Paula Vogel by Mary Louise Parker

BOMB 61 Fall 1997
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Paula Vogel. Photo by Christopher Gallo.

This year Paula Vogel amassed a small mountain of awards for her new play How I Learned to Drive, which premiered at the Vineyard Theatre, directed by Mark Brokaw. Like much of Paula’s work, it handles brutal themes in a seductive, almost musical way, winning the audience with truth and irreverent humor. Leaving the theater, audience members could invariably be heard saying, “I don’t know why I laughed at that moment,” or “I don’t know why I felt so sorry for him.” Not a small feat in a play which delves into issues of incest.

Paula once told me that How I Learned to Drive was “about the gifts from people who’ve hurt us,” an impossibly fair and positive sentiment. In the end, the play resonated as a kind of paean to freedom: from secrets, self-hatred and addiction; the freedom that comes, ultimately, from forgiveness.

The woman is a lot like her plays: fun to listen to, tough, relentlessly friendly, and more than a little bit twisted. Paula also holds something back, as her plays do so brilliantly. An unreadable smile, a demon or two, a voice that cracks from pain and then recovers; enigmas, left for her audience to explore or not.

I once told Paula that I had nightmares in which she opted to do her laundry instead of sitting down to write How I Learned to Drive. I played L’il Bit in the play and doing that role was about as fulfilled as I’ve ever been, so this image really makes my hair stand on end. It makes me run after her in that bad dream shouting, “Go back! Go back! Give me all your dirty sheets and towels! Just give them here. I’ll do them myself.”

Mary-Louise Parker Do you ever have to suppress the urge to run on stage and deck an actor?

Paula Vogel Not in years. One of the happy things in my life is that I’ve been working with really professional artists. I can’t remember the last time, well, actually I can but I’m not going to mention any names…

MLP It wasn’t a she? About five seven and a half? (laughter)

PV No, never.

MLP Do you ever find yourself getting mad at the audience?

PV Yes, that happens a lot. I can’t stand it when they’re not responding to the actors. When they’re being hard, stubborn. Saturday night audiences who come in with their dates and go, “Okay, this better be good. Show me. Prove it to me.” What I like to hear is a breathing back and forth between the actors and the audience. Have you ever been on stage when an audience got furious at the play and at you? Isn’t that exhilarating?

MLP Thrilling, in a way.

PV Yes! The problem is that audiences have become too polite. I find it very bracing at times when people boo because they’re upset at the play.

MLP I’ve reached the point where I can just go, “They hate us, I know it.” It frees me of being dependent on their response.

PV I think it was Stella Adler who said there are three things you need to make it in this business: the persistence of a terrier, the skin of a rhinoceros, and a good home to come home to.

MLP I knew the points in this play where people would leave, and after two or three performances, it just gave me a very placid feeling. Just to know that we weren’t being gentle with it. But I don’t begrudge those people leaving, as long as they’re quiet about it. I don’t know what makes it hard for them to be there.

PV If people get upset, it’s because the play is working. I don’t set off in any play to shock people or upset them, it’s just the way it comes out in the writing. People are always asking me, “Are you trying to get a response?” No, I’m not. But from critics I’m always getting that I’m being deliberately provocative, a provocateur.

MLP I feel the opposite; you’re very kind and very fair with your work.

PV Well, this is one of the puzzling things, because the early plays I wrote from love, like The Oldest Profession, or Baby Makes Seven. And they got horrible, antagonistic responses. In my mind they were very sweet little plays, but they produced exactly the opposite effect.

MLP And how did you actually come to write a play about geriatric prostitution?

PV My grandma Vera was the youngest of five sisters, my great-aunts. They lived in New Orleans and they died off one by one. My grandma was the last one left. I wrote The Oldest Profession in 1980, and I incorporated all of the stories they told me about the red light district and everything I remembered about their personalities. Now, this is where people go, “Oh, you’re sick,” because I named every prostitute in the play after one of my great-aunts, and my grandma Vera. They were never prostitutes. But they were married women at a time where the line was very thin—it was economic dependency. So I wrote the play from a place of love. I loved my great-aunts. I thought they were hoots.

MLP And the critics were contentious with you?

PV Not just the critics, but artistic directors. People were so horrified that I could put my grandmother’s personality into a 72-year-old hooker…

MLP What if your grandmother was a hooker? Or your mother?

PV Exactly. What’s wrong with hookers?

MLP These people who’ve shot you down, do you now bless them, or do you want to see them rot in hell?

