On Monday, 12 February the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center presented Baayork Lee in conversation with Robert Viagas. The show was produced in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Betty Corwin, with Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma. It was part of the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Oral History Program.
Baayork Lee is most noted for working with Michael Bennett as his assistant choreographer on A Chorus Line where she created the role of Connie. Throughout her career, she directed and choreographed The King and I, Bombay Dreams, Barnum, Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess and Jesus Christ Superstar and other shows for many national and international companies. The exhaustive list reveals her impressive energy and exceptional talent.
And that is not all. She is a generous soul. Her intention to give back to the community, her verve and vibrant enthusiasm moved her to create a nonprofit organization, National Asian Artists Project. Through her prodigious efforts the N.A.A.P. has established programs educating, cultivating and stimulating audiences and artists of Asian descent. They have produced classical musical theatre ranging from Oklahoma! to OLIVER! with all Asian-American casts. Baayork Lee, the recipient of the 2017 Isabelle Stevenson Award was honored for her commitment to future generations of artists through her work with the N.A.A.P. and theater education programs around the world.
Interviewed by Robert Viagas, journalist and author with thirty-five years’ experience on Playbill Inc., the Tony Awards and author/editor of 19 books on the performing arts, Robert Viagas has proved his mettle. For The Alchemy of Theatre (Applause Books) he worked with Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, Hal Prince, Chita Rivera and others. His 2009 book, I’m the Greatest Star! (Applause) includes biographies of his A-list genius artists, forty musical stars from George M. Cohan and Fanny Brice to Nathan Lane and Sutton Foster.
Here are excerpts of the enjoyable and lively conversation between Baayork Lee and Robert Viagas
When you were five-years-old you were hired for the original Rogers and Hammerstein’s King and I. Tell us how that happened.
Well, agents came down to Chinatown where I grew up. They went to a school there and my father’s restaurant. And they were looking for kids. We all went uptown and I got the job. (applause)
What was it like working on that show with Yul Brenner and Rogers and Hammerstein?
I learned to sing and dance on the job. I always tell the story of going uptown and getting on the stage at the St. James Theatre. And seeing the chandelier and the red velvet seats. And being on stage for the first time? I just knew that this was where I wanted to be. And I saw the girls warming up backstage. What are they doing? I want to do that. So I knew everybody’s lines and all the songs. I knew the songs for the King and the other parts. I wanted to be in the business.
Even though you were five and even though you didn’t have years of training, you had lines in the show. You were one of the little princesses Ying Yawolak, and they wrote you a speech. Can you tell the story of the speech?
Mrs. Anna is going away and I have a letter I read to her. But I couldn’t read at the time, so my mother helped me and I memorized the lines. “Dear teacher. My goodness gracious. Do not go away…” (audience laughs)
You must have done a great job with that because you were hired for a subsequent musical Flower Drum Song. Tell us the part you played. I’m particularly interested in hearing the story of how you went on in the lead role and you were twelve-years-old.
Well, I was fired at eight-years-old from The King and I because I outgrew my costume. And Rogers and Hammerstein gave us something as a consolation. There were three of us. One girl wanted acting lessons. Another girl wanted piano lessons. And I wanted dance lessons. I got to go to The School of American Ballet and Jerome Robbins helped me get in. I started studying dancing and wanted to be a ballerina. And here comes along Flower Drum Song and Mr. Rogers remembered me and by then a double pirouette was nothing for me now. I was singing and dancing. I got into the show. I was one of the kids in the show. I sang “The Other Generation.” And I don’t know how I got the part. But Anita Ellis was the Fan Tan Fannie girl. She was understudied. And her understudy went on to somebody else and her understudy went on to somebody else. And all of a sudden there wasn’t anyone else but me. And I got to sing F”an Tan Fannie.”
And how did that feel?
At twelve you have no fear, Robert. You have no fear at twelve. You can sing all the songs, do all the lines. You can do everything.
And thanks to N.A.A.P. you’re trying to expand opportunities for Asian-American actors. There was nothing like that in the 1950s, 1960s. Yet you were able to maintain a career through those years. You worked pretty steadily. You got to know certain people and they obviously respected your talent. How were you able to survive and work and succeed as an Asian-American woman in the early 1960s?
