The Play’s the Thing

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / September / October 2003
June 22nd, 2007

The announcement last April of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama stunned the theater world. Two strong front-runners, Edward Albee’s The Goat and Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, were upstaged by a little-known play New York City audiences had never seen—Anna in the Tropics, by Nilo Cruz ’94 M.F.A. Not only was the Cuban-born Cruz the first Latino to win the theater Pulitzer; jurors made their decision on the strength of Anna’s script alone—only the second time a play has been chosen without benefit of a New York production. Cruz is the third Brunonian in the past fifteen years to win the Pulitzer for drama, following Alfred Uhry ’58, who won in 1988 for Driving Miss Daisy, and Cruz’s mentor, Brown professor Paula Vogel, who won for How I Learned to Drive in 1998.

Cruz’s success is emblematic of the increasing influence of Brown’s theater program on American drama, an influence that has steadily intensified since Vogel’s arrival on campus in 1985. As revered a teacher of young playwrights as she is a dramatist, Vogel has a sharp eye for talent, regardless of its pedigree. For almost twenty years now she has coached some of the country’s most gifted young playwrights, wooing fledgling writers into Brown’s creative writing program and fostering their careers. Her students’ work has been staged in new play festivals and regional theaters from Florida to Alaska. As a second generation of Vogel students enters the fray, the pace of success has not slowed. Last year American Theatre magazine named Alice Tuan ’97 M.F.A., who is resident playwright at the Los Angeles Theater Center, one of “seven playwrights to watch.” Both the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. and the Public Theater in New York City have commissioned her work. Tuan’s classmate, Gina Gionfriddo, was among fourteen playwrights selected for the 2003 Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Connecticut, where her play After Ashley was staged in July; her comedy U.S. Drag is scheduled for production at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre this season. In the two years since his graduation, Paul Grellong ’01 has had a rock musical, Hot Star, Nebraska, produced in Boston, and his play Manuscript (about Ivy League plagiarism) was given a staged reading by the actress Anna Paquin at the Cape Cod Theatre Project in July. Yemaya’s Belly, by Quiara Alegria Hudes, a composer and a current playwriting graduate student, was produced at South Coast Repertory this summer.

In turn, several of Vogel’s early students are passing the torch as teachers. Donna DiNovelli ’89 A.M., for example, returned to Brown as a visiting professor last year, while the New York City Opera, in its Vox 2002 series, put on a full orchestral reading of her opera-music-theater piece FLORIDA. (It was also produced in the New Works Now! Festival at the Public Theater in New York, and was a finalist for the coveted Richard Rodgers Award.)

Two years ago Brown stepped up its commitment to theater by forming a consortium with Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company to add three new graduate degrees—an M.F.A. in acting, an M.F.A. in directing, and a doctorate in theater and performance studies—to complement the A.M. in theater studies and the M.F.A. in playwriting it had long offered. One of the most valuable aspects of the new alliance is that it gives students direct access to a first-rate theater company. Heading the consortium, in fact, is Trinity’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, who at the time of its founding was promoted from visiting professor to full professor. (The University soon hopes to add Rhode Island School of Design and Rhode Island College to the consortium as well.) And late last year, after nearly two decades at Brown, Vogel was named the Adele Kellenberg Seaver ’49 Professor of Creative Writing.

Eustis, who is best known for his role in first bringing Tony Kushner’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner, Angels in America, to the stage, and Vogel have long been close friends and collaborators. She coaxed him to Providence from Los Angeles six years ago, and he has produced both her Mineola Twins and How I Learned to Drive. Last spring he directed the world premiere of her newest play, The Long Christmas Ride Home.

What unites Vogel and Eustis—and what distinguishes the Brown program—is a vision of theater that encompasses both audience appeal and experimentation. After a stint as director of new plays at the vanguard Eureka Theatre in San Francisco, Eustis had moved to the more mainstream Mark Taper in L.A., where he invited Vogel to work with aspiring playwrights. “The Eureka,” he recalls, “was one of these hot little places devoted to the idea that you could somehow institutionalize the counterculture, and my leaving to go to the Mark Taper was really a rejection of that thesis. It became clear to me that the most exciting battleground was going to be in trying to infiltrate major institutions to have an impact.”

