Shaping the Room: Christina Anderson and Paula Vogel on Teaching, Theatre, and Making a Life
For the past several years, I’ve been teaching playwriting at SUNY Purchase with Christina Anderson. She and I have spent countless hours together on the Hutchinson River Parkway commuting to work, talking (and laughing) about all matters of life, writing, and teaching. Christina was recently appointed interim director of Brown’s MFA Playwriting Program, and while I’m going to miss her, she’s passing along to me a number of her students and classes, so in many respects we’ll still be in conversation. The same may prove true for Christina at Brown, as she steps into a program that was created and helmed for so many years by her friend and former teacher, Paula Vogel.
These changes of the guard got me thinking about the intersection and divergence of teaching and playwriting, and how that affects a woman’s life. I also began to consider the ephemeral, transformative conveyance down the generations from teacher to student. I’ve been looking at my own work in the university and in theater, and noticing how, even though I’m enmeshed in these institutions right now, I sometimes feel like an outsider looking in. This made me think about places where playwrights do feel they belong, and where they choose to work. With all of this in mind, I invited Christina Anderson and Paula Vogel to join me for a late afternoon lunch in June to talk.
I started by asking Christina about juggling full-time teaching and full-time playwriting.
Christina Anderson: It’s funny because I didn’t think I’d like teaching, and it was actually you [Paula] who said, “I think you should teach.” And I was like, “I have no interest in this, Paula.” And you kept pressing, “I think you should do it.” And I ended up liking it. A lot. So the teaching for me has been a surprising gift. I get to talk about the things that I like about theater and teach plays that speak to me. So even when the playwriting is super frustrating, I still go once a week and talk to people about the stuff that I love.
Peggy Stafford (Rail): Have you found seeds or inspiration for your own work in the classroom? Any crossover between the teaching and playwriting?
Anderson: No, I mean usually the only thought process I’m involved in in the classroom is guiding them: Did this work? If it didn’t, then why? So, I’m not really in playwriting mode. When I teach Advanced Playwriting, I talk about the business a little bit, and I tell them the horror stories or the don’t-repeat-this stories—but I’ve never been in a situation where I thought: Oh, that would be a good play. I’m so busy teaching them how to talk about plays, articulate what they see. I’m also keeping track of time, so it’s more like stage managing or running a ship.
Rail: So would you say teaching is more like a day job?
Anderson: No, it doesn’t feel like a day job. I mean, it definitely pays the rent. It has transactional outcomes. Like right now, I’m living off teaching. But when I can see somebody’s growth over the semester, or when we read a play like How I Learned to Drive, and I see their faces glow and the ah-ha moments… I mean, I definitely need to compartmentalize; my weekends, for instance, are usually playwriting—but to see the students grow physically, mentally, psychologically, and socially over four years is remarkable.
Paula Vogel: I would say that the difficult thing—and the blessing for me—is that neither the playwriting nor the teaching was a day job. Which means they were both emotionally intense, and they led to emotional exhaustion at different times. For a long, long, while I could duck out of the politics of forming a program in the university by saying, “Oh I’m so sorry, I’m a playwright,” or “I gotta go do my play!” And then I would duck out of the politics of the theater and the frustration and anger of that by saying, “I’m going back and teaching.” So there’s a balancing act, I think, where you can get some gratification in both.
The great, fun thing for me—and also what kept me going—was that I felt like an outsider in both fields. And that made any gains kind of a joy. Like a little secret political joy if I got the Provost to give in on this, or I got into a theater company that had shut doors. And there’s been an incredible gratitude in seeing writers that I’ve loved and worked with getting into places. I’ve felt like, “Okay I don’t have to grind my teeth anymore. So-and-so and so-and-so are at Lincoln Center.” And I go and see their plays and as far as I’m concerned, I’m at Lincoln Center.
Rail: Talk a little more about this “outsiderness.”
Vogel: I think it’s as much a class thing as it is a gender thing. There’s a part of me that very much feels, and I’ll just say it, that I’m a gutter rat. I really had a hard time of it when I first went to school—a real chip on my shoulder. But one of the things about being able to teach playwriting is that you reduce your own “outsiderness.” There was a time when I would go into the English Department at Brown, and the discussion was about Derrida. Someone said—and I’m not projecting this, “Who let in the clown in the baggy pants who’s doing theater?” There are some people who just think that we should not be buried in church ground—to this day, I mean. It’s an attitude that tracks all the way back.
