A pair of provocateurs

CATCHING UP WITH ... PAULA VOGEL AND MOLLY SMITH

Playwright Paula Vogel and director Molly Smith have worked together for years, egging each other on to excellence.

May 16, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

Playwright Paula Vogel and director Molly Smith have been friends and colleagues for so long that at times they seem to share the same thoughts. When they show up for an interview in Smith's office, they take one look at each other and laugh as they realize they are both wearing bolo ties. (Smith immediately removes hers.)

A native of the Pacific Northwest, Smith is completing her first season as artistic director of Washington's Arena Stage. Vogel, a former Marylander, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for her play "How I Learned to Drive," the current production at Arena's Kreeger Theater, under Smith's direction. Their work in Washington is a homecoming for both women, who met as transfer students at Catholic University in 1972.

Smith spent the last two decades as artistic director of Alaska's Perseverance Theatre, which she founded. Vogel -- who has just stepped down as head of the graduate playwriting program at Brown University in Providence, R.I. -- wrote and developed several scripts at Perseverance, including "How I Learned to Drive" and "The Mineola Twins," now playing off-Broadway, starring Swoosie Kurtz.

Smith instituted some changes at Arena immediately, such as deciding to produce only American playwrights and appointing Vogel writer in residence for three seasons.

Next season will open with Smith's staging of a revised version of "Hot 'n' Throbbing," Vogel's 1994 play about pornography and domestic violence. The following season, Arena will produce the first play created by Vogel during her residency. A holiday show called "A Civil War Christmas," it may include community participation -- perhaps a re-enactment troop setting up camp outside the theater or schoolchildren playing the parts of war orphans.

In conversation, Vogel and Smith, both 47, are too polite to interrupt each other or finish each other's sentences. But they thrive on bouncing ideas back and forth. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.

Smith: What I remember first about you had to do with your intelligence, because in classrooms, I think we took a couple classes together, and you were always the one who had the best questions for the teacher, the smartest questions for the professors, and I loved how you could make them sweat.

And I remember one particular professor -- you were just rat-a-tat-tatting questions at him in a theater history class, and when he stepped away from the blackboard, there was sweat on the blackboard. And now you continue, now you make audiences sweat. You've never been afraid of controversy, Paula. You've never been afraid of conflict, and because of that, I think that's often what makes your work so interesting, too.

There was a man who was talking this past weekend about how, when one goes out in a kayak and is moving toward a large rock, what do you do to get around the rock, to not hit the rock? Do you lean away from the rock or do you lean into the rock? It's counter-intuitive, but you lean into the rock. You lean into the conflict as opposed to moving away from it because when you move away from it, the kayak rolls and you're in trouble. So I think it's the same thing that I see in you and your personality: You lean into the rock.

Vogel: You know, it's an interesting thing that you say that, because my perception of our collaboration is actually the reverse. I know my public persona is not afraid of controversy, and I know that the playwriting persona goes toward the rock. But privately, I actually don't like causing pain. I'm frightened of rejection. I want acceptance and embrace. And you're the one in this collaboration that I feel always keeps me going toward the rock because I will have a tendency to write something and then shy away from it. And you're the one who goes, "No, you're right, we've got to go there." You'll push me farther than I would go. I might back away.

Vogel: "Hot 'n' Throbbing" is probably, for me, maybe one of the most painful and difficult plays I'll ever write, and, of course, it's also dangerously funny. Most artistic directors, when they pick up the script or we talk about it, their hands start to tremble ever so slightly about doing this. I don't think it's because the play is hard to understand. The question is: Can we as contemporary playwrights do what Shakespeare and the Greeks are doing? Are we permitted, as American playwrights, to examine, in our midst, the wars that are going on, in our country, in our borders and in our living rooms that the Greeks examined and that Shakespeare and his contemporaries examined?

Smith: It is one of your plays that has burned itself more in my memory than anything else. I had a meeting with someone about six months ago who said to me, "What's the thing that really gets you going? What's the play that you really want to direct?" I woke up the next morning, and it was "Hot 'n' Throbbing," "Hot 'n' Throbbing." So I called you, and I said, "Let's do it. Let's open the season with it, so that it's right out there in front."

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