When I started my master’s degree in creative writing, I knew exactly the play I wanted to write for my thesis. Except that I didn’t. Not really. I knew the subject matter I wanted to deal with but I didn’t have the faintest clue how to deal with it. I didn’t even know where to start. So my mentor recommended a play that had been there, done that.
Let me be more specific.
My mentor recommended a brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning play that made me angry, made me cry, and turned my entire playwriting experience on its head…in the best possible way. That play was How I Learned to Drive and it was written by Paula Vogel.
There are a handful of female playwrights whom I count among my influences and my favorites. Paula Vogel is one of them. How I Learned to Drive deals quite blatantly with the effects of sexual abuse and incest on a young woman growing up and trying to take control of her own life. The play is quite theatrical; Vogel utilizes a chorus to play various characters who circle through the lives of the two main characters, Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck (and yes — those are the characters’ names with good reason). The play is broken into sporadic scenes that depict Li’l Bit’s startling and disturbing relationship with her uncle and all the scenes are accompanied by instructions on the finer points of driving, given by a cold and distant disembodied voice. I’ll stop the description here because I do want this post to be about Vogel and not a review of her play; I’m just trying to communicate (and probably failing miserably) the amazing theatricality with which this woman writes.
But her theatricality and unflinching honesty aren’t the only reasons Paula Vogel sits at the top of my must-read list. Vogel writes things I don’t always agree with. She writes things that are graphic beyond what I’d like to encounter. For as much as I enjoy reading her plays, I’d choose very carefully which ones I would actually go and see. This woman’s work disturbs me sometimes to my very core. And that is why I love it so much. Vogel challenges me to think, which is really one of the main points of theatre, isn’t it? Or at least it should be. She takes me out of my comfort zone, rattles my presuppositions, forces me to ask hard questions about what I really believe and why. And I am so grateful.
I recently finished reading Vogel’s Obie Award-winning play Baltimore Waltz, which is on one hand a very touching piece (and very personal to Vogel) about a woman who imagines the European trip she never took with her brother before he died of AIDS. On the other hand, the play is also a surprisingly comical commentary on the way AIDS was perceived when it gained prominent public attention in the 1980s. And finally (is that a third hand?), Vogel uses the piece to say a lot about living life — and you know what? I don’t agree with all of it. And I don’t have to. A lot of times we tend to love books and movies and plays that we agree with; songs and poems and paintings that champion our ideals, ideas, morals, values, and opinions. But how then do we grow? How do we change? How do we learn to think, to question, to defend and finally, to accept our differences?
Vogel, in my humble opinion, is a masterful and gifted playwright. Her work can be to me both a challenge and an inspiration. And while her work enabled and perhaps even gave me the courage to write my own play about a woman dealing with the effects of sexual abuse and incest in her life, her plays have also challenged me to a higher level of thinking, and above all, have moved me to a deeper level of compassion for the human condition.
Next on my reading list: Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: a play about a handkerchief, a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Othello. (And we all know my penchant for Shakespeare re-tellings!) Stay tuned; perhaps you’ll see a review of it here. 🙂