First of all I was a kid. So every show is was in I worked as a kid. From Flower Drum Song I went to the Performing Arts High School. And I graduated and I got a phone call from Carol Haney who was a choreographer of Flower Drum Song. She remembered me and said, “I am going to do a show and it’s called Bravo Giovanni.” And we’re going to Broadway. I said I’m going to Julliard. I’m going to become a dancer. And she said “Why don’t you just come and do the show for the summer and then decide.” So that’s what happened. It was a flop. Bravo Giovanni starred Cesare Siepi and it was Michelle Lee’s first show.
But it did win the Tony for Best Score over a Funny Thing Happened…
Oh. You know all the facts, don’t you. So I was sitting on the firescape of the Broadhurst Theatre and I looked and they were putting up a sign for the next musical, Mr. President. So I said, “Hum that looks interesting.” So I auditioned and I got the show. And I played with Nanette Fabray, as Deborah Chakronin and I was a kid in the show. And then there was a knock on my dressing room door. They said, “There’s a man upstairs who wants to see you.” I went upstairs and he gave me his card. He said, “I’m doing a new show. It’s called Here’s Love. I really think you’d be good in the show. Please come and audition.” I said, “Yes, Yes, Yes.” I went downstairs and said this man upstairs? It was Norman Jewison. And so I went over and I auditioned. And I was one of the kids in the show.
That’s a musical based on The Miracle on 34th Street, music with a score by Music Man’s Meredith Wilson. Not as successful.
And so I was a kid. And Michael Bennett was in the show.
You knew him before. What was he like as a kid?
I don’t know. All I can tell you is when I got Flower Drum Song, Michael told me I was so jealous that day at dancing school that you got Flower Drum Song, your second Broadway show and I hadn’t even had one. (audience laughs). But what was he like? I don’t know. Except at that time he said, “I don’t want to dance any more. I want to be a choreographer.” And we all said, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Sure, sure.” But he was very, very serious. I got the call. The musical director was Elliot Lawrence. And he said I’m doing a new show Golden Boy with Sammy Davis Jr. And there’s a part for a shoe shine boy. Would you come and audition? And so I did. And I danced with Sammy Davis.
Michael did manage to choreograph a couple of shows and he did not forget his classmate.
No. So I danced with Sammy in Golden Boy. And Sammy took us to London. My first trip to London. And I got a call from Michael saying he was doing another show. It was A Joyful Noise. And Tommy Tune was in it and Donna McKechnie. And so I came back and I did that show. We came to Broadway. And I got a call for another show when I was in London for Promises Promises and I had to get out of my contract for that. And he helped me get out of my contract and he brought me to do Promises, Promises.
And you were the featured dancer in” Turkey Lurky Time.” I saw you in that show, one of the first shows I saw early on. That is an incredible number. Did you have to wear a neck brace?
We were at the chiropractor at least once a week. All of us. I’d seen the show for three years. I loved being in the chorus. I loved being in the back. I was having a great time. I loved signing in and getting into the theater early. And Michael said you are going to be my dance captain. I said, “Oh, oh.” There were rehearsals and all that, I thought. But he treated me well, so I became his dance captain in Promises Promises.
If you go online and see clips of these songs, you see they are time capsules. You see Joyful Noise, you see Promises, Promises. When you look at all of them you see one Asian-American. What was that like?
I was very lucky. Very happy. My cousin Chester said, “B? You better represent! All Chinatown looking at you!”
Was that a challenge for you? What was it like? Being the One! The One Singular Sensation?
Special. I felt very, very special. I always appreciated being there and representing. Absolutely.
Another special show you did was Seesaw. You were in the chorus of Seesaw, but you did have a featured number in that show. And when they feature that show, they always use the same picture. Tommy Tune who is 6’6’ and they chose you to do a duet with him. And you were attired in masses of balloons and were on point the entire time. I saw you and thought. “Who is this girl?”
I think “Turkey Lurky” may have been bigger. By the time I was in this show I was known and to dance with Tommy Tune was really quite an honor.
I don’t know. With “Turkey Lurky” you were one of three with Donna. But with this number you were next to Tune.
Ah, OK. Michae Bennett was very ahead of his time. We were not the standard kind of, the blonde, 5’5’ you know. But you have Tommy Tune, Baayork Lee and those in the show were all shapes, sizes and colors. And he was very ahead of his time.
Do you remember the conversation or phone call where he mentioned this show he was doing about chorus dancers? Do you remember him discussing the show that became A Chorus Line?
