WELLFLEET – Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel is just like every other Cape Codder. She feels a calm when she drives over the Sagamore Bridge. She keeps the location of her favorite ponds a secret. And she likes everything about the off-season.
Vogel’s play “Indecent,” about a Yiddish theater troupe performing a play on Broadway in the 1920s, is a nominee for three 2017 Tony Awards tonight including Best Play. [UPDATE: “Indecent” won 2017 Tony Awards for Best Lighting Design of a Play and Best Direction of a Play.]
Cape Cod: “It has been since 1992 the place that I write. Like any playwright, I know where all of my heroes have lived.” — Paula Vogel, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright
Vogel recalls first coming to the Cape in 1984 when she was teaching playwriting at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. “I had always wanted to go,” the Washington DC native said of visiting Cape Cod.
She started visiting the Cape more often, and when she began receiving royalties from her play “The Baltimore Waltz,” which won the Obie Award for Best Play in 1992, she purchased a condominium in Truro.
With proceeds from her 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “How I Learned To Drive,” she bought a house in Truro.
By that time, she was splitting her time between Truro and Providence.
When Vogel’s mother-in-law died, she and her wife, Anne Fausto-Sterling, a Brown University professor and author, moved to her mother-in-law’s house in Wellfleet, where they currently live.
“I’ve been living on Cape Cod sort of off and on since 1992,” she said.
When asked what she likes best about Cape Cod, she has a quick answer. “I think it’s physically beautiful. I actually love just the smell of the air.”
She said she also loves “the lightness, the way the sun reflects on the water.”
She also said she loves the wildlife. “I love being able to hear coyotes at night when there aren’t a lot of summer folks around.”
And then she summed it up. “What is not to love?” she said.
Vogel joins an elite list of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights who have written important works on the Cape, including Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.
“It has been since 1992 the place that I write. Like any playwright, I know where all of my heroes have lived,” she said.
One of those heroes is Susan Glaspell, one of a group of writers and performers who in 1915 founded the Provincetown Players, which ushered in the birth of modern American Theater when they were the first to perform O’Neill’s work.
But unlike those pioneers of American theater, Vogel keeps a low profile on the Cape. “My favorite part of the year to be there is off-season. We tend to have friends over for dinner. I walk the dogs 365 [days a year] and I’m happy when we have a nor’easter. We have a generator. I love the Cape in the winter.”
Vogel said she does not have a favorite beach—“we’re constantly roaming to different beaches.”
Like many in the Outer Cape, she also enjoys the ponds, especially the hidden ones. “There are certain ones I don’t tell anyone about,” she said.
She cherishes her quiet life on the Cape because these days, especially with a play on Broadway, her time off-Cape is anything but quiet.
“All of us on the Cape talk about the release of tension when you drive over the Sagamore or the Bourne Bridge, the feeling of safety and security. We know all our neighbors, we look out for each other and look after each other. — Paula Vogel
Just in recent days, in addition to nights attending “Indecent,” she attended a Workmen’s Circle event, a speaking engagement about censorship, an interview at Lincoln Center, an ACLU event and several awards ceremonies.
“There are rooms filled with strangers and I talk a lot. I want to go home and be a little quiet,” she said. Cape Cod serves as a kind of antidote from the stress.
“All of us on the Cape talk about the release of tension when you drive over the Sagamore or the Bourne Bridge, the feeling of safety and security. We know all our neighbors, we look out for each other and look after each other,” she said.
When she gets to the Cape, “I check in with the neighbors and have some dinners. That’s heaven. That’s really blissful.”
At 65 years old, Vogel said she savors the quiet time. “My time to write is very precious,” she said. “I can no longer see 10 or 12 plays and then sit down and write a new one,” she said.
It is on Cape Cod that she can clear her head. “I’m able to hear myself think,” she said.
For Cape Codders, “Indecent” has some local connections besides the playwright herself. The play charts the course of “God of Vengeance,” a 1907 play that was performed in Europe before arriving in this country in the 1920s where its Broadway run was halted by an obscenity charge and trial. The first theater where “God of Vengeance” was performed in New York was the Provincetown Playhouse, the tiny Greenwich Village theater that was started by the Provincetown Players, the troupe that began on Cape Cod.
Eugene O’Neill, whose plays were first performed in Provincetown, also makes an appearance in “Indecent.”
The plot of “Indecent,” which could be called a play within a play within a play, stretches across 50 years and two continents, and includes themes of artistic freedom, immigration, homosexuality, and religious tolerance.
Vogel said she wrote 40 drafts of the play over seven years. “There are at least 40 scenes that are not on that stage,” she said.
The play began its performance history with an opening at Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Connecticut in 2015.
But the play was evolving even then. Vogel said they were in rehearsal and getting ready to open “when it occurred to me that the actor playing the [playwright] Sholem Asch would be a great O’Neill, so I went home and read O’Neill and read his letters and reread “Anna Christie” and tried to come up with something that might sound O’Neill-ish.” That inspiration became the scene in the play where O’Neill appears.
Because the play is based on a true story, Vogel said she did extensive research, not just on O’Neill. “How would [the play’s star, Yiddish actor] Rudolf Schildkraut sound and how do you try to find language from the period?” she said.
Writing based on a true story requires more research “than when you invent from whole cloth,” Vogel said.
In the case of “Indecent,” Vogel said she spent nine years researching or, as she put it, “reading, reading, reading.”
She tracked down experts on the period and historians, asking them about plot points.
“Obviously I’m a buff on theater history and all of that. I thought of Susan Glaspell nurturing all the writers with their hangovers,” she said.
