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November 7, 2019
Six years ago, I traveled to East Africa to interview Congolese women fleeing the armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I was fueled by my desire to tell the story of war, but through the eyes of women, who as we know rarely start conflicts, but inevitably find themselves right smack in the middle of them. I was interested in giving voice and audience to African women living in the shadows of war.
The circumstances in the DRC are complicated; there is a slow simmering armed conflict that continues to be fought on several fronts, even though the war officially ended in 2002. You have one war being fought for natural resources between militias funded by the government and industry; you have the remnants of an ethnic war, which is the residue of the genocide in Rwanda that spilled over the border into Congo; and then you have the war that I examine in my play Ruined, which is the war being waged against women. To throw some statistics at you, according to International Rescue Committee, nearly 5.4 million people have died in that country since that conflict began; every month, 45,000 Congolese people die from hunger, preventable disease, and violence related to war. The fact is the war in the Congo is the deadliest confl ict since World War II. It is sometimes called World War III, because of the international interests that fuel the conflict in order to exploit the land, which is rich in minerals such as gold, coltan, copper, and diamonds.
In 2004, I went to East Africa to collect the narratives of Congolese women, because I knew their stories weren’t being heard. I had no idea what play I would fi nd in that war-torn landscape, but I traveled to the region because I wanted to paint a three-dimensional portrait of the women caught in the middle of armed conflicts; I wanted to understand who they were beyond their status as victims.
I was surprised by the number of women who readily wanted to share their stories. One by one, through tears and in voices just above a whisper, they recounted raw, revealing stories of sexual abuse and torture at the hands of both rebel soldiers and government militias. The word rape was a painful refrain, repeated so often it made me physically sick. By the end of the interviews, I realized that a war was being fought over the bodies of women. Rape was being used as a weapon to punish and destroy communities. In listening to their narratives I came to terms with the extent to which their bodies had become battlefields.
I remember the strong visceral response that I had to the very first Congolese woman who shared her story. Her name was Salima, and she related her story in such graphic detail that I remember wanting to cry out for her to stop, but I knew that she had a need to be heard. She’d walked miles from her refugee camp to share her story with a willing listener. Salima described being dragged from her home, arrested, and wrongfully imprisoned by men seeking to arrest her husband. In prison she was beaten and raped by five soldiers. She finally bribed her way out of prison, only to discover that her husband and two of her four children were abducted. At the time of the interview she had still not learned the whereabouts of her husband and two children. I found my play Ruined in the painful narratives of Salima and the other Congolese women, in their gentle cadences and the monumental space between their gasps and sighs. I also found my play in the way they occasionally accessed their smiles, as if glimpsing beyond their wounds into the future.
In Ruined, Mama Nadi gives three young women refuge and an unsavory means of survival. As such, the women do a fragile dance between hope and disillusionment in an attempt to navigate life on the edge of an unforgiving conflict. My play is not about victims, but survivors. Ruined is also the story of the Congo. A country blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and resources, which has been its blessing and its curse.
— Reprinted from Almeida Theatre Company
BWW Review: THE BALTIMORE WALTZ Is a Whimsical Journey Through Grief, Via Europe, at Profile Theatre by Krista Garver
October 29, 2019
Originally Published by Broadway World on October 23, 2019
“When I read that Paula Vogel’s THE BALTIMORE WALTZ was a film noir-inspired comedy about a fictional toilet seat disease that’s a stand-in for AIDS, I had no idea what to think. What does that even mean? But on watching the show at Profile Theatre, all I could think was that this bizarre, extravagant fantasy was the only fitting way to deal with a grief too deep to bear. If you need any convincing of the healing power of theatre, this hilarious and heartbreaking production, directed by Josh Hecht, ought to do it.
Vogel wrote THE BALTIMORE WALTZ in the late 1980s following the AIDS-related death of her brother, Carl. Before knowing his diagnosis, she had declined a trip to Europe with him, so after he died, she imagined one.
In the play, Anna, a single elementary school teacher, learns she has contracted Acquired Toilet Disease (ATD), an untreatable malady that’s transmitted via toilet seats and mainly affects single female elementary school teachers. Her brother, Carl, hears of a Viennese doctor advocating a highly experimental cure, so the two jet off to Europe, traipsing through Paris, Amsterdam, and Munich on their way to Vienna. The journey is filled with all manner of hedonism — art, wine, plate-licking good meals, and a ton of hot anonymous sex.
It’s a beautiful fantasy, but it’s just a fantasy, and as the play progresses reality starts to force its way in. What Vogel does so brilliantly is to open your heart with laughter and then release waves of sadness so small that you hardly notice them until the climax comes and you realize you turned to emotional mush a while ago. At least, that’s how it happened for me.