PV It’s turning into a kind of sweet feeling. But it wasn’t sweet in my thirties. It was scar tissue. When I’m teaching, or watching plays in any capacity, on a panel or as a judge, I always invoke what I call the Buchner Principle. Woyzeck and Danton’s Death were written by this 24-year-old medical student who died in the seventeenth century, and it took 125 years before they discovered the manuscript in some attic. Woyzeck is now considered one of the great classics. So how do we know that any 24-year-old isn’t another Buchner, and what’s happened is that our perception is flawed? That they’re ahead of us, ahead of our times, and we can’t see it. So I always try to err on the side of generosity.

MLP Sometimes to not have an opinion, to say, “I don’t really know,” is so relaxing.

PV In my life it’s a function of having a scientist as a partner, who is examining this career, and this lifestyle, and saying, “How curious. How very strange.” It’s not that she doesn’t have opinions, she does, but they’re not rooted in the kind of blindness we carry as artists.

MLP She’s not impermeable.

PV Exactly. She enjoys theater, but in a much different way. As theater artists—and it’s terrible—we don’t enjoy theater the way other people do.

MLP We can see the netting on the mustache.

PV Yeah, and we’re watching the lights change. “Why did they choose to make a cross there? Why are they staging it that way?” But when we’re finally grabbed by the throat, we forget that we’re theater practitioners and we become emotional and instinctive like everybody else in the audience.

MLP Have you ever been able to feel those things with one of your plays?

PV Yes, actually. It’s very emotional when I allow myself to get moved by it. I’m a pretty hard nut to crack. But it’s happened to me twice, the first preview of Baltimore Waltz and the first preview of How I Learned to Drive. It’s usually the first preview, because then it still feels like it belongs to me, it’s still a private experience. One of the great things about the preview was listening to you and David Morse and then trimming the play as you were performing it. You guys, and Mark Brokaw, the director, knew that sections were overwritten, and you very gently waited for me to catch up. You were already editing the script with your acting. I always find that actors are very kind on a first draft, on a first production. They’re very generous and very patient.

MLP That’s partly why I love working on new plays, it’s my job to try to make it work. You know: Maybe this is too much or maybe this is not enough, or what if it’s perfect and I just don’t know yet?

PV You’re a great new play actor, because you’re willing to say, “Wait a moment, maybe I don’t have to wait.” That’s when a playwright knows to trim, when the actors are ahead of the script. That’s how you make the script lean and mean. Every script, every new play is a theory. I don’t know if it’s going to work, which means a writer has to go in like a tailor, and listen to the actors and say, this is what Mary-Louise is doing brilliantly, trim this more, or give her more. If it is perfectly tailored for the first cast it will be universal.

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Mary-Louise Parker as L’il Bit in Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. Photo by Carol Rosegg. Courtesy of Shirley Herz Associates/Vineyard Theatre.

MLP Do you ever feel like you’re having to relinquish something that was important to you, or something that you envisioned, because these five actors happen to be doing it? Do you ever think about the next five, what they’ll be able to do?

PV No. There are only a couple of things where I’d say, it’s important, it’s a private thing. But then I’ll tell you what’s in my head, because if you’re not getting it, it’s not yet on the page. Once during rehearsals you said, “Oh, that’s what that means, let me try this.” And then you made it work. If it’s really that important I have to say why. And if it doesn’t work I should cut it and just let it be my private thought. If I wanted everything to be exactly as it was in my head, exactly word for word, I should be writing novels. The play doesn’t belong to the playwright.

MLP You totally embrace the process.

PV Absolutely, otherwise get out of the field. If you’re going to be a playwright, you’re going to craft something that lets actors, directors and designers do their thing with an audience. You provide the structure. The really great playwrights that I love absolutely do that. I think we must have said this in the first week of rehearsal: Words are cheap. They are very cheap. If they don’t work, drop them, cut them, change them, it doesn’t matter. What matters is simply that I’m writing notes for you to play to the violin as an excuse to hear you playing the violin. I know that sounds strange, but I’ve now experienced working at such a high level that it doesn’t feel like I’ve given anything up.

MLP That one exchange in the hotel scene, I thought it was so beautiful and I couldn’t bear for you to cut it. I thought, “Please, I’ll do it better!” And you said, “No, we don’t need it. Who cares, let’s get it out of there.”

PV Because you were already doing it. And the words don’t matter; it’s stage time. You needed that tempo. And if it worked for you, it will work for the next twenty productions. This is the thing that fascinates me, tempo in the theater. That’s the thing that I can’t predict. We’re both probably, a little bit, control freaks and perfectionists. And isn’t there a paradox here, that we are committed and in love with this art form in which there is no such thing as control?