She feels a connection to those first performances of the Provincetown Players. In the early years of the troupe, when they would stage their plays on a wharf in Provincetown, they would open up the back door of the wharf house to reveal the fog rolling over Cape Cod Bay. Vogel said she has been lucky to work twice at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, which is also set on a wharf.
Research for “Indecent” extended to the music and songs in the play. Yiddish music played by a Klezmer band is an important part of the production. Vogel said she knew when she started the play that she wanted to Klezmer band playing original compositions and the band would be part of the acting troupe. She also knew she wanted to work with a choreographer to get the dancing right.
Vogel said she listened to 600 Yiddish songs and chose eight or nine for the show.
“Indecent” marks a close collaboration between Vogel and the director and co-creator of the play, Rebecca Taichman. Vogel said Taichman came to her with an idea for a play about the 1923 obscenity trial of the play “God of Vengeance.”
“It’s really kind of great to open up the dances and let it breathe more. Like what we had in the first production. I want it to be in a place where there’s dust.” — Paula Vogel
But Vogel did not like the idea of a play about an obscenity trial. “I said it’s larger than that,” Vogel recalled.”It’s fascinating but it’s not the play.”
She read the trial transcripts, researching for two years.
“This is common. It happens a lot. A director goes in thinking the play is about this and the play takes a different direction. As writers, we have to follow the play and not force the play and the play told us what it’s going to be,” Vogel said.
The play opened at the 700-seat Yale Repertory Theatre, in October 2015. It then traveled to the 500-seat La Jolla Playhouse in December 2015. Then on to Off-Broadway to the 125-seat Vineyard Theatre, where Vogel said, “the stage felt like a postage stamp” after the larger theaters. “We had to scrap some of the scenic elements and pare down the dances.”
When the play moved to Broadway at the Cort Theater in the spring of 2017, Vogel said that having the play at a historic theater brought back some elements of its first incarnation at the Yale theater.
“It’s really kind of great to open up the dances and let it breathe more. Like what we had in the first production. I want it to be in a place where there’s dust,” she said.
Performing “Indecent” at the Cort Theater on Broadway also brings an additional historic link to the production. The play includes the famous Yiddish actor Rudolf Schildkraut, whose son Joseph Schildkraut played Otto Frank in the original stage production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Cort in 1959. “That gives us a thrill,” Vogel said.
“The Cort is one-of-a-kind. We all sort of thank all the ancestors and all the spirits. We’re extremely aware and extremely honored to be there,” she said.
One thing that has happened with “Indecent” that Vogel said “never happens” is the cast and much of the crew remains from the early performances.
“We’ve traveled from New Haven to La Jolla and the Vineyard Theatre. We’ve been together for two to three years, down to the stage manager,” she said.
While there are no famous actors in the cast, many audience members have noted the skill of those on stage, and Vogel said. “Every one of them is a star.”
When Vogel is on Cape Cod in the summer she calls Provincetown “the big city” and for good reason. “I am constantly running into friends from the New York theater. It’s an incredibly wonderful place for New York artists to make a retreat. Year-round, I’m able to entice collaborators to come to Wellfleet and work on a new piece. We get so much done here.”
I think theater is seen as the bastard child of the literary arts, like ‘who let the people with the checkered trousers and the baggie pants into the salon?’.” — Paula Vogel
Vogel said she wants to bring even more theater to the Cape. She has been trying for years to talk the leaders at the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown into having a space for playwrights as part of their fellowship program. Currently the writing fellowship program is reserved for fiction writers and poets.
“I’ve been saying for 40 years with no success, did you know Provincetown is the birthplace of American theater? And for 40 years, they’ve said ‘no’ [to a fellowship for playwrights]. I think theater is seen as the bastard child of the literary arts, like who let the people with the checkered trousers and the baggie pants into the salon?’.”
Vogel said that burgeoning playwrights deserve to have the advantage of being influenced by the legacy of the Cape that profoundly influenced playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, Susan Glaspell, Tennessee Williams, Tony Kushner and Doug Wright.
Vogel said she is going to try to approach the Fine Arts Work Center one more time—“I’m hoping the sixth time is the charm”—and if the answer is still no, she plans to work on starting a nonprofit retreat for playwrights in Wellfleet. “I’d love to be able to introduce wonderful struggling writers to the Cape. I can’t think of a better gift to give a playwright [than time to write on the Outer Cape.]”
After Vogel’s decades at the fore of contemporary playwrighting, this marks her first time on Broadway. “It’s fun. It’s wonderful that more people get to see the work,” she said. “It’s kind of great. We dash back and forth so we can celebrate each other. It’s a busy time. We’re running out of dry cleaning.”
This Cape Cod Wave reporter recently attended “Indecent” during a trip to New York City. There was a standing ovation and Vogel said that is common. “There are lots of those which is really a thrill,” she said.
When she attends the show, she stands outside afterwards to talk to audience members as they exit the theater.
“I find myself standing there for one to two hours talking to audience members. I hear stories of when they came to this country, what struggles they’re facing or their families are facing,” she said. She has heard from a woman whose aunt was in the Yiddish theater, from young people who are inspired to go home and talk to their grandparents about the family’s history. “That makes me really happy,” she said.
The cast and crew have taken advantage of being in New York City to soak in the region’s Jewish history, Vogel said. There has been a trip to Ellis Island, a visit to attend services at Temple Emanu-El and a visit to the Jewish Museum. “It’s a great place to do the show,” she said.
As for how “Indecent” fares at the Tony’s, Vogel said no matter what happens at the awards ceremony, she considers herself a very lucky woman.
“I’ve already won. I live on Cape Cod,” she said. “What a gift.”