Back in New York City, Vogel was coming to a similar conclusion. “In the early 1980s,” she says, “I was over here on the East Coast struggling and holding down two and three jobs while doing staged readings. And I was seeing how the theater was changing in New York and how the institutions that I was looking to as a home were closing. So I thought, okay, I’ve got to go back to teaching. I’ve got to try and mentor and encourage the next generation to think of theater as something that is a deeply embedded artistic expression—not to look at the commerce of it. And the only place one could do that, I thought, was academia. Which is how I came to Brown.”

Through the Brown-Trinity consortium the two hope to help steer American theater in a direction that is both smart and accessible, creating a sense of excitement among their students for the potential of their own work. A few weeks after the premiere of Vogel’s Long Christmas Ride Home, high on success, the two friends paused at Trinity long enough to discuss the relationship between teaching and theater, the nature of their collaboration, and the ingredients of a good play.

When and how did the two of you begin to work together in earnest?

Eustis At the Taper I formed something called the Mentor Playwrights Project, which took early-career playwrights and provided them with an alternative M.F.A. program—on the theory that for countless different reasons some of our most talented writers were not getting into or did not see as a viable possibility the standard forms of training.

Vogel And while Oskar is [at the Taper] in L.A., I’m back at Brown saying that [immigrant writers], especially writers of color, are going to be very mindful that theater is a risk. If they go on to higher education they’re going to have family responsibilities, and they’re going to be more likely to go into law school or social work than the arts.

Eustis At the Taper we took twelve or fourteen writers and we paid them a stipend, and then we brought in the greatest teachers of playwriting in America, and of course at the top of that list was Paula Vogel, because Paula had already established herself. This was 1989 and she had already earned Brown a reputation as the hottest playwriting program, and she was the hottest teacher. And so I brought her out to Los Angeles. Paula was extraordinary. She always got the highest marks from the writers.

What’s happened to those early students of yours?

Vogel Many of them have remained in the field and gone on to mentor playwrights themselves, I think in emulation of that program. Fourteen years later we’re sharing playwrights, we’re sharing young directors, we’re sharing actors. It’s been an amazing fertilization.

Fertilization and collaboration seem essential to the work both of you do. How do you establish them?

Eustis Last fall we cotaught a class on collaboration. Paula did most of the actual design and structure of the class, and students gave it high marks overall, but the comment that we got back from almost all the students was that they learned the most from watching us work together in the class.

Vogel Something that Oskar says often and I think is true is that the secret of collaboration is listening.

Your most recent artistic collaboration came earlier this year at Trinity Repertory, here in Providence. Paula, why did you choose Trinity to stage the world premiere of The Long Christmas Ride Home?

Vogel Oskar is the foremost director of new plays. I study people very seriously, and I’ve been studying my Oskar.

You get to a point where in order to sustain a career—it’s a very hard field—you have to fall in love with the process more than the product. You have to love being in the room. And who you choose as a director and where you have it done is very important. Look at what I’ve just achieved: For the first time in my life, I did a world premiere in my hometown, with my neighbors, with my friends, with my students, with colleagues I see every week. We work together with our relatives, with our families all knowing each other. With our familiar route, where we have coffee and people say, “How’s the play going?”

In New York, people feel free to abuse each other in the room because there’s always going to be another production. There are hundreds and hundreds of productions done every season. People are seen as expendable. In Providence no one is expendable. Everyone is going to remain in this town. You have to work at a different level.

In a town like this you need for a director someone who has generosity of heart and leadership so that community is never endangered but it increases. And that’s why here.

Eustis Paula and I had been through more than I have ever been through with another writer before we started rehearsals. I’d produced the world premiere of The Mineola Twins, which Molly Smith coproduced at Perseverance Theatre in Alaska. Paula wouldn’t let me do the world premiere of How I Learned to Drive. I begged and begged her. I don’t think I actually wept, but I might have had tears running down my cheeks. She wouldn’t let me and so I begged her to let me do it immediately after the production in New York.

My son’s baby book opens with a picture of Paula Vogel, because the day Paula won the Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive—April 14, 1998—was the day my son was born. So you open up my son’s baby book to a huge picture of Paula on the telephone and a comment that Oskar Eustis was unavailable for comment because he was at the hospital.

Long Christmas Ride Home feels like a unique and blessed expansion of the class we taught this fall.