MLP Nothing!

PV Everything is out of control, and it’s thrilling. And you have to get to a point where you enjoy the thrill. The night that I watched the play and the champagne cork didn’t come out of the bottle… Now, I could have gotten upset, and a younger me would have. But instead I went, oh my God, this is fascinating.

MLP It was interesting because the dynamic on stage didn’t change at all. I just kept staring at him. And then I started to think, “What am I going to do? Does he have any beer?”

PV This incredible intensity built up. When he got the cork out it was like an explosion. That scene that night was thrilling. It’s like when you’re trapped in a subway car. Or you’re in a blackout, and your apartment building suddenly turns into a block party. Theater needs disaster. What we’re actually hoping for is that we’re setting up a scenario in which the lines won’t be said, the lighting cues will miss…

MLP And that all happened on this production.

PV It did. What opera is it where at the end the hero dies?

MLP I don’t know anything about opera…

PV I don’t know a lot either, but in this one production they had mechanical swans and the swans come to get him and carry him off to Valhalla.

MLP Isn’t that a resort, Valhalla?

PV It’s heaven in Norse mythology.

MLP I thought it was in Beverly Hills.

PV Actually, it is in Beverly Hills. So anyway, the mechanical swan comes to bear the actor away, and it missed. The swan went off without him, and he turned to the audience, the last line of this production, and he said, “Does anyone know the time the next swan arrives?” Now, that is brilliant. And Wagner would be a fool to get angry. That’s what you hope for.

MLP I would never come up with anything like that. I would just keep talking until somebody came over the God mike and said, “Will you shut the fuck up?”

PV I do have this faith that the more naked you are, the more people see themselves on that stage. They’re not seeing you. You become their stand-in. So the second you step out alone and you don’t have dialogue supporting you, they’re seeing themselves. What the opening of this play really says is that you’re about to see your life story unfold. Are you willing to take the journey and not condemn yourself?

MLP The way that you wrote and constructed the play is that for L’il Bit to have the need to tell this story of what her uncle did to her, she must be dying inside somewhere. And yet you made it so positive. That’s what’s so brilliant about it to me, that L’il Bit can think, “I can stand here and I’ll be smiling.” She’s friendly. I don’t know why you cast me for it.

PV Because you are!

MLP I’m not friendly. And that was hard.

PV You’re intense. When you step out on stage and you open your mouth, I think I’m going to hear the God’s honest truth. You stand behind every word. See, I don’t remember what L’il Bit was before I saw you. The same way that I don’t remember what Peck was in my head before I saw David. They’re gone now. They’ve been effaced by your interpretation. You’re seeing something on the page I don’t see any longer.

MLP Unbelievable.

PV That happens all the time with writers. I don’t remember the original impulse, or what I thought she was going to sound like, or look like. I have no idea what that was. I think it’s a phenomenon. That’s the tremendous gift, or contract, that happens on first productions. The first actors make my ephemeral visions disappear, to be replaced by living flesh and blood.

MLP How do things first appear to you? Baltimore Waltz has the most brilliant construction.

PV You know where it comes from? I stole. It’s an Ambrose Bearce short story that got turned into this great movie about a Civil War soldier who’s about to be hung. Everything great is stolen.

MLP Did the structure come to you first or did you start by hearing the words?

PV I started writing it in my head while I was waiting in the hospital halls for my brother. The play was a way of coping with, “How much time do I have, and when does he die?”

MLP I love that letter from him in the introduction.

PV That letter is the essence of my brother. But to go back to being as emotionally naked and visible as we possibly can, whether it’s this play or in Baltimore Waltz, I believe that the things we don’t express will kill us. Kill us as a country, kill us as people.

MLP But you have to figure out what those truths are and remember them in order to express them.

PV But you do that as an actor. You put together every truth that you have to say in a play and make an emotional logic out of it. It’s got to be your logic. It’s not my logic on stage, it’s yours.

MLP But the truth’s in the writing, it’s your logic to be found. When you envision it in your head, the characters Anna or L’il Bit, do you see yourself?

PV No.

MLP Do you hear yourself speaking the words?

PV I hear voices.

MLP You see specific people?

PV Yeah, sometimes.

MLP Do you remember where you were when you wrote certain things?

PV I was writing Baltimore Waltz in my head as I was waiting for my brother to die. I was spending all that time in these hospital rooms, and when there’s such sickness and death, you look for the healthy body near you and you project fantasies onto it. So, I was sleeping with every doctor and nurse in the room. I was unzipping his trousers, I was lifting her blouse, and the thing is I knew my brother was doing it at the same time, my living brother and my father, that we were actually having fantasies about the same people. And the one thing that may be specific to me is that I fantasize about people of both sexes.