No. But I do remember all through my time working with Michael, he always said, “I want to do a show about dancers.” He’d been saying he wanted to do a show about dancers. Because dancers unlike actors never asked him why. They just did what he told them. (laughter)
He wanted you to be the dance captain on that.
First, he wanted me to be his assistant. At that time in the olden days, you had to have a choreographer or a director or you didn’t work. Jerome Robbins had his dancers. Bob Fosse had his dancers.
Special people that he worked with all the time.
Yes. Because they developed their own style. And they invested in their dancers and their actors. And so Michael Bennett had to get his klan together. And this was very important for me that I finally found a home. Because I danced with Michael Kidd and Peter Gennaro, I had gone from show to show, but I didn’t have an anchor where I would do every commercial, every Broadway show. Anything that that choreographer did, I was part of the plan.
Industrial. Millken Show.
They used to do commercials. Well, Milliken was a fabric manufacturer and the commercials were like shows, lavishly staged.
Yes. They brought in all the choreographers. And you had to be in a Broadway Show. And we got the clothes and at the end of a Broadway run we got a bonus. And when they gave us the checks they used to say, “And here’s one for little Baayork Lee, and one for so and so”…and it was ohhh. money, money, money!
You are not the height of a typical Broadway dancer. That is even written into a Pulitzer Prize winning show. Your height. How did you manage that height issue? Was that a struggle?
Absolutely. I wanted to be Maria Tallchief (renowned ballerina). I wanted to be in the New York City Ballet. I had to throw away my point shoes when I found out I couldn’t be in the company. I was too short. I was competing with Tanaquil Le Clerq (renowned ballerina) and all of his (Balanchine’s) X- wives. (explosive laughter)
On A Chorus Line, initially, I was the assistant. And I would handle the tapes. And then we would go into the workshop with Joseph Papp and I was the assistant. And I would say, “He wants you to line up.” And everybody would line up. And I would say, “He wants you to put your resumes…” Then Michael realized that this wouldn’t work. So he became “The Voice.” So that was the first workshop. And then the second workshop, Michael called me and said, “I would like you to put your life in the show.” And I said “Who wants to know about a short, Asian girl who wanted to be a ballerina?” (someone from the audience answers) That’s exactly what Michael said. And from then on, I was no longer his assistant. I had a role in the show.
Didn’t you have a song that was cut from the show?
Yes. It was called “Confidence.” Back in the old days, Equity wanted to have at least one ethnic person in the show, maybe the orchestra also. So my competition in A Chorus Line was Richie because they could take one ethnic person. And he was African American. So Marvin Hamlisch wrote us a song called “Confidence.” I talked about Flower Drum Song and King and I and he talked about being in Hello Dolly with Pearl Bailey and we had to have confidence because we might not get the part. Only one ethnic person could. And then the song was cut. The show was 5 hours long. And we said, “Michael, we can’t cut the song because people need to know about these issues.” He said “I have bigger fish to fry. I need to put a Paul monologue in the show.”
Robert takes out one of the hats from the finale of A Chorus Line. And the original shoes.
It’s Thommie Walsh’s hat.
Baayork, I and Tommie wrote a book about A Chorus Line called On the Line, about the making of A Chorus Line. It’s on Amazon. When they first brought out that hat what did you think?
Well, we had our dance clothes on. And so that wasn’t special. And they said you’re going to wear the same thing, but in blue. And we were very uncomfortable. And the finale was going to be us working on the show, just us, then blackout working together. That’s the ending that Joseph Papp wanted. Michael Bennett had very different ideas. He wanted pizzazz, he wanted costumes, he wanted everything.
That’s the one moment you see the number of the show they’ve been auditioning for.
So when we saw the costumes we thought wow. I was in high heels, fishnets and the outfit was cut up to there.
Very sadly we lost Michael. And the person who’s been in charge and who’s carried the torch has been Baayork Lee who has directed the production in his place all these years. Is there a difference between Baayork Lee’s Chorus Line and Michael Bennett’s?
It’s always Michael Bennett’s Chorus Line. Opening Night downtown he came backstage and said, “It’s your show. You’re going to direct and choreograph this all over the world. But we were Off Broadway. And we didn’t know what this was. And he’s telling me all these things. Like you’re going around the world and you’ll do this and that. And we’re going, “Oh, yes, Michael. Oh yes.” And now forty-three years later I’m saying, Oh, yes, Michael. (applause) It’s Michael Bennett’s show. But A Chorus Line is about the people in the show. And every actor brings himself into the show. And that’s why we’ve evolved the show over the years because obviously we’ve gone to Chile and to Stockholm and Japan and Korea and the actors bring themselves to the rolls. And that’s what’s exciting about it.
