Collaborators in Conversation: Paula Vogel and Peter DuBois

Huntington Artistic Director Peter DuBois talks with playwright Paula Vogel, author of A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration and Peter's former mentor at Brown University.

    PAULA VOGEL: How are things going at the Huntington?
    PETER DUBOIS: Things are good. The challenge is to predict what the money is going to do. I feel so great about the art right now and the artists who are working here, about the planning that we’re doing. The conversation you and I started about the research and development idea in the summers here, looking at new models for collaboration. . . . I feel great about the level of intelligence in the conversation within the organization. With each of the shows, we’ve developed this model of reapproaching how we’re connecting as a staff. With each show, we’re meeting biweekly—the artistic, marketing, development, and education staffs—and we’re looking at who are the communities that we’re trying to connect with as a theatre for this show and how are we going about it. We’re breaking down the individual silos and trying to get the artistic message into every aspect of the institution. . .
    PV: You know, in this chapter of my life—whatever thought I had of “Gee, I’d like to be an artistic director” is over at this point, but I am getting to be in conversation with theatre managers. I am getting to be in a little of this conversation about how important marketing is, how important thinking about audience strategy is and outreach, and what an impact it has on the reception. This is just on my level; this isn’t on your level of involvement of crafting the entire journey.
    PD: What do you mean?
    PV: I think the challenge for you is making sure there’s flexibility in the LORT [League of Resident Theatres] season. It starts with season planning—how this season for you is an American journey, setting the plays in a sequence so that they’re in conversation with each other. Then it’s about thinking about the director-playwright conversation. Then it’s thinking about how far along in the process are each of these particular works. Is this a revival? What’s the new conversation? Is this step two or three of the journey? What’s that conversation? Then how do you look at the community and have that journey intersect with them in a completely different way? And then you’re thinking about whether there are conversations with other institutions in Boston and the Greater Boston area? That’s a pretty big arc, which is very exciting and I’m sure it keeps you off the street.
    PD: [laughter] Or, puts me out on the street, depending on how you look at it. What you were saying earlier about how a play is never done—one of the things we’ve been talking about here is the value of second productions and third productions. I think it’s a new and provocative notion. “Premiere-itis” is something that the theatre has suffered from.
    PV: You know, about twenty years ago, there was a documentary about a woman conductor—her name was Antonia and the film was, I believe, called My Antonia [Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman]—who as a conductor was only allowed to work with an orchestra once a year.
    PD: Oh my god.
    PV: Because as a woman, she just wasn’t hireable. It was an aching documentary about how can you possibly work on your craft when you get your chance at playing with an orchestra once a year. And the answer is “Very, very slowly.” That’s the position American playwrights are in. We get a crack at our full orchestra once a year. So I don’t see how possibly—I look back and I think about people like Shakespeare or Ben Johnson, people attached to local theatre companies in the canon of great theatrical traditions. If you’re up four or five times a year, you might be able to finish [writing a play], because you’re in an ongoing conversation with these actors, these directors, the designers. You know every item in the prop room. You know, “It’s time to use the bear suit!” Let’s have the “exit, pursued by a bear” conversation.
    PD: Do you think that’s how that happened?
    PV: Yes, absolutely. “We spent a hundred pounds on that bear suit.” Absolutely, that’s how it happened. In those days, playwrights were in essence shareholders in the company. Now, we’re itinerant workers. Now, we’re basically working the grapeyard. We’re picking the grapes and going from place to place once a year. So, there’s not even a conversation possible between the person in marketing [and the playwright]. There’s not the possibility of me knowing everybody in the box office. All of this is very [important] information because there’s the craft of playwriting.
    PD: You seem very invested in—and it’s one of the great things I’ve learned from you – all of the areas that bring the play to life on the stage. [Your engagement in] the administrative areas—development, marketing—feels like a strong philosophical point of view you have.