MLP I remember you’ve said that before. You’re attracted to both, right?

PV Yes, I’m attracted to both. So there’s a kind of amorphous sexuality when I’m writing something. Maybe it was being a bored school child and being a little too sexually precocious through junior high and high school, but I thought of every single teacher that I ever had in bed. I thought of every classmate in bed. What do they look like with their knickers down? And I think it probably has enabled me to write male characters in a different way. Like in Baltimore Waltz, I wanted to make a male body so beautiful and so desirable that when you see a man on stage half-naked, who wouldn’t want to touch that? Because if I could make a male body beautiful, not only heterosexual women, but heterosexual men would also have to say, “The male body is beautiful,” and then they’re halfway to understanding homosexuality. So, with women as writers, and songwriters and lyricists, we’re starting to make male bodies desirable. And that’s making a huge shift in gender. It’s no longer just women who are beautiful to look at. So half the audience every night in some way or other has to experience the other sexuality, if they’re straight. Women do this all the time. I don’t think women are homophobic the way men are, because we are always looking at each other’s bodies. It’s on T.V., film, it’s on the street, in fashion shows, we’re trained to look at and eroticize each other’s body. But as writers, we can eroticize male bodies. And it’s important for me, as an out lesbian to do this. To make men see how we see them, that’s going to shift what we think of as male and female.

MLP And in How I Learned to Drive, there’s something about Uncle Peck, as damaged as he is, that is tender and erotic. This is something I have wondered about, the fishing monologue, is that meant to be a direct metaphor for incest? Because it’s learned behavior, incest, it’s something that is passed down.

PV Well, there are two functions. One is it’s the metaphor for incest and child molestation. But it’s also political. It may not come through, but it was important to me that we think of pedophiles—as they are statistically—as married men who are pillars of society, not gay men preying on young boys. This myth is the whole reason why homosexuals aren’t supposed to teach in schools or be priests, or be this, or that…it drives me insane. In every play, there are a couple of places where I send a message to my late brother Carl. Just a little something in the atmosphere of every play to try and change the homophobia in our world. And I wanted to say about pedophilia: It’s not gay men who are out there molesting kids.

MLP And you don’t come out and say it. You show it. What’s wonderful about your writing is that you don’t tell and you don’t answer; you offer and you ask.

PV But that’s what dramatists do.

MLP Well, good ones.

PV And there are lots of really great ones. Right now, in this country it’s an amazing time. There’s John Guare, who’s one of my heroes, and Suzan-Lori Parks, Connie Congdon, Elizabeth Egloff. There’s Caryl Churchill and Timberlake Wertenbaker, Mac Wellman, Maria Irene Fornes, Craig Lucas, and Tony Kushner. On and on and on…We’ve got manuscripts passing from hand to hand like the monks used to pass the Bible. I am constantly reading a stack of plays that aren’t published and aren’t produced—that’s where the frustration is. Playwrights basically have one of two choices, either you teach or you write screenplays and T.V. You’ve got to make a choice. You’ve got to pay the rent.

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Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse as Uncle Peck in Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. Photo by Carol Rosegg. Courtesy of Shirley Herz Associates/Vineyard Theatre.

MLP Why is it, do you think, your students at Brown love you? Before I worked with you, so many people said, “Oh, I love Paula Vogel, she’s my teacher.” And don’t say blow job.

PV (laughter) Blow job is one of my favorite words in my vocabulary.

MLP It’s a great word. Fellatio’s a nice word too.

PV Fellatio is a great word. I once said to friends, my first business card should read, “No blow job too small.”

MLP That’s beautiful.

PV Isn’t it? For a long time my playwriting career was going nowhere, and I felt very bitter and very angry. I thought I was losing my mind. So I said, “Okay Vogel, this is a choice that you’re writing plays, nobody’s making you do it. Get out of New York and go and teach, and find out if you believe in it anymore.” And when I went into the classroom, there were these amazing, talented young artists, all of whom had the future before them. I believed in all of them, and they gave me back an idealism. It was a huge gift.

For years, that was my emotional vent. Because I wasn’t being produced, I wasn’t being listened to. But my students listened, and I listened to them. It was like being in a rehearsal room. I took them very seriously, because I wanted to be taken seriously when I was eighteen. I basically said, there’s one thing that a teacher does: you come in as my student, you leave as my peer. I want you in my world. I want to audition you. I want you to direct my work. If you’re taking this route with me, it’s my duty as a teacher to take the student and turn them into a colleague.

