“Impossible to stage” is one of Paula Vogel’s mischievous goals as an inventive, iconoclastic playwright. “Impossible to teach” is what many would claim of playwriting. But it’s certainly not true in Vogel’s classroom.
In 24 years as head of the graduate playwriting program at Brown University, this Pulitzer winner proved as inspirational a professor as she is a playwright. Among the playwrights she mentored, nurtured and inspired at Brown are two MacArthur “genius grant” recipients—Lynn Nottage and Sarah Ruhl—and another Pulitzer winner, Nilo Cruz.
Now Vogel has left Brown to be the Eugene O’Neill professor and chair of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama—an institution that rejected her as a student more than three decades ago.
In fairness, it should be said that Yale tried to lure her to its faculty once before. This time, however, she was ready to make the move. “I needed a change as an artist and a teacher,” Vogel explains, adding that the resources at the School of Drama “make my mouth water.” Another attraction was “the possibilities of a rich collaboration with two distinguished theatres—Long Wharf and Yale Rep.” (Her newest play, A Civil War Christmas, runs at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre through Dec. 21.)
My own recent experiences in Vogel’s classroom serve as a valedictory to her work at Brown and a glimpse of what lies ahead at Yale. As a theatre critic, I might seem an “impossible” playwriting student. But inclusiveness is part of Vogel’s teaching technique.
“I think it’s crucial to have aesthetic diversity and a diversity of life experience,” Vogel says. “A lot of my job in running a workshop is to keep the conversation going.”
Vogel has held those conversations in a wide range of settings, leading intensive playwriting workshops—or as she calls them, “boot camps”—in juvenile detention centers, theatre boardrooms and maximum-security prisons. It’s all part of her belief that “everybody’s a writer, everybody’s an artist, and everybody can write plays.”
Under her tutelage, that belief appears to be true. Ten years ago, she held a daylong boot camp for members of the media at Washington’s Arena Stage. I attended this boot camp as the then theatre critic of the Baltimore Sun.
It was a transformational experience. Theatre critics are partly reporters; we report on what we see happening in front of us. After several decades at a daily newspaper, I wasn’t sure I had much imagination left. My day at Arena Stage suggested I just might.
So, a little more than a year ago, when I was considering taking a buyout at the Sun, I sent Vogel an e-mail. “I’d be so happy to have you in the room!” she responded, with the same enthusiasm I would see over and over in the classroom. She then invited me to “vagabond,” as auditing is referred to at Brown.
I wasn’t her first atypical vagabond—once, I’ve heard, there was even another critic. My own journey into the world of playwriting began with a weeklong boot camp at the end of August. It ended with puppetry installations at several sites on the Brown campus in May. Not all of my fellow students were playwrights. There were graduate students from the Brown University/Trinity Rep Consortium in some of the classes, as well as some gifted undergraduates.
If I felt apprehensive being a critic in this company, I would remind myself of Vogel’s comment: “I actually think that critics are artists. They’re part of our community.” And, because the people in this room had been brought together by Vogel, they seemed to believe it, too.
During the August boot camp, Vogel imparted the tenets of her philosophy of playwriting. She is a self-described formalist. Her teaching relies heavily on Aristotle; Viktor Shklovsky, “the great-granddaddy of Russian Formalism”; and Bert O. States, her mentor at Cornell University (where she went to graduate school after Yale turned her down).
Three terms recurred, like leitmotifs, throughout the week: “Negative empathy” (theatre based on resisting empathy), “abstraction,” and, from Shklovsky, “defamiliarization”—“making the familiar strange and the strange familiar.”
Vogel’s pedagogical style is power-packed. Behind her wire-rimmed glasses, there’s a perpetual sparkle in her eyes. Even her short-cropped, white-tinged hair seems to bristle with energy. One moment, she’d apologize for cramming so much information in so quickly; the next, she’d he right back to warp speed, snapping her fingers to keep the pace.
Reading lists—a favorite tool whether intended for an entire class or tailored to a specific student play—were also proffered with lightning spontaneity. And lectures were peppered with “double dares”: “Write something in pure form,” “write a five-act play” “write a farce,” “use an older form to make it strange.”
Vogel’s credo for the daily writing assignments was just do it—but have fun doing it. “We’re going to play games,” she announced on day one. “The games I want to play are very much dealing with the form… I have to play the games in order not to look directly into the sun. The sun is the thought, the ideas. If I look at the theme, I get writers’ block.”
There were days devoted to character, plot, language and plasticity. Each was followed by short-burst assignments, or, in her terminology, “bake-offs.” The “ingredients” included everything from the FBI’s Most Wanted list to that favorite Vogelism—something “impossible to stage.” (For the latter, I wrote a Biblical-inspired political fable set on the head of a pin.) By the end of boot camp, we had written a half-dozen short “bake-off” plays. And I had led a session on criticism. I started by explaining that critics choose this field for the same reason theatre artists do—a love of theatre. My classmates seemed pleasantly surprised by the common ground, and they accepted the critic in their midst.
The first-semester graduate playwriting workshop was distilled down to seven students, plus two auditors and two post-grad fellows. It was taught by Bonnie Metzgar, former associate producer of the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and producer of the year-long performance festival of Suzan-Lori Parks’s 365 Plays/365 Days. “Paula is writing this semester, but she will feel excluded if she’s not there at all,” Metzgar explained the first day.