Is it hard to direct the role of Connie Wong?
I just tell them me to watch me for five weeks. (laughter) She has to be feisty and high spirited and all those things.
I wanted to ask you about the Tony Award you won.
The National Asian Artist’s Project. I was thinking about forming a company for Asian artists for years and years. I was talking about it. Every time I did a show, we were doing King and I. And I asked Nina Zoie Lam, “Where are all these talented people going to go?” She said, They take their odds and ends jobs and wait for the next King and I or Miss Saigon.” And we did King and I again. Again, the questions came up. Where will all these people go? Steven, God Bless him he’s teaching tonight and couldn’t be here, said, “Let’s do it.” So finally Steven Eng, and Nina Zoie Lam and I founded the N.A.A.P. to give the talented Asian artists and Asians a platform to show their talents. And also to educate the young kids back in Chinatown where I grew up to go to their schools and give them the opportunity and give them a choice. They don’t have to go to Harvard. They can go to Broadway. (laughter, applause)
I’ve seen some of the shows. They don’t try to do Asian themed shows. They did Hello Dolly. They did Oklahoma. They did Carousel. And the amazing thing about it is that the nearly all Asian actors in it? Well, you’re not seeing Asian actors. You’re seeing Hello Dolly and Carousel.
They are talented, talented actors. And that’s the most important thing. (applause)
Of all the work Baayork has done, that is what she won her Tony for.
The evening closed with audience questions and photographs that Baayork took with friends. Indeed, no one was leaving the Bruno Walter Auditorium before they snatched the opportunity to congratulate and thank Baayork for her entertaining responses, love, enthusiasm and grace. It was a most memorable, uplifting evening. Below is a clip that Robert Viagas referred to as being a time capsule. It’s the rollicking number from Promises, Promises, “Turkey Lurky Time.”
Frances McDormand is a terrific actress. Her body of work encompasses both comedy and drama, both stage and film. Recently, she has been garnering awards for her work in Martin McDonagh’s searing film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Her “in-your-face” portrayal of a mother who stirs the fire under the police department of Ebbing, Missouri to get them to investigate her daughter’s brutal murder is both memorable and humorous. Indeed, in a matrix of powerful characters, who seek redemption and justice, the film is a tour de force between Mildred Hayes (McDormand), Sheriff Willoboughy (Woody Harrelson) and Jason Dixon (played by the brilliant Sam Rockwell. As Willogoughy and Dixon fight for the police department’s integrity and Mildred Hayes’ struggles to bring them to task for not effectively investigating her daughter’s rape and murder, the action deepens into a profound personal drama about redemption, love and solace of shared humanity and grace.
On Monday, April 23, 2012, The League of Professional Theatre Woman hosted an evening with Frances McDormand. Produced by Cheryl D. Raymond and funded by a grant from the Edith Meiser Foundation, the evening was presented in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women as part of their Oral History Series with the Public Library for the Performing Arts. Kudos went to Betty Corwin for producing the program. Mari Lyn Henry, a member of the League who was present at the time transcribed the interview that appears below between Frances McDormand and interviewer Sarah Ruhl. The interview took place at the Bruno Walter Auditorium to an enthusiastic audience. Salient excerpts appear below and give one an understanding of how the amazing McDormand evolved along her journey. We see the tip of the iceberg into how she was able to mine her empathy and emotions to evoke the self-torment and desperate love that Mildred Hayes has for her daughter in her award-winning, intensely human portrayal in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Sarah Ruhl: Tell us about playing Lady Macbeth in high school.
I was 14, not a particularly good student. But I had a really good English teacher in Monessen, Pennsylvania. She said it was time for us to read Shakespeare and she had us read Macbeth out loud. And then we did a scene after school for family and friends. And so I found myself alone on stage doing the sleepwalking scene. And I think it was the power of the words, the power of being 14, alone on stage, and looking out and seeing a lot of adults quiet and attentive.
Today would you ever want to play Lady Macbeth?
