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

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27 Jul 2013

Paula Vogel
Paula Vogel
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN talks with playwrights Paula Vogel and Mfoniso Udofia about Sundance Theatre Lab and working as female playwrights.


"Girl talk" takes on an entirely new meaning when such talk involves Vogel and Udofia. A conversation with these two playwrights, currently attending Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, can span everything from effusive praise for each other to the artistic process to gender relations in modern-day culture to whether or not one would like to spend an evening with the avenging Greek Medea.

Vogel and Udofia have each been working on one play while at Sundance: Vogel's The Vengeance Project and Udofia's Sojourners. The Vengeance Project is a play about a play, following the journey of Scholem Asch's play God of Vengeance, written by a young man during the Yiddish Renaissance, from 1905 Warsaw to 1951 Stamford, CT. Over the years, the work is prosecuted for obscenity, is accused of anti-Semitism and features the first American onstage kiss between two women.

Addressing weighty topics is nothing new to Vogel, whose writing has tackled such subjects as homosexuality, child abuse and prostitution. In her honor, the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival created the annual Paula Vogel Award for Playwriting for "the best student-written play that celebrates diversity and encourages tolerance while exploring issues of dis-empowered voices not traditionally considered mainstream."

The second installment of The Ufot Trilogy, Sojourners explores the journey of Abasiama Ekpeyoung, a young woman who travels to America for an arranged marriage, hoping to earn a degree and then return to Nigeria. However, when her husband enjoys the American culture, she must choose between the Nigerian or the American dream.

A performer and teacher as well as a playwright, Udofia's trilogy chronicles the lives of a traditional Nigerian family transplanted to America, and her goal in attending Sundance was to develop the second play so it stands on its own as an individual work.

The Sundance Theatre Lab is a three-week retreat devoted to play development. The program is designed to support the creation of new work by playwrights, directors, composers and librettists, and to provide a place where that work can be effectively mentored and challenged. The Lab, which is operated under the umbrella of Sundance Institute, founded by Robert Redford, concludes July 28.

"I'm very aware that this is a gift," Vogel said of her time at Sundance. "The ability to have three weeks with the resources of these artists in the room with me, in a non-pressured way…This is a very rare opportunity and I don't know if I'll get it again."

"It's beautiful," Udofia said. "It's giving the opportunity to fail, experiment, succeed, experiment. There's no right or wrong. There's no direction except the direction you want to walk in and you want to walk in with your collaborators."

Many of Vogel and Udofia's collaborators at Sundance are women, and both of the playwrights expressed strong opinions regarding female playwrights and the lack of plays being produced that are written by women.

"Female playwrights right now are some of the fiercest crop, especially for me. Some of the new playwrights on the ground that I am encountering are doing some phenomenal, out-of-the box, just unconventional - without thought of how big the scope is - work," Udofia said. "I don't know what is in the water, but there is something that is going on. It feels like a revolution where the female pen is writing and writing without censorship."

Udofia compared the current culture to when she first entered the field, which she described as being very "male heavy"; even when she looked at contemporary writers, she was looking at men.

"It's so wonderful to have a canon or what looks like a huge amount of work that's coming out that is written by females," she said of the current environment. "And it's good."

Female playwrights, or the lack thereof, have been the focus of several recent studies, including one conducted between 2008 and 2009, which reported that 12.6 percent of plays produced on New York stages were written by women. This was in comparison to figures for the 1908-09 season, which was 12.8 percent. The total number of plays written by women on Broadway was less than one in eight, and in June 2013, Women Stage the World, an advocacy project from The League of Professional Theatre Women, held a march on Broadway demanding that the same number of women as men be employed in the theatre.


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