There’s a profound belief I still have that education should be making a level field for class and race and gender. I deeply, deeply believe this. There were times I just wore out the welcome mat as I tried to do that at the university. I would say, “Come on, let’s talk about financial aid!” Or, “Hey, I never learned Latin, can you translate what’s on the university seal?” I was the squeaky wheel. But at a certain point there were no more games to play. You just run out of games. So I began to think about how I could put limits on the teaching time and perhaps not teach at a university.
Rail: But when you were working full-time at the university it paid the bills and gave you insurance.
Vogel: The work gave me the insurance which—yes, I was a severe asthmatic and there was no possibility that I could be without.
Rail: You couldn’t just be a playwright.
Vogel: Yeah, I couldn’t be without medical benefits. And, you know, at the time that I changed from the three jobs we all do in New York to teaching, my partner at the time came down with MS, at which point I thought: “You know what? Teaching sounds really good.” And I knew I loved it. I loved it for all the same reasons I still love it. I think it’s thrilling to have minds in the classroom who may be biologists or in Comp Lit. Or to go hear a lecture by a writer you don’t know, or go to the film series. And for the places that I felt Brown provided when there was crisis. To be with the writers in the middle of one of our bake offs1 on 9/11—I called everybody and said, “Let’s cancel it,” and they said “No, we want to finish our bake offs now.” So in the morning there were all these bake off plays responding to 9/11. Where do you get that? The questions we have now in universities are the same questions we have in theaters and the same questions we have in politics: How corporate are we going to be? Are we going to fight for museums, art, libraries to be open and accessible to all? Are we corporatizing votes so that voting is no longer accessible to all? How much further are we going to go?
I think a great place to fight the fight is actually in the university. Because for everyone that you support who gets through—they’re going to carry on that discussion, that fight, twenty or thirty years from now.
Rail: What about you, Christina? Do you feel this “outsider” thing?
Anderson: Yeah, it’s interesting because at Purchase the students are from such diverse economic backgrounds. And the plays that I teach them are by people of color, by queer folk, and working class people. And I don’t usually say: Hey, this is a black play that I’m teaching you all now. I talk about why the play is good. And I talk about why the writer is amazing. And then people end up wanting to read more by Aishah Rahman. So I guess that’s how I break that outsider thing. I shape the room to how I want it to be.
In theater, I’ve come to this weird space in which theaters that want to work with me are working with me. I don’t know if something is going to happen with the other ones. I’m still going to write what I’m writing. I’m still interested in the plays I’m interested in. I feel like I’m still in progress in a lot of ways.
Academically, I had to navigate a lot. Being at Brown as an undergraduate was the first time I really lived anywhere other than Kansas. And before that I transitioned from a public, almost all-black high school to a private, mostly all-white, super wealthy school—that was huge navigation. But I actively tried to find community. And it just so happened that I found the theater kids at that private school, and I guess we kind of united over our dorkiness. [Laughter.] Right? I’m actually still really good friends with one. He and I just went to see Barbra Streisand together. [Laughter.]
Vogel: You know, I’m thinking all of this may also be so generational. My Southern mother and her relatives, they didn’t want me to apply to college. They kept saying: “Don’t let that girl apply to college! She’s never going to get married! College will ruin her!” And that was really the attitude. And then I managed to get a scholarship at Bryn Mawr. And my great-aunt wouldn’t get out of the car when they dropped me off. You know, I think the notion of being a woman in theater writing plays in 1970 was pretty strange. And I ended up teaching at Brown because it turns out that the woman who became my wife and this really brilliant dancer, Julie Strandberg, and another woman in anthropology sued Brown University because there were no tenure-track women [at the time]. There were two or three in the entire university. And they successfully took Brown University to court. And as a result they had to interview me.
Rail: It’s true, generationally-speaking, there are many years between you two. And the university and the theater have shifted and evolved.
Anderson: Yeah, for me, the first playwrights that I met as a graduate student at Brown looked relatively happy and healthy—among them were Sarah Ruhl and Bridget Carpenter. I thought, these women seem happy, and they’re writing, and, you know, they have all their teeth. [Laughter.]
Vogel: Yeah they have all their teeth!
Anderson: They’re walking upright. And I thought, yeah, this playwriting thing might be something I can do. Paula created this kind of environment, this atmosphere. And it reached me.
Rail (to Paula): Can you talk about the environment?