I have not done her. I don’t think it’s ever too late. Right now I am concerned about doing it because I don’t want to do a bad production of Macbeth. Maybe because it is a supporting role. I feel like I have been trained for that. I have been playing wives, girlfriends, mothers for years now. So I don’t want to be in a bad production of Macbeth. I (would) want a good director.
What is a good director?
How do you find one Sarah? It is really difficult. By going to see what is out there. I am looking for a director who can serve the work. It is different in the theater than it is in film. Actors are in a better position in film because eventually we get a lot of power. In the theater you are in charge of it once the production is open. That being said my last work was with Daniel Sullivan. I worked with him years ago in Sisters Rosensweig at Lincoln Center and we had a horrible time together and I didn’t want to work with him again and then we did a reading of a play by David Lindsay Abaire. David and Dan had worked together before. We got into the room and it was magic and I adored working with him and I think perhaps because it was a different play, a different time. I was concerned about working at MTC. I haven’t always worked on Broadway and am not really attracted to working on Broadway. Probably more interesting audiences I have worked for have been Off Broadway. My favorite place to work is at St. Ann’s Warehouse (Brooklyn). They have performance art and a lot of different disciplines have been held in that arena. The audiences don’t have expectations. They could be going to the theater or to the circus. I have been so impressed with them.
Explain the value of the ensemble.
That was what I was led to believe I was going to do. That is what I was trained to do, a reason to go into the theater. I went to four years of college. I went to drama school for three years at Yale and I was trained as a classical theater actress.The only choice was to come to New York and start working in the theater. My goal and assumption was to become a member of a theater company. We were on the dying end of a program that had started in our country where drama schools were made to train actors to go into regional theater companies. When I got out of school you could still be a member of the Guthrie Theatre which I eventually worked at. But people went straight from drama school and that’s why drama schools were invented and were funded like in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theatre. It became like Pillsbury out there. All those companies and sponsors were bringing executives from the west coast and they had to offer them something cultural. So these companies like Seattle Rep, Trinity Playhouse, the theaters in Chicago, all those great repertory theaters had to have cheap labor coming out as trained labor and that is what I chose to do.
I have to say my first job was in Trinidad in a play directed by Liviu Ciulei. Liviu was with the Wooster Group, a theater company which I have been involved in for the past thirty years. We have used the same actors over and over and they also write for us. The Wooster Group has taken me in like a stray little lamb and I now feel like I have a home with them. What is really great about that for me is that Kate Valk, who is the queen of the Wooster Group and premier actress of that company has been honing her craft and working with them for thirty years. We got to work together on To the Birdie, an adaptation of Racine’s Phedre (2002). That was ‘magic’ and what an ensemble should be about.
There is a tremendous humility when you talk about your work and working with other actors and I find that very rare. I have seen your work and it wasn’t the role that attracted me but your interpretation and what you brought to it. Tell us about your process and how you create a character.
When I came to New York, I was fortunate, coming out of a major drama school. I remember a casting agency experience. An older woman said to me, ‘Frances you would be a perfect pioneer woman. Unfortunately they are not making one. Okay, okay, okay,okay! Finding my type I realized at first, I was not very castable. But I had to pay my rent and didn’t want to do anything else. I had jobs like cashier or at restaurants, but I was really bad at all of them. I had to figure out how to make money. So there was a Pabst Blue Ribbon commercial, regional theater jobs and so on, all the things that young actors have to do, but then I started thinking about this.
I was always getting feedback like ‘You’re too this, you’re not enough that. You’re not enough his. You’re not pretty enough, tall enough, young enough, old enough. I started putting all of this together and decided I am going to be the one that is not pretty enough and I worked hard at that. In most storytelling, not as much in the theater, but in film, the theater is the only place for women of all ages and types. But to support myself outside the theater I took on some supporting roles in films and realized that all genres of films are male protagonist-based. Put a woman or women in these roles but (like Thelma and Louise) they die in the end. That film is ground breaking with two women. But all those male protagonist driven stories need women in supporting roles so I found I was good at that. I did girlfriends to some of the best leading male stars out there. Robert DeNiro, Michael Douglas, Gene Hackman. I’ve kissed them all but more importantly I made their characters more interesting. I was the off center, not very pretty, a little touchy—you know, mousy-brown-hair-uh-girlfriend. From a business angle, that is what I became.
In the theater I was very fortunate. My husband, Joel Coen, could afford to support me and believed in the theater. I could do theater whenever I could make that choice and not worry about the mortgage payment. It is not about the part, it is about the play.
