by Tari Stratton
[This interview with playwrights Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel, who both made long-awaited Broadway débuts this past season (Sweat at Studio 54, 26 March-25 June 2017, and Indecent at the Cort Theatre, 18 April-6 August 2017, respectively), was originally published in the May/June issue of The Dramatist (Vol. 19, No. 5.5), the publication of the Dramatists Guild of America, the stage writers’ professional association. (Kirk Woodward, who’s a member of DGA, brought the interview to my attention.) The two dramatists have known each other for several decades as Vogel was Nottage’s playwriting professor and mentor at Brown University in the 1980s. “In Conversation: Lynn Nottage & Paula Vogel” is a “DPS Profile,” a project of the Dramatists Play Service script publisher.]
TARI STRATTON: My first question for you is a little selfish: are you as mad as I am that it’s taken so long to get you two on Broadway? It ticks me off. Obviously, I’m so happy it’s happening now, but hello. That’s probably rude, sorry.
PAULA VOGEL: Well, you know, I’m looking at the experience as being fun and funny, because the truth of the matter is to sustain ourselves-for how long? How many decades? You can’t think about Broadway. You have to get up every morning and be thankful for the artists you’re working with. You have to be happy that you write the next first draft. You have to be happy that the artists you love are working with you and going forward as well.
And if we stop and think about Broadway, what we’re going to feel is exclusion and bitterness. There is, I think, nothing worse than feeling bitter to extinguish the creative spark.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I was going to say something similar: we can’t let bitterness be our guiding light because, otherwise, we’ll accomplish nothing. And so, like Paula, I don’t spend my days thinking about Broadway as the end game.
Of course, throughout the season I will go to Broadway and experience little fits of frustration and anger, but on a day-to-day basis, I’m really focused on my work: trying to generate interesting plays, trying to reach an audience that I want to engage with.
A lot of times [that audience] is not necessarily the audience that’s on Broadway. But now that I’m there . . . [Laughter] . . . I’m sort of giddy and excited tobe making art on a larger scale. Today, sitting in Studio 54 rehearsing the play and looking at the number of seats, Iwas thinking about the rich history of that space-it was a television studio, then a very infamous nightclub, and now it has been reclaimed as a theatre. I just felt there’s so much life that has moved through that theatre, and I feel proud to to be part of that history.
PAULA VOGEL: That’s right.
LYNN NOTTAGE: And that was really exciting to me.
PAULA VOGEL: I don’t know about you, Lynn, [but] for me the significant moment was getting the Pulitzer. [Vogel was a Pulitzer Prize-winner in 1998 for How I Learned to Drive.] It was significant, but not in the way that people think. I mean, I think it made the people who love me happy. They were always proud, and they always loved me. The thing that the Pulitzer made a little easier to do was go into the next faculty meeting and say, “We have to raise money for fellowships for emerging playwrights.” I mean, what I think it gave me – I don’t know if this is true – was the ability to have people think a little more, “Well, maybe she knows what she’s talking about.”
LYNN NOTTAGE: I think this is true of Broadway, and I also think it’s true of getting a prize like the Pulitzer. [Nottage won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Ruined, which also won the 2009 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, the 2009 Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, the 2009 OBIE Award for Best New American Play, the 2009 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the 2010 Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play, and the 2009 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play. She won a second Pulitzer in 2017 for Sweat] It gives you a certain level of visibility, because, as female artists, we’re often grappling with our relative invisibility, though we’re writing at the same level as our male counterparts but, somehow, we’re not seen and valued in the same way. And I think the Pulitzer Prize allowed me to step out of the shadows and into a little bit of the light. Suddenly, my phone began ringing in ways that it hadn’t rung before. I was invited to sit on panels. I was invited to speak at universities. And subsequently, theaters were much more interested in producing my plays. So, Broadway and the Pulitzer Prize translated into exposure and access to new stages, it amplified my voice.
PAULA VOGEL: Absolutely. But I would – and it sounds really corny – I would say that being able to be in a joyful process is actually more important, because I then want to keep writing.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I think that we’re really fortunate that we’re entering Broadway at a key moment, because we’re entering it with trusted collaborators.
