If you’ve seen a new play in the past couple of decades, there’s an excellent chance Paula Vogel had something to do with it.
Vogel has nabbed most of the awards a playwright can win, including a 1998 Pulitzer Prize for “How I Learned to Drive.” But her influence in the world of American theater extends far beyond her own plays, including 1990’s “The Baltimore Waltz” and 2015’s “Indecent” (produced last year by the Guthrie Theater). For decades, at both Brown and Yale universities, Vogel was a charismatic teacher whose students and mentees scooped up Pulitzers and Tonys. They swallowed up Obie Awards and MacArthur “Genius” Grants like they were jelly beans.
Vogel is focusing on her own writing these days, though she still teaches the occasional master class. And she isn’t the only influential teacher/playwright; the late María Irene Fornés and Mac Wellman are two other noteworthies.
But the new work coming from Vogel’s former students is especially varied and staggering. Opening this week at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Jordan Harrison’s “Marjorie Prime” is a 2015 Pulitzer finalist about a woman (played by Candace Barrett Birk) who is grappling with the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Next up are Vogel protégés Steven Levenson, who co-wrote “Dear Evan Hansen” (opening May 28 at the Orpheum Theatre), and “Sweat” creator Lynn Nottage, whose “Floyd’s” has its world premiere this summer at the Guthrie.
‘She looks into your soul’
Like many plays by Vogel and her former students, “Marjorie Prime” is a highly theatrical piece with a strong point of view. There’s a reason for that.
“I think she helps people see their work in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise,” said stage director and Playwrights’ Center Associate Artistic Director Hayley Finn, who has watched Vogel’s work in action at the Minneapolis center and also studied at Brown when Vogel taught there. “She’s the opposite of didactic. It’s really about, ‘I’m seeing this in your writing and I’m really excited about it.’ ”
Sarah Ruhl, whose work has been produced locally by Jungle Theater (“The Oldest Boy”) and the Guthrie (“Stage Kiss”), likens Vogel’s teaching to telepathy.
“She looks into your soul and she says, ‘These are the next 10 books you need to read, here are the next four plays you need to read, now go write 10 more pages,’ ” Ruhl told Pennsylvania’s Reading Eagle newspaper. “She won’t tell you how to edit your play. She won’t tell you where your play needs to go. But she’ll look at you with this piercing gaze and ask the most perceptive question that you had no idea needed to be asked.”
One unique aspect of Vogel’s teaching is her interest in the way a play looks on the page, right down to its layout and typeface.
“They are read first, before they are performed,” said Jeremy Cohen, artistic director at Playwrights’ Center. “So how you tell your story is really important. I think it’s so smart that she says, ‘Be intentional about that. Be almost a painter about it.’ ”
After falling into Vogel’s orbit at Brown, Finn shifted from directing classics to directing new work. “She had this incredible program, with these incredible writers like Nilo Cruz, writing these worlds I had never seen on stage before.”
Although Cohen never studied with Vogel, he brought her to the Playwrights’ Center for workshops. And he feels his career path was clarified in directing two of her plays — “Baltimore Waltz” and “Hot and Throbbing” — when he was a student at Oberlin College. “Those were the pieces that I thought, ‘These are going to define me as an artist.’ ”
A champion for playwrights
In addition to her dramaturgical and pedagogical skills, Vogel’s ebullient personality is a key to her influence — not only because her personality makes a vivid impression in the classroom, Finn said, but because she becomes a cheerleader for her students, long after they’ve turned in their final assignments.
“I remember Christina Anderson had come to Brown as a freshman,” Finn recalled. “I saw Paula at some events and she was always saying, ‘You have to read Christina’s play. She’s amazing. She’s the real deal.’ She promotes her students and she stays with them through the hard times.”
The result is an informal collective of theater artists who maintain their connections, Cohen said, even as they go their separate ways. Which helps explain why, at the very first reading of “Marjorie Prime,” protégée Ruhl was tapped to portray the title role in protégé Harrison’s play.
“A lot of them do see themselves almost as siblings,” Cohen said. “They recognize each other on the street — you know that way you see someone you have something in common with and there’s a look you exchange? ‘Hey, you. You’re one of us.’ It’s super-unique. It’s like she forms a company.”
As theatergoers, we may not be in that select company, but at least we get to keep seeing its creations — both from Vogel and her metaphoric children — for many decades to come.
Plays: “Becky Shaw”; “Rapture, Blister, Burn” (20% Theatre, 2014); “After Ashley” (20%, 2008)
TV: “House of Cards”
Awards: Pulitzer finalist for “Becky Shaw,” Obie Award
Plays: “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” (Jungle, 2012); “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” (Park Square, 2010 and Lyric Arts, 2019); “Stage Kiss” (Guthrie, 2015); “The Oldest Boy” (Jungle, 2016)
Awards: MacArthur “Genius” Grant, Pulitzer Prize finalist for “The Clean House” and “In the Next Room,” Tony nominee
Tarell Alvin McCraney
Plays: “Brother/Sister” trilogy (Pillsbury House, 2012-14); “Choir Boy” (Guthrie, 2015); “Head of Passes”
Movies: “Moonlight” (2016)
Awards: Oscar for “Moonlight,” MacArthur “Genius” Grant
Plays: “Dear Evan Hansen” book (Orpheum, 2019); “The Language of Trees”; “Seven Minutes in Heaven”
TV: “Masters of Sex,” “Fosse/Verdon”
Awards: Tony for “Evan Hansen”
Quiara Alegría Hudes
“Barrio Grrrl!” (Children’s Theatre Company, 2011); “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue” (Park Square, 2015); “In the Heights” (Ordway, 2017); “Miss You Like Hell” (Park Square, 2020)
Awards: Pulitzer Prize for “Water by the Spoonful”
Plays: “Sons of the Prophet” (Park Square, 2016); “The Humans” (Orpheum, 2018); “Speech and Debate” (Illusion Theater, 2009)
Movies: “The Seagull” (screenplay, 2018)
Awards: Best Play Tony for “The Humans,” Pulitzer finalist for “Humans” and “Sons”
Plays: “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” (Penumbra, 2015); “Intimate Apparel” (Ten Thousand Things, 2017); “Floyd’s” (Guthrie, 2019)
Awards: Pulitzer Prizes for “Ruined” (Mixed Blood, 2009) and “Sweat” (Guthrie, 2020), MacArthur “Genius” Grant
Plays: “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”; “Gruesome Playground Injuries” (Mixed Blood, 2011); “The Monster at the Door”
TV: “Nurse Jackie”
Awards: Pulitzer finalist for “Bengal Tiger”
Plays: “How to Catch Creation”; “pen/man/ship;” “Hollow Roots” (Penumbra, 2011)
Awards: Lorraine Hansberry Award
Plays: “Disgraced” (Guthrie, 2016); “Junk” (Broadway, 2017); “The Invisible Hand”
Awards: Tony nominee and Pulitzer Prize for “Disgraced”
Plays: “Marjorie Prime” (Prime Productions, 2019); “The Amateurs”; “Log Cabin”
Awards: Pulitzer finalist for “Marjorie”
Plays: “Anna in the Tropics” (Park Square Theatre, 2006 and Jungle Theater, 2017); “Two Sisters and a Piano” (Eye of the Storm, 2001); “Bathing in Moonlight”
Awards: Pulitzer Prize for “Anna”
Plays: “The Wolves” (Jungle, 2018, 2019)
Awards: Pulitzer Prize finalist