Thornton Wilder, the Bunraku puppet theatre tradition of Japan, Ingmar Bergman and some personal family history all feed into Vogel's latest, highly singular creation—only the second new play by her to reach New York since Drive won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. The show—which had its premiere in May at Trinity Rep, in Providence, Rhode Island, where Vogel teaches playwriting at Brown University—revolves around a family of five and the angst-ridden drive they take to and from their grandparents house one icy Maryland Christmas night. The intricately written piece, ornately directed by Mark Brokaw at the Vineyard theatre, employs puppets to represent the clan's three children, as well as a host of other Eastern theatrical techniques. The result is something quite sui generis: a story immediately recognizable by any American told through distinctly un-American methods by actors who perform outside their characters more often than they embody them. Vogel discussed the play with Playbill On-Line from her car as she navigated the streets of Providence.
Playbill On-Line: It's been several years since New York saw a new play from you. Why the wait?
Paula Vogel: A number of reasons. One is a television series that I pitched, and started writing and then bagged out of. Another reason is three drafts of a film of How I Learned to Drive for HBO. And another reason, which is rather interesting—a lot of people consider people like me as dropping out of the field when I spend 18 hours a day with young professional playwrights. I don't. I've gone back to Brown to teach. Another thing is I don't want to keep coming back into New York unless I feel I have something very significant to say. I'm enjoying being in the regional theatre and I'm enjoying my teaching. I guess, for me, I'm taking a breath of fresh air, and doing what's important, until I really feel I must be in New York. I see things in a little black box in Providence, Rhode Island, by playwrights in their thirties, that astonish me, that curl my hair, that make me believe in theatre, that make me think that the 40 years I spent in theatre was not a waste. So, it's very hard for me to leave Providence to see other work, let alone my own work, because every day a young playwright shows me something I've never seen before and that I won't find in New York. I think it's easier to take risks outside of New York. So, I'm really loving being a small town girl.
PBOL: Where did The Long Christmas Ride Home come from?
PV: I don't even know how many decades now—a long, long time ago I had the idea for this play. I just didn't know how to do it, and decided to keep putting it on the back burner until I found the techniques to do it. There's a very particular tonality to the play. I sometimes refer to this play as “A Christmas Carol” meets “The Ice Storm.” One of my favorite films is “Fanny and Alexander.” In many ways, I wanted to fuse the way Ingmar Bergman looks as an adult on the trauma of childhood with Thornton Wilder techniques. There's always a sort of epiphany moment [with me]. With How I Learned to Drive, I didn't write it until I saw an image of a woman adjusting a rear view mirror and her dead uncle materializing in the backseat. Then, I knew: there's my metaphor. For [The Long Christmas Ride Home], I had this image of an actor picking up a puppet representing his childhood self. And then I went, “OK. There's the play.” For about seven years I've been reading Japanese theatre, Japanese literature, the plays of Thornton Wilder, all the Western theatre puppet plays that I could get my hands on. I've been artistically stalking [puppeteer] Basil Twist [who designed the puppets for the play] for maybe three or four years, and we had discussions about it.
PBOL: Were you reading about the Japanese theatre because you wanted to use those techniques in your play?
PV: Yes. I wanted to do something that was inspired by the Bunraku tradition. I'm very aware, of course, that it takes 20 years in Japan to apprentice a Bunraku puppeteer. I read a lot of Bunraku plays, and did a lot of research on that. About two years ago, I sat down with Basil and said, “Look, you've got to try and train me. I've never worked with puppets.” The other thing is, because I see my students doing things every day that astonish me, I think, “OK, Vogel, next time you write a play, you have to dare yourself to write something you know nothing about, something you've never tried, something that's as far away from the last play, How I Learned to Drive, as can be.”
PBOL: And this is quite a distance from How I Learned to Drive.