PAULA VOGEL: Yes.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I’m working with [stage director] Kate Whoriskey, who has been my collaborator for many years.
PAULA VOGEL: That’s been phenomenal.
LYNN NOTTAGE: And it’s really important that we’re taking this journey together. And I think it’s true of you and [director] Rebecca [Taichman, Tony-winner for Indecent].
PAULA VOGEL: Seven-year process, yeah.
LYNN NOTTAGE: It’s relatively scary to enter into a commercial space for the first time, but I feel supported because I’m entering it with someone who I trust absolutely.
PAULA VOGEL: Same for me. I don’t know what people expect when they go to Broadway the first time. I don’t know that I have any expectations. I do know that I’m happy when the rehearsal begins. I’m happy when I see my cast members. I love that we all came together and that we’re all going together. And who knows what it means?
LYNN NOTTAGE: It’s true. And I also think there’s this daunting moment when you take your first step over the threshold into this big, famous space and think, “Oh, my God. How am I going to fill it?” And then you immediately get to work. You begin rehearsing, and you think, “Oh, I know how to do this. I’ve been doing this for the last 25 years, and I’m really prepared to do it.”
You realize it’s not any different than putting on theater in any space from community theatre to an off-Broadway theatre to a regional theatre. It’s just a larger stage. And I feel like we have been preparing for this for many years. So, in some ways, I don’t think it’s as daunting and scary as it would be if I were a younger playwright. I feel as though I’m arriving at the exact moment I’m prepared to meet the challenge.
PAULA VOGEL: You know, I can’t remember who told me this, like 35, 40 years ago, but a woman in our field said to me, “You always get prizes when you no longer need them.”
LYNN NOTTAGE: That’s true.
PAULA VOGEL: It really is true, which is like, you know, this is nice or as we say, Dayenu. This would be enough. [The word is Hebrew, commonly heard at Passover when a thousand-year-old song with that title is often sung as part of the Seder. The word means, as Vogel says, ‘it would have been enough’ and refers to the gratitude of the Jewish people to God for all the gifts He gave them, like delivering them from slavery, providing manna in the desert, and giving them the Torah, any one of which would have been enough.] This is nice. But I’m not risking my entire life on this one roll of the dice. It’s nice that I got it. And it’s funny that it feels like a combination bat mitzvah and wedding . . . in that it’s really the first time. It’s, like, how can you say to everybody that you’ve loved over 60 years, “Come and see me at the Vineyard.” I mean, you can’t fit those people in the Vineyard Theater [Off-Broadway company in Manhattan’s Flatiron District where Indecent had its New York City début in May-June 2016: searing capacity: 132; Studio 54 seats 1,006 and the Cort seats 1,082.]. So, for the first time, we could actually be in the same space.
LYNN NOTTAGE: That’s true. You can have everyone.
PAULA VOGEL: Yeah.
LYNN NOTTAGE: But my family’s very small, so the Vineyard Theater’s actually very perfect.[Laughs] I honestly don’t have that many people.[Laughs]
PAULA VOGEL: My family’s dead, but we say family in that other way.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Yes. It’s the extended family.
PAULA VOGEL: Yes.
LYNN NOTTAGE: You are right. It’s about the gifts that arrive at the most unexpected moments and when you don’t necessarily need them. But, I do feel that on some unconscious level, there’s a part of me that needed to take this step.
PAULA VOGEL: Yes.
LYNN NOTTAGE: And I can’t speak to why, because I’ve spent so much of my life saying it wasn’t important. But now that I’m there, I feel like it’s somehow filling some little hole [laughs] that always existed in my playwriting journey.
PAULA VOGEL: I might look at it a different way as someone who—it’s a strange thing—screamed more when [hearing] that you won the Pulitzer than I did for myself. I got much more pleasure out of it. And I feel that the theatre needs to take this step of having Lynn Nottage on Broadway because, otherwise, Broadway is not worth the price of the ticket.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Well, you know, it’s funny, because I feel the same way—I think about my journey in theater and who I believe belongs on that main stage, and it is astonishing to me that Paula Vogel has not been there. It feels as though you’ve been there. [Laughs]
PAULA VOGEL: Do people do that to you? They assume that you’ve been on Broadway?