    PV: Well, my father was in advertising. I just watched two episodes of “Mad Men”—I’m never home to watch television, but everyone said, “You have to watch it. It’s your dad. You should be watching it.” I’m sure I inhaled that. People say, “What comes first for the idea of the play? How do you think about it?” I say, “The tagline comes first.” And, that’s not in any way to me a diminishment of the idea. It’s a desire to connect with the audience that every director has, every actor has, every artistic director has, every marketing director has. Playwrights have that too. But, we don’t know the audience. We’re going from Boston to Seattle to a small theatre company in San Francisco. They just aren’t homes, so the conversation is going to be very incomplete. The second thing is that, if you’re only practicing with that orchestra once a year, you don’t really know if all of your roles are working. The thrilling thing about a second production is to see a different Lincoln or Bronson or Keckley. Can I make it so specific that it will fit all actors who honor me by playing Keckley? That really does take two or three separate productions, and two or three different communities to listen to the response. And you know that a play isn’t going to connect everywhere. Lastly, the reason that a play isn’t finished is that they ask different questions in different communities outside of my control. For example, it was very meaningful doing Civil War Christmas during the last election. Now, there’s something very different about doing Civil War Christmas while people are going to town halls with signs that say, “civil rights or civil war.” There are literally people talking about seceding from the union. So now what is interesting is the aftermath of the election. We’re really looking at—we are in the process, we are in the conversation of civil war that goes all the way back. It’s going to be a whole different resonance about Lincoln. There’s going to be a whole different level of anxiety about possible violence. The expression “fire-eaters,” which I love, was an expression specifically to describe the politicians and the citizens of South Carolina. They were fire-eaters; in other words, their language, their rhetoric, their speech was so ratcheted up and violent that they were known as fire-eaters.
    PD: Where does that term date back to?
    PV: It dates to the debates that began in 1850. I’m listening to the talk-shows, the extreme right talk shows, the screaming at the town hall meetings, and the expression fire-eater is never far from my mind—and when Nancy Pelosi said that speech precedes violence. It’s going to give a whole different conversation with this play. It’s interesting being in Boston as Americans; there’s a strong Irish American community in Boston and a strong African American community in Boston, still continuing that conversation in terms of an African American professor and a very respected Irish American policeman, and a confrontation that happened on a front porch in Cambridge. There’s no way that we, as artists, can foretell—what we hope is that we’re creating work that says let’s continue the conversation that is in our neighborhood at this moment in time. But, all of that is out of our control, and we’re just participants in a larger conversation.
    PD: Absolutely, it is remarkable how the meaning of the play must have shifted from when we found ourselves in the excitement of having elected a new president, the first black president, while the play is running in New Haven to now. The play shifts with the tone of the national conversation. What’s fascinating in Boston as well: we think of the Civil War and the fallout of the Civil War as a great period of emancipation, but there was a whole history of emancipation predating the Civil War here in the Northeast. It’s been fascinating looking at the way in which the plays are all in conversation with each other. August Wilson, looking at the twentieth century cycle and with Fences the 1950s in particular, he’s really looking at the fallout of emancipation, what happened to America in the century that followed. In Lydia [Diamond]’s play [Stick Fly], we’re looking at what people might call a more “normalized” environment, where race becomes part of the background and context of an affluent family on Martha’s Vineyard. And part of what I love about your play, which is situated really at the heart of the season, is that you’re tapping into the event that kicked those stories into motion.
    PV: It’s interesting how quickly we move in a way, but you can see all the issues as linked. We have no memory. I started thinking about, and I was concerned that we weren’t thinking about, issues of race, poverty and social justice at Christmastime because we’re busy doing A Christmas Carol, which does look at those issues but it’s really very specifically set in London. I was dealing with a great sense of mourning over Katrina and also a great sense of anxiety and alarm over the immigration debates—what it means to be in the United States of America and crossing the river. I was thinking of a war on “illegal immigrants,” I suppose we call them; we’re all illegal immigrants except for native Americans. We just forget this. So, I was thinking about Katrina and Lou Dobbs. The war against people entering the country was at the foremost in my mind. Now we’re shifting to healthcare and the recession, but all of this is still informed by who gets the resources and who doesn’t. So our attention shifts, but the basic inequity is still the same.
    PD: Absolutely. And it’s the role of the artist in culture to look at these seemingly disconnected or disparate events and to say that there’s a core narrative driving through all of this.
    PV: When I started this—a lot of this started with Anna Deavere Smith saying, “Don’t you think about issues of race? African Americans are the only ones doing race work. Why aren’t you doing race work? Why aren’t you looking at race?” She sort of laid down a little theatrical challenge, and I thought, “You know, that’s absolutely right.” I’d always thought of myself as informed, but I asked several friends to give me a reading list. It wasn’t about history, it was about work on race. And on that list, Henry Louis Gates is up there. So, I have incredible and enormous respect for the achievements he’s done in building that particular department, but also in making that conversation accessible, honest, and visible. Just being in the vicinity with this work is something thrilling.
