Theater & dance

‘We have to say the truth’ about Broadway, says Paula Vogel

Laurie Sturdevant

Paula Vogel didn’t expect to win this year’s best-play Tony Award for “Indecent.” Not only was it was a competitive category — “Oslo” took home the prize — but the Broadway landscape has long been an uneven playing field, the playwright says.

“I knew what the odds were. I knew that [productions of plays by] women and people of color are usually done on much smaller budgets [that limit] advertising budgets. A full-page ad — not that I resent it because I love these artists, they are my friends and colleagues and I’m glad they have that resource — but a full-page ad that [‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ producer] Scott Rudin or [‘Oslo’ producer] Lincoln Center can buy in the New York Times [would keep] ‘Sweat’ or ‘Indecent’ running for a week,” says Vogel in a phone interview. “We have to say the truth. We have to say, ‘Thank you and my God, this was great, but how many women and how many playwrights of color are going to be nominated next year?’”

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“Indecent” marked Vogel’s long-awaited Broadway debut after some 22 plays, including her 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner “How I Learned to Drive.” She constructed “Indecent” as a play-within-a-play about Sholem Asch’s 1906 Yiddish work “God of Vengeance,” which, in its English-language debut on Broadway in 1923, was shut down for controversial story lines including a lesbian romance.

“Indecent” won two 2017 Tony Awards, for director Rebecca Taichman and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind. Despite those honors, the show was set to close June 25. But in a rare turnaround, producer Daryl Roth, citing an outpouring of public support for the show, decided to keep “Indecent” open through Aug. 6 at the Cort Theatre.

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“Indecent” is also headed to Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, says Vogel, and she’s hopeful the show will travel to London, “which is where Sholem Asch’s family lived.” On Wednesday, a Huntington spokesperson confirmed that it is “in talks” to present “Indecent” in the 2018-19 season.

But when it was announced that both “Sweat” by Lynn Nottage and “Indecent” — the only new works by women on Broadway this year — were slated to close, Vogel took to social media to call out establishment theater critics, charging that cultural biases against women and minorities can ultimately affect box-office results for their plays.

As a renowned teacher of playwriting at Brown University and Yale School of Drama (Nottage was one of her students), Vogel has long been a fierce advocate for greater opportunities and respect for playwrights.

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Nor does she spare academia or arts institutions that, she says, have historically dismissed playwrights as “little vaudevillian clowns in baggy trousers that should not be let into the salon with the poets and the fiction writers.”

Vogel, who’s lived in Wellfleet since 1984, will be honored July 8 at the annual Summer Awards Celebration benefit for the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. (“I don’t know why they’re honoring me. Probably as of this interview they’re going to rescind,” she says.) Besides Vogel, this year’s honorees include American painter Paul Resika and Emmy Award-winning producer/director Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “Feud: Bette and Joan”).

Not to look the gift horse in the mouth, Vogel says, but she’d prefer that FAWC champion young playwrights by providing fellowships.“The greatest honor is for an institution to mentor our students. That’s why I get up out of bed every morning.

“I wish I’d won the Tony. I wish I had the money from the film rights [for ‘Indecent’] — which might happen — in my hand. I wish I’d written something like ‘A Chorus Line’ or ‘Hamilton.’ I love ‘Hamilton.’ If that happened, I’d love to endow a playwriting fellowship,” she says.

“I’m 65. I’m not going to stop writing no matter what. But younger writers do stop writing for theater. . . . They leave for television or they go back to law school. We all think about it in the theater, even me, and I recognize that I’m seen as a success.”

Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winner Tony Kushner, a FAWC honoree in 2012, calls Vogel “an incredibly important figure in American playwriting. She’s written a great number of remarkable, innovative, formally challenging, wild and entertaining plays and she’s mastered a number of different forms. She’s a very distinctive and significant voice in contemporary American playwriting.” Besides that, he adds that as a “a tough and ferocious fighter for good causes including gender parity and LGBTQ rights,” Vogel is the kind of artist who distinguishes Provincetown and lower Cape Cod.

“Playwriting is a serious, socially engaged, formally innovative art form that I think is identified with Provincetown because of, among many other things, the Provincetown Players,” says Kushner. “It’s important that the FAWC continually renews this connection to the American theater by honoring playwrights.”

‘I’m 65. I’m not going to stop writing no matter what. But younger writers do stop writing for theater. . . . They leave for television or they go back to law school. We all think about it in the theater, even me.’

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For Vogel, nurturing playwrights serves all art forms and all audiences.

“In truth, theater is also fiction, is also poetry, is also painting, is also dance. There should be no separation of the arts. There should be no hierarchy in the arts and no separation of audience and artists,” she says. “All people are artists. All people have stories to tell.”

Summer Awards Celebration

At Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, July 8. www.fawc.org

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.
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