What about achieving a balance between personal and professional lives? Can one lead a normal life?
One of my accomplishments was adopting a son and introducing my son to his father and my husband to his son. Your universe goes from being self-centered and self-absorbed. We wanted to rear a child our way. That meant living together and working together, avoiding publicity and keeping our private life private. No scandal.That is my life. I learned this from my mother.
Any roles you regret not playing?
Well if I didn’t do them, I didn’t do them. But there are a couple of roles. Orlando is one, Doubt is another. Well I have plenty of time to do Doubt but Cherry Jones was the actress for that role. So I didn’t give up anything.
You have played all the female characters in both Streetcar named Desire and Three Sisters. How did that come about?
With Three Sisters I wanted to be in a play by Chekhov. First time I played Olga when I was the youngest. My fourth job was playing Irina at the Guthrie directed by Liviu Ciulei. I was more suited to playing Irina at that time of my life and I was working with a wonderful cast. I played Masha at the McCarter for Emily Mann. It was an interesting treatment. I was Masha, Linda Hunt was Olga and Mary Stuart Masterson was Irina. And now I want to play Anfisa someday while I direct the play. Anfisa and the servants get what they want in that play. They know what they want, the sisters don’t.
I’m a transformative actor. I want to go inside a character and come out on the other side. Some actors are better at interpreting certain plays. I believe that I am a good interpreter (maybe not of Chekhov) but definitely of Tennessee Williams. I need a play that has a woman of my age and the parts that are my age are the parts that every actress is supposed to do. I never planned to do Blanche. I felt very successful as Stella, one of the best things I was able to work on as a young actor. I was given the opportunity by Michael Colgan who runs the Gate Theater to do Blanche in Dublin to an audience of extraordinary performers (you know every Irish man or woman can tell a great story) so when they come to the theater they are tough (Fran makes a face like them) and to feel the temperature of that audience every second is exciting. I had the opportunity to play Blanche which I am not suited for but the director wanted to do it against the traditional type. She was delicate but she was also a caretaker for the death of the plantation and the family who she had watched die in the family home. It was an interesting production. Everyone gets a role like this but you shouldn’t do more than one. That’s my opinion.
Sarah What do you think about plastic surgery?
What society has pressured men and women to do to capture eternal youth! I read an article about so many of these things that are being used—botox, ingesting into the system without any question. It hasn’t been long enough to know what effects it will have and what the emotional repercussions will be. When you are talking to someone who is stressed you feel their stress. If their brow furrows, your brow furrows because your empathetic nature is reaching out to what they need. If you can’t do that you can’t do that. Your neurological response sends a trigger to your brain to care about that other person, to care what they are going through to sit there long enough to read their expression and to find out what else is going on. If you can’t do that, you are not getting that signal. THAT IS PRETTY SCARY.
Literally I will walk down the street sometimes because we are walking around in a society that is absorbing without question people’s fear. One of the reasons that I haven’t done press or publicity for about ten years now in relationship to my work is the unspoken rule that we don’t talk about that. For me it is not the same thing as not talking about someone’s private life. If I have information about someone I have worked with who has a certain amount of celebrity, I would not share that with you. It is none of your business. I started feeling like I need to make a list and I need to start walking around with a sandwich board with a list of all the people I know who have somehow altered themselves for the service of something that they were perpetuating—I think we have to be careful.
Plastic surgery is the Greek mask of our generation.
I think that when someone ages beautifully, it is partly because of an internal condition and it can relate to what they have done from suffering or comes about as a result of suffering and I think that plastic surgery is an erasure of suffering.
What was your road trip like?
We took a road trip last summer and we hadn’t done that in a while. I love road trips and everything that goes along with them. One problem was that we didn’t get our AAA map guide. We could unfold it and figure out what road we wanted to take. Oh let’s go on that road instead. I had my iPAD with the little blue dot. I spent the entire time doing this (shows iPAD to face) watching the blue dot. ‘Oh my god where are we?’ We had to stop and get a map because we were not enjoying the trip. This is my map and I can pick where I want to go, what direction I want to take and it all started when I met my son 17 years ago.
QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE
Could you speak about Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day?