LYNN NOTTAGE: How I Learned to Drive was a Broadway play in my mind. It occupies a large space. Without it [moving] uptown, in my mind it still occupies that space in terms of its importance. [Vogel’s Off-Broadway hit, How I Learned to Drive, premièred at the Century Center for the Performing Arts near New York City’s Union Square on 6 May 1997 and ran for 400 performances. It won the 1996-97 New York Drama Critics Award for Best Play, the 1997 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, the 1997 Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Play, the OBIE Award for playwriting for Vogel, the 1997 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play, the 1997 Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, and the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play was revived Off-Broadway in 2012 by the Second Stage Theatre, directed by Whoriskey.]
PAULA VOGEL: Right, likewise. And I’m sure people must come to you and go, “Lynn Nottage, the Broadway playwright,” in introducing you all the time, right? “Pulitzer Prize, professor at Columbia, Broadway playwright . . .”
LYNN NOTTAGE: Yeah. It’s an assumption.
PAULA VOGEL: I mean, you are in the canon.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I don’t think I’m there yet.
PAULA VOGEL: Well, let me redefine canon, because I think that that’s what this moment is doing: redefining what canon means. And I would say that, for me, as a teacher, and I’m sure this is true for you, canon is the writers who excite and influence emerging playwrights to write.
LYNN NOTTAGE: And it evolves.
PAULA VOGEL: Yes, that’s what it does.
LYNN NOTTAGE: It really does evolve, because I think –
PAULA VOGEL: And you’re in the canon.
LYNN NOTTAGE: – you probably had this experience teaching, is that every eight years, I would say, the canon rotates. And there’s a whole other set of writers who excite young people. And I feel like sometimes I have to play catch-up, because I’m still back there holding onto the saints of my past, and there are new saints replacing them. It’s true. It’s dynamic.
PAULA VOGEL: Right. And at some point, I think I decided that because I was doing that, it’s not that I don’t want to catch up. I’m hungry. But I decided that the thing I can do is I can give young, emerging writers the writers that no one talks about anymore. I want to make sure that [playwright] Irene Fornes stays in the canon. I want to make sure that Funnyhouse of a Negro [play by Adrienne Kennedy (on which I reported in “Signature Plays” on 3 June 2016)] is read frequently. It’s those plays that –
LYNN NOTTAGE: That have to remain in circulation.
PAULA VOGEL: Exactly. Like Jane Bowles, In the Summer House.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Well, it’s remembering the ancestors and sort of continuing to pour that libation and not let them be forgotten.
PAULA VOGEL: I love that. It is remembering the ancestors.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I think that as women, it’s really important for us to do that.
PAULA VOGEL: It absolutely is.
TARI STRATTON: You two are amazing. May I throw you another question? Both of you have taken real people, but then sort of fictionalized them, you know, or taken real circumstances but then have created characters out of the circumstances. I was just interested in hearing more about that part of the process.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Sure. You know, what I think we’re doing is somewhat different in that I began my process by interviewing a lot of folks in Reading, Pennsylvania [where Sweat is set], which is a city that caught my attention. It was the poorest city in America in 2011, and I really was very interested in the way in which poverty was reshaping the American narrative. And I found myself gravitating to that space and wanting to interview as many people as possible. I had a need to understand.
I was not specifically looking for someone to write about, but looking for people who represented what I felt was happening to folks who lived in these post-industrial cities throughout the country. And so that’s where I began. My characters are really composites of many people, as opposed to being based on individuals, which I think is slightly different.
PAULA VOGEL: Right. It’s interesting, because when you describe that process, the last play that I worked on, I was making composites, particularly of women veterans. [Vogel is probably referring to Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq, Wilma Theatre, Philadelphia, 2014.] So that thing that you’re doing, I think, with Sweat, of trying to make composites, I think I’m in a different stance here in that I’m trying to resurrect the dead. And I do think that is a different process. I had to let go of worrying that they weren’t alive and able to defend themselves – do you know what I mean? And that I wouldn’t ever know them, because I would never meet them.
LYNN NOTTAGE: They weren’t going to knock on your door and say, “Shame on you, Paula Vogel. That’s not what I said.”
