Playwright melds modern tension, ancient convention
By Times Staff Writer
Published June 3, 2004
Paula Vogel is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a pedophile, How I Learned To Drive, written in 1995-96, simultaneously with her satiric comedy, The Mineola Twins. In addition to writing, Vogel teaches drama and playwriting at Brown University. She talked with Times correspondent Robert Hicks last week.
TIMES: How did you get the idea to write The Mineola Twins?
PAULA VOGEL: There are two or three inciting incidents. One was a comment that I was struck by from a fabulous female impersonator by the name of Lynn Carter. I must have heard this when I went to a performance when I was 18 or 19. He said that he had last performed in a town that was so small that the female impersonator was female. I remember thinking, "Can women impersonate women?"
I had a friend who was a performer as well when I was living in Ithaca, N.Y. She was a wonderful jazz musician and singer, and she would very consciously make herself up for performances and say, "I'm in drag."
I think the other motivation for writing The Mineola Twins came in 1995 when I noticed how factionalized the country was getting. I was very concerned in the aftermath of the Newt Gingrich revolution that any civility in public discourse was ending. Plus, I'd done all this research and I wanted to look at America from the 1950s through the '80s. I did that for both How I Learned To Drive and The Mineola Twins.
TIMES: Why did you decide to have one actor play both twins?
VOGEL: What has happened in contemporary drama as well as in television and film is that we are using maybe 20 percent of the skills of extraordinary actors. I mean, they are doing scripts that they can do in their sleep. So one of the really great theatrical traditions that goes back to the fifth century B.C. is one actor playing identical twins. It's nothing new.
So what do you want to do? You want to do something that's almost impossible to pull off. You want to do something that some actor says, "Boy, this is a workout."
TIMES: Your satire appears even more relevant today, with the schism between left and right in America.
VOGEL: I did get a call from a production of The Mineola Twins in South Carolina that was opening up the day after 9/11. I said, "Are you guys sure about this?" I got an e-mail from them saying, "You cannot believe how relevant the play is right now."
So I think there are a number of things that are continuing to grow. The play was written before Bush was elected . . . I actually don't think Bush was elected (but) I do understand that Bush is president of the United States . . . I see this polarization continuing.
I see the tit for tat going on in this strain of elections that I think is really going to weaken our identity in the world, our ability to be productive, our ability to think and have discourse as communities. I see us now using warfare as the only way of bonding.
The only way Americans can bond right now is against the terror without. That's the only way we can ignore what I consider the terror within.
Whether I'm writing comedy or tragedy, they come from the same source. This is what I'm worried about. This is what I'm fearful about.