Paula Vogel and Mfoniso Udofia Discuss Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, Gender Roles in Writing and Dinner With Medea

By Carey Purcell
27 Jul 2013

"I'm sad and a little angry that a female protagonist is unlikable or can be perceived as unlikable," Udofia said. "Likability has very little to do, for me, with writing. I'm writing the humanity. I'm writing a person. I don't necessarily subscribe to that a female has to be likable onstage."

Noting that women writing plays, to be produced in public, is still a fairly new aspect of Western culture, Vogel said, "Women were not supposed to be in the public sphere. We were supposed to be in our homes. So this is kind of a new phenomenon." She also noted that the legacy of female characters can be described as "trailing clouds of Ophelia or Gertrude," while men "trail clouds of Hamlet," and cited the influence of TV and film studios.

"The difficulty is, this has nothing to do with theatre," she said. "Can anyone say, ‘Do you like Medea?' No, but I sure as heck would like to spend an evening listening to what Medea has to tell me."

Udofia also discussed fighting the desire to be likable, saying, "I notice when it creeps into my writing, and I notice when it creeps into others' writing. It's this terrible third look at yourself. This thing about likability is a very internal thing that I think playwrights fight themselves."

"The thing about likability is that's how we're brought up, in terms of roles in the family," Vogel said. "And the great thing about having that extraordinary – how to call it? – it feels like an army of women writing for the stage is that we dare each other. That inspires me…We are at this critical point. I don't doubt for one moment that there are going to be generations to come of thrilling playwrights in the future, thrilling women writers. We just have to know that we're all at a burn right now. We're at that moment of burn."

"There's a lot right now happening in our country, too, that is adding to the burn of the writing. Women are 50 percent of the population but that does not mean we operate that way with the same fairness," Udofia said. "There's a need to say the things that are unsaid, right now, so that we can hear it and know what is happening to us, to our bodies. It's not about product. It's about exposing. It's about saying, it's about living and creating the new existences and showing the world the existences that they're failing to see."

Both Vogel and Udofia, who have taught playwriting and acting, stressed the importance of arts education as part of the change they predict in the theatre community. Vogel, who led the graduate playwriting program and new play festival at Brown University, helped develop the Brown/Trinity Repertory Company Consortium with Oskar Eustis and has served as the Chair of the playwriting department at Yale School of Drama, and the Playwright-in-Residence at Yale Repertory Theatre. Udofia, who has taught in schools in New York City, cited the lack of theatre education in the curriculum and stressed the need to fund that education. 

"It needs to be part of our re-imaginging [of theatre]," she said of arts education. "And music, too. That's all creation. That right there is what propels new art makers."

Both women described themselves as inspired and encouraged by the education they had received at Sundance and were excited to see their fellow playwrights' works presented.

"This is an incredibly exciting time, because we've all been having conversations, and you can feel everybody cheering each other on as we get to the point where we present our work to the community," Vogel said. "I'm going to bring my hanky with me to every presentation. It's a love fest. I might need a couple of them."