    PD: You’re in a town that’s really at the heart of that conversation of race, class, and history. You were talking about Anna and how you’re developing the piece as American history is unfolding—where did the idea for the show come from?
    PV: It was a blink. It really happened in a blink. We were in technical rehearsals in Berkeley, and Molly Smith was directing How I Learned to Drive. She had just gotten the job [as Artistic Director] at Arena Stage, and I started talking to her about how amazing the history was in Washington D.C. Washington D.C. isn’t really a town; it’s a national home, a town that belongs to the nation. It’s an interesting thing living there; you really feel the Civil War was just yesterday. There is no voting representation for the District of Columbia. Their representative doesn’t have a vote. Where does that come from? That comes from the African Americans who fled slavery and crossed the river into the United States, and Congress was alarmed to give African Americans that direct representation. And it’s still there. So, the Civil War is just yesterday, or actually it’s today if you’re in Washington D.C. And, I said to her, “Why is everyone doing A Christmas Carol?” And, blink, it came in a blink. Christmas, during the Civil War—I knew all the songs from childhood. I grew up in D.C. and Maryland. I’ve gone to every battlefield. I know every single Civil War ballad, just about. I realized that Civil War ballads and Christmas carols have something that they share, which is [they tell stories of people] following the stars. The flag that bears the single star and the storytelling on Christmas Eve—the wise men following the single star. And, in a second, I thought, “O, Tannenbaum!” and “O, Maryland, My Maryland”—which is a successionist slave state song and [although it is the state’s anthem,] the lyrics still have not been changed—are the same tune. I took a crayon on this paper tablecloth at dinner. I removed all the dishes, and I gave the outline on the table. That was in 1997. How that happens, I don’t know. I wrote [the text] in 2006, so the reading took, I guess, nine years, because I wanted to be sure that I was reading Toni Morrison and Playing in the Dark, that I was reading Ira Berlin. I wanted to make sure I knew the history—not to make it a history—but that I was respectful.
    PD: And it sounds like you looked in a lot of places. It wasn’t just about reading history. You were stretched in multiple directions.
    PV: It was absolutely thrilling. It’s the most intricate kind of research I’ve ever done. It was obsessive. I cut out—you know, also, I’d seen Nicholas Nickelby. I couldn’t afford seats, I could only afford to watch the eight hours by standing. Even though I was in my thirties, I remember how my knees ached. I can also remember the New Yorkers who could afford to bring their whole families. I was aware Nicholas Nickelby itself was a kind of class distinction. It was amazing watching Nicholas Nickelby to see how much an ensemble transformed. So, I must have cut out twenty roles in this.
    PD: How did you make those choices Paula? It’s such a fascinating constellation of characters.
    PV: I started to really think that I didn’t want to lose my own family members. In other words, I didn’t want to lose my great nephew as an audience member. I didn’t want to lose my great niece. I wanted them to be able to keep track and enjoy the stories. And I wanted to make sure that I provoked their curiosity, but didn’t exhaust their curiosity. So, there are some characters that I cut out that I really, really miss. Joe [Daniel] Sickles was a character, an amazing character, who was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg, and was a real womanizer. He won the first insanity defense trial. He’s just an amazing character, and was a close friend of Mary Todd Lincoln’s. I just loved him chasing through the streets on crutches after women, and I wanted him kind of woven through the piece. But, you know, it’s like let’s not have the kitchen sink. So this is sort of the hard part. [ . . . ] You know, I have a feeling that we’re going to be much closer this time, but I don’t think I’m through. And, I know have to go on to other play worlds, but it’s such an opportunity for me to be given the orchestra at the Huntington.
    PD: And the piece just continues to evolve. And it seems like . . . You know, I remember having a conversation about How I Learned To Drive and it sounds like that one came out pretty quickly and was pretty complete when you finished the first draft. And other plays, like Civil War Christmas, [I] feel like the conversation . . . the play is continuing to have a conversation with you, as it evolves.
