Paula Vogel: A Civil War Christmas

by:  Todd Williams at 11/23/2009

Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s newest play, A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration set in and around Washington, D.C., on Christmas Eve 1864, brings together the Lincolns, soldiers, runaway slaves, and others in a celebration of hope amidst devastation. Here, in a September 2008 interview with Long Wharf Theatre’s dramaturg April Donahower, Vogel discusses joy and tragedy, the public and private, and why it’s imperative that we acknowledge our history.

AD: This play is a departure of sorts for you [in that it’s written for a family audience]. What has led you in this direction?

PV: I am always trying to get to a point where I’m sharing something with the community . . . something painful. And the reason I do that isn’t to hurt people or to dwell in the hurt; it’s to get past it. It’s to resolve it. It’s to change it.

The alchemy of an audience, with issues that hurt us . . . there’s an alchemy that happens and I think we can turn it to gold. And if that gold is hope, if that goal is action, if that goal is leaving the theatre and feeling as if the person sitting next to me in seat D4 is actually now a neighbor, that’s a huge step forward for me.

The word “family values” has been used so often, but I don’t see why we’re not saying “community values” because it seems to me every family is the community. Out of that — which I think has been in other plays — this thing came to me.

In the past 20 years, I’ve had children (some of them now are wonderful grown men) say to me, “Aunt Paula,” or “Godmother, when do I get to see one of your plays?” Usually this is a conversation that’s taking place over Christmastime. And I say, “When you’re 30 years old and you can go and talk to a therapist or talk to me afterwards, but you can’t come see my plays until you’ve reached the age of adulthood.” And it’s always been kind of a family joke.

But if I’m talking about family values, I should write something that I can say to my family, “Guys, I wanted to give this to you when you were five and I know now you’re 27,” or “Rebecca, you know, you’re six years old, and, you know, I just want you to know this and talk about it with you.” So I wrote [A Civil War Christmas] for my family. This is my Christmas gift. My Hanukah/Christmas — we’re very diverse — Kwanzaa gift to the family.

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