Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel wants to teach Sarasota to write plays
Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Paula Vogel believes that with the right amount of guidance, everybody has the ability to tell stories on stage, and to prove it, she’s host a kind of “bake-off” Friday night at Booker High School.
Vogel is best known for her 1998 Pulitzer-winning “How I Learned to Drive,” which is about to return to New York with the original actors and director, as well as “The Baltimore Waltz,” “The Mineola Twins,” “Indecent” and others. She will lead a workshop as part of her residency at the Hermitage Artist Retreat.
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Vogel, a long-time faculty member at Cornell, Brown and Yale University School of Drama (until 2012), has led similar workshops with all kinds of people and has found it works.
“I have taught women in maximum security prison. I have taught board members in theater companies, many of whom have never written but spent their life in the financial business,” she said in a telephone interview from Providence, where she was waiting out a blizzard before flying to Florida.
“Everybody enters and says ‘I can’t write a play.’ That’s what I think our education system does or our parents and our peers do. ‘Oh, you can’t sing!’ ‘Oh, you can’t write a play! ‘Oh, you can’t play a guitar!’ The truth of the matter is we’re censoring what we can do, from 5 years old, we’re learning to tell stories,” she said “For me it’s not about teaching, it’s about giving ourselves permission. How do we get to the point that the fun of it is addictive?”
She tries to make it fun by breaking or having no rules.
“A lot of teachers teach rules. That mystifies me,” Vogel said. “Every person has their own idea what a play is. Why should we be writing other people’s plays.”
Her format is similar to a bake-off where everyone works on the same idea and takes it where they want.
For example, a play about Joan of Arc. “The participants are told there is a girl in a field, with a visitation by an angel, convincing of higher authorities and a philosophical defense of cross-dressing. For extra credit you can add a match,” she said.
There is no rewriting. “Don’t censor yourself. Whatever comes out, comes out and we’ll sit around and read everybody’s work. It’s exhilarating and everyone finds out that every single voice is completely unique,”
The workshop called “Pen to Paper” will be held outdoors at 5 p.m. Friday in the courtyard at Booker High School and is part of the Hermitage@Booker series of events.
She’s been doing similar workshops since 1984, in addition to regular teaching and writing her own plays. Among her former students are MacArthur Fellow Sarah Ruhl and Pulitzer Prize-winners Nilo Cruz, Lynn Nottage and Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the book to the musical “In the Heights.”
During an earlier stay at the Hermitage in December, Vogel said she completed a long-contemplated memoir.
“It’s been in my head since 1988 and I knew some day I would write it. The COVID came along and the difference was I wrote every day. I didn’t stop,” she said, adding that the book may feel more like a one-person play.
COVID also delayed plans for a new Manhattan Theatre Club production of “How I Learned to Drive” with original stars Mary Louise Parker and David Morse working with original director Mark Brokaw, who will also be staging the musical “Hood” at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota in June.
It is definitely not a revival, Vogel said.
“We’re going into the room and re-examining the whole play from scratch. The opportunity I get, that we almost never get, is to go back and work on it like it’s new,” she said. “Mark is going to re-envision what the play is at this age. He directed it as a young man in his 40s. It’s a great honor and everything is up for grabs.”
The play, which first opened off-Broadway in 1997, is about the sexual relationship between a young girl named Li’l Bit and her aunt’s husband from pre-adolescence through her post college years.
The team was preparing to open the show when COVID shut down the theater in March 2020. “We were in rehearsal at the end of the second week. They built the set in the theater,” she said, but then people started getting sick.
“I went home and worried that this disease might have my name on it and what am I going to do without going to the theater or being in a theater with people,” Vogel said. “I don’t want to die until plays that I love I’ve seen staged.”
That’s one reason she helped launch a project called Bard at the Gate through New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre. It’s a play reading series presented via YouTube, in which a variety of rising playwrights get to have their work performed by prominent actors and start the development process.
“In the first season we had 11,000 views,” she said. “Our aim was to take these brilliant writers who may have had only a staged reading or a tiny production and put them out in the atmosphere and see that they can be done in regional theaters.”
So far, seven plays have been presented.
“I have personally written to 100 universities, telling professors to have your students watch this,” Vogel said. “This is how I get up in the morning, not thinking about my own work, it’s me thinking how do I keep up with my own work because of the brilliance around me, and how can I share that brilliance of other writers and actors and directors for someone who may be in a school or small town with no regional theater.”
The writing workshop “Pen to Paper” will be presented at 5 p.m. Friday in the outdoor courtyard of Booker High School, 3201 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota as part of the Hermitage@Booker series Capacity is limited for social distancing. Admission is free but a $5 registration is required at hermitageartistretreat.org