PAULA VOGEL: That’s right, exactly. It was – like, I’ll never forget I went to the first reading of [Anna Deavere Smith’s] Fires in the Mirror. And standing in line was everyone she performed.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Oh, interesting.
PAULA VOGEL: And it was such an amazing experience to hear the Jewish leader turning to the African American leader saying, “Oh, I thought she performed you much better than she did me.” [Laughter] And there was this harmony in the line, and I can imagine in Sweat, that all of these people –
LYNN NOTTAGE: We had the interesting experience after we closed at the Public [Theater in New York City, where Sweat débuted in New York City in 2016 after premièring at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015], of bringing Sweat to Reading, PA for a command performance—a very stripped-down production—for about 500 people. [A staged reading was presented at the Miller Center for the Arts in Reading on 19 December 2016.] The actors were incredibly nervous. They knew that they weren’t necessarily portraying individuals who would be out there in the audience, but portraying individuals that the folks in the audience might recognize on a deeper level.
PAULA VOGEL: How was the response?
LYNN NOTTAGE: It was an overwhelming response. I think that the actors were so giddy when it finished and so stimulated by the questions and the responses, that it reinvigorated this next stage of production, because they knew that this play was supported by people in Reading and that it is truthful to the experience.
On some level, they thought they had been performing a fiction. Now they understand that they’re performing something other than fiction, which is different. And it was fun. And then afterwards, they all went to the bar that it was based on and stayed out much too late. [Laughter]
PAULA VOGEL: See, that’s wonderful. I’m getting more of a kind of piecemeal response, running into people, having people see the show who are survivors, who come forward and say, “My mother lived in Lodz,” or, “My grandmother was sent to the camp,” or—and this was terrifying—on three different occasions, Sholem Asch’s family has come to see it.– [Indecent is based on the controversial 1907 Yiddish drama God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, 1880-1957.]
LYNN NOTTAGE: I just was going to ask whether he had children and family that . . .
PAULA VOGEL: He has a granddaughter, who came to see it from London, and a great-grandson. We’ve had every remaining member come.
LYNN NOTTAGE: But they must be so thankful that you’ve resurrected this play. There’ll be a whole generation of people who will go and pick up God of Vengeance, because they saw your play.
PAULA VOGEL: Well, that’s what we want. Right. We want it to be taught.
LYNN NOTTAGE: And read. I think it is product placement. My first impulse after seeing the production, was, “I’ve seen that text, but I’ve never read it, and I feel like I have to sit down and read it now.”
PAULA VOGEL: It’s great. We wanted it back in the canon. Initially, people did come [see it and say], “I’m sorry. You got him completely wrong.” But these people belong to them in a very emotional way. And the same, you know, with the Yiddish. I don’t speak Yiddish.
LYNN NOTTAGE: You know, once I was listening to my brother describe my parents, and I thought, “Who are you describing? I don’t recognize those people.” We grew up in the same house, but we both have very different recollections and different relationships. [That] is what I think gives us permission to improvise when we’re writing. We all have a different perspective and point of view that we bring to our experiences.
PAULA VOGEL: I do think there’s a basic level of love that we’re both expressing, which is these people should be on stage in the light.
LYNN NOTTAGE: In the light.
PAULA VOGEL: Visible in the light. And I guess that’s the greatest demonstration of love we can give.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I think that’s true. I mean, I know that audiences—New York audiences in particular— are used to seeing certain kinds of folks represented on the stage. And I think that what both of us are doing are bringing people to the stage who don’t often get to tell their stories, because the powers that be haven’t deemed them worthy. I want to open up a new conversation with audiences, offer them a view of our culture that folks don’t often see on the stage. That’s part of what excites me. I know there are going to be people who think, “We don’t want to see these people.” And I’m like, “Fine, then don’t come.” But I think it’s very, very important.
Particularly—and I’m talking about politics now—in this day and age in which we have a president who’s really invested in dividing us, and who’s also invested in pushing people back into the shadows and creating a country that is not a country I necessarily want to live in. I think that it’s incumbent upon us as artists to really push back, to resist. We talk about being produced on Broadway, well I see this moment of being on Broadway as part of my resistance. I am occupying this large space for voices that are marginalized and need to be heard.
