A Prize-Winning Playwright

April 16, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Paula Vogel and her play, “How I Learned to Drive” won this year’s prize for drama. The bittersweet comedy tells the story of a Maryland girl called “Little Bit” who’s taught to drive and at the same time is seduced by her much older uncle. Here’s a scene from the play as performed earlier this year by the Berkeley, California Repertory Theater. Uncle Peck has taken the 16-year-old “Little Bit” out to dinner and gotten her drunk. They’re in the car outside an inn on Maryland’s Eastern shore.

LITTLE BIT: (“How I Learned to Drive”) It’s such nice upholstery.

UNCLE PECK: Do you think you can go for a ride now?

LITTLE BIT: Where are you taking me?


LITTLE BIT: You’re not taking me upstairs. There’s no room at the inn.

UNCLE PECK: Do you want to go upstairs, or home?

LITTLE BIT: This isn’t right, Uncle Peck.

UNCLE PECK: What isn’t right?

LITTLE BIT: What we’re doing is wrong, very wrong.

UNCLE PECK: What are we doing? Just going for dinner.

LITTLE BIT: You know. It’s not nice to Aunt Mary.

UNCLE PECK: Now, you let me be the judge of what’s nice and not nice to my wife.

LITTLE BIT: Now you’re mad.

UNCLE PECK: I’m not mad. I just thought you understood me Little Bit. I think you’re the only one who does.

LITTLE BIT: Someone will get hurt.

UNCLE PECK: Have I forced you to do anything?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And now to the playwright, Paula Vogel, head of the Brown University Graduate Playwright & Workshop and author of, among other works, “The Oldest Profession,” and “Baltimore Waltz.” Thanks for being with us and congratulations.

PAULA VOGEL, Pulitzer Prize, Drama: Thank you. I’m delighted to be with you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Fill out the story of the play a bit for us.

PAULA VOGEL: Well, the story of the play–well, it’s–I guess–a walk down memory lane as we say in one scene. The play progresses in a series of flashbacks and flash forwards in the mind of the narrator, Little Bit. It’s–in many ways it’s a love story between Little Bit and her uncle, Uncle Peck, and it’s also, I think, a play about healing, forgiving and moving on. And I should also add it’s a comedy in places.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You say it’s a love story, but Little Bit’s only–I think she’s 11 years old when the first seduction scene occurs.

PAULA VOGEL: That’s correct.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What was your inspiration for this? Why did you want to make it more a love story than something that people would be horrified by?

PAULA VOGEL: I wanted to do this in a very gentle way because I have been dissatisfied looking at the television movie of the week approach, and in many ways I think that this play is an homage to Lolita, which I think is one of the most astonishing books ever written. So I started this thinking I wonder if a woman writer could approach this, I wonder if this could be done as Lolita from Lolita’s point of view. So that’s really the initial inspiration. I also feel that having watched a kind of climate of victimization occur, having watched younger women and younger men that I teach, I sometimes feel that being in that kind of mind set of victimization causes almost as much trauma as the original abuse. And so in many ways I think I felt that it’s a mistake to demonize the people who hurt us, and that’s how I wanted to approach the play.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And yet you don’t excuse anything. What I noticed is that one laughs and cries at the same time. Was it very difficult to achieve that?

PAULA VOGEL: I have always depended on the kindness and the greatness of actors and directors. And this play is no exception. I think it’s a balancing act, and I’ve been so far blessed with actors in New York with the original cast–included Mary Louise Parker and David Morse–the New York director Mark Brokaw–just knowing how to tread that tight rope between comedy and tragedy. Likewise, Molly Smith in Berkeley Rep. I mean, we’ve just been very lucky with this.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But, Ms. Vogel, it’s part of your character too, isn’t it, to make fun and be very dramatic at the same time?

PAULA VOGEL: I call it the Jewish gene in me. Yes. I think it is. When people try to say, well, why do you intend to do it, I think that’s part of my makeup. It’s how I grew up. Some of the funniest moments I think I’ve experienced in my life have been in family funerals. So, yeah, I think that’s something that’s pretty innate to me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You take on very tough subjects. You took on prostitution in “The Oldest Profession” and AIDS in “The Baltimore Waltz.” Why?

PAULA VOGEL: In many ways I think that the topics choose me. It’s an interesting thing. When I’m talking about balancing acts, I think there’s another balancing act for drama right now. And that’s the balancing act between entertainment but also subjects that hurt us, topics that hurt us. I believe that what theater does best is it creates a community. And I think in recent years because there’s a political climate in this country that the arts feel under attack, there’s been a tendency to, in essence, escape in our dramas, and to me, entertainment and political subject matter go hand in hand.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve said you see theater as a medium for democracy. What do you mean by that?

PAULA VOGEL: Well, I always go back to this, thanks to the history professor at Catholic University who taught me this, and that is that in 4th Century B.C. in the Greek democracy, citizens were required to go to the theater. It was a requirement of all citizens because we come together as people and we go through a communal experience, a journey, and to me a good play does not give a message or have just one point of view. It should be a dialogue. It should be a dialect. And, to me, if there are 200 people in the theater, there will be 200 plays that the audience see, each one for themselves, that night.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: With the difficult topics you cover, is it hard for you to get your plays funded and produced?

PAULA VOGEL: It hasn’t been recently and fortunately, it looks like it’s going to be easier and easier, but, yes, it’s a very tough time. Again, I’m never sure if it’s the subject matter of the plays. I think it’s more difficult for women as playwrights. I think it’s more difficult for people of color as playwrights, and one can never know why or why you do not get through. I mean, it’s a kind of terror of theater and it’s a thrill of theater. You can spend years working on something and until you open on opening night, you don’t know if you have a flop, or you have a hit.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Vogel, why is it more difficult for a woman as a playwright?

PAULA VOGEL: Well, again, it’s an interesting thing. I don’t think we question that we have a whole entire legacy of wonderful women characters written by male playwrights. You think of Heda Gobbler, you think of Chekhov, you think of the remarkable women characters written by Tennessee Williams, but I do think there’s a perception that women playwrights perhaps cannot know or portray male characters, and I mean, I think I can probably turn the question back and say, is it as easy being a CEO as a woman as it is a playwright? I think that there is perhaps a difficulty in perception, but I also think it’s an advantage.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And who have been the most important influences on your life? You mentioned a couple of playwrights.

PAULA VOGEL: I have to say that there are three playwrights that I always list as my gods, I’m always happy to talk about them. One is John Guerre, the incredible playwright who may be best known for “Six Degrees of Separation.” He has mentored me on the page. Another extraordinary playwright, American playwright is Maria Irene Fornez, who is just a remarkable voice, a Cuban-American playwright. And lastly, there is the divine Caryl Churchill, a British playwright, the writer of “Top Girls” and “Cloud Nine.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally, where can viewers see your play now or in the future?

PAULA VOGEL: Boy, this is the great part about this. We have just a few more performances in New York. We’re closing on Sunday. But there will be over 50 productions in the next season from arena stage to center stage. It’s playing in Alaska, coming to the Taper, opening up in London, so coming to a theater near you soon.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much for being with us, and, again, congratulations.

PAULA VOGEL: Thank you very much.