Paula Vogel on A Civil War Christmas and Interpreting History for the Stage
7 Mar 2013
One evening over dinner, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel delivered what she calls her “annual rant.” Why, she asked director Molly Smith, are theaters always remounting A Christmas Carol? Where is the American Christmas Carol? On the restaurant tablecloth, in crayon, Vogel outlined the plot for a new holiday play: A Civil War Christmas. The story would be set in Washington, D.C. The many characters would include Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, and an escaped child slave. Carols, spirituals, and ballads from the period would be integrated into the narrative. Smith, who was named artistic director of Washington’s Arena Stage soon afterward, commissioned the play.
Vogel recounted this origin story to a group of Center constituents who saw the New York Theatre Workshop production of A Civil War Christmas in December 2012. In our interview above, filmed during that same visit, she discusses her research process; the “shout-out[s]” she gives to the present even when writing a period piece; and her commitment to make visible the experiences of Americans who might otherwise go unheard, be they women in the home or soldiers in the field. Vogel’s current playwriting project is a Center-funded commission for Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, based on Don Juan Returns from the War. She has conducted interviews with local veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to inform her eventual script.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel first came to national prominence with her AIDS-related serio-comedy The Baltimore Waltz, which won the Obie Award for Best Play in 1992. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for her play, How I Learned to Drive, which examines the impact and echoes of child sexual abuse and incest and has been produced all over the world. During her two decades leading the graduate playwriting program and new play festival at Brown University, Vogel helped developed a nationally recognized center for educational theater, culminating in the creation of the Brown/Trinity Repertory Company Consortium in 2002. She formerly served as chair of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama, and is now currently the Eugene O’Neill Professor (adjunct) of Playwriting at the Yale School of Drama and the Playwright-in-Residence at Yale Repertory Theatre.