Come September, Paula Vogel commences her Signature semester. A teacher at Brown University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, she'll have both her worlds aligned harmoniously, and she'll have this a whole year because Signature Theatre Company devotes an entire season to works, old and new, of a single writer. Vogel is the 14th to be tapped for such an honor. Her 2004-2005 bill of fare: The Oldest Profession, directed by David Esbjornson; The Baltimore Waltz, directed by Mark Brokaw; and Hot 'n' Throbbing, directed by Les Waters — plus, for punctuation, she'll jump in herself and host a student playwriting series and playwriting "boot camps" (one-day intensive workshops).
"When I stop and think of Bill Irwin [last seaon's Signature Theatre playwright-in-residence] performing every night, this seems like the least I can do," reasons Vogel, who directs the MFA playwriting program at Brown. "Basically, I said, 'This is what I do, and I'd like to do it at Signature. I'd like to think of Signature as a home base.' About two weeks after every opening, I want to sit down onstage with a playwright I've worked with and ask him a few questions, then present one of his works to the audience. I want the whole year to be a dialogue about new plays. And, when I'm talking about writing plays, I'm not talking just about people who consider themselves playwrights. I believe that plays can be written — and should be written — by everyone. Everyone indeed has the vocabulary a playwright has, and everyone is born a storyteller.
"When I was growing up, I read everything about O'Neill, and I was struck by descriptions of O'Neill's professor at Yale, George Pierce Baker. He was a very renowned teacher who had this contemporary drama class, and sitting in that class were all the rising lights of theatre — this was, maybe, the twenties and thirties — and I remember thinking, 'If I had to choose, would I be George Pierce Baker or Eugene O'Neill?' I never could decide."
Happily, she never had to. The professor and the playwright reside quite compatibly in Paula Vogel, although she does concede that the latter would have come farther without the former. "There's no question about that. I've written plays that nobody will ever see. I think the count is up to 24. The presented plays that I confess to are nine. But I think I'm a fabulous teacher. I have a great time doing it. There's a rising generation of playwrights who have been very fortunate to teach and who are starting to have impact. We're talking people like Nilo Cruz, Lynn Nottage (I produced her first play), Bridget Carpenter . . . " Silver-haired beyond her years (53) and squat, Vogel could pass for a Mrs. Claus-with-a-cause. Her plays are usually glazed with a lively wit that more often than not camouflages a dark center, permitting an emotional push-pull that lures the audience right in.
More often than not, at the core of her comedies is her own chaotic homelife. She swept onto the theatrical scene in wilting three-quarter time with The Baltimore Waltz, an early (and quite surreal) AIDS play prompted by the slow death of her brother and her vigil at his bedside. "It wasn't a hard play for me to write," she admits. "It came out very quickly in about three weeks. It was very joyful. What may be very interesting for me is that I've stopped seeing the play. I haven't seen it since maybe the fifth anniversary of his death, and he has been dead now for 16 years. It's not that it's painful. It's that I wasn't letting go and moving on. You have to start letting yourself be open for the next play. There is a kind of balancing act that, as playwrights, we must learn. How long do you stay with something? As I get older, I let go quicker — because there's a lot of plays I need to write."
The Signature's curtain-raiser this season is not Vogel's best example of letting go. The Oldest Profession is, depending on how you count, her youngest play — and her oldest.
"There's a longer story about this play than any other play in my life," she confesses. It bowed as a one-act at Actors Theatre of Louisville and came in second to what would be Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize winner, Crimes of the Heart. That version was published and still plays Europe, most recently Warsaw. The ladies of 1980's Morning's at Seven suggested converting it into a screenplay. Bette Davis, shortly before her death, was entertaining the idea of bringing it to Broadway. Currently, a screenplay is optioned and ready to go with Olympia Dukakis perhaps. Then, when Signature expressed an interest in bringing it to New York, Vogel was inspired to do a wholesale rewrite from scratch. "The joke when I first wrote it at age 29 was that, by the time we got it done, I'd be old enough to play one of the roles. Now the joke is: 'Well, now we're doing it, and I'm too old.'
"I meant it always to be about Reaganomics, using this parable of aging prostitutes to show what was happening in New York. When I first wrote this, senior citizens were sitting on park benches on the Upper West Side. Then, suddenly, there was a real-estate boom, and they all disappeared. They lost their housing. Overnight, we became a Reagan New York. I want to look at where we've been in terms of our aging, in terms of women, in terms of people who don't have safety nets. I want to look at where we're going to go."
Hot 'n' Throbbing — like Vogel's recent The Long Christmas Ride Home and her Pulitzer Prize winner, How I Learned To Drive — employs bright writing to ease us into an abyss of domestic violence and abuse. "I have a term for it — negative empathy," explains Vogel. "I work my way through to empathize with things I fear. Right now, I feel this country needs that empathy more than anything else because we have a schismatic president who is portraying the world as a simplistic black-and-white cartoon. Theatre is a different emotional journey. Hopefully, that's the journey everybody can take in these three plays."