Thursday, August 25, 2011

Good news for the theatre? Paula Vogel steps down at Yale (sort of)

Most readers of the Hub Review know of my low opinion of playwright Paula Vogel (at left) - or at least of the influence she has wielded from her academic posts in the playwriting departments at Brown and Yale. Indeed, sometimes I think Vogel may have done more damage to our theatre than any other single person (short of Diane Paulus!). Largely thanks to Vogel - or rather her students - contemporary playwriting has taken a decidedly strange turn toward politically-correct (and usually immaturely whimsical) superficiality; indeed, it might not be too much to call this vogue "Vogelism," and if you doubt its prevalence, consider that her students have included the dreaded Sarah Ruhl and the even more relentlessly twee Jordan Harrison, as well as Nilo Cruz, Lynn Nottage, Adam Bock, and Gina Gionfriddo - all of whom we've seen on major stages in these parts while older, more interesting playwrights have gone begging for productions. Sorry, Fornes! Too bad, Barker! Our major theatres have to make room for the latest from one of Vogel's students instead - or maybe for the great lady herself, who can count on a premiere at the Arena Stage, Public Theater, Huntington, or Trinity Rep for basically anything she writes (as you can see from the web of connections I've sketched out below - and I'm sure I don't know them all!).


But now the New York Times has reported that Vogel will be stepping down from her post at Yale - or rather just backing off its administrative responsibilities - the better to concentrate on upcoming projects. Which is one of those things that make me go, "Hmmmm."  On the one hand, I feel any diminishment in Vogel's status is good news for those of us who love the theatre; on the other hand, she'll now have more time to write, and she'll still be "mentoring writers" - two things that we don't want her to do.

So I'm on the fence as to the positive salience of this development.  There other signs, however, that "Vogelism" may be fading in its influence.  Recently there have been a few "green shoots" of critical thought  about the style in the blogosphere - the last place you'd expect them, frankly, because theatre blogs are generally tilted toward the mindsets of playwriting grad students and other Vogelites.  But even some of these folks are beginning to perceive that - well, their plays just aren't making much of an impact, and seem to be getting more and more alike in terms of style.  Their posts are touchingly earnest, in that mechanical, millennial kind of way - as well as a bit pathetic; they grope about wonkishly in the formal vocabulary of the academy for some precise technical explanation for why things seem to be going wrong.  It doesn't occur to them, of course, that they're simply products themselves, on a kind of conveyor belt engineered by the academy, and that Mama Vogel has a whole new crop of them to push onto the stage every season.

A few years ago, I coined the term "the academic-theatrical complex" to describe this state of affairs.  I remember back then that local "critic" Bill Marx emailed me in a huff to demand what, exactly, I meant by such a term. Marx, of course, works as a lecturer at Boston University, so I suppose his intellectual myopia was understandable.   But by now isn't it obvious what I meant? We now have a house style of new play development, and it's largely dominated by a single figure sitting in the center of a web of professional relationships. And that style is essentially a portrait of a single community (or class, in both senses of the word), at a certain stage of life (the college years) - and clearly it serves the political interests of a certain industry: the academy. As a critic there's very little I can do about any of this - the H.M.S. Vogel and her fleet have sailed on despite my warnings; but at least I can report my satisfaction whenever I see a possible crack in the lead battleship's armor.

12 comments:

  1. Another addition to your web - Molly and Paula went to Catholic University's drama program together.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's a little scary, isn't it. The web has literally taken decades to spin.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've adjusted the graphic to make note of the college connection, btw.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Not sure where you get your information for your claim on Twitter, but 1) My last name is Weinert-Kendt, and 2) I've never worked for any of those folks.

    ReplyDelete
  5. (I went to Catholic U too, but far too late to be part of the web)

    From their perspective, Vogel & Co. are utilizing the professional connections they forged early in their careers, and promoting their work and the work of the people under them. Not a capital offense. True, it's a closed system and inherently unfair to outsiders (defined loosely here as anyone not in the MFA playwriting program at Brown), but would you have a problem with this system if it produced great work?

    Even if they're not ones you want, at least there's a crop of not-untalented YAMs getting new works produced in major theatres. Did I catch you advocating for the FAMs?

    I note that the playwrights who are part of Arena's residency program, Nottage aside, aren't Vogel's charges - an indication that maybe her web isn't quite as closed as you fear. It remains to be seen if they will produce any notable work... though most of the resident playwrights are already well established - Amy Freed, Lisa Kron, Karen Zacarias, etc.

    ReplyDelete
  6. To Weinert-Kendt - sorry about missing that last "t," but as for your other claim - don't you work for American Theatre magazine, which is published by Theatre Communications Group? Just about everybody on that chart has been a Board Officer of Theatre Communications Group at one time or other.

    To John - people today have amusingly elastic ideas about "right" and "wrong" in the non-profit sphere, so various readers' mileages may differ as to the misdemeanors suggested by that chart. To me, for instance, accepting a teaching post under a playwright, and then producing that playwright's work at your theatre, well - it looks a little sketchy. Not Diane-Paulus-level sketchy, but still - sketchy. Of course, everthing is a matter of degree, and as you point out, if Vogel's work, and the work of her students, was indeed the best new drama around, such ethical questions could be elided. But of course that's rather obviously not the case - Vogel's last play was terrible, and the dominant style of her students is now being questioned even by their peers.

    I'm not quite sure who the "YAMs" and the "FAMs" are, but I always advocate for the best, most challenging work being written. But today, in our nonprofit theatres, productions too often seem to map to a farm system of feeder programs - of which Vogel's, as you point out, is only one. The fact that she hasn't quite taken over the whole system (although I imagine she's working on it!) doesn't mean the system isn't wrong. As a friend of mine recently put it, "The American theatre will survive as long as the graduate schools need it as an excuse for their own existence." All I can say is I wish that weren't the case.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Two characters from a very early Albee play, "Fam and Yam"... YAM = Young American Playwright, FAM = Famous American Playwright. At the time, Albee was a YAM.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "The American theatre will survive as long as the graduate schools need it as an excuse for their own existence."

    Very true... but then again, all them dramaturgy grads gotta eat.

    ReplyDelete
  9. If anyone employed by a nonprofit "works for" anyone who's ever served on its board, you've got a lot more chart-drawing to do.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I am concerned with the fact that I see a lot of intellectually facile work being staged and being misrepresented as work of great importance-- I'm sufficiently outside "the system" to not know how some of the major players have contributed to that milieu-- but the point is that I have seen far too many works of either utter pretentiousness, or modest ambitions from the folk whom I am told are the major voices of the new generation.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Maybe so, Rob. Still, for a time they ran your organization, and you worked for them. Now run along, your duplicity has begun to irritate me (again).

    ReplyDelete
  12. Ian - my thoughts exactly. This post was an attempt to illuminate how that happens.

    ReplyDelete