Paula Vogel and Mfoniso Udofia Discuss Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, Gender Roles in Writing and Dinner With Medea
By Carey Purcell
Playbill.com 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.
Citing the low percentage of female playwrights with work being produced, Vogel said, "I actually believe that the greater the supply of amazing plays written by women, the greater the demand will grow. It's a matter of accessibility, of being able to say to young women who would never even think of this as a possibility: ‘You know what? You've got stories. You've got your family. You're witnessing something. You've got a legacy.'"
Vogel described the energy of the current culture as "remarkable," saying, "I've been working with writers for 30 years...There's a fierceness and asking no permission and taking no prisoners of the work of women writers right now. It's very exciting to look around and see the women — as we say it, base camp — here. They're all extraordinary."
The study on gender in the theatre also reported that plays written by women bring in more money than plays written by men. While the current statistics of Broadway and New York stages do not reflect this financial success, Udofia and Vogel said they are confident that will change.
"At some point the demographics have to shift in the same way the demographics are shifting in this country right now," Vogel said. "And hopefully those demographics will shift in terms of diversity of voice, in terms of women, in terms of points of view. Because there's a hunger to hear those stories."
This hunger is felt by both Vogel and Udofia, and it has been satisfied, at least temporarily, by their weeks working at Sundance.
"I had a hunger when I came here," Vogel said. "I feel that audiences are hungry, but I think it's writers who also have to be hungry. It's that same spirit that makes us want to share bread together. I think for so many women, this is not about making a product. It feels to me a spiritual commitment and a witnessing together. I haven't seen this since I started trying to be a writer in the American theatre."
One aspect contributing to a lack of plays written by women cited in the 2009 study was the audience viewing female protagonists as unlikable.
"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."
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