We made the movie in 2006 which is not as witty or naughty as the book. I wanted to see a project from beginning to end and I really loved the story. In the book, it is about a day in the life of Miss Pettigrew and the friendship she makes with a whore, a woman who is living with three men. But that doesn’t come out like that in the movie. She is simply being kept. The other character is the fashion designer. In the book these three characters form a friendship. We had a lovely director. It was his first feature. He was a lovely man but not a visionary. We connected but he didn’t feel as passionate as I did about this film. As the producer I knew it would be a challenge to sell the film with a middle-aged female. But we were fortunate to have this really wonderful actress (Amy Adams) and she looks great in lingerie. It turned out okay, but it wasn’t great.
Could you tell us about working with Lili Taylor in a play with students
We are both members of a company called the 52nd Street Project. It started 30 years ago near the PALeague across from the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Kids in the neighborhood go take boxing lessons at the PAL after school. Curt Dempster, the late artistic director of EST, sent Willie Reale, a young actor/playwright, to teach the kids playwriting. It helped give the kids an honest creative outlet. He founded this program which eventually became a non-profit organization. We have two boards in a newly developed building on the corner of 53rd and Tenth Ave. Kids have to take the playwrights course or write a play they can stage and perform in. They go away for a weekend and have a monitor help them write their plays. When they return, they cast from a group of adult professional actors with a dramaturg and a young director and they get to see their plays performed.
Do you ever get star treatment?
I am getting it right now. I don’t want to be a star or known as a star. That being said if I want to get a table at Cafe Luxembourg, Joel will have me call. I will use shamelessly whatever advantage my name gets for a restaurant reservation.
Could you talk about how we get more roles for women.
I think the most important thing is female writers. I spent years beating my head against the wall and I would say to my husband, “Joel why can’t you write better roles for women?” Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and Nicole Holofcener write great films with behavior and character and have a lot of trouble getting their films made. Here is what is going to be good. When the actor who is also on the board of the 52nd St. Project has a company who is going to liaison with the money market world for the goal of making money and to get them to invest in their film and money into female-centric films whether written by women, directed by women with a good business plan—a terrific spreadsheet with what has been made, what needs to be done, how it can be done, take a chance on us. That will help. It is a business. Theater is not it. I can stand up to do a sleepwalking scene right now and that is theater or on a sidewalk, but unfortunately it won’t raise money. I am trying to raise four million dollars for a film which I think is a lot of money. but in terms of films, the last epic film cost producers 300 million dollars so 4 million is nothing. But they won’t give it to you for a nice family-oriented film.
The League of Professional Theatre Women’s Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma again have successfully collaborated with Betty Corwin, who produces the New York Public Library’s Oral History Interviews, to present an enlightening, joyous evening with one of Broadway’s hottest playwrights, Paula Vogel. In conversation with Linda Winer, long-standing theater critic of Newsday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright discussed her life, her work and the journey of her play Indecent from conceptualization through development, regional theater production and Off Broadway right up to its current run at Broadway’s Cort Theatre. The immutably themed Indecent has been nominated for a Tony Award in the category of Best Play. It is not only a must-see, it is a must-see two or three times over for its metaphors, themes and sheer genius.
Paula Vogel, a renowned professor of playwriting (Brown-two decades, currently Eugene O’Neill Professor of Playwriting (adjunct) at Yale School of Drama, Playwright-in-residence at Yale Rep) generously shares her time and dynamism with global communities. She conducts playwriting “boot camps,” and playwriting intensives with various organizations, theater companies and writers around the world. What is smashing is that Vogel not only is a charming, vibrant raconteur, she is an ebullient, electricity-filled advocate of the artist within all of us.
In her philosophy and approach toward theater, we are all story tellers, we are all playwright,s and we must cultivate the citizen artist within to insure that the theater arts are accessible and relevant to all cultures and populations, not just the “haves.” What she discussed about the current state of theater arts past and present was profound and prescient in response to why it took her so long to get to Broadway. Vogel reminded the audience that in the 1980s there were about 50 innovative, theme-rich plays on Broadway exemplified by The Elephant Man and M Butterfly. Such plays dealt with difficult issues that brought audiences together in a profound communal experience. Currently in 2017 there are a handful of productions that effect this. Commercialism has enveloped Broadway.
Hence, Vogel expressed a motivating joy that perhaps we should all entertain. We should roll up our sleeves to fight the good fight against philistine commercialism and consumerism and Byzantine gender and racial bias. Such dampening restrictions and discriminations parade behind the notion that film and theater are essentially liberal mediums. Vogel introduced the thought that they are the opposite. To her way of thinking there is a profligate conservatism akin to that of corporate America that hampers theater innovation and prevents provocative theater production to readily make it to Broadway.