PV: It's quite a distance from that play. People who are seeing [it] are saying that, in many ways, it seems like a kind of prequel to [How I Learned to Drive]. I've returned to the American car. But I keep saying, this is a play that's being seen from the back seat of the car. It's a childhood perspective, it's not adolescence, and hopefully it's staged with vastly different techniques. The two play worlds feel very different to me. PBOL: It's obvious the role that Japanese culture plays in the plot; the character of the son becomes obsessed with all things Japanese early on. But why did you consider Japanese theatre techniques the right way to tell this story of a family coming apart, perhaps for good, during one Christmas?
PV: I think, for me, the pitfall of western theatre is realism. Particularly my generation and younger generations—we keep trying to go back to theatre doing something that television and film can not possibly do. What is profoundly theatrical? We are looking at non-western traditions, we are trying to get away from that detailed, surface-oriented realism that the American theatre seems to keep reinvesting in. The thrill is going to the stage and just seeing the bare necessities. When we have the bare minimum, it's exactly what Thornton Wilder did in Our Town. To return to that and say, “What do we need? We need four boards, the actors and the audience”—for me, that is what is magical in the theatre. Japanese techniques, Chinese techniques, Balinese techniques, all of these are ways of getting away from television and film.
PBOL: You keep mentioning Thornton Wilder. Obviously, the title is an homage to Wilder's play The Long Christmas Dinner.
PV: I think that may be one of the first plays I read in high school. Also, his other short play, The Happy Journey to Trenton, which is about a family in a car, an outing that goes astray. Really, when I look at Wilder, what he was doing back in the ‘30s is he was reading Japanese drama and saying “How can we borrow that simplicity and spareness for the American stage?” There would be no Long Christmas Ride Home without the works of Thornton Wilder.
PBOL: Much of your play is told through narration, as was the story of Our Town.
PV: He used it a lot in Our Town. In many ways, I think about the short plays he wrote that were inspired by No dramas. Our Town was really a ghost play in the No drama tradition, with Emily coming back to Earth in the third act. We've been talking about Our Town a great deal [during rehearsals]. I very much hope that this is seen as an homage to the tradition of Thornton Wilder.
PBOL: Has it been difficult for the actors? Very often during the play, actors speak for other characters. Also, the three performers playing the adult children have had to learn how to manipulate puppets, which represent their characters as children.
PV: It's probably one of the most difficult things that we'll ever do in our experiences as playwright, director and actors—to learn puppetry techniques in four weeks. To approach this has been incredibly layered and complex, and, because of that, pretty exciting. I kept saying to everyone in the room, “The puppets are going to train us in how to produce this play.” There's something about a puppet that you suddenly realize: Oh, we have to move differently. In the first draft, I realized I had to watch [the puppets] and rewrite the lines accordingly. They created their own plane of reality. I think it has been challenging and difficult and very exhilarating. It's a journey for these actors who have to see this play from two points of view—themselves as adults, but also the vantage point of the childhood versions of themselves that the puppets represent.
PBOL: There are characters in the story that are obviously patterned on yourself and your late brother, whom you also dramatized in The Baltimore Waltz. How much of the story is autobiographical?
PV: Not very much, actually. I set it in Maryland, because I know Maryland. Obviously, I continue to think through the grief for my brother. That is autobiographical. But what I really wanted to do is see three children through different journeys to adulthood. It could be any three children. It's me processing grief, as a middle-aged person, for childhood. It's me looking at perspective and distance, as I am aware of aging, and as the distance between childhood and my current age increases every year. That's more the spirit of the play.
PBOL: You must be aware that almost everyone in the audience has had an awful Christmas ride home sometime in their past.
PV: Everyone has. I think that I haven't had that specific ride [depicted in the play], but there's something about Christmas where we feel both hope for renewal and sadness. It is a moment every year, culturally, where we feel our ghosts. One uses one's own personal experiences for the play, but I think [the story is] something that Americans experience in the culture. I'm more interested in that journey.