    PV: Yes. Yes. I want to be ambitious. I think we as audience members aren’t asked to be ambitious. There may be some irritation that people are being asked to follow four plotlines; I can understand that. We’re so used to entertainment that basically cuts up our meat for us and mashes our potatoes, so that we don’t have to use our own teeth. I can completely understand that irritation. Just, in this age, I think we only ask actors to use 10% of their gift in most roles. I think we only ask directors to use 10%. What if we actually did theatre, which in fact the Elizabethans did, that demands that we use 120% of our craft? What happens to us as audience members when there’s something that’s not completely pre-digested for us? It’s hard for me to say. I don’t . . . Our struggles, the Civil War is still with us; these struggles hurt me today. I am incredibly wounded at the polarization, at people who are weeping “I want my country back.” I think we’re at a moment of pain. Do I have a thesis about that pain? I don’t. But I have a desire that we collectively look at the pain together. The only thing that I want to kind of ask is: do you think we can face what happened over 150 years ago in this country and actually take it to the next level and to the next step, for our children and our children’s children? Do you think we’re going to be able to move to the next chapter as a country? That’s the only real question I have.
    PD: It’s a profound one.
    PV: I think we’re at a point in time of incredibly civic danger and I think we’ve got to talk.
    PD: I agree; I agree. Let me shift gears for a second. I just want to ask you a little bit about new plays: how they’re worked on, developed, and produced in this country. You’re such a national treasure and, I think, a great thinker around this subject. You’ve had the opportunity to look at theatres from so many different points of view—whether its, you know, Perseverance, which is deeply rooted in the community, the world of theatre in New York, or the world of theatre in training centers. You’ve really emerged as one of the great teachers of writers in this country. There’s dozens of playwrights out there working in really big, bold and beautiful ways because of you. I just wondered what your feelings are in terms of things you would change about the way that plays are developed and produced, ways that we can be moving the art form forward for the writers and for audiences. What are your thoughts on that?
    PV: A number of thoughts. There are a number of things I’ve been thinking about. One thing is that I don’t think, I don’t think we thank our artists in this country. I don’t think as artists we realize, and as communities we realize, that artists can be endangered. That we may disappear. In other words, I’m [thinking] about just a climate that provides appreciation. This is true for audiences too. I include audiences as artists, as theatre artists. They’re part of our field. They’re not separate from us. So, I don’t think we thank each other enough or show the appreciation. You know, it’s not the same thing as going to see a movie where there’s not that feeling of conversation back and forth. So, a couple of things I feel just in terms of the future of American theatre: One is the accessibility of theatre. Secondly, [we need to be] proselytizing and seducing audience members and community members into the process of making theatre. It belongs as much to an eighty-year old retiree as it does to an elementary school student. . . . We have to take a moment of time to recognize, appreciate, and thank each other. We have to have fun and enjoy it. We’re not making a commodity; we’re not making a product. We’re sharing a process. It’s a great honor and a great thing to be an American artist. It’s something that certainly wasn’t possible for my parents’ or grandparents’ generation, in terms of financially being able to do it. It’s possible for me. When I think of all the jobs I’ve done in my life, being a theatre artist does feel luxurious. But, I think we have to have fun with it. I think we have to communicate the process. I think we have to be absolutely transparent and accessible. I think it’s a lifelong passion. And I think that this is part and parcel of us losing civility and dialogue—that loss of civility and dialogue had to do with, in the 1980s, Newt Gingrigh and the Contract on America cutting arts out of the dialogue. We give more stimulus funding or packaging to making automobiles and banks, but, if you look at the total number of dollars in this country spent on the arts, we’re actually spending and giving back to the economy as much as American automobile makers. So, when I stop and think about this, we have to fight for the importance of the arts, because it is civility in discourse. It calls on us to be emotionally accessible, vulnerable, and responsive to each other. When I stop and think in my life where I’ve been, of course, New York is wonderful and important. Of course, London is wonderful and important. But, I tend to go to smaller towns or regional places, because I think that the conversation is more alive there. When you get to New York, it’s very easy to treat theatre as a commodity. But, when you’re in Boston, you’re aware that there are local treasures that live and work in Boston as directors, as actors, as designers—that the theatre community there lives in that community. That’s an important place to start and to work on a new play. It’s very hard to work on new plays in New York, because I think it’s very hard to ask the question “what community are we talking to?” in New York. That’s not to decry New York; it’s just the way it is. So, I think it’s regional theatre that keeps new work and new emerging artists alive. If you look at the training programs, training programs in New Haven, in Providence, in Iowa, in San Diego, in Austin, Texas are interesting places because it basically imprints an artist in a town, in a region, in a location, in a community. . . . When congress started kicking sand in our eyes in the sandbox, they chose the artist first. From the artist, we’re now fighting over who’s allowed to go to the emergency room. I see that as a continuum of where we, as Americans, have allowed our priorities to deteriorate.
