Vogel talks revival of Pulitzer-winning play

Chair of the Yale School of Drama’s Playwriting Program and Yale Repertory Theatre playwright-in-residence Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “How I Learned to Drive” just reopened off Broadway on Feb. 13, marking the first time it has played in New York in 15 years. The current production is scheduled to run through March. On Monday, Vogel spoke with the News about the new production, her writing process and her teaching commitments at Yale.

Q. Your prize-winning play, “How I Learned to Drive,” has just been revived off Broadway — you must be excited about that.

A. I’m pretty excited, yes. I’ve had a great time revisiting the play and seeing it anew, but from a completely different perspective. There’s a different cast, different director and different designers this time around.

Q. To what extent have you been involved in the new production?

A. Very much so. I feel like every time a play is produced in New York it is best to be involved, because there’s a national impact in terms of the opinions of New York theater reviewers.

Q. “How I Learned to Drive” focuses on an incestuous and pedophilic relationship between a young woman and her uncle…

A. Can I stop you right there for a second? I talk about this a lot. Everyone looks down at that character as a pedophile, but what I wanted to do was examine the relationship and look at how one survives relationships like this. If one looks at the demographics, I think that probably four out of 10 people experienced inappropriate emotional relationships in their youth. So I prefer to think of this story as a coming-of-age play, rather than [one of] incest and pedophilia.

Q. What draws you to write about a sensitive subject matter like that?

A. I’m interested in looking at things that hurt us or harm us. I like to look at things that society puts in a box with a label. And if it’s in a box we can’t really look at it. To me the focus of theater is to take something out of its box and look at it. If I asked you to describe “Lolita,” you would describe that as a book about a pedophile. Then you’d miss the entire journey of “Lolita.” I read Nabokov early in college and fell in love with that book. Nabokov made me feel empathy for a man that I would not have wanted to spend time with and whom I would have labeled and put into a box. Theater for me is to see if I can do something like that.

Q. The new production has only been running for a week or so, but how has the critical and public reception of the play been thus far?

A. It’s been going extremely well. In fact, one of the things I liked about it was that they gave us a long preview period, so we’ve actually been playing since Jan. 24. And, you know, if the ticket demands are high, I’m hoping we can extend the run.

Q

You’ve described your writing style as “writing the play backwards.” What do you mean by that?

A. I usually see an image or an event that is the turning point of the play. Once I realize that that’s where I’m going, I can figure out how to start it. I have plays just sitting in my head — maybe 30 or 40 at a time — but when I see that moment, I can go backwards and write it.

Q, Were drama and playwriting something you were always interested in?

A. Yes, since high school. I actually fell in love with theater and tried other things in theater, but I was no good at acting, so I started writing.

Q. You helped develop a nationally recognized graduate theater program at Brown, the Brown/Trinity Repertory Company Consortium. How did that come about?

A. I got a very rare opportunity to run a program for playwrights. I had spent my 25 years there proselytizing and advocating for writers to have a stipend so they could write for two years, and towards the end, three years. It was my passion. It’s as strong a passion as my own writing.

Q. Are you teaching both graduate students and undergrads?

A. I have in the past. But my teaching responsibilities now are mainly for graduate students. Previously I taught a public class that was open to anyone in New Haven as well. I’d actually like my graduate students to teach undergrads, but Yale College has many interesting traditions and rituals — it’s pretty etched in stone. Right now, [some of] my graduate students, who have incredible experience by the time they come here, are teaching undergraduates at Wesleyan.

Q. Last summer, you announced you would step down from your position at the end of this school year. What prompted that decision?

A. Well, time is short. I have wonderful opportunities set in front of me –— most recently one which will require me to spend months at a time in Philadelphia. It’s not possible to keep up a schedule like that while being a full-time administrator at [the School of Drama]. I’m often given these opportunities that I can’t take. I was asked by the Slovenian embassy to come and show “How I Learned to Drive” in Slovenia, but I had to turn them down. I’m seeking a balance now where I can say yes to working with peer artists internationally, and to new opportunities for my own writing.

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