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Paula Vogel remains her brother’s keeper

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.”

An Inside Look at THE BALTIMORE WALTZ rehearsals

October 7, 2019

Dan Kitrosser and
Joshua J. Weinstein in
THE BALTIMORE WALTZ rehearsal

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.

Josh Hecht

“Playwright Paula Vogel on love in different tenses”

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.”


“AN INTERVIEW WITH THE PLAYWRIGHT: PAULA VOGEL ON INDECENT”

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.”

BEHIND THE SCENES: The Set of THE BALTIMORE WALTZ

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.”

Set Rendering by Daniel Meeker for Profile Theatre’s 2019 Production of THE BALTIMORE WALTZ

Artistic Director, Josh Hecht, meets with Paula Vogel

September 12, 2019

Profile’s Artistic Director, Josh Hecht, meets with playwright,
Paula Vogel, in preparation for the 2019-20 season.

Dear Profile Family,

Last month, while on vacation in Provincetown, MA, I had lunch with Paula Vogel, who makes her home in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. We spent an inspiring couple of hours together talking about a great many things. She spoke a lot about the importance of the mentor-mentee relationship and her 25 years of teaching playwriting at Brown and at Yale. She spoke of the former students who have remained important to her, whose work and point of view have changed her own — including Lynn Nottage, with whom she shares a Profile season, and Quiara Alegria Hudes, our 2017 Featured Writer. She spoke of meeting Branden Jacobs-Jenkins for the first time when he was an 18-year-old freshman at Princeton and knowing immediately that he would be a force to be reckoned with. She spoke of the people who were big influences on her — John Guare, Maria Irene Fornes, Lanford Wilson, Caryl Churchill — and of her regret in not taking them up on their invitation to stay a part of their lives. She said, “It’s absolutely an Oedipal relationship, and I want the next generation to knock down my aesthetic and change the field.”

As we were leaving, I told her that one of the things I love about our mission is that we get to know a writer’s leitmotifs and that recently, in re-reading INDECENT for auditions, I noted the way the final image mirrors the final image in THE BALTIMORE WALTZ. “Thank you,” she said. “Nobody’s ever noticed that before. You’re the first one. They’re bookends.”

“Give my love to everyone at the theatre,” she said. “I hope to see you soon.”

I, too, hope to see you soon. When you join the Profile Theatre Family by subscribing you get an up-close look, not just at the extraordinary work of master artists like Paula Vogel, but at the artists themselves, what makes them tick, their passions and preoccupations, their heart and soul. Paula Vogel and Lynn Nottage are life-affirming, consciousness-changing artists. I can’t wait to share them with you.

See you at the theatre!

An appropriate revenge

June 20, 2018

The Secretaries is one of the most uproarious plays staged in Portland in recent memory.”

CLICK HERE to read the Portland Mercury review by Bennett Campbell Ferguson

“Loud, Lewd, and Gleefully Weird”

June 20, 2018

CLICK HERE to read The Oregonian review of The Secretaries by Ben Waterhouse

 

In Their Own Words

June 8, 2018

We asked Lisa Kron to contribute some words about The Secretaries, 25 years later!  Enjoy reading what she shared and learn about the origins of this groundbreaking project.

“The Secretaries” premiered in New York City 25 years ago. Wow! That’s so hard to believe, in so many ways! Mostly, I think (I hope!) the play holds up, though, of course, there are some elements that date it (most notably the frequent references to word processing codes that long ago were swept into the dustbin of technology). But the issues and dynamics that drive the play have remained surprisingly topical – disconcertingly so, really. But rather than parse that further, I thought instead I’d like to offer some background on the play’s genesis by way of the introductory notes the Brothers put together when the play was first published, way, way, way back, such a long time ago! I hope you enjoy. Thank you so much for coming!” -Lisa Kron, May 2018

Click to read

Voices From The Riots – The Portland Observer

April 11, 2018

Dana Lynn Barbar from The Portland Observer attended a recent rehearsal and shares this piece with you.

“The Rodney King incident is this huge touchstone that rocked the whole country, but it’s just one piece of this story that precedes the founding of this country and continues right on to today, including in Portland.”  -Josh Hecht, Artistic Director

http:/?.m.portlandobserver.com/news/2018/apr/10/voices-riots

Voices fromt he riots