American playwright Paula Vogel was in Reykjavík recently attending a performance of her Pulitzer Prize winning play “How I Learned to Drive,” which showed at Borgarleikhús throughout May. The award winning play touches on themes of incest and paedophilia as it tells the story of one girl’s relationship with an uncle who molests her at the age of eleven during a driving lesson and continues to do so throughout her teen years. Vogel’s other works spotlight such topics as AIDS, domestic violence, gender inequality, pornography and homosexuality. They’re comedies.
Early (for a Saturday) on May 23rd Vogel and I, both a little worse for wear after a Friday night out in Reykjavík – the playwright’s first and only – sat in the comfortably minimal lobby of the Plaza Hotel to discuss why the adjunct professor and chair of the Yale School of Drama chooses such heavy topics, what topics scare her and the struggle of making it as a female playwright.
Why such heavy topics?
[I write about] things that bother me. I know people say that they’re heavy topics and then I think people are surprised that they’re laughing. It’s not anything I intend. I think it’s just my family and the way we told stories. There’s always a lot of comedy; funerals in my family are always very fun – fun and funny. We tell stories, we laugh. And it’s the way I approach theatre. I think it’s really a desire to examine a story or a journey together collectively. I don’t know if I would be a novelist or a poet or a journalist. I think I crave company. I’m in it for the company.
But what drives you to write rather casually about these things – paedophilia, incest, AIDS – that are widely taboo and not spoken of casually in society?
They’re not talked about casually. In fact, they’re not talked about. When I started writing there were very few women writers, particularly in theatre. Now there are many women writers so I feel in great company. But when I was in my 20’s there weren’t stories told from women’s points of view that I could see on the stage.
Let’s take the topics of paedophilia and incest [in “How I Learned to Drive”]: I didn’t even think about the story. I knew it was a story there but I was thinking as a young woman when I read Lolita, asking ‘how would a woman write about this?’ ‘How would I feel about Humbert Humbert?’ ‘Would it be different if a woman wrote it?’ and ‘Would it be different in a play?’
Now, obviously, Nabokov is a genius and there’s complexity to that novel that no theatre and no play can do, but again I rely on being in good company. What I did notice as I started to read about the topic, as I continued to think about Nabokov, is that I would walk into Times Square in New York and I would be bombarded by Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein ads of basically young boys and girls in underwear. And I would think, ‘are we noticing how we’re sexualizing the bodies of children and adolescents in our culture?’ So not even saying ‘incest’ or looking at something that happens in one family, but let’s look at what is in the presence of everyone, in the company of all, in the way we sell merchandise. I’m not talking about rape. I’m talking about the grey area. Not the black, not the white. The grey area.
How do audiences react to you exploring this grey area?
[After a performance] it’s a strange feeling of relief and everybody in the audience saying, ‘yes, this is happening, this is in our midst. I have experience with this, I have experience and I’ve wondered about this.’ There’s a sense for me of an uplift, or feeling lighter. I feel burdened when things aren’t talked about, when they aren’t looked at directly. And this isn’t to say that I don’t think the work is political; I think all theatre is political. I think when we gather together it is a political and spiritual act and that’s why I hope I get to spend the rest of my life in theatre.
While some are uplifted, some must be feeling otherwise. Do you ever encounter negative feedback?
When you write something you have to be responsible for the response. I would never not do my work somewhere but I would want to be there so that if people were angry they could look me in the eyes and tell me what they think.
Have people done this?
Yes, of course. Not as much with this play, although there have been people who say, ‘I am not ready to see this.’ There are people who will write to me or talk to me and say, ‘I heard about your play and I really can’t come see it, I hope you understand.’ People I know. And I say, ‘I’m really glad that you’re not seeing it. I think that’s great and I wouldn’t want to hurt you in any way.’
In an earlier play [The Baltimore Waltz], which I wrote about my brother’s death from AIDS, I really wanted to talk about it. At the time that he died in 1988 there was a great taboo and shame about dying from AIDS and I thought my brother met death with absolute courage and humour and was a model and I refused to be ashamed. No women were talking about their relationships to HIV. I wrote a play about a character named Anna, who is a sister and who has this mysterious disease. A lot of people were furious that a woman, at that time, would write with a sense of humour about this – the humour that comes from my experience with my brother, as well as the grief. I had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘how dare you as a woman write about HIV?’
When I was younger I used to think it would be marvellous to be hissed and booed at, at least that meant you’re provoking and getting under the skin… I’m not so sure anymore! I still prefer that to indifference, but I don’t go out of my way to provoke. I’m scared when I write. I’m scared when plays are produced. I’m scared when things upset me, but I think we should run toward things we’re scared of.
Is there any topic that scares you to the point of not wanting to approach it?
There have been things that I have put aside because I didn’t think I had the skills to do it. I wrote a play about domestic violence [Hot ‘n’ Throbbing] that took me a while to write, it was very hard to write. I was scared. I literally had to write it by staying up all night I couldn’t sleep while I was writing it. I’m proud of it but it still scares me, it makes me shake. But, if I’m really so scared I can’t do something it probably means I don’t know how to do it yet.
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