Paula Vogel Talks the Importance of Theater & History

The Indecent Cast
Courtesy Carol Rosegg

One of America’s most beloved contemporary playwrights, Paula Vogel, is making her Broadway debut this season. She has spent four decades writing plays and won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play How I Learned to Drive. On the day that the Tony nominations were announced, OUT sat down with Vogel to discuss her powerful and poignant Broadway debut Indecent, currently running at the Cort Theatre, her craft of writing, and her Tony nomination.

OUT: Indecent is one of many spellbinding plays you have written, but after 40 years of writing, it is your first time on Broadway. What has it been like making your Broadway debut?

Paula Vogel: Well, I started doing theater when I was 15. I started really writing when I was 25, so yes 40 years. I have a saying, "The greater delayed, the greater delighted," and I guess this experience proves it. It's very emotional to be on a Broadway stage. It's something that I dreamed of when I was in my twenties. It's very special to be on a Broadway stage with this play because I think this is a play that really says our community matters. And it says that the love between two women is a very beautiful thing. It's kind of a miracle to me. 

It seems like you and Indecent director Rebecca Taichman came across the original play, God of Vengeance, in very similar ways. What was it like discovering God of Vengeance at such an important age?

Rebecca read it when she was 26. I read it when I was 22, and I am 20 older than she is. So, 20 years apart, we both were in libraries reading an out-of-print copy of [Sholem Asch] play written in 1906.

I read it standing up in the stacks, and literally couldn't breathe during the second act and the love scene between the two women. I was talking out loud to the play. I kept saying to the book that I was holding in my hand, “A young man wrote this? In 1906?” It's an experience I think that anyone who has read the play has. You don't forget the first time you read that play. And, the thing that was so astonishing to me was to read a love letter from this young man to two women in love at an age when I was already encountering such homophobia. I was already feeling so embattled, and it was a major source of support to read that play.

So, in a similar way, and we may not have said it this way to each other, I was hoping that we could write something that would be a similar support to young women. But, I also want young men, and I want—regardless of our lifestyle or sexuality—everyone to see that that love is beautiful. That is what the original play did for me, and that's what the original play did historically. It was embraced by the Yiddish theater in Europe and all across the world. I know we like to think that we invent the wheel, but there is something tremendous in knowing that our great grandparents knew what this love was and that it was beautiful. That's something we really need to know, right now. 

Also, you have been working on the play for nearly a decade now. When you started it, you could have never predicted where the world would go politically. 

Yes. And, we didn't know, but I will say, when Rebecca and I discussed making this journey 7 years ago, we were already hate-bashing immigrants. American politicians were already being extremely hateful in their comments about Mexico, about Latino-Americans, about English being the only language spoken. That started happening under Bush, and I think the interesting thing is that the rise of hateful rhetoric, and the rise of anti-semitism, and the rise of racism, only increased when Obama was elected.

We began work on the play feeling that a section of the American population was trying to make us go backwards. When I started writing it, I thought, “Let's see what happens when we go backwards. Let's see what happens if we go backwards to 1923. Let's see where the rise in anti-immigration, antisemitism, xenophobia gets us.” Also, I feel, for me, that in the 21st century, it's important to say to younger audience members, "You need to remember this in your body." It's not just something written in a history book. Our bodies were policed. 

The play is so effecting on an emotional level. What was it like for you, as a writer, to create Indecent?

It's an emotional experience. And, I might as well say this, I cried every time I worked this play. I've held that very close for 7 years, and, in a way, I'm really proud that every artist on this kept very open to that. We didn't shut it off. We're asking the audience, as well as the cast, to go through it every night. The thing we saw from the beginning was that if we embrace the music, the dance, the comedy, and the life force then we're going to get through whatever horrible moment we're in now. We can get through this together. We're going to transcend and get through this. And, resist. I think the resistance is more important to me than the mourning. 

I think the play really embraces resistance as the characters continue to perform the God of Vengeance in secret after everything that happens with its Broadway run. There’s such a powerful moment where they use that play to build the community.

Right. I'm sure our fear level has grown as of the presidential election, and not just the election, but the presidential campaign. To hear people castigated for their religion as Muslims, to hear people derided because they had physical disabilities, to hear crowds encouraged to beat dissenters. It's gotten much more extreme much more quickly than any of us who have been working on this for seven years would have anticipated.

You know, when you write something you write it from your heart. This is definitely from my heart and to all of the artists and all of the young people in my life that I love. But, there's also a hope that whatever feels urgent to say is going to feel historic in a couple years. It's going to be passed. Surely, we're not always going to be in this extreme moment of crisis. We didn't anticipate this turn of the wheel that has occurred, and I think that one of the things that is debilitating for me is fear. It is extremely debilitating -- being frightened -- and when the members of this troupe perform together at the end of the play, it is their way of using art to resist their fear. It's exactly what Franklin D. Roosevelt said: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Well, I think it's true for us right now. We have to not fear the fear itself. We have to figure out how to go forward with a sense of urgency, vitality, and connectedness because I think fear really feeds when we are divided. Being divided increases the fear. When we feel connected the fear diminishes and that is what we wanted to do in the theater. 

Indecent is this wonderful love letter to the importance and the power of art. It really puts the threat of defunding the NEA and reducing art into perspective.

I'm starting to feel a little hopeful that we will win the day for a short while on the NEA. It's not about just art itself, it's about who gets to see the art, who can purchase the ticket, who can walk into a public school, have instruments, and have a stage. It's about cutting out art as a very important expression for people who can't afford it. And, that's what the NEA is.