Vogel: You want to make sure, as best you can: Are people going to feel safe? Are they going to be able to find a community in the town? Are they going to be able to find friends and culture? I mean you don’t have total control. But I used to take everybody to the butch femme bar—I think it’s closed now—down in the Factory District. They were older butch femme lesbians, and I remember Adam Bock getting out on the dance floor. And they were absolutely thrilled. They told us: “Hey, we love your playwrights!” It was one of the most welcoming working class bars in Providence.
And something I really loved was the way that I grew the program by convincing the Provost that I would train first year graduate playwrights, pedagogically, to teach Intro to Playwriting. I said, “If they teach, you give them their tuition and a stipend.” And it took a little while to convince my colleagues in the Theater Department and Creative Writing to let us do that. But the truth of the matter is, as I knew, in my first year at Brown I was teaching Advanced Theater, 100 students in a contemporary drama class, Graduate Seminar, and producing the New Play Festival.
Rail: So you had no time to write.
Vogel: I had no time to write. But I knew what would happen, which is that the second that the graduate students started teaching undergraduates, the demand for playwriting would blossom. So instead of one class, we had to add three Intro classes, and we had to add an Intermediate class, and the synergy of Sarah Ruhl studying with Nilo Cruz, and Nilo Cruz studying with Christina Anderson....
Rail (to Anderson): What are your first recollections of meeting Paula?
Anderson: I remember my first day in workshop and [to Vogel] I heard you speak. I had seen her but I was too nervous to talk to her. It was my senior year in undergraduate at Brown, and she emailed me and said, “I read your play. Can you come sit in on the graduate workshop?” And I thought it was a prank email. Or that there was another Christina Anderson on campus.
[to Vogel] Watching you give feedback was amazing. I was terrified and thrilled and in awe of the other writers in the room. Humbled. It was a hella group of writers. I learned how supportive workshops could be, that you can give the necessary feedback without it being brutal or cold—and always in service of the play. It took me a long time to get even close to that [ability to give feedback]. Because, yeah, I think it’s about the people, but I also think it’s about the room.
Vogel: It is the room. You know, the frustration I always had is that I admitted singular voices, ones that I didn’t entirely understand. I mean, literally, my hair goes up on my arms, and I think, “That’s it. That’s it. I gotta read their other plays, I gotta know this voice.” But because it’s so new, there’s no way that I can talk about it. So I’d always say: “Don’t listen to me, I may be wrong. I’m trying just to show you the process of my brain trying to catch up.” So if you have the room—and there are quicker, younger minds who are more culturally attuned to the zeitgeist—they’re going to come in and pick it up. So literally the room gives a vocabulary to process the work. Which I find incredibly exciting.
Rail (to Vogel): What about when you first read a Christina Anderson play?
Vogel: Well, we all know this. Something’s on the page, right? It’s not like you have to develop someone’s voice before she’s there—it was like, “Boom!”
Now, this is an interesting thing, because I actually don’t know why I choose specific plays written by the writers I work with. What happens is over three, four, five years—for me, there’s a thumbprint, there’s a voice of a playwright for me—and I find myself writing plays, my plays, where I want to leave a little Valentine. For example, there’s a little Sarah Ruhl Valentine in Indecent, which is the stage direction, “Sholem Asch shows Lemml America.” And to me that’s, I don’t know why, it’s a Sarah Ruhl stage direction.
Rail (to Anderson): Talk about Brown. Next steps.
Anderson: You know, when I was offered this position I asked you, Paula, “Do you think I can do this?” And you said, “Yes, you can. These students are your colleagues. People working in the field. And you’ll be spending your time talking about the field and about writing plays.” This was very helpful to me. And I’ve been in contact with the students, and the world is small—I know so-and-so, and I’ve worked with so-and-so. I’m just going on a journey. I’m going to meet their work, and we’ll to listen each other, and listen to the work. And the great thing about the group that I’ve learned so far is that they take care of each other.
You know, with my undergraduates at Purchase, I do an exercise on the first day where we all write a play together. And then I say, “Okay, everyone has at least written one play. Now we’re all in the same space.” And I got that from you, Paula—creating that space. And I’ll take that with me when I go to Brown. And all the other gifts you’ve given me.
- A responsive playwriting marathon-form created, in part, by Vogel.
Indecent, written by Paula Vogel, created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman, directed by Rebecca Taichman, runs through August 6 on Broadway at the Cort Theater (138 W. 48th Street, Manhattan).