When Machines Fail:
Paula Vogel and A Civil War Christmas
November 17, 2012
Dear Paula Vogel,
I cannot thank you enough for our wonderful brunch date this morning. Our intention was to talk about the production of A Civil War Christmas, which is currently in previews at New York Theatre Workshop (and opens December 4th), but because you are a rare and special theater deity, we covered so much more.
Thank God that the Westway Diner didn’t work out, because now I have been properly introduced to the strange and wonderful world of Yotelon 42nd and 10th! My mouth was agape as we were led past the “luggage robot” to our pristine white table, which was surrounded by colorful Japan-o cartoonish wallpaper. I can’t recall if there actually were laser lights, but that would have suited the techno music that thumped over our heads. As we sat down, your eyes twinkled and you gushed, “I love it here!” We ordered from the exotic menu and settled in. I placed my iPhone between us and watched its recording mechanisms blink to life.
That’s what you said when I asked what you would like to communicate to young theater artists today. Your hands made loving fists around your silverware and you said, “I assume they have the same questions I have, that their hearts wonder the same things my heart wonders, and so I would say to them: Theater matters.”
You expressed disappointment that the United States had not gone the way of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany by supporting artists financially. You expressed misgivings about how our industry treats older writers, particularly older female writers. Right then, I noticed something very important: Paula Vogel doesn’t complain. She observes;she zooms in.
I asked you what rehearsals had been like for A Civil War Christmas. And though it couldn’t have been so, I recall the room being very silent and intimate as you shared stories of the incredible commitment and tenacity your cast showed during Hurricane Sandy. Much time was lost due to the storm, but once a space in Harlem had been donated for rehearsals to continue, the cast rallied together. They endured three to four hour bus commutes and crazy carpool configurations, all to get to rehearsal. And when everyone arrived during those strange, traumatic first days, the actors gravitated to the pile of instruments, picked them up, and just started playing. They played together; they played for each other. This made you reflect upon how much we sacrifice to be in the theater, yet how those sacrifices are dwarfed by gifts of friendships and beauty.
Rehearsals began with each actor performing a piece of music. They were encouraged by director Tina Landau to each do something they’d never done before, and so one actor taught himself to play a song on the trumpet in 24 hours. Bob Stillman performed something that made everyone cry.
“Part of what makes Tina Landau like no other,” you said, was her gift for building community, for imbuing an ensemble with a trust and care for each other, which A Civil War Christmas really calls for. You expressed a bemused bafflement toward the Viewpoints. You said, “I’ve learned there really are times when the writer has to go away. It’s hard, it’s like knowing you have to be the first to leave the party.” But you’d go away, and when you’d return the actors would be “glowing” from using the Viewpoints. This was your second time working with Tina on the play, and you knew for this New York production that it had to be Tina. “She encourages them to perform for each other.”
It was a strange coincidence, you said: A Civil War Christmas was conceived in part from your rage and horror, glued to the television, as images rose out of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. When it was time for this production, you had found an apartment in the West Village and you marveled at how surreal it was to be without power during Sandy. “To look up and see a dark sky, no lights … people walking home with flashlights, people without computers or machines, just candles and each other.” That A Civil War Christmas should be bookended by the destruction of fierce hurricanes made us both stop eating and pause for a moment. When I asked you what you made of that, you said, “I don’t know.”
It seems right to reflect on America through the Civil War. You said that, during the storm, an actor sent out an e-mail that contained two maps—one from 2012 that delineated red states and blue states, and one from the 1860s showing slave states and free states. With the exception of three states, they were exactly the same map. “We’re as divided as ever …. we’re returning to states rights, we’re losing civil rights.” I marveled at how you seem to find joy even as you express despair, which I suspected is due to your rich curiosity, your love of discovering such truths, even if the truths themselves hurt terribly. It made me think about what artists are for, and why in the long tapestry of humankind there have always been artists. That perhaps whatever may come, there will always be artists picking up instruments, playing for each other.
You’ve been known to say that theater is a way of sending messages. I asked you how A Civil War Christmas is a part of that. You said theater was how you talked to your ancestors. To your parents and grandparents. To your brother. “That’s the only way I know how to talk to them.” (Before his death your brother asked you to write something for the children of the family; A Civil War Christmas is the fulfillment of that promise.) You said theater is a way for artists to talk to each other, and there are lines in your plays that are for your students, for your friends. You said there is a line in A Civil War Christmas that is for Aaron Sorkin: “I can’t tell you which one, but there is a line that thanks Aaron Sorkin for The West Wing.”
After we’d been talking quite a while, our plates pushed aside, my iPhone still ticking between us—I felt terribly self-conscious every time I checked on it, as if I was cheapening the fresh immediacy of our conversation—I said, “You know Paula, when I knew I was going to meet you, I realized what I really wanted to know was how you are. How is your heart? What is important to you now? What has your attention turned to at this time in your life?” You looked up; you might have even rubbed your chin.
“I’d really love to travel on a steamer.”
“What? What’s a steamer?”
“Oh, you know, it’s a boat and there’s a crew, and you live in one of the tiny rooms, tiny like the rooms here at the Yotel, and you go from port to port …. As a girl I always wanted to run off and go to sea, probably because I’d read that Eugene O’Neill went to sea …. I’ve also always wanted to explore the Arctic .… I’ve always wanted to work with juvenile offenders. And veterans, so I can understand what we were doing over there the last 10 years .… My wife and I rebuilt her parents’ home in Wellfleet and I would like to spend more time there … I’d like to turn my attention to this phase of my life, this final phase of my life, and what I want to do. My bucket list.”
You asked me about my writing and you knew of my play The Amish Project. We talked about my play about the Civil War and you clutched my arm when I told you its title—“Row After Row!!” you beamed. I wondered if you knew I had welled up twice during our time together, simply from inspiration, the gift of this conversation.
Our meal and interview complete, our busy days waiting, I gathered my journal (where I’d scrawled your commands of plays I should read, grants I should look up, and letters I should write) and my iPhone, and tried to thank you for your incredible generosity and leadership. I joked that if this whole Mercury retrograde had any merit and this recording somehow didn’t come through, I would simply write this article from my heart, which you had filled to the brim. You loved that idea. We laughed. We hugged. We parted.
On the subway ride back to Brooklyn I couldn’t wait to listen to this conversation, so I opened Voice Memos to the file that was an hour and forty-four minutes long, and pressed play. And pressed play. And pressed it again.
12 hours, 10 frantic Google searches, and one trip to the Genius Bar later, I now know there is such a thing as a “corrupted file”! That machines fail. That messages can be permanently lost. This made me think about your cast, machines failing all around them, playing for each other. This made me think about your writing as a message to your family and community. This made me think about theater.
So, I am with my journal. I am writing for a publication for artists. I am writing for you, a fellow artist. I am writing for myself, because theater matters.
Dear, dear Paula Vogel.
I cannot thank you enough for our wonderful brunch date this morning. Our intention was to talk about your production of A Civil War Christmas, which is currently in previews at New York Theatre Workshop (and opens December 4th), but because you are a rare and special theater deity, we covered so much more.
With warmest regards,
A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel and directed by Tina Landau runs November 15 – December 30 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th Street, New York, NY. For tickets and further info, visit www.nytw.org.
JESSICA DICKEY is a playwright and actor best known for her play The Amish Project. Her upcoming play Charles Ives Take Me Home will premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater this summer, and her play Row After Row!! will premiere in Tucson this Spring.