“Circles in theater rise faster than any individual can,” says Paula Vogel. That sentence lands with such clarity and profundity, it sounds like a line from one of her plays. But no. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, now nominated for her second Tony Award in as many Broadway outings, is simply punctuating a lesson she instills in her playwriting students. A teacher for 46 years, Vogel frames the craft of playwriting as a collaborative process. “I espouse that we should form circles of support with our peers,” she says. Because: Circles in theater rise faster than any individual can.
“I also believe that people enter the room as my students but leave the room as my colleagues,” she adds, “and my hope has been that they get produced on Broadway before I do.”
How about concurrently? Because the 2021-2022 Broadway season produced three generations of students and teachers — and the resulting Tony nominations honored them all: Vogel for Best Revival of a Play (“How I Learned to Drive”), her former student Lynn Nottage for Best Play (“Clyde’s”) and Best Book of a Musical (“MJ”) and their former student Christina Anderson for Best Book of a Musical (“Paradise Square”).
“The fact that we are all present as three generations, to me, indicates a healthy system,” says Vogel. “This year I felt that Broadway was the most exciting in terms of representation and a wide healthy spectrum of voices. Not all productions were sheer entertainment, sheer spectacle. From Antoinette [Chinonye] Nwandu [‘Pass Over’] to ‘SIX,’ Broadway presented thoughtful plays and bracing choreography and many generations, including our brilliant predecessors: Alice Childress [‘Trouble in Mind’] and Ntozake Shange [‘for colored girls…’].”
“Hopefully it affirms and confirms there’s no singular voice that should occupy our stages,” says Anderson. “Women playwrights are out here creating dynamic, important, engaging work across class, race and generations.”
That generational spectrum, in particular, reflects a cognizant effort on the part of seasoned writers to foster early-career colleagues as well as the intentional maintenance of those connections and learning relationships sustained over long careers. Though many consider playwriting a solitary pursuit, all three of these women are part and product of the mentorship that propels the craft and profession.
In fact, Nottage says Vogel is the reason she became a playwright.
“Lynn Nottage entered my office with keen questions and a photograph,” Vogel recalls of her first year teaching at Brown University. “She had found a photo in the archives of African circus people performing in Berlin in 1939. Who were these people? What happened to them during the war? Did they get out? I simply looked at her and said, ‘Please write this play.’” (She did. “Circus People” was Nottage’s first.)
“Up until then I didn’t really think there was room in the industry for a voice like mine,” says Nottage, who, of course, became a paragon of the art. She is the first and only woman to win the Pulitzer for Drama twice and now the only playwright to be nominated for Best Play and Best Book of a Musical in the same season. Vogel is a groundbreaker in her own right: a queer, Jewish woman writing provocative plays.
Then comes Anderson — a former Van Lier fellow, three-time Blackburn nominee and inaugural Harper Lee Award winner — who “dazzled” Vogel with her first play. For Nottage, Anderson’s work “was surreal and adventurous and didn’t adhere to the traditional paradigms of what Black folks were writing about at the time.”
Anderson credits Vogel and Nottage for preparing her with a litany of skills — everything from shaping worlds to economic language, from advocating for yourself in a rehearsal room to collaborating with actors. She also inherited their practice of mentorship, as she now works with new writers.
More than ensuring the pipeline of talent, these three playwrights evolve the art through reciprocal mentorship; it creates the conditions for excellence and innovation.
“I consult with Lynn and Christina often, not only about writing, but for advice about collaboration with artistic directors, directors and actors,” says Vogel. “Their influence is there in every play I write: It takes years for me to think about and incorporate a response to their work. Christina makes me think about how to portray history in a personal and vivid way ([as with] the brilliant “Good Goods”), and Lynn has given me a palate of structures ([with] “Por’Knockers” and “Intimate Apparel”). Both give me models of grace in the theater.”
Practical models have also been instrumental in climbing the ladder. “Theater is, in many ways, very opaque,” says Anderson. “It’s so important to have someone who’s been further along in the trenches to encourage you, guide you, warn you, share the work of ancestors, fellow travelers. Mentorship keeps the boat of creation steady!”
It also keeps the individual creators steady in rougher waters. The last time Nottage and Vogel were Tony-nominated together — each for their first time in 2018, for “Sweat” and “Indecent,” respectively — Nottage confides that she needed Vogel’s “hand to hold.”
“At that moment, we didn’t feel that invited into the club,” Nottage says. “And the fact that we were there together was truly significant. And I think it made me feel safe. And made me feel a lot braver.”
Bravery is a requirement of the gig. Each of these women has faced the blank page, asked smart questions, written crackling language — and braved this gate-kept industry — to bring us their courageous works. They hold up mirrors that can be difficult to peer in: from an uncle’s abusive relationship with his niece in “How I Learned to Drive” to how we ostracize and erect barricades for those who have served time in “Clyde’s”; from the problematic yet game-changing King of Pop in “MJ” to the desperate immigrants longing for peace and the African-Americans fighting for freedom in “Paradise Square.” These writers have rendered complex worlds, created nuanced characters and penned dynamic stories that transport audiences.
As Vogel says of Nottage and Anderson: “Their plays make the audiences communities.” Look who their teacher is. It cannot be merely coincidence that theatergoers witnessing the works of all three form communities just as these playwrights have.
If this season’s Tony nominations are any indication, playwriting driven by mentorship leads to connective art and history-making success. “I think we are where we are because we are leaning on each other and because we are part of a circle,” Nottage continues. “And unlike our male counterparts, we’re immensely supportive of each other and looking for ways to amplify and uplift each other.”