PAULA VOGEL: Yes. The other thing that I want to bring up, which I feel is in both of our plays and in both of our concerns, I don’t know if this is true for you, but my entire life—in theater, film and, television—I’ve been watching stories where I’m looking at the set, and going, “How do these people afford to live? What do they do for work? How did they come up with all of that money? How did they afford such a nice apartment as five friends? How did they end up living near Lincoln Center?” I can’t get over it. I just stare at the clothing. I’m like, “Oh, my God. That person is wearing clothing that would cost me a month of a salary.”
LYNN NOTTAGE: Wearing, like, $1,000 boots. [Laughs]
PAULA VOGEL: Yeah. How is that possible? And I remember—particularly in the 1970s—it felt like every play off-Broadway and on Broadway was about an elegant cocktail party that happened in a wonderful Manhattan apartment. And it’s not that I begrudge people having wonderful Manhattan apartments, but I just kind of sat there. It was a reason that in my youth—I’m trying to get over this—I’ve never been able to really encompass opera. As I was working my way through college, someone took me to an opera. And I looked at the stage, and I realized in a single ten-minute segment, $40,000 flashed across that stage, which would have paid my tuition for four years back then. And I got physically ill.
LYNN NOTTAGE: That’s not a good thing –
PAULA VOGEL: It’s not a good thing.
LYNN NOTTAGE: – to go to an opera and become ill.
PAULA VOGEL: Right, exactly, and be paying attention to that instead of . . . So, I struggled to get through it. But we’re in an interesting time right now, where we are presenting these plays [and] how much money does it take to do a Broadway production? Where is that coming from? Because right now, I feel like Sweat is making me pay attention to what is the cost and price of money. And that’s a different question when you [ask] what is the price of money for the people in this bar. That’s a very different question.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Well, my characters have a different relationship to money than some of the people that you see portrayed on stage in Manhattan, All of the plays are about survival on some level, but in many plays it’s about emotional survival. But in Sweat, it is also about the fundamental survival. It’s like, “Will we be able to feed ourselves in two weeks if we lose our jobs?”
PAULA VOGEL: Right. And in Indecent, it’s how many bodies do we have to get into the room, right? Ten bodies, twelve bodies, how many bodies can you squeeze into that space? Yeah, exactly.
LYNN NOTTAGE: But Indecent also is very much about censorship. What can be seen on the stage? You know, you look at the history of that play [God of Vengeance] and how something so simple and pure can be deemed dangerous–
PAULA VOGEL: Yes, that’s true.
LYNN NOTTAGE: – and how we, as artists, have to be really careful in this day and age, because these moments can return. We always say, “It can’t happen,” but it can happen.
PAULA VOGEL: Right. It absolutely can happen.
LYNN NOTTAGE: It can happen, and it can happen very quickly, as we’re seeing that the revolution – and when I use the word revolution, I’m not talking about a sort of a certain kind of rebellion, but a shifting of the sensibility and –
PAULA VOGEL: The turning.
LYNN NOTTAGE: – the turning of –
PAULA VOGEL: The turning of the wheel.
LYNN NOTTAGE: – a wheel, which is what is happening right now. And, unfortunately, it’s turning backward. So we have to be careful, and we have to protect the word.
PAULA VOGEL: Yeah, absolutely. It’s terrifying.
LYNN NOTTAGE: It is terrifying. You know, that list of what the president wants to cut out—National Endowment of Arts, National Endowment of Humanities, squeezing the EPA and squeezing out the state department and a lot of the programs that are really about servicing the poor and about enlightenment and what I feel represents the best of what America has to offer. It is who we are and these are the gifts that we can give, and you squeeze that out, and it’s like, then, who do we become?
PAULA VOGEL: The ability to have a long life is going to be something that only the ruling classes have.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Yeah, only the very wealthy.
PAULA VOGEL: That’s right. You know, all of the stories that we have of our parents and grandparents, where people died early and young—crushed at work, caught in the machinery, whatever—all of those regulations are being undone right now.
LYNN NOTTAGE: They’re going to be slowly stripped away, and you’ll see workers dying again. We’ll see women struggling to get abortions in back alleys. All the things that we take for granted will disappear, which is why we have to write.