It's kind of ironic, but one of the things that we are still hoping to do is find foundations and people who will subsidize the tickets for Indecent. That's near and dear. I remember when Hamilton did that. Hamilton is an important, important piece of theater. Every school child should be able to see that. With this visibility and having somewhat affordable tickets, t would be wonderful to really have high school students be able to see Indecent. And, to have people who wouldn't dream of coming to a Broadway theater be able to see this. 

The Company Indecent 2744

Courtesy Carol Rosegg

That would be incredible if someone could fund that, especially since this play covers a wide breadth of issues.

I think we get a lot of criticism that a play should only be about one thing. You must choose. Is it about homophobia? Is it about antisemitism? Is it about xenophobia? Is it about censorship? You must choose. And, I feel that this is what divides us. We don't see that all of our concerns, all of the dangers that face us, are interrelated. No one yet has noticed and it's a small thing, but I've been so upset by the rise in violence against the African-American community and how that has flourished. So, I've kept repeating "I can't breathe" through the play. It's an expression of desire for the people in the play, but it's also speaks to how our bodies become policed. I see all of these concerns as interrelated. Not as separate issues. 

I appreciate the intersectionality of these issues, and by presenting the different issues, I think you make the audience aware of and empathetic towards issues they may not have a personal stake in.

That's very important to me. One of the things that I'm aware of is that—yes, I am a white women, and, yes, I am lesbian—we are, in essence, policing and being gatekeepers to artists of color in this country. It has to be unacceptable. It should have been unacceptable 100 years ago, but it is absolutely unacceptable now. This means a number of things.

We must have more diverse voices running companies and participating in the art making all the way through the critical reception of the art. It is in this last realm going toward blogs, going towards the Internet, and everyone basically starting to blog that we may finally open up reception to the work.

Now, we really have to increase representation. I'm trying not to think of it this way, but I am sure someone is going to bring it up. Am I the first out lesbian to have a best play nomination? I don't know. It's possible. Is it amazing and wonderful that Lynn Nottage [the playwright of Sweat, also running on Broadway] is the first woman to win two Pulitzers? Yes, and that should have happened decades ago. Decades ago. Also, that she should have waited until this moment in time to be on Broadway doesn't say really wonderful things about the state of our arts. 

Let's talk about your Tony nomination. How does this play into your future writing goals?

I have a full plate in my head of the next courses I want to write. The truth of the matter is that I could never afford health insurance, so I could never quit my day job until I was eligible for medicare, which is going to be the biggest fellowship in the arts that I have received in my lifetime. You know, it's something that is both a blessing and a curse. Women tend to be teachers as a way of underwriting their plays, and that's certainly been the case for me.

I am hoping this gets a little bit of wind in the sails for the type of projects I'd like to do. I'm hoping that I'm able to continue writing plays of a larger scope instead of trying to write a three-character play in two weeks between semesters. So that's really exciting.

I have to say, of course, by making it at age 65, I'm thinking of all of the people in my life that are no longer with me that I wish could see this moment. It's always that kind of mixed blessing of “Oh my gosh, I'm so excited by the next 10 years in terms of what I can write” and also being aware that my brother is not alive to see this. And, I am sure that is true for all of the writers that have gotten the nomination this morning.

Then, I also have to say that the actors in this show are so generous in performing, going on the road, and giving me years of their lives to work on this play. They are very generous in doing this ensemble show rather than doing a show which would possibly highlight their individual talents. Every person on that stage is a star. Every person on the stage is a household name to me. So, one of the things I really want to make sure, regardless of what happens on June 11, is that we thank and celebrate our artists who have made this. The reason I got the nomination is because of Rebecca Taichman, all the of the actors and the designers who have been on the road with me for over a year. That's an incredible generosity. 

What was it like moving Indecent from Off-Broadway at The Vineyard to Broadway at the Cort Theatre?

As a woman, I had never gotten a shot like this in my entire life. Three theater companies are agreeing to co-produce the show. The Sundance Theater Lab agreed to take Rebecca and me in on an early draft. We'd never gotten that kind of support in our lives. I certainly haven't. And to be able to do a ten-character play with choreography and original music, it's pretty remarkable. Once we opened at The Vineyard, because we had been performing the play in much larger places, we had to scrap a lot of choreography and other elements to squeeze the play into The Vineyard. So, the second that Daryl Roth, Elizabeth McCann, and Cody Lassen came forward and said, "We want to bring this to Broadway," Rebecca and I went back to work. Every dance, every entrance, every transition, small things down to every word has been looked at, sharpened, and cut because women don't often get this chance. So, we wanted to make sure, as Mr. Lin-Manuel [Miranda] says, we're not going to throw away our shot. I also think the play on stage at the Cort is actually the very best iteration we've had so far.

Seeing the show is a magical experience. It hurts the heart, but it's hopeful. I walked out of the theater remembering why art matters.

Paula Vogel: I am just hoping that every young person with a vision and talent sees the show and then turns to each other and says, "Let's start a company. Let's start a performing troupe. Let's write something."

We're living in an incredible time of talent, and an incredible time for gifts. I understand that we all struggle with "Gee, doing art, is that important enough for my lifetime?" I think we wouldn't be artists if we didn't struggle with that question every day. I can't tell you if I didn't have a dime for every time I turned to someone and said, "Is it too late for me to apply to law school?" I'd be a wealthy woman! I really understand that. I've watched artists like Lynn Nottage grapple with that because if she's brilliant enough to be the writer that she is, she's brilliant enough to fill in the blank, right? As is every theater artist that I've worked with. I just hope that people come out of this play and feel that art is an incredibly important thing to do with their lives.

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