Is Playwriting Teachable? (the example of Paula Vogel)
Less is more. A pen on top and pencil on bottom pointing at each other against a orange background

People often ask me if I think playwriting is teachable. Making a soufflé, tap-dancing, changing a tire, or making stained glass are all teachable activities—and making a play is not so different from making a soufflé, tap-dancing, changing a tire and making stained glass all at the same time, but on paper. Why then, do many see the writing of plays as such a mysterious activity that it cannot be taught? Is it because our culture has such a high regard for individualism that it has such a low regard for teachers? Almost everything in the culture is taught, one way or another, but for originality, which cannot be taught, and is therefore judged to have the most value. And yet, in most art forms, the originality of the individual is assumed, whereas the form transmitted through history is taught, and teachable. For example: This is Middle C. This is how to point your toes. This is how to sharpen your pencil (which I don’t take lightly. I remember when a drawing teacher actually showed me how to sharpen my pencil properly when I was twenty and it made all the difference. But I digress.) 

Is playwriting teachable? 

Rather than trying to answer the question in an abstract way, I’d like to tell a story. Paula Vogel begins How I Learned to Drive:“Sometimes, in order to teach a lesson, you have to tell a story.” 

And so. I met Paula Vogel at Brown University when I was a junior. I was twenty. I had just returned from a leave of absence after my father’s death. I was very close to him, and he’d died of cancer, in Chicago, the summer of my sophomore year. The first two years of college were a difficult blur, spent mainly studying, and racing back to Chicago on a plane at the first opportunity to see my father. He was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer during Thanksgiving of my freshman year. I thought about transferring to the University of Chicago, and even obtained an application, but my father would have none of it. He wanted everything to be as “normal” as possible, and didn’t want me to live at home among bedpans. Of course nothing was normal, but I tried to be as normal a nineteen year old as I knew how, while thinking of death and illness much of the time. I think my heart was broken. I wonder if my father knew somehow that I couldn’t leave Providence before I’d met Paula Vogel, or my future husband. 

At any rate, I took a semester off from Brown after my father died and spent it back home in Chicago, teaching special education classes by day. At night, my mother and sister and I shared the same house, but each in a private house of grief that could not be shared. I came back to Providence the spring of my junior year and was having trouble concentrating on my studies. It was hard for me to read, and hard for me to write. I lived in a blue house on Hope Street. It seemed dark much of the time; the light itself seemed darker, though the seasons were as they always had been in Providence – in winter a damp cold that got inside the bones, and in spring all flowering trees. Regardless of the trees, it looked dark to me. And then I met Paula Vogel. She was teaching my advanced playwriting class. 

I could talk about the content of what Paula taught me. All of her students (and these include Nilo Cruz, Quiara Hudes, Lynn Nottage, Dan Le Franc, Jordan Harrison, Bridget Carpenter, to name a few) speak the same language of Russian formalism (how to make the familiar seem strange) and plasticity (the visual landscape of the stage and how it’s created on the page) and stage directions that are impossible to stage. But what strikes me most when I remember Paula’s teaching is her presence as much as the content of her teachings. I think in this country we have an obsession with content and curriculum, all the while devaluing presence and proximity, which are two teaching values hard to describe or quantify (or, indeed, teach). Paula has a tremendous gaze, a tremendous listening power and the most intelligent curiosity of anyone I have ever met. She took me seriously.

And so when I was in her class and told her that I was having trouble writing about the things that mattered most to me, Paula gazed at me. She understood grief, and she knew that I’d just lost my father. She said, “If someone asked me to write a play about my brother Carl who died of AIDS, I’d never have gotten out of bed. Instead, I wrote about a kindergarten teacher taking a trip through Europe, which became The Baltimore Waltz. And I was able to write about my brother.” Then I remember her looking at me with that uncanny penetrating gaze she has, the gaze of a brilliant scientist making a diagnosis, but with a non-scientific laser-like empathy, and she said, “Write a play in which a dog is the protagonist.”

 “Okay,” I said. And I did. That was a play called Dog Play and it was the first thing I was able to write after my father died. It viewed his illness and death through the eyes of the family dog.