It didn’t take long for Vogel to make an appearance. At the end of the week, she joined the class’s first field trip—a matinee of Basil Twist’s Dogugaeshi at the Japan Society in New York. Twist, who created the puppetry for Vogel’s 2003 play The Long Christmas Ride Home, is one of several master puppeteers Vogel and Metzgar subsequently brought to Brown for the second semester’s focus on puppetry.
In the evening, we traveled to the 14th Street Theater to see Have You Seen Steve Steven?, by Ann Marie Healy, a second-year grad student in the class. The play was produced by 13p, whose members, along with Healy, include Vogel alums Erin Courtney and Sarah Ruhl. Together with Clubbed Thumb, 13p is a company to which Vogel refers often; she hails 13p as a laudable example of young playwrights who overcome the frustrations of getting new work produced by banding together to produce it themselves.
Although Vogel was working on a memoir and on A Civil War Christmas, she made time for individual sessions with most of the grad students during the fall semester. The terms she established for my participation included my writing a full-length play during the semester.
Working one-on-one, Vogel has an uncanny knack for getting inside a student’s head, understanding where the student is going and helping guide the way. “She has the incredible capacity to hear plays and not just listen as a passive listener. She really engages,” as Healy puts it.
In my case, Vogel asked incisive questions. She suggested writing exercises. And she gave me one of her trademark reading lists (including works by Albert Innaurato, Corinne Jacker, Arthur Kopit and Rainer Maria Rilke). She also told me I was “underwriting”—a word I never heard at a daily newspaper, where shorter was almost always better.
At the end of the semester, I had completed the first draft of my first-ever play, was working on the mid-term assignment—an adaptation of a Greek tragedy—and couldn’t wait for the next semester to begin.
The semester’s emphasis on puppetry followed Vogel’s practice of choosing an area on concentration for the spring term, leading up to a final project. Past subjects included Jacobean Drama and German Expressionism, Plasticity in Playwriting and Narrative Structure. One especially memorable year culminated in what she called a “postmodern surrealistic soap opera.”
The choice of puppetry might appear to stem from Vogel’s The Long Christmas Ride Home, in which puppets were prominently featured. But, as she explained in the semester’s opening class, her fascination began much earlier.
“My interest in puppetry came about when my brother died,” she told the class, which, like the summer boot camp, included members of the Brown/Trinity Consortium. “He left a letter of instruction in which he said his role had been reduced from player to prop. I started thinking about the desire to animate the inanimate.” She incorporated this into the 1992 play she dedicated to her late brother, The Baltimore Waltz, when her alter ego dances with her brother’s corpse at the end.
Admitting that she “can’t speak from the vantage point of a puppeteer,” Vogel and Metzgar treated the class to a host of guest artists. Erminio Pinque, of Providence’s Big Nazo, transformed us into instant puppet-makers with nothing more than staplers and foam. Basil Twist divided us into groups, then gave us 90 minutes to create three-minute puppet works out of materials ranging from silk to plastic garbage bags.
MIT faculty member John Bell, a veteran of Bread and Puppet Theater, was one of several guests delighted by what they found in our classroom. “This course is broadening the range of knowledge about performance studies in college,” Bell said.
Bart P. Roccoberton Jr., director of the University of Connecticut’s Puppet Arts Program, presented a practicum with a few of his grad students. Halfway through, he said, “We’re fascinated by this class. Who are these people and why are they catching on so fast?”
As texts for reading, Vogel and Metzgar assigned plays that spanned the globe—plays by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (Japan), Alfred Jarry (France), Federico Garcia Lorca (Spain), Jane Taylor (South Africa). The writing assignments based on the readings were equally broad-based. After Chikamatsu: Take a well-known, recent historical catastrophe or battle, write a scene in which the battle is told in a game between two puppet spirits and a historic character. After Lorca: Go to a Providence truck diner; think of the truck as a puppet apparatus, and include a poet, a town bully, some description of Providence politics, and a vulgar ditty.
When it was time to choose a final project, our imaginations were cranking. As it turned out, we had too many ideas. Unable to settle on just one, the class split up into sections and devoted the final weeks to creating puppet installations. Our presentations took place on a May afternoon and began with a parade of top-hatted, white-faced classmates carrying their creation—a giant, white papier-mache head with toy puppet theatres in its eyes and mouth—which they propped against a tree in Brown’s Lincoln Field. A little ways away, on a bench in the College Green, several other students placed life-sized puppets whose heads were made from raw meat, relying on the natural process of decay to “animate” the figures.
My group, whose shared theme was “Missing Persons,” set up shop at Brown/RISD Hillel. One classmate created a piece inspired by the disappearance of a yacht off the coast of Newport; another, a Cindy Sherman-esque installation about missing New Englanders. I collaborated with two other students to present a toy theatre adaptation of A Glass Menagerie that emphasized the impact of the missing father.
From the start, Vogel had been candid about her desire to learn about puppetry along with her students. On this climactic day, her joy was apparent as she moved from site to site. “It feels like Christmas!” she exclaimed.
Afterward, she sent me an e-mail in which she dubbed the toy theatre Glass Menagerie “Art.” A critic—a playwright—couldn’t ask for greater validation.
When we spoke a few weeks later, it became clear that inviting a critic into the classroom had answered a need on her part as well as mine. “We can get so scared of each other,” she said. “It really was a healing thing for me.” She also praised what she called my “courage of heart.” But as all of Paula Vogel’s students know, courage of heart is one of the greatest lessons you learn in her classroom.
J. Wynn Rousuck was the theatre critic for the Baltimore Sun for more than two decades.
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