Paula Vogel wants to make you feel uncomfortable, but not just for the thrill of it, though any fan of hers can tell you she's not averse to a hot rush of blood. (She once said "blow job" is one of her favorite words.) She wants to mess about in the gray pool of societal mores and see if she can't splash you a bit, to illustrate how culture pushes the illusion of having it together while having little idea what to do with the inherent messiness underneath.
Vogel calls herself a First Amendment feminist while admitting her decades-old obsession with Nabokov's Lolita, a book that partially inspired her Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive. In that play, which she wrote in two weeks, Li'l Bit and her aunt's husband Uncle Peck learn bittersweet lessons from each other through reverberations of incest and pedophilia.
It's electric buzzwords like that — and like homophobia, sexuality, domestic violence, pornography — that draw the eye and pique the indignation. But they're the metaphor, not the message.
For instance, Vogel's post-World-War-II The Mineola Twins (which the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs student theater program will stage in November) uses the physical and behavioral opposites shown in twins Myrna and Myra — one good, the other bad; one "stacked," the other lacking in "the chestal region" — to offer comment on a level of sexual undercurrent common in society. She says she was inspired by the jokes being thrown at Goldie Hawn's chest in one episode of the early-'70s comedy show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.
"You have to think about, 'OK, what is it that television has shown us? How have I been trained in this culture to, in some ways, participate in breast jokes, Laugh-In, [and] Lolita?'" she said in a 2002 interview on CUNY-TV.
The 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama went to Drive — an award, she tells the Indy in an email, that makes her want to rob a bank so that the headline reads, "Pulitzer-winning bank robber ..." — but it's been just one of many honors. They include two Obie Awards, induction into the Theater Hall of Fame last January, and chairing the playwriting departments at Brown University and the Yale School of Drama.
And yet, she writes to us, "All of this is really just noise. It increases, for a time, the noise, and one has to drown it all out to write.
"I assume every play will be both a triumph and a turkey, like any artist, depending on how the writing went the night before. And that's noise, too. The really most important thing is did I really dare? Am I stretching my muscles as a writer? Am I being vulnerable, honest, exposed?"
The 61-year-old recently resigned from Yale to work more on her own plays, as well as with developing writers. But it's her new calling as a traveling guest artist that's really lighting the fires in Vogel, who taught playwrights like Sarah Ruhl, a Pulitzer finalist for her piece In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), which made its Colorado debut last year at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
"I can tell you, yes, yes, yes, this generation is thrilling," Vogel says. "It makes me confirmed in my hopes that a life in the theatre is a rich one, and it looks like it will be for a long, long time."