Even with Obie Award-winning material, this play requires an exceptional cast. This is what Profile has in Jen Rowe (Anna), Dan Kitrosser (Carl), and Joshua J. Weinstein (The Third Man, read: all other parts). Rowe is sexy, sassy, worldly, and innocent all at once, while Kitrosser is kind, earnest, and vulnerable. As the drama builds, Weinstein keeps the show firmly rooted in comedy, playing a slew of characters, from a southern TSA agent to a French waiter, a nervous German bellhop, and all of the doctors. Finding the fine balance between tragedy and melodrama is no easy feat, but all of the walk the line confidently.
Final verdict: see this show. See it for the material, see it for the acting, see it for Alan Cline’s imaginative projection design, whatever. Just go.
THE BALTIMORE WALTZ runs through November 3. More details and tickets here.
For a non-theatrical take on similar themes, check out The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkhai, a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction.”
October 18, 2019
Photos by David Kinder
Voice Over by Josh Hecht, Dan Kitrosser, and Kayla Hanson
Scenic and Lighting Design by Daniel Meeker
Costume Design by Sarah Gahagan and Alex Pletcher
October 11, 2019
Article by Howard Karren
Originally published by Provincetown Banner on 7/28/05
“Paula Vogel remains her brother’s keeper
The memory is painful. Paula Vogel’s brother, Carl, died of AIDS in 1988. As her older sibling, he was her literary beacon; she admired his intellect and sophisticated tastes. Before he died, he had invited her to go with him on a grand tour of the great capitals of Europe, but at that time she was unaware that he was infected with HIV and, wary of the cost, declined. He went without her. Back in the States, while she tended to Carl at the Johns Hopkins University hospital, she imagined what that trip to Europe might have been like.
But she imagined it as an artist would — outrageously, nakedly, mysteriously, with characters and drama — and that conjecture became a play, “The Baltimore Waltz.” When it opened in New York in 1992, “The Baltimore Waltz” ignited Vogel’s career. She went on to write “How I Learned to Drive,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1998. Her plays are now produced around the world. As a professor of creative writing, she runs the graduate playwriting program at Brown University. Carl would certainly be impressed….
Painful as it is, the memory that “The Baltimore Waltz” evokes is important to Vogel, as much now as it was then. “I was not going to be ashamed about my brother’s death, in any way,” she says, sitting back on a brilliantly sunny morning in Truro. “I was proud of him; I was proud of his death. And I thought that it was incumbent upon me to talk, a lot, about AIDS, about our need for research. To do anything I could. And to do it with a woman’s face. To actually say, You know what? This is not just something that happens to gay men. The implications are profound for everyone.”
At the outset of “The Baltimore Waltz,” the character who is sick is a woman, Anna, a straight schoolteacher, and she is infected with ATD, acquired toilet disease. Her trip through Europe with her brother, Carl, is darkly humorous, almost farcical. This is not a somber eulogy about a loved one who has died of AIDS — anything but. But even today, when she discusses her brother, the emotion is plainly there in her voice and eyes.
“Carl was supposed to be the writer in the family,” she says. “He was the one who had 800s on his SATs, something absolutely daunting for a younger sister. It was Carl who introduced me to Jane Austen, Lytton Strachey. It was Carl who knew history. We had great hopes that he’d be a novelist or a poet or a short story writer. But he didn’t write.”
She blames his romantic notion of becoming a southern writer and going to school in Virginia. “He thought, erroneously, in terms of his love for Tennessee Williams, that as a gay man, that was something that was very acceptable,” Vogel says. “It was not acceptable at University of Virginia in the late 1970s to start a Gay Activists Alliance chapter. And he ended up being blackballed from the fellowship for his second year. But worse, he was gay-bashed by young men who followed him home and broke into his apartment. They ripped up all of his papers and beat him up. They were apparently law students. He was penniless — we had grown up beneath the poverty line — so for someone to rip up his first-edition books. … He called me late at night, on the phone, and said, ‘Come get me.’ And that was it about becoming a southern writer.”
Vogel sees homophobia as being as destructive a force in Carl’s life as AIDS, and she feels that “The Baltimore Waltz” is about both and more. “Why is it permissible — and it was, in the early days — to be a person with AIDS who is a hemophiliac?” she asks. “Hearing about ‘innocent victims’ was making me scream at the television, night after night. So I thought, I’ll give you an innocent victim! That was the impetus behind Anna. As a lesbian, I wanted to use the heterosexual desire of a woman for a man to say how beautiful this human body is, how beautiful men are. We have to understand — not just understand, we have to encourage — sexuality and desires. That’s my response to AIDS: for God’s sake, celebrate! Celebrate how beautiful men are. That was my first impulse in writing.”
