In the 1990s, Paula Vogel was a particularly big name in theater. Her hit drama, “How I Learned to Drive,” was produced around the world and won a Pulitzer in 1998.
Still, she couldn’t break into Broadway.
Last year, she finally did, with “Indecent,” a sweeping history of Sholem Asch’s early 20th-century Yiddish play “God of Vengeance.” And with that success, her star is on the rise again.
In the next few months, you can see at least four of Vogel’s plays in and around Washington, and dozens more around the country. The Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., is reviving “How I Learned to Drive” in October, and D.C.’s Arena Stage offers the regional premiere of the Tony Award-nominated “Indecent” in November (Baltimore Center Stage presents its own version in the spring). Also in November, the Tysons Corner troupe 1st Stage in Virginia produces “A Civil War Christmas,” and in January, D.C.’s Keegan Theatre takes on “The Baltimore Waltz.”
“What’s just now happening is theaters saying, ‘We’d like to commission you for a large production,’ ” Vogel says. “And I’m 66.”
Vogel nearly reached Broadway with “How I Learned to Drive,” the tightknit five-actor play set in Vogel’s native suburban Maryland (she was born in Washington) and dealing with a woman’s recollection of being sexually abused by her uncle. But that original production stayed off-Broadway.
#MeToo means the country is catching up all over again with “Drive.“
Vogel’s earlier “The Baltimore Waltz” was widely staged, too — a deeply personal fantasia knifing through the anguish of the AIDS epidemic and written in memory of her brother Carl. Later plays include provocative, resistant works such as “Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief” (“a bawdy, thunderingly ironic take on ‘Othello,’” the New York Times wrote in 1993) and “Hot ’n’ Throbbing” (a 1994 comedy about a suburban mother writing women-focused porn).
Vogel’s output slowed as academic responsibilities accelerated; her outsize influence on the American dramatic landscape includes her long tenure teaching drama at Brown and Yale. Five Vogel students have won Pulitzer Prizes.
“I spent half my career finding development spaces,” Vogel says. “It took seven years to get ‘Indecent’ to Broadway. ‘A Civil War Christmas,’ I never completed it. I needed a couple more theaters, and time off from teaching. And I could not give up teaching, because I had to pay the rent.”
Now that she’s writing full time, projects include “Cressida on Top,” a riff on Don Juan, militarism and masculinity that’s in development at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. There’s also something Vogel calls “My ‘mother’ play — an autobiography set around Beltsville and every crappy apartment we got evicted from. I want it to be a barnburner of a role for an older woman.”
Having coached more than her share of the country’s young hotshot writers, Vogel knows who to watch for. She’s especially proud that her plays will be at theaters this year alongside former student Christina Anderson’s “How to Catch Creation,” which will be at Baltimore Center Stage, the Goodman and the Philadelphia Theatre Company.
“I want you to make it to Broadway before I do,” Vogel says her message has always been to students. As important, and apparently not altogether unrelated: “I want you to make a living from this.”