MLP This painter I love, Jules Olitski has written a couple of essays about inspiration, about what it feels like. He says, “Inspiration, like love, cannot be induced.” And he talks about this experience of losing yourself, losing your ego.

PV One of the most important things we have to do for younger artists is point it out to them—this is really all I did. An eighteen-year-old steps on stage and they light up. There’s a look on their face, they’re so happy. When they get off stage I say, “There was a light in your face, there was a light in your eyes.” And then I talk to them about the pleasure principle. “You were happy then, go in the direction of your happiness.” That’s all you have to do as a teacher.

MLP Okay, I’m going to ask you a bunch of things, and you can say whatever you want about them, or you can say yes or no. So I’m just going to roll them out.

PV Oh, this is cool.

MLP Tequila?

PV Like it.

MLP Room service?

PV Love it.

MLP Hot dogs?

PV Like it.

MLP Sex outside?

PV Love it. I have only done it a couple of times.

MLP Any temperature preference?

PV I like spring, early spring. I like having evergreen needles as a cushion underneath.

MLP Nice.

PV I like doing it in forests.

MLP The beach gets a little funky.

PV Yeah, it reminds me of my senior prom, where I heard a girl scream down the beach, “Oh, it’s got sand on it!” (laughter) Which has become one of those comments which I think about when I eat hot dogs. Anyway…hot dogs sometimes I love, do you know what I mean? Sometimes you’ve got to have a hot dog.

MLP I eat a lot of dogs.

PV What kind of dogs?

MLP Hebrew National. With American cheese, on a grilled bun.

PV Oh, that sounds very good. Sometimes you really want a bad dog, when you know it’s pig parts. Sometimes you’ve got to have that.

MLP There’s just something about the ketchup and…

PV Not to mention the shape.

MLP Okay. If you could have a dinner party and invite five people, living or dead, who would you invite?

PV I would invite Carl, he’d make it a great dinner party. Oh, this is probably cliché, Eleanor Roosevelt. And Toni Morrison. Beloved was such an inspiration. All right, who else? Aphra Behn.

MLP I don’t know who that is.

PV She’s the first professional playwright in England during the Restoration. She wrote plays, but they were all condemned by the critics. Finally she wrote this angry manifesto saying, “I had writ plays as good as any man, but the woman damns the poet.” So she decided to write something that wasn’t for the public eye. And it became what we now know as the novel.

MLP Your people are good, you can invite more people if you want.

PV Oh God, I have a huge list. I have a lot of heroes.

MLP The classic, dramatic hero is something that you don’t do. You let your characters be ridiculous, and needy, and even mean. The woman in Hot and Throbbing, she’s just fractured.

PV Oh man, I love her. I could tell you, it is just eating me up day and night that I can’t get that play into New York.

MLP But you’re the renowned playwright right now.

PV It’s been turned down by every company. Including people who go, “I love this play, but my subscribers will kill me. People will walk out. This play is too dark.”

MLP They walked out of How I Learned to Drive sometimes.

PV There’s something wrong with the play if they don’t.

MLP All right, I want to ask you one more question. If you could, as in the words of e. e. cummings, “Stand with your lover on the ending earth…,” what would you like to see laid out before you?

PV What a great question. I would like to see my life with her in Provincetown. I would like to see our old age together. I would like to see the children in our families as adults. I would like to see my friends in a community together. I would like to see that future as not a possibility, but having happened.

Mary-Louise Parker is an actress who lives in New York City. She played L’il Bit in Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. She has also appeared on stage in Craig Lucas’s Prelude to a Kiss and John Partick Shanley’s Four Dogs and a Bone, and in Herb Ross’s film, Boys on the Side, Laurence Kasden’s Grand Canyon, and upcoming in Roland Joffe’s Goodbye Lover.

Annie Baker by Elianna Kan
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John Turturro by June Stein
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“The older I get, the more I realize that it’s a team effort. I don’t want to be right or wrong. I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong. Whatever works best.”

A. R. Gurney by Romulus Linney
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“Because when you’re in love, you’re not just one person, you’re several people.” Romulus Linney

Arthur Miller by Ron Rifkin
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“The urge to perform is always there, but how theater is organized is vital. But great acting is a metaphor for the struggle between the spirit and the flesh. And that struggle is immemorial.”

Originally published in

BOMB 61, Fall 1997

Featuring interviews with Gregory Crewdson, Lorna Simpson, Allan Gurganus, Louis Auchincloss, Marie Howe, Rilla Askew, Rupert Graves, Andrew Blanco, and Paula Vogel.

Read the issue
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