For Vogel, the theater is the perfect place to work out these issues. “Theater is not a high art form,” she says. “We embrace vaudevillian checkered baggy pants and clown shoes as well as Shakespeare. My brother, Carl, was the aristocrat in the family. I always laugh a little too loud. I tell dirty jokes. I can be a lady for maybe two minutes, and then it becomes too great an effort. We don’t take being artists too seriously in the theater. It’s got to be fun, it’s got to be funny, it’s got to be accessible, and it’s got to be obscure. It’s got to belong to everyone. No other art form brings democratic citizens into a room, where we have to sit down and look at things that hurt us, that belong to us, that make us human. It was invented in Greece at the same time that democracy was invented and for very good reason. It was actually a requirement of Greek citizenship: you had to go to the theater. You had to sit in very hard seats, after a hard working day, when you’d rather go home and sleep, and instead you had to watch men in high heels performing as women and slaves.”
“I don’t think of myself as a New York writer,” Vogel says. “I came of age as a theater writer in a town of 28,000 with very long winters, Juneau, Alaska. The first production of ‘Baltimore Waltz’ took place in a theater there with 50 seats. Brilliant production. And the cast members all did other things. One was a fisherman; somebody worked for the state as a lawyer. But it was their love.”
Home, for Vogel, is where the art is. “The word ‘amateur’ comes from ‘amor’ — it means someone who does it for the love of it. I’m an absolute amateur, and I know it every time I sit down to write a first draft. We do theater because we love it; there is no living to be made from it. We’re at the end of the world, and we can’t pay other people to get our kicks. At some point, we have to be participants rather than spectators. I look at Provincetown and go, Look at all of the wealth we have here. We have wealth of character. Of personality. Of isolation. Of history. Of legacy. I want to get to a point, five years from now, where I’m living here all year round, rather than part time. And I’m very much looking forward to that time. I don’t think of it as a retirement. I think of it more as returning to the essence of what I think theater is — by, for and of the community.”
October 7, 2019
Comedy is serious business! We’re a little more than half way through our rehearsal process, with one more week in the studio before moving onto the stage. THE BALTIMORE WALTZ is a play with 30 scenes in a quick 80 minutes. Actors Jen Rowe and Dan Kitrosser play bother and sister Carl and Anna on a European escapade after Anna receives a devastating and mysterious diagnosis. Actor Josh Weinsten plays everyone else — an American doctor, a French waiter, the Little Dutch Boy at Age 50, a Munich virgin, a radical student activist in Berlin, even Harry Lime, a character straight out of the classic noir film “The Third Man”. The style is big, broad, even campy at times. And there’s a noir strain that runs throughout and grows as the we move through the play.
The photo below is from a day we were rehearsing one of two scenes in which Carl and Anna could swear they’re being followed by a man in a trench coat. Here he is hiding behind a bit of shrubbery. There he is on a park bench reading a newspaper. There he is again in a cafe behind an enormous French menu. And what are they doing with those stuffed bunny rabbits???
THE BALTIMORE WALTZ is a play filled with shtick. Lots of “bits” and what in Italian comedia are called “lazzis” — jokes that are built on physical comedy. Three weeks into rehearsal,with a week to go before previews, everything has its shape. All the bits have their architecture. Now comes the fun part — the precision work that will make it actually funny. This past weekend, for example, we returned to the bit pictured above, in which Anna and Carl are being followed, and discovered that it’s funniest when the rhythm is precisely step-step-step-step-step, stop, pause, turn.
And then, of course, the real task: living into all the shtick and the precision with emotional truth, so that the humor sits on top of a poignant story of sibling love and grief.
THE BALTIMORE WALTZ is an extraordinary play. I can’t wait to share it with you.
September 30, 2019
By Lily Janiak
Originally Published on SFChronical.com on March 21, 2017
“It’s been a while since Paula Vogel was on hand for rehearsals of her 1992 Obie-winning play, “The Baltimore Waltz,” which plays at the Magic Theatre through April 16. She wrote the play after her brother, Carl, died from complications of AIDS.
At a certain point, she had to give herself some space from the play.
“I went to productions up until the fifth anniversary of his death, which I believe was in Toronto,” she says. “And the director looked at me and said, ‘You know what, don’t come and see this play anymore. Let it go.’ And she was absolutely right.