Vogel There are always other ways to do a play, but the first production tells the world that this can be done. Oskar’s cracked this play. This play can be done.

Oskar, how would you assess Paula’s impact on American theater?

Eustis Paula is doing this very specific task, and this is the way I see it: She is linking up diverse traditions within the American theater canon and relooking at them and reappropriating them.

In Long Christmas Ride Home, she is working within the Thornton Wilder tradition, and part of what she is forcing us to do is to reexamine it. You think of Wilder and you think of the most naturalistic, the most American, the most Norman Rockwell, foursquare, great American writer we have. But what Paula is forcing us to remember is that Wilder was also the most self-consciously experimental playwright we ever had. He is the writer most concerned with Asiatic theater forms. He was the best-educated playwright America has ever had. He cared more about formal education. He had more degrees. He was better read than any other American playwright. He cared about the world more than any American playwright. And yet he also wrote these intensely, achingly, personal plays—familial plays. That tradition is something Paula is both working in and reinvigorating.

What I think has happened with Baltimore Waltz and How I Learned to Drive, and I think is now happening with Long Christmas Ride Home, is that she’s opening the eyes of the experimentalists among us to the realization that narrative and family drama are appropriate subject matter; it’s a way to make accessible the kind of experimentation that an awful lot of writers keep off on the margins and refuse to share with a mainstream audience.

And on the other hand, she’s taking a mainstream audience and twisting their expectations of what dramaturgy is, or what storytelling is, of what a nuclear family is, of what appropriate gender relations are. She is truly subversive and yet she’s also a traditionalist.

You’ve described Paula as America’s greatest teacher of playwriting. What makes a good teacher?

Eustis She’s a great teacher for a lot of reasons, but one of the reasons I think she’s a great role model is that she is saying to students, “Everything in your personal life is your subject matter, and everything in the library of world theater is yours to plunder and work with and re-appropriate.” And those two things don’t contradict each other.

We have no popular playwright who has pushed the boundaries of the form more than Paula. We have this high modernist tradition that formal experimentation means inaccessibility, that a concern with diversity of theatrical expression means marginalized avant-garde elitist art. And everything in Paula’s work blows up that stereotype. It’s incredibly influential.

And now she’s going on to the second generation of playwrights. So much of our challenge as an art form is to make sure that folks younger than us see the theater as an explosive and exciting place to work—not as a place to work if you don’t have enough capital to make movies.

Vogel I would put it another way. Oskar as a director is—I want to use the word populist. I think in this field we’re continually struggling with a fight between the notions of lowbrow and highbrow. We’ve both been struggling as director and playwright for many years with the firm belief that the theater belongs to everyone and a firm belief that the theater pushes us beyond our own cultural air to another world that we hadn’t glimpsed. And this is in many ways about trying to get beyond the biases of our skin and our class and our gender and our age and our experience. That’s what theater is. Theater has to be resolutely lowbrow and highbrow, and nothing can be wasted.

Just once in my life I’d like to create a Threepenny Opera that was successful with the avant-garde and that, while it resolutely mocked everybody, was a huge smash success with middle-class theatergoers. It takes a knowledge and a command of the theatrical apparatus. Playwrights can’t do it alone. Brecht is an amazing example, because he was a director and a playwright. But I knew very early on that was going to be beyond me, so I need a director who has all of these theatrical styles at his disposal and who will embrace the lowbrow and who will say that we’re going to put theater in the marketplace without apology. Who will say that this theater belongs to the community, and it has to be a very large community.

To find that director, and then to take that play and try to make that marriage of the highbrow and the lowbrow, is very rare. Because I think directors by necessity at times slot themselves—they become the experimentalists, they become Richard Foreman [’59] and do what they do very very well.

But Oskar is really not only a director, he’s an artistic director in the best sense. When you select a play, you’re not just selecting a play, you’re selecting an audience. You’re opening the doors in a different way each time you select a play.

So what you see as a formal experimentation, Oskar, is me trying to create a Threepenny Opera. Now I’ve seen it done: it was called Angels in America. Oskar is the man who started that dialogue.

How difficult is it for Trinity, a theater company with a gypsy soul, to collaborate with an institution as staid as an Ivy League university?