However, she did affirm that the next generation of playwrights, whether older or younger, are seeing an explosion of work featured Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway which is where a lot of the innovation and experimentation has found a home. That aspect of the theater is thriving and in the upcoming years we can expect an elegance of defining work that will have an illuminating impact on Broadway.
A believer of reverse capitalism, that supply increases demand, Vogel’s ideas and effervescence are contagious. She “spreads the word” and brings the community of theater wherever she visits, from Austin, Texas to Sewanee, Shanghai Theatre Academy in China, from Minneapolis to the neighborhood near the Vineyard Theatre in New York City. And together she and her audience of all ages across the communities (from 15-90), of seasoned writers and playwrights and neophytes alike, experiment, grow and enjoy writing and reading plays during her intensives.
Her current playwriting boot camps (they used to take a week to do) to make live theater a communal experiment much like its original creative form as a social, cathartic experience resonate today. They make complete sense especially at a time when artistic shallowness manifested in some entertainment forms has achieved a noxious superfluidity that really needs to die a death (my thoughts).
Some of the highlights of Paula Vogel’s discussion with Linda Winer, who was a wonderful interviewer, revolved around how she conducts her “bootcamps,” culminating in bakeoffs to spur on a fountain of creativity. In response to how her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Learning How to Drive was produced Off Broadway but never made the transfer to Broadway, she repeated an incisive comment from the past, “How often do the girls get to play with the big expensive toys?”
Now that Vogel’s Indecent and colleague Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat also transferred to Broadway from the Public Theater, Vogel laughingly acknowledged that for both of them, the expensive toys are “a lot of fun.” Vogel stated that when one acclimates to the house size, whether the play is in a 60 seat theater or a 200 seat theater, the effort and the intensity of the work process is the same. Vogel joked, “The only difference is I’m not sleeping on a sofa bed.” Indeed, with Indecent, Vogel has graduated to a mattress and a bed, “more expensive toys.”
Vogel discussed the evolution of Indecent which was fascinating. In her twenties she had read The God of Vengeance, by Sholem Asch, the play upon which Indecent revolves. She was mesmerized by the transcendent love scene between the pious Jewish father’s daughter and one of the prostitutes who works for him in the brothel below their apartment. When the world renowned Yiddish play was translated into English and brought to Broadway in 1923, the cast, director and producer were arrested for obscenity, even though some of the love scenes were cut. The play received a greater following and lasted 133 performances, but there was a trial after the play closed. The Court of Appeals overturned the convictions of the director and producer in 1925.
Twenty years after Vogel read Asch’s play, she learned that Rebecca Taichman was attempting to direct the obscenity trial for her thesis. Vogel learned of her work and pronounced her a genius. Vogel was inspired when she received a call from Taichman to collaborate on a play about the events surrounding the trial of Asch’s play. During their conversation Vogel had a lightening-like vision seeing a scene from the play which she stated “always happens” (it happened with Learning How to Drive) when she knows she can write a particular play. Having read up on Yiddish Theater, she told Taichman, “I think this is a play way beyond an obscenity trial.” Taichman was thrilled at her enthusiasm. Vogel admitted that this was around nine years and 40 drafts ago.
They workshopped at Sundance Theatre Lab (2013) and after many drafts and other workshops they put it on at Yale Repertory for the first time with the music, choreography and staging. Vogel joked the “flop sweat” was prodigious. Taichman’s and Vogel’s shirts were sticking to their backs. Since then it has moved on and was performed at La Jolla Playhouse in Fall 2015 and in May 2016 was produced at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City.
There is such enthusiasm for the production since Yale (2015) that the ensemble, the musicians, the stage manager and the assistants have remained together. As Vogel says, “We’ve all moved together as one.” This never happens with a production that transfers to Broadway. If it does, it is extremely rare. Vogel laughingly joked they have become a family. When two children were born during the evolution of Indecent, Vogel commented she has become like a godmother to both.
What a memorable evening! Vogel is about fun, about community about connections, about living and creating whatever comes next. That spontaneity and flexibility is like jumping off into the darkness, knowing you will land on soft ground at sunrise. The moment you think about the jump, you stop yourself. Vogel is not about stopping. She’s there already and beckoning us to join her. Why not?