PAULA VOGEL: Right. It’s an ironic thing: right at the moment that we’re finally reaching visibility, the field is endangered and it’s also the moment where it’s most important to write for theatre. Kind of funny.
LYNN NOTTAGE: It is kind of funny. And I think maybe that’s why we’re on Broadway now. Maybe it’s finally prepared to receive certain voices, because they’re necessary . . .
PAULA VOGEL: Yes.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Which is the optimistic view. [Laughs]
PAULA VOGEL: It’s also interesting. I think the past several decades, I’ve been feeling a kind of benign optimism that time was on our side, that demographically, the United States was shifting.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Well, it was shifting.
PAULA VOGEL: And that white nationalism was going to die out.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Now it’s panic. What we’re seeing is panic. And white panic is . . . a recognition that power balance is going to tip in the other way, and folks who’ve really enjoyed the white privilege are going to have to let it go. And, you know, you’ve probably heard me describe how white privilege has been the superpower, and the kryptonite is diversity.
PAULA VOGEL: Yes. That’s absolutely right. So, you still think time is on our side?
LYNN NOTTAGE: I do think it’s on our side. I think that this is the last gasp.
PAULA VOGEL: Oh, God, please.
LYNN NOTTAGE: But I think not only time is on our side. I think numbers ultimately will be on our side.
PAULA VOGEL: Yeah. That’s what I mean. The demographic change cannot be stopped.
LYNN NOTTAGE: It can’t be stopped. And they’re trying to stop it. I mean, with a, what was it, $35 billion to build a wall to protect their whiteness? And that’s really—I mean, I wish they’d just come out and say it. Because it’s not about empowering the working class. Donald Trump really doesn’t give a shit about the working class, if you look at his hiring practices and his labor practices.
PAULA VOGEL: Yeah, terrible, terrifying time.
TARI STRATTON: It is. You know, Robert Schenkkan sat down and wrote his new play [Building the Wall, premièred at New World Stages in New York City’s Theatre District on 21 May 2017] in something like six days in response to what’s going on. [The play imagines a dystopia impacted by President Donald Trump’s border and immigration policies] Have either of you been inspired to do something like that, or you’re just so enmeshed in what’s happening with your current shows right now?
PAULA VOGEL: I feel like I am doing something.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Yeah. I feel like I was doing it five years ago.
PAULA VOGEL: Yeah. I feel like that’s what Indecent is.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I feel like I was proactive and not reactive.
PAULA VOGEL: And, you know, the truth of the matter is it’s been in the air for some time.
LYNN NOTTAGE: For some time, yes.
PAULA VOGEL: So if we say, “Oh, my gosh. We’re shocked,” the truth of the matter is that the failing of that working class has been going on –
LYNN NOTTAGE: It’s been coming for decades.
PAULA VOGEL: The emptying towns, and the anti-immigration has been with us. It’s been stinking to high heaven for some time.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Yeah. And This is Reading is also my response to what is happening. [This is Reading is a multi-media performance-art installation consisting of video, film and live performances inspired by themes explored in Sweat. It was performed in and around the former Franklin Street Railroad Station in Reading in July.] I have the play, and it’s great that it’s going to Broadway. But I feel as though there is a whole demographic of people who cannot come to New York City and pay. We do have $32.00 tickets, but even a $32.00 ticket is too expensive for them after a long journey.
So, I’m trying to figure out different models and paradigms for making theatre and taking it outside of the proscenium and taking it outside of these institutions, because one of the things that I found when I was in Reading and speaking to people is that they’re very intimidated by the arts. And I thought, “Well, that should not be the case. The arts should be the thing that gives you comfort. You should feel welcome.” But they said they go into galleries—into these pristine white spaces—and to theatres, and they don’t know how to dress. They don’t know how to respond, because no one has ushered them across the threshold. Our project called This is Reading is trying to bring people into an art space who are not necessarily used to being in art spaces and then putting those people in dialogue with each other, people who are not used to talking across racial and economic lines.
I’m going to take the art to the people who really don’t have access to it. So, we’re trying to raise the money, because no one’s going to get paid. It’s free. If you give, you’re giving because you’re invested in this sort of notion of art making.