“I get wonderful letters from people every week saying, ‘We’re doing “Baltimore Waltz.” Any chance you might see it? Anything that you can tell us?’ I simply say, ‘Say hi to Carl for me.’”
Vogel begins her script with a “hello” of sorts from Carl, in the form of a witty and heartrending letter he wrote her outlining his wishes for his funeral. She includes it as a playwright’s note, encouraging theaters who produce the play to print his letter in their programs.
Having just seen Magic Theatre cast members, under the direction of Jonathan Moscone, read through the script for the first time, Vogel says the rehearsal made her think about “two different tenses: how much (Carl) loved me, how much I love him. But my love continues to be in the present tense.”
A self-conscious focus on language dominates the script as well, as siblings Anna (Lauren English) and Carl (Patrick Alparone) cope with a mysterious illness by escaping to a dizzying, fantastical tour of Europe. Carl wields fluency in many idioms; Anna labors through guidebook phrases.
Vogel says that since “The Baltimore Waltz,” she’s written all her plays, to some degree, for her brother. That includes “Indecent,” which next month will mark the Broadway debut for the Pulitzer Prize-winning, 65-year-old playwright. She compares that urge to the way the cartoonist Al Hirschfield hid “Nina,” his daughter’s name, somewhere in every cartoon.
“I remember thinking, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do with Carl,’” Vogel says. “Somewhere in the canvas of every play, there’s a little moment where I’m going to send him a little love letter.”
If the love letter to Carl is subtler in “Indecent,” that new play and “The Baltimore Waltz” share additional preoccupations. “Indecent” is about Sholem Asch’s play “The God of Vengeance,” whose 1923 Broadway production was shut down because of its depiction of a kiss between two women.
Vogel says that driving both plays, and really all of her work, is an urge to recover lost innocence. “Is there a way that we can experience, onstage, turning back the clock to a point when we were innocent? Is there a time that we can forget that AIDS will ever happen?
“There’s an innocence that I tell the young people in my family that I wish they had,” she adds, “that my brother and I had, which is you could robustly embrace life, sexual expression, having affairs, and the worst you would get was a little scrape on your heart. You wouldn’t lose your life.”
Vogel says she thinks about death much differently than she did when she wrote the play. “In a way, coming back and seeing this 25 years after I wrote it is a processing of that. It feels like a friendlier place, just like my brother went to high school before I did: He’s gone to death, so I hope he’s there waiting for me in the halls, to show me the ropes.”
September 30, 2019
Originally Published on VineyardTheatre.org
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel returns to The Vineyard with her new play, INDECENT, co-created with director Rebecca Taichman. INDECENT is inspired by the true events surrounding the controversial 1923 Broadway debut of Sholem Asch’s GOD OF VENGEANCE — a play seen by some as a seminal work of Jewish culture, and by others as an act of traitorous libel. INDECENT charts the history of an incendiary drama and the path of the artists who risked their careers and lives to perform it. Literary Associate Miriam Weiner recently spoke with Paula about the reception of GOD OF VENGEANCE in Europe and New York, the role of music in her work and process, and her fruitful five-year creative collaboration with Rebecca Taichman.
“What was the seed of INDECENT?
I read Sholem Asch’s play GOD OF VENGEANCE when I was 23 years old, and I was astonished by it. In 1907, Sholem Asch was brave enough to write that Jews are no different than Catholics or Buddhists or people of any religion, in terms of having people in the tribe who may sell religion for a profit, or who are hypocrites. That’s a very hard thing for a man to do, especially in a time of burgeoning anti-Semitism. Then add in the play’s compassionate understanding of the powerlessness of women in that time and place — Asch is a young married man, in a very early work, writing the most astonishing love story between two women — and it makes a pretty compelling play to read and perform.
Many years later, in 2000, I saw Rebecca Taichman’s MFA Thesis production at Yale, which interwove the text of GOD OF VENGEANCE with the transcript of the 1923 obscenity trial against the play in New York. I thought it was a fascinating idea. Flash forward to five years ago, when I got a phone call from Rebecca asking me to be involved. It took me thirty seconds to say yes.
Why do you think GOD OF VENGEANCE had such an impact in its time?
GOD OF VENGEANCE is set in a brothel run by a Jewish man who is attempting to raise his daughter piously, and it features a lesbian love story. When it was performed in New York in 1923, there was deep concern within the Jewish community about what Christians would think. “Do you dare to say this in public? Do you dare to show this in public?” It did exactly what plays should do — it provoked people into talking. GOD OF VENGEANCE traveled all over the world, and then it was closed down on Broadway. Today, nearly 100 years after it was shut down, it needs to be produced and talked about still — playwrights and new plays should bite the hand that feeds them, and that is what this play did.
