A playwright who has won many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, who is in the Theater Hall of Fame and who has been creating great work for more than four decades — that sounds like someone we’d see on Broadway and at the Guthrie Theater, right?
But until last year Paula Vogel had never been on Broadway and until this week she hasn’t been at the Guthrie, either.
“It’s very discouraging right now, especially in terms of Broadway. We’ve let theater drift until it’s a commercial product like shampoo,” says Vogel, who finally made her Broadway debut last year with “Indecent,” which opens this weekend in Minneapolis.
“We don’t ask that museums and libraries make money,” she says. “Those are considered vital. By and large, playwrights no longer aim to be produced on Broadway. We look for homes and communities elsewhere.”
Right now, “elsewhere” is the Guthrie, with the first post-Broadway production of Vogel’s play.
“Indecent” takes place over 50 years and is inspired by real events. It begins roughly a century ago in Poland, with Sholem Asch writing a play about a Jewish brothel owner. Controversial for its depiction of Jewish themes and a same-sex romance, “God of Vengeance” ran afoul of indecency laws when it was produced on Broadway in 1923 but “Indecent” — a drama with abundant humor, music and an onstage rainstorm — takes a surprising turn in its final scenes.
Speaking at the beginning of rehearsals at the Guthrie last month, Vogel — whose “The Baltimore Waltz” was produced by Theatre Coup d’Etat last year and whose “How I Learned to Drive” had its regional premiere at now-defunct Eye of the Storm Theater shortly after winning a Pulitzer in 1998 — said she’s thrilled to show her play to Guthrie audiences.
Q: Your work gets produced internationally. Is being at the Guthrie still a big deal?
A: There are theater companies where they don’t like my work. And they shouldn’t do me. I thought I wouldn’t be done at the Guthrie until the next generation, but it has been a big item on my wish list for a long time. I have an actual list, like “Go cruising on a narrow boat in the canals of England,” but ahead of that on the list is “Get produced at the Guthrie.”
This. Is. Huge. For. Me. The Guthrie is iconic in the American theater. So, to finally walk through these doors and be able to know I work here is very, very big.
Q: Do you have a sense that it’s easier to get new work produced here than in, for instance, New York?
A: I do. This is my second trip to Minneapolis in two years. I was at the Playwrights’ Center, doing a workshop for the Dramatists Guild. And I was a McKnight Fellow way back in the day, after “Baltimore Waltz” [written in 1989], so I got to spend some time here and write. I know so many sensational writers who have come here. Carson Kreitzer [“Lasso of Truth”] is one of my favorite writers. So one additional reason I wanted to come this time is to be able to work with the Playwrights’ Center.
Q: Why is it so tough in New York, where the only new play that will be produced on Broadway in the remaining four months of the theater season is “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”?
A: There is a kind of gatekeeper mentality that we have not examined. For 20 years, I was told “How I Learned to Drive” was not a universal enough play, that it was a woman’s play. I still have not been able to find anyone to do it on Broadway. And yet it has been produced in Mandarin in Beijing, and in a theater company the size of a Broadway house in Reykjavik [Iceland]. So it’s interesting to think about who gets to be represented on Broadway.
I feel like “Indecent” is a love story, but it’s also my way of saying, “We have to take this moment in history to look at how and where and when we are censoring our art and our artists.” It may be financial censorship, or it may be no women directors getting nominated [for the Golden Globes in movies]. But when do we break through all that?
Q: “Indecent” was developed at regional theaters before being produced on Broadway, right?
A: Yes. I’ve had the ability to see how “Indecent” works in front of an audience in New Haven [at Yale Repertory Theatre] and then I got to see how it worked in California [at La Jolla Playhouse] and then I got to see how New York audiences reacted. I have done 40 rewrites on this script. There is a lot of music and dance and it’s a big, fun piece. I’ve never done a piece this size.
Q: How come?
A: As a gay, woman playwright, I do small-scale plays because, quite frankly, I feel like that gives me a chance to be produced at regional theaters whenever there’s a hole in the budget. If someone like Asolo [Rep Theater in Florida] cancels an expensive play and they need a four-character play, maybe they will say, “Let’s do a Vogel” or “Let’s do a [Lynn] Nottage.”
Q: Are you doing your 41st rewrite of “Indecent” in the Twin Cities?
A: As long as I am on the premises, if somebody needs a little more time to cross the stage or a little less, I can make adjustments. But at this point it’s more about seeing what [director] Wendy Goldberg and these actors do. It’s so beautifully cast. They’re all wonderful, and the musicians were already making music at the first read-through.
Q: So you’re having a good Minneapolis experience?
A: Every day I actually leap out of bed, because I get to work with artists or I get to go into a classroom and hear new plays being born, right in front of me. I have never been bored a day in my life. Never. I never go into a room with writers and artists when I don’t come out of that room feeling inspired.