TARI STRATTON: So how about one last, nuts-and-boltsy kind of question. I just want to know if the plays have changed at all. You both had many productions, but at least from the Off-Broadway production, then when you found out you’re going to go to Broadway, to now. That’s interesting to me, because I saw both plays, and loved them.
PAULA VOGEL: We’re still finessing. There are all of these little technical crafty things in the writing, where I stood in the back and I went, “I could make that a little tighter.” We started in La Jolla, [November-December 2015] [went to] the Yale large theater [October 2015], crunched it down at The Vineyard, and now we have to bring it back out.
So we’re looking at the running time, how do we make it flow – all of that kind of stuff. You have to make it the best you possibly can until the last second that you have. For me, I think this comes down to—especially as a woman artist—I’m not going to get very many shots like this. I’m going to work to the very last moment.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I feel the same way. It’s some real tweaking, but a couple of bold shifts, rearranging of scenes, which felt a little scary, but I felt like I have to do it, because it always bothered me a little bit, and we didn’t have time to do it before. And now, this is the opportunity.
We want to squeeze some time out, and at some point, I realized I’m not going to be able to squeeze enough time out, and I just have to ask the audience to be patient. Everything can’t happen at a break-neck pace. I feel like audiences have become so impatient and restless, and you think of plays in the past in which people sat and they listened, and there were moments in which it was slow, but the slow moments were necessary to help elucidate a character and to create some of the suspense that then would pay off in the end. And so part of this process has been forgiving myself and saying, “It’s okay for this moment to take the time that it needs to take.”
PAULA VOGEL: Here’s the good news for me, and I don’t know if you’re going to agree with this, but being this age when I get the Broadway opportunity—after all of those years, I know how to get myself out of the way and listen very hard to the play. And I feel like that’s what you’re doing. Listening.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I agree with you and feel the same thing. It’s the little nagging things, which, you hear. It’s like, ugh, you know, that transition isn’t quite as smooth as I’d like, or I know that that word was always a placeholder until I found the right word, but it’s still there, because I still haven’t found the right word. Now, I’m really pressing myself to try at this moment to find the right word rather than being a little lazy, which sometimes I have been.
PAULA VOGEL: Well, I do that and I use the same word. I’ve said to people, “This is a placeholder. I’m going to come back to it.”
LYNN NOTTAGE: And sometimes you rush into production, and you don’t have time to get back to those little things because you have two weeks of rehearsal, or you have other concerns, you know.
PAULA VOGEL: That’s right. Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
TARI STRATTON: Do you have any last thoughts you’d like to share?
LYNN NOTTAGE: For me, it’s just always an honor and a delight to sit in a room and have this much time with Paula Vogel. I think over the years, because we’ve both been in such different spaces, we haven’t had the luxury to have this kind of conversation. So I just – I profoundly appreciate it, and I really look forward to sort of sharing this journey on Broadway with you.
PAULA VOGEL: I feel the same way and just want to say, because, you know, life flies by quickly, but I do want to say I love you, and I love your work. And your work makes me a believer every time I encounter it.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Well, you created this believer.
PAULA VOGEL: [Laughs]
LYNN NOTTAGE: But it’s true. I mean, Paula Vogel at one of the most important moments in my life—at that crossroads when you’re deciding who you’re going to be as an adult—pushed me in a direction. She was the first woman who I encountered who was writing plays and said, “You can do this.” And those words were so important to me at an age when I didn’t think that I could do it. To have someone say, “You can do this.” That’s everything.
PAULA VOGEL: Yeah. Well, you didn’t hear me scream when you won the Pulitzer. But you’re going to hear me scream on opening night. It gives me so much happiness.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Well, thank you.
TARI STRATTON: This was an honor for me, too, just to sit in the room and listen to you two. Thank you so much.
[Either Vogel was confused about the order of the out-of-town productions of Indecent, or she was referring to something else, like a workshop or developmental readings in La Jolla before Yale’s staging. The record of the two companies’ formal productions seems indisputable.
[Tari Stratton is the Director of Education & Outreach at the Dramatists Guild of America.]