Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel thinks it happens to almost every playwright: that moment when he or she realizes, “Yep, I guess I’m going to write a play about a play.”
It makes sense. One of the oldest, if iffiest, edicts for writers is “Write what you know,” and playwrights know the world of theater like the back of their ink-smeared hands. Vogel’s “Indecent,” though — which opens Friday at the Guthrie Theater — paired tons of research (it’s about the tortured history of a century-old Yiddish play) with an attempt to depict one of the things she knows and loves about theater.
“There’s a reason every writer at some point writes a play about a play,” Vogel said. “I think for those of us who call it a lifetime, rather than a living, we get addicted because I know of no other activity that creates this kind of an instant community.”
There can be a meta quality to that, since many plays — maybe even most — are also about communities. There’s often a puzzlebox feeling, too, since characters in plays about plays are pretending to feel something they’re not, while being played by actors who are also pretending.
Two seasons ago the Guthrie presented “Trouble in Mind,” a drama by the late Alice Childress that depicts an interracial cast in the 1950s rehearsing a drama that deals in offensive stereotypes; the African-American actors pretend to go along with the white director until chaos erupts. The characters in “Noises Off,” a comedy that closes Sunday at Artistry in Bloomington, are going through the motions of a play while unsuccessfully trying to keep their messy personal lives offstage. And “Hamlet” pretends to be OK with the behavior of his mom and stepdad until he stages a play that brings their murderous behavior out in the open.
In addition to being about a play, “Hamlet” has inspired several plays. Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” which foregrounds two minor characters from “Hamlet,” is the granddaddy of plays about plays. Twin Cities playwright/actor Aditi Kapil pays homage to that work with “Imogen Says Nothing,” which premiered last year at Yale Repertory Theatre.
It was inspired by a Macalester College staging of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” in which Kapil played the dialogue-less Imogen. The character usually doesn’t even appear, but Macalester went back to an early version to incorporate more women in the production.
“Beatrice [one of the lead characters] has a line where she says, describing the villain, ‘The one is too like an image and says nothing,’ ” Kapil said. “But, as I was standing there saying nothing, I heard it as, ‘The one is too like Imogen, saying nothing.’ For a moment, in my brain, the entire thing was a metaphor about me.”
Years later, when Yale Rep commissioned Kapil to write a play, she remembered that metaphor. “All of a sudden, I thought, ‘I want to write a play called ‘Imogen Says Nothing,’ about that character who is probably a typo and who appears only in Shakespeare’s First Folio, and I want to use that as a lens to investigate the voices that are erased or silenced in our canon of literature,” Kapil said. “Yale, thankfully, said: ‘Go nuts.’ ”
The result, she said, is “one of my favorite things I’ve ever made,” because the play is funny and “an ode to a ragtag band of actors” and a tribute to “what is so special about theater: that boards and air are all you need to transport audiences to another place.”
The origins of her play and Vogel’s could hardly be more different — “mine came from a weird and heady place,” Kapil said, “whereas Paula’s came from actual events” — but both wrote about something they love. Vogel believes that’s an impulse that is more important now than ever.
“We’re feeling such fear and division that I think there’s a way we all want to reach out and say, ‘Come to the theater. You will come in as separate people, but by the time you’re in the lobby for intermission, you will be a community,’ ” Vogel said.
Here are a few plays about plays that bring audiences into that community, at least for a couple of hours:
A Chorus Line
Play it’s about: An unnamed musical aimed at Broadway that needs four male and four female chorus members for a big, “very ’30s” dance number.
What happens? At a gruelingly personal audition, we get to know more than a dozen dancers, who are asked to confront what they would do if they couldn’t dance anymore.
Inspirations? In the early 1970s, director/choreographer Michael Bennett, a former dancer himself, assembled a bunch of buddies for tape-recorded sessions in which he asked them to talk about why they became dancers. Those recordings — in many cases, nearly word-for-word — became the show.
Play it’s about: “God of Vengeance,” a 1907 drama written in Yiddish. It was controversial because of its depiction of Jewish characters and a same-sex relationship.
What happens? Paula Vogel’s play follows the trajectory of “God of Vengeance,” from Sholem Asch writing it, to a Polish production, to an American production that resulted in an indecency trial, and back to Poland.
Inspiration? Rebecca Taichman, who directed the original production of “Indecency,” took a stab at writing the play first, but wasn’t happy with the result. So she enlisted Vogel, whose work was nominated for three 2017 Tony Awards.
Play it’s about: “Nothing On,” a fictitious British farce.
What happens? “Noises Off” shows audiences the same act of “Nothing On” three times: in rehearsal, during an early performance and then a final show where everything that can go wrong does.
Inspiration? Surprise! It was yet another play. Writer Michael Frayn was backstage, watching a performance of a farce he had written, and realized that what went on offstage was funnier than what was happening on.
Play it’s about: “Springtime for Hitler,” a musical that (thankfully) doesn’t exist.
What happens? Two con artists hatch a plan to make money by bilking investors out of cash for a show that is sure to fail. Unfortunately for them, it’s a smash.
Inspiration? Mel Brooks, who won an Oscar for the screenplay of the film that preceded the stage “Producers,” said the main characters were composites of various shady types he encountered in the New York theater scene.
Venus in Fur
Play it’s about: “Venus in Fur,” a stage adaptation of the kinky 1870 novel “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the inspiration for the term masochism.
What happens? David Ives’ comedy opens on a director who is wrapping up auditions for “Venus in Fur.” A female actor arrives, after auditions are supposed to have ended. The play finds actor and director in a twisty, constantly shifting power dynamic.
Inspiration? Ives read Sacher-Masoch’s book. For his play, which Jungle Theater produced in 2013, he borrowed the name of its heroine, Vanda, and its pervy psychology.
Play it’s about: The fictitious “The Mousetrap,” staged for Hamlet’s murderous uncle in the drama’s third act.
What happens? OK, “Hamlet” is not really about “The Mousetrap” in the way that others on this list are. But that play is pivotal because it’s when the title character’s relationship with his mother ruptures permanently, when he decides he’s positive his uncle is bad news and when the carnage begins.
Inspiration? In William Shakespeare’s time, it was common to base plays on other plays. He may have been inspired by a centuries-old drama called “Amleth.” Historians also believe the emotions of the play sprang from the death of Shakespeare’s son.