Playwright Paula Vogel is in Boston right now, working on the Huntington Theatre’s production of her most recent play, A Civil War Christmas. She told us that this is the second full production for the piece and that she is using the time to do a lot of re-writing. According to moderator Bevin O’Gara there was an entirely new act 2 yesterday. “I’ve been listening to Civil War ballads and Christmas songs for 11 years, including summers,” Ms. Vogel said, adding that she’s looking forward to the editing being done and moving on to something new after this. She claimed that she’s knocking around three new ideas, but wouldn’t give us any indication of what they might be. On the eve of my own month-long writing adventure, it was great for me to hear that a real-life, published and produced playwright also edits.
My favorite portion of the evening was about the importance of theatre as an art form. Ms. Vogel stressed the idea that it was the connection between the live audience and the live performers that made theatre different from movies and television. The fact that an actor can see and feel and hear the audience in a way that is not possible for a screen actor is what makes the art form special. I’ve echoed this same sentiment in my own recent conversations. While up-and-coming media and technology claims to turn us into a more connected and comprehensive society, what I am actually seeing is a closing off and disconnecting of human interaction. People don’t go in search of other people any more – they text from across the building. They don’t go in to see the bank teller when they can push a few buttons on the computer. And the availability of any kind of movie or television at any time of day or night has folks sitting, complacent with the glow of the box. The key muscle of human interaction – empathy – gets neglected when we don’t exercise it by our connection to others. And while this muscle is critical for people attending the theatre, Ms. Vogel said it is also the critical muscle used in all sorts of community and society activities, like town hall meetings, debating, and even casting our vote.
Another landmark moment in the discussion for me came after a question from Lydia, one of the BU professors, about what it’s like for Ms. Vogel to be a teacher. Ms. Vogel spoke highly of her students, and how exciting it is for so many of them to be getting produced early in their careers. She encouraged us to think about what we can do now to help each other get our work produced. Later in the evening, in the context of a question about working professionally, she said, “If you have five people in your circle that you are willing to work for, for free, you should start working together… You will rise faster as a team than as an individual.” I smiled at that thought. I have those five and know exactly who they are. It was only at that moment that I was finally able to realize that my nagging longing to get back to Chicago is that I’m away from them and find it hard to make art without them.
And then we applauded stage managers. It had never occurred to me that Ms. Vogel had been anything other than a playwright, but she had. “I couldn’t act my way out of a paper bag,” she said of a college experience where she had been cast as a butch lesbian and had not managed to pull it off. She said she has also directed and stage managed, and though she didn’t have the nerves to continue with stage management she recognized how important the position is to getting things done. My little stage manager heart glowed.
And so for the moment, bolstered on the confirmation that there are sane, thoughtful, creative, pleasant theatre professionals like Paula Vogel out there, I am renewed in my quest to live my life in this career.