities, high schools and in the prison system. Jeff Augustin (another 2013 Humana playwright, responsible for Cry Old Kingdom) is a graduate student at the University of California.

All the playwrights on the panel acknowledged their mentors. Ruhl wasn’t the only one to cite Vogel: “The first time I met Paula, she brought me iced tea. A ladder had fallen on my head. It was very nice of [her].” Augustin mentioned Scott Cummings of Boston College, who was in the audience for the talk.

For her part, Vogel regretted that she “didn’t have a mentor to say ‘Don’t write that letter to Jon Jory,’”when she called the ATL founder out for what struck her as disturbing and sexist themes in a long-ago Humana Festival. Vogel suggested that may be why she has been on three Humana panels in the past few decades but never had a show of her own produced in the festival.

Ruhl called Vogel “a consummate teacher,” though Vogel herself made clear that she always advises students that she “is going to say the most horrible things.” She’s clearly a tough critic.

But the talk was really about finding support and encouragement in the difficult field of playwriting. “There is a way to do good in the world and make art you want to make,” Avidon said, “and that’s what I learned in school.” Vogel noted that she’s learned how to recognize playwrights from among novelists and other sorts of writers, and it has to do with a desire to socialize and collaborate. “You like to have a party.” She continues to talk regularly with Ruhl and other former students. She also revealed that “I still, on a daily basis, talk back to my teacher Burt States, who died on the day of the first preview of The Long Christmas Ride Home,” her play from 2003.

The Q&A aspect of the discussion remained academically inclined: teachers from a variety of circumstances basically asked to be mentored themselves, seeking advice on how to tackle certain topics or methods in the classroom.

It seemed there was a whole other level to this discussion that the hour-long presentation didn’t even touch upon—mentor/protégé situations which extend beyond the classroom and into the professional theater realm. In a separate interview on Saturday afternoon, Vogel agreed the “playwright as teacher” topic was far too rich to be exhausted by a one-hour discussion.

Concerning Sarah Ruhl, Vogel said “Her writings have had a profound influence on my life. I call a lot of my former students up to ask about all kinds of things, such as whether they’ve worked at a certain theater or with a certain director.” These are ongoing relationships which have little to do with college theater programs, she suggests, and everything to do with what one must learn in order to thrive as a working artist.

As for the  traditional academic model, Vogel says that these days, “all of us are doing our teaching through theater companies. She herself has gotten grants to do writers workshops with war veterans and community-based playwrights in Philadelphia through the Wilma Theatre there.

She also praises the work of Actors Theatre of Louisville’s new artistic director, Les Waters. “I adore Les. He’s doing exactly the right thing, If directors are doing the mentoring, it should be like this. Les has become the career guru of new playwrights.”

Vogel is currently busy with three play commissions . “Just yesterday, I was crawling on the floor with actors,” she says, for an Iraq War drama inspired by Odon von Horvath’s 20th century classic Don Juan Come Home from the War. The projects are diverse, and so are their producers. When asked which theaters she considers “home base” these days, she responds that “even though I haven’t worked there since 2006, the place I feel most home is the Vineyard Theater”—the New York theater where productions of How I Learned to Drive and other Vogel plays helped ground her career in the 1980s. These days, she’s happy to work with “whoever asks me if I want to dance.”

“I’ve always worked on the model that you need to have a port in every harbor,” Paula Vogel says. “I tell young playwrights ‘Find a 90-seat theater. How about Austin? Atlanta?”

Meanwhile, she says, “Humana has created a new play market. There is now a new play marketplace.” Vogel hopes that playwrights will now be seen as integral to the process of playmaking, not dismissed once the script is turned in. She notes how “Sarah Ruhl just programmed a season at 13P,” the playwright-founded New York company of which Anne Washburn (a third of Humana’s Sleep Rock Thy Brain) is a member. “I’m all for us being working artists and not wallflowers. I want playwrights to be embedded at theaters.”

From such strong positions at established companies, Vogel sees a new model of mentorship, distinct from academia. “I was hoping the panel this morning would have switched to talking about that,” she sad later.

The discussion continues, after class.

 

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  1. […] ran into Vogel last year at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, and did this interview with her for Engine 31, a pop-up site overseen by the USC Annenberg Journalism Institute. She was […]

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