Can you think of a contemporary play that has provoked similar outrage?
The plays that I admire, and the playwrights that I admire, are not shying away from the complexity of racism, bias, sexism and the things that hurt us. I’d point to AN OCTOROON by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. That is a play that has an insider/outsider perspective. A musical I thought was astonishing was THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS. It’s a brilliant, virulent show and I’m glad The Vineyard’s production succeeded in London but it tells me a lot that it wasn’t as well-received on Broadway. We are no different than the audiences who sat and watched GOD OF VENGEANCE.
Can you talk about your collaborative process with Rebecca Taichman?
When Rebecca brought me into this project, I didn’t see this as a play about the obscenity trial, as her thesis project had been; as an older writer, there was a larger story that I engage in. About a fiery young playwright — not just Asch, but me, too — ignored for decades and then embraced by students. Rebecca was open and generous and allowed me to explore my ideas. I knew right from the beginning that I wanted music and a klezmer band, and Rebecca brought on composers, dancers and a choreographer. We talked over every page that I wrote; she showed me things in her staging that opened up the play for me and vice versa. She is an extraordinary, open-hearted collaborator.
You mentioned music, which plays an important role in this play. Did you know from the beginning how important music would be to the piece?
Every piece I write starts with music. I can’t write until I have a specific soundtrack that correlates to the emotional journey of the play. Even plays like BALTIMORE WALTZ and HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE have a complete score to them. So, right from the beginning, I had songs selected to write to, though not every song on my writing soundtrack makes it onto the page; sometimes, as the play changes, I spend hours finding a new song to match. As a writer, I don’t think that anything I can write has the power that music does. I’m happiest in the rehearsal room when beautiful voices start singing.
What do you think Sholem Asch would make of INDECENT?
I’m not sure what he’d think. I think INDECENT respects him and respects his work and, most of all, feels a great empathy with the kind of pain he felt as a Jewish, Yiddish writer born at the beginning of the 20th century and going through the hideous events of that time. INDECENT asks, how do you write in a hideous time? How do you stay true to yourself? What happens if you censor the work that is telling the truth?
How do you see those questions in terms of the theatre today?
So many times we reach for the “classics” to produce; and meanwhile, there are brilliant Americans of color, women and political writers who, by and large, are kept off stage or out of the spotlight. This can only mean that our discourse will continue to break down. The isolation that America experienced before our world wars was very detrimental and we are at a point right now where we have politicians endorsing the same sort of isolation. I see it as a very dangerous time, the most divisive moment in politics in my lifetime.
I do think we have an astonishing generation of voices right now. In terms of younger artists, this is the best time to write, act, and direct. It’s never been more important. Hopefully I’ve encouraged fellow writers and younger writers who will make people feel differently about the world we all inhabit.
Your plays HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE and THE LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE HOME premiered at The Vineyard, and eight years ago, the company created the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, an annual award for emerging playwrights. What is it like to return to The Vineyard at this point in your life?
I’m so happy to be able to be at the Vineyard Theatre, with the artists that run this company, who don’t shy away from producing work that really matters. As artists age, you become very concerned that you write something that matters to you. I want to write a love letter to the audience. And I’m concerned with the amount of time I have left on this earth. I need to be working in a room where I love the process and love and respect everyone in that room. And I have that at The Vineyard. I’ve seen so much work there that I’ve loved and I just bless everyone who helps keep its doors open.
Ultimately, what do you hope the audience will take away from INDECENT?
I don’t think of this as a grim play; I think about it as a love story in terrible times. If we love music and theatre and the arts, if we take solace in people sitting beside us in the theatre, if we do what is in our hearts, I think there is light for us. I think the power of us being together in a community gives us light through the darkness. I’m writing this play because, regardless of what I’ve witnessed in my life, I’ve never been sorry that I’ve spent my life in the theatre. I think the power of art is the power to wound our memory. I think the power of art is a way for us to change our world view. I think art is our spiritual bread that we break together.”
September 21, 2019
“THE BALTIMORE WALTZ begins in the waiting room of Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, before taking us on a fantastical journey to Paris, Amsterdam, Munich and Vienna. So we needed a set that could hold all of those locations. We were also inspired by the off-kilter angles of film-noir classics like The Third Man. Ultimately, designer Daniel Meeker came up with a black and white set that evokes the institutional setting of a hospital, but where nothing is at a right angle, enhancing the dizzying sense of vertigo that pervades the play. Video designer Alan Cline will use the large wall as a surface to project images that will transport us to Europe and back again.”