Meet Indecent Playwright Paula Vogel
Paula Vogel shows up for representation. Throughout her illustrious career, she has not only been a brilliant writer, but also an inspiring educator and fierce advocate for new, young, and underrepresented playwrights. Her contributions are so extraordinary that she is even the namesake for the Kennedy Center’s award for student plays that “celebrate diversity and encourage tolerance while exploring issues of disempowered voices not traditionally considered mainstream.” Over and over again, Vogel puts herself on the frontlines of the fight for representation in theater.
Since rising to national prominence with The Baltimore Waltz in 1992, Vogel has never backed down from subjects that are taboo, dealing with issues from AIDS to pedophilia to prostitution in her deep repertoire of plays. Beyond the stage, her advocacy has extended into her teaching. As a professor at Cornell, Brown, and Yale, Vogel has been essential in cultivating many playwrights who are now stars of the theater world, including Sarah Ruhl, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Nilo Cruz. “I want you to make it to Broadway before I do,” she says to her students. And many have; Vogel only just had her Broadway premiere with Indecent.
In recent years, Vogel’s fight has even extended to Twitter. In 2017, her tweets calling out the New York Times for their misogynistic reviews that brought a premature closing to hers and Lynn Nottage’s Broadway premieres sparked a larger cultural conversation about critical bias. Since then, she has continued to call out reviews that reek of prejudice. “I’m afraid that I may have burnt a bridge or two by doing that on Twitter,” Vogel says, “but the truth of the matter is, it’s not done out of disrespect. It’s done out of love and concern that our community continues. Our community must continue. We have to represent America on stage, and we’re not representing it."
Indecent arose out of a collaboration with director Rebecca Taichman—both women encountered Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance in school and were deeply impacted by it. 20 years later, when Rebecca pitched a project inspired by Asch’s play, Vogel was quick to sign on: “When [The God of Vengeance] was performed in New York in 1923, there was deep concern within the Jewish community about what Christians would think…It did exactly what plays should do—it provoked people into talking.” In charting Asch’s journey from Poland to Germany to America, Vogel and Taichman also chart one of the world’s most horrific periods of oppression in a narrative that is increasingly familiar. As Vogel points out, “The rise in hate speech, the white nationalism that we’re witnessing now is something no one is ignoring.”
But theater is Paula Vogel’s tool as she both fights against America’s failings and celebrates its virtues. Representation isn’t just a value; it is vital political action.
As she proclaims, “If we love music and theater and the arts, if we take solace in people sitting beside us in the theater, if we do what is in our hearts, I think there is light for us… regardless of what I’ve witnessed in my life, I’ve never been sorry that I’ve spent my life in the theater. I think the power of art is the power to wound our memory. I think the power of art is a way for us to change our worldview. I think art is our spiritual bread that we break together.”