    PD: Absolutely. You’re so right that when the arts shifted from being a protected environment to being just pushed into the market place that that was an incredibly destructive moment. And, I think, we’re now finding the strategies to redefine how we go back into a place where the artist is, as you’re saying, protected and appreciated. A big part of that is throwing back the curtain and opening up the process to the audience. You know, I see it in food, I see it in wine. People are craving connoisseurship right now. And they want to know how things are made, and why certain choices are made. They want to know—in the same way that we look at wine vis-á-vis regions and terrain and how that impacts the flavor of the wine, we could be talking about theatre. It’s the same notion.
    PV: It’s very much the same notion. The CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture], the farmers’ markets that are springing up. We want to know how and where it was made. We want that conversation with the person who is making it. Breweries, we want to know how beer is made. The 21st century can actually become a marvelous time for the makers of art to say to everybody in the audience, “Guess what—you are now a maker of this art. This isn’t something that was mass-produced and brought to you.” This [production] is something that was made here with you. It’s different tonight, because you’re in the audience. We want to thank you, and we want to hear what you think. We hope we can seduce you into becoming more involved. I think all these trends you’re pointing out are exactly where we are about wanting to know more about wine.
    PD: It makes me really hopeful. I love doing gallery walks in summer and going to the open studios here in Boston. You’re meeting the artists. Most of the art that I’m buying is local to Boston or Cape Cod. It’s because I get excited about talking to the artists; I think we could be doing exactly the same thing in the theatre. Your metaphor about the orchestra is fantastic. And of course, I want the Huntington to be an orchestra you play with very often, because I think it really benefits a theatre to find a core group of artists that it really wants to support and work with over time. The city has a sense of friendship, and alliance, and emotional connection with the artists in the same way that we do with our sports teams. If we can really focus on core groups of artists we feel a sense of kinship with, the audiences develop a relationship with them over time, which I think is critical.
    PV: I’m a very lucky recipient. One more note on this, because you and I had this conversation I don’t remember how many years back: I’ve become a New Englander. It’s been 26 years. People say, “How are you doing this? You’re teaching at Yale?” I live part of the time in Branford, Connecticut; I live in Providence, Rhode Island; I’m actually a resident of Truro, Massachusetts. . . . I love Maine, I love Vermont, New Hampshire, I know the backroads. There’s a pride I have of living my life in New England. There’s a pride I have of living in towns where people still make their living from the sea. It’s a very unique place. For a long, long time, there was a scapegoating of New England as the intellectual elite. There is an incredible historical legacy here. I am in awe of the fact that you’re doing this play in a theatre built in 1925 in a town where the revolution was started. The hope is that we embrace the arts that are made in New England. Now, as a resident of Massachusetts, to be invited into the Huntington, and to be able to work in the state where I live, [is a gift]. But, we also see that by paying attention to our homes, and where we live and where we work, that we can start a conversation that has a national impact. We can point to New Englanders and the impact they make in the world of arts and in our civic conversation as American citizens. I think that’s very much the direction I see you moving in, in terms of this season, in terms of your emerging playwrights’ workshops. All of these things, I think, will bear fruit.
    PD: I appreciate that. I grew up in Connecticut, and we met at Brown University. I feel that New England is home as well, and it’s historically, going back to the Boston Tea Party, been at the forefront of change for the country. . . . I believe we’re really at the hub here in Boston, and here in New England, of great thinking that can have an incredible impact on the future of the country. And, we’re so proud to have you here Paula.
    PV: I’m so proud to be at the Huntington. I’m so proud to be working with you. This is a conversation from some time ago.
    PD: We’ve been having it since ’95.
    PV: The greater delay, the greater delight. Thank you so much for the orchestra of Huntington.

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