Eustis There aren’t many people who would refer to Brown as staid. It is certainly not a staid place artistically. Artistically Brown is a wildly diverse and experimental institution. In fact, if you were just to look at the artistic components of Brown and Trinity, you might reverse the question. [English professors] Robert Coover and Keith Waldrop might be wondering what a potentially negative influence on Brown’s creative writing department such a staid institution as Trinity Rep might bring. Seriously.

Vogel That’s right. It’s true.

Eustis Brown’s tradition of experimentation, of diversity, of free expression is a provocation for Trinity. The only thing staid about Brown is that its finances are more stable, which means it is a fantastic influence on us to be connected to an organization that has the institutional stability Brown does.

You might be able to tell, in my extremely mild-mannered way, that this touches a bit of a nerve. There is a pernicious separation that has bedeviled the American theater for certainly all of the twentieth century, and it is the separation between professional theater and academia. And it’s based on, I think, profound and destructive misunderstandings of the relationship between the life of the mind and the life of show business. The idea that the life of the mind is somehow destructive of entertainment or destructive of the ability to reach a mass audience, or inherently elitist, is a terrible notion. The idea, on the other hand, that show business is a crude mass-production, uninteresting enterprise only worth doing in a commercial arena is equally destructive.

I’ve spent my entire career—not just since I’ve come to Brown—trying to break down those walls. Bob Brustein, who founded both the Yale Rep and American Repertory Theatre [ART] at Harvard, said he was jealous of my relationship to Brown because he had never worked within a university that had the kind of understanding of what the arts could be that Brown has. ART still can’t offer an M.F.A. through Harvard. The M.F.A. at ART is offered through the University of Moscow.

Vogel I have had arguments, or shall we say discussions, with Brown [faculty] who implied that we could be giving an M.F.A. in soccer or volleyball if we’re giving one in playwriting. There is an extremely puritanical vein that runs through academia that says anyone of the theater should not be buried within church grounds.

Eustis And the corollary to that is an anti-intellectual strain in the American theater that might suggest that it would be corrupting to the gypsy soul of Trinity to be associated with Brown. Why? Because somehow all that thinking, all that intellectual stuff, must be anti-artistic. Which is an incredibly early-nineteenth-century idea of what the arts are and what theater is.

Vogel The bridges we are building are very recent. We’re at a fragile point in history here.

Eustis And that’s the point: this is still vulnerable. It’s vulnerable from both sides. I have people here who absolutely don’t understand what we’re doing associating with Brown, who aren’t sure, who aren’t positive that it’s bringing value to Trinity. [Staging] Long Christmas Ride Home is the most important single thing we’ve done. The tech staff, the carpenters, have come up to me and told me it’s their favorite show. Not just one or two. Clearly they’re back in the shop talking. So this show becomes an icon of what Trinity and Brown can do together for the Trinity program.

Vogel Our collaboration in this play is actually an example of trickle up, which is the only way economy works in the theater. We are mirroring the collaboration which is becoming very stable among the actors, directors, and playwriting students: they are no longer saying Brown and Trinity, they are saying us. We are putting on the stage a mirror of the institutional marriage that’s happening with our students.

Are you saying that in the end the collaboration is really about creating community, among playwrights and directors, audiences and actors, academics and entertainers?

Eustis We were talking earlier about trust, and I’ll tell you what that is. Talent is talent, lots of people can write. But at a certain point with a writer you ask, Are they real? Are they writing on the basis of something that is more than effect? More than what impact they’re trying to have on somebody? Are they writing from a base of experience, vision, desire to communicate, whatever it is? If that thing is really there, you’re in great hands, because all you have to do as a director is relax and listen. Because it’s there.

Anyone in that rehearsal room would lie under a truck for you, Paula, and the reason is that you’ve given them this incredible opportunity to work on something that’s real. I’ve done a lot of new plays that don’t meet that definition, and they tend to be by playwrights I only work with once. Because with them it ends up being about the product. It ends up with: “Well, did it work?” Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, but you have no desire to repeat the experience.

Theater is an intense experience. It holds out the possibility of true intimacy and community. You feel like you are discovering yourself through discovering somebody else, and when that happens there’s just no better feeling in the world. The electronic arts cannot touch it; they have a different intention. They’re about doing something to you. They’re about showing you. They’re not about sharing something. Theater is the best art form there is.

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September / October 2003