- February 6, 2019
There she stood at the head of an outdoor classroom, a sage offering counsel on finding a path into the writing world.
Playwright Paula Vogel, who has taught at some of the most prestigious schools in America, was lending her considerable knowledge to anyone who would listen.
Vogel, a Hermitage fellow, addressed a crowd of more than 100 people at Booker High School on Friday evening, and she coached them through a writing exercise she’s performed many times before. She called this one The John Ringling Bake-Off, and her hope was to lend a framework to the audience that would allow them to take off in their own directions.
From the beginning, she showed the audience — arrayed in a semi-circle around her — the value of brainstorming.
Vogel, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for her play "How I Learned to Drive," asked the audience where they would begin a play about John F. Kennedy, and then she catalogued their many responses.
Cape Cod. Touch football. Dallas. World War II. Sickly childhood. Meeting Jackie.
Those were just some of the responses, and Vogel said they were all equally valid.
“This is why I turned into a playwright,” she says. “I really am not good at math, and you had to have correct answers. There are no correct answers. Where you begin your plot is your voice.”
The event, dubbed Pen to Paper, was presented by the Hermitage Artist Retreat, and Vogel was sharing her knowledge as part of her Hermitage Residency.
Vogel, who has taught at Brown University and the Yale School of Drama, told the audience that there are many different ways to structure a plot, and she sketched out some of the ways that you can develop time. There’s the linear process where one event causes a domino to fall, and then each reaction causes another successive reaction as the plot spools itself out.
But there are also far messier paths to telling your story.
“When you start a plot, when you put down what is occurring, you’re actually designing time,” she says. “Sometimes, time goes backwards. Sometimes, time goes in a circle. Sometimes, like Groundhog’s Day, it’s a pattern. And sometimes indeed it goes forward.”
What does it mean for time to travel in a circle? Vogel cited two masterworks — “Peer Gynt” by Henrik Ibsen and “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving — that end right where they began.
“'Peer Gynt': A boy leaves home for adventures in the world. Bye, Mom. We see him go on extraordinary wild adventures and he ends up, having journeyed the world, on his mother’s doorstep,” says Vogel.
“'Rip Van Winkle'" Run away from your family. Go up in the hills. Have a little fun. Have a little drink. Come back to your family’s doorstep and find out that whole time you were asleep, 80 years have passed. You’re now an old man. The family is no longer there.”
Another element to constructing a plot — language — is one that many young writers might take for granted. But Vogel doesn’t just mean dialect; she means the specific ways that people speak, which sometimes means including grammatically incorrect verbiage.
There are times where speaking calmly and meticulously will not match reality.
And Vogel wanted the audience to consider not just how characters speak but also why they speak that way.
“You have to create all of the world with words,” she says. “Language is actually what comes out of the character’s mouths. Whose language is it? Is it coming from the character? Or is it coming from you as the writer? If you stop and think for a moment, ‘I want this character to talk the way my mother did,’ that’s not your language. You kind of summoned it.”
Putting a finer point on it, Vogel said that the way a character speaks is not static; it is situational, and in some instances it makes perfect sense that they don’t sound polished.
“You’ve got an incredible spectrum of where and when the emotion overtakes or inability when we’re in another country,” she says. “When people are here, and they’re speaking emotionally or eloquently, it doesn’t matter — and in fact it might be wrong — to have the pronouns match. It’s all correct. There’s nothing wrong or anything preferred about either category.”
Vogel also touched on other elements before she came to the writing exercise she wanted the audience to attempt.
Her concept — the bake-off — is defined on her website, PaulaVogelPlaywright.com, as a quickly written exercise with assigned themes and elements that can be completed in 48 hours. She chose John Ringling because of his prominence in Sarasota, and then she invited the audience to again brainstorm elements that they might find in a circus.
One by one, the voices started firing back examples ranging from aerialists all the way to sawdust on the floor.
Vogel broke them up into categories, and she told the audience to choose three from each list. She also assigned a few mandatory items to be included in the tale.
But the point of the exercise, says Vogel, is to take it wherever the writer wanted to within the given structure.
“You can put anything in it. Anything you see. Anything you want,” Vogel says of the ingredients. "Whatever gets in, great. Whatever you want to put in, great. But 48 hours.”
Vogel, wrapping up her presentation, told the audience of an expression by famed acting coach Stella Adler that sums up the necessary requirements to pursue a life in the arts. Adler said there are three things people need in life.
“She says you need the tenacity of a bulldog," says Vogel. "You need the hide of a rhinoceros, and you need a good home to come home to. What I want to say — particularly to the younger people — in order to write, you must feel love. You need a good home to come home to. Please find communities and friends and circles where your lives and your loves are respected.”
Vogel opened the floor to questions, and she was asked if she had a favorite play in her catalogue. Vogel shared that her favorite is “The Baltimore Waltz,” completed in 1992. Moments later, she was asked what she is most excited or afraid to write, and she mentioned the work that she has been writing during her Hermitage residency.
“It’s an interesting paradox that we need to appreciate nature and beauty in order to have a kind of inner journey into pain and come out on the other side,” says Vogel.
“I have to be very careful right now in what I write because there are so many wonderful ideas. But you know the clock is ticking for me. I hope you write everything that you love, that makes you laugh, that you fear. Only good can come from it.”