The Bittersweet Prize

By Chad Galts / May / June 1998
December 28th, 2007
Paula Vogel's play How I Learned to Drive, which won a Pulitzer in April, seemed to be special from the start. Vogel, a professor of English and theater, says the play sailed from first draft to Broadway with astonishing speed. "It just happened," she says. "I rewrote less than 10 percent of this play after that first draft."

What's more, her parents loved the result, despite the play's focus on a girl's struggle to free herself from a charmingly seductive sexual predator who also happens to be her uncle. "They had a sense that this was going to happen," Vogel recalls, adding that for her the Pulitzer is tinged with sadness: both her parents have died since How I Learned to Drive opened in New York.

The loss is still sinking in as Vogel tries to cope with the incessant phone calls and nonstop publicity the Pultizer has unleashed. By late April she had ordered a separate phone line to deal with the extra calls. "I'm hoping that once some of the smoke clears away I'll be able to spend a little time thinking about my mother and father," she says. "I'm trying to book in a little quiet time."

Vogel is halfway through a two-year leave from Brown's graduate playwriting program, which she has headed since 1985. She hopes to return, but admits that, despite a love for teaching, balancing stage and classroom can be tricky. "Unlike other forms of writing," says the author of twenty-two plays, "with playwriting you have to spend the time to write, the time to workshop, the time to produce. You can't phone in your rewrites. It's a tremendous load." The Pulitzer and the death of her parents, Vogel adds, has her reexamining her priorities for the future.

How significant is a Pulitzer Prize to a playwright? Before the prize was announced, How I Learned to Drive was scheduled to open in thirty productions around the world - including the New England premiere at Providence's Trinity Repertory Theater on May 17. One day after the Pulitzer announcement, however, that number had gone up to fifty-one.

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May / June 1998