I found in Paula’s approach to playwriting a great deal of pleasure, and a great deal of play. It was almost too pleasurable, too decadent. I always thought I’d be a poet, which gave me pleasure, but a solitary ascetic kind of pleasure, not the kind that makes you laugh out loud or stay up late into the night with others. And so I thought her class was a wonderful diversion, and that I would now go back to my chosen path, to be a scholar, and write a slim volume of poetry every once in a while. 

I went to study in England for a year, and came back a little more mended (baths, tea, grass, and daffodils, I suppose) to my senior year at Brown. I asked Paula to be my thesis advisor. I wanted to write a thesis on “Representations of the actress in the Victorian novel.” Paula said: “No I cannot advise that thesis. But if you write a play, I will advise your thesis.” I felt an almost strangled joy in my chest. I told Paula that I did have an idea for a play. “What is it?” she asked with that characteristic gleam in her eye.

 I stammered, “what about a play where this town is playing the Passion Play year after year, and the guy who always has to play Pontius Pilate really wants to play the role of Jesus, played by his cousin?” 

I remember again that time slowed down as Paula looked at me in her uncanny way and said: “I think you should write that play.” (How many plays has Paula help conjure into existence, I wonder, by saying to another playwright: I think you should write that play? Hundreds or thousands, most likely.)

And so I did write that play, under her guidance. It took me twelve years to finish, and it was called Passion Play. My senior year, I met with Paula every week at Café Zog on Wickenden Street. Over coffee and a cookie, she would read my new ten pages, and she would tell me every book I needed to read, and always, she named the exact book I needed to read at the exact time I needed to read it – a kind of psychic superhero librarian. I devoured medieval theater and German expressionism. I finished writing the first act of Passion Play

Knowing that I began my writing life as a rather retiring poet, Paula treated me with much tenderness and guile, sneaking my play into the New Plays Festival at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, along with plays by her graduate students. (This is one of Paula’s chosen teaching methods, which she fully admits. She attempts to make students addicted to the actual dust backstage, that barely-there stuff you have to inhale.) I was elated and terrified. I never thought my little one act would ever be up on its feet. I wrote it only for pleasure, and for Paula, and for the drawer. She assigned me a wonderful director, Peter DuBois, for my very first production. Big Nozzo made the fish puppets. Peter got identical twin girls to play Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers.

 The night of the opening, my mother flew into town from Chicago to see the play. We were driving down the hill towards Trinity Repertory Company to opening night when we were blindsided, hit by a car going very fast on Hope Street. I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt in the back seat and I hit my head and blacked out. Before I blacked out, I remember thinking: this is how death comes, quickly. 

I woke up and my mom thought maybe we should go to the hospital for an MRI and I said: are you kidding let’s go to my play we’re almost late. So we went to my play and there was a standing ovation and I remember feeling such an out of body sense of rapture seeing the play in three dimensions with actors acting and lights lighting and people watching. I knew then that I would spend my life doing this and not look back. (I got an MRI the following day. It was normal. It did not register the change of vocation.)

When I reflect on all the things Paula taught me, among them, Aristotelian form, non-Aristotelian form, bravery, stick-to-it-ive-ness, how to write a play in 48 hours, how to write stage directions that are both impossible to stage and possible to stage: the greatest of these is love. Love for the art form, love for fellow writers, and love for the world. 

It is fitting that she and her wife, the eminent biologist and feminist theorist Anne Fausto-Sterling, got frocked for the day and married my husband and me. My husband was a student of Anne’s. After years of my mother looking at my course selections and finding only courses in the humanities, and saying to me: “Please, just take one history of science course so that you’re educated,” I married a historian of science turned doctor. 

(I never did take a history of science course. My husband (long before he was my husband) and I were both in my beloved David Konstan’s class “Ancient Tragedy and its Influence” freshman year, but it took seven more years for us to actually meet, when we were in graduate school. My husband, Tony, had done an independent study with Anne in the history of science as an undergraduate before going to medical school. Paula and Anne claimed that they used to talk about us over the dinner table before we met, and when we did start dating, they said they held their breath. It seemed fitting that two teachers who were both so life-changing and transformative for each of us, would bind us in front of a community. 

After we were married, and as I made my first forays into the professional world, it was always Paula I would call first with personal and theater-related dilemmas. She was one of the first people I called when, slightly panicked, I found out I was pregnant with twins. 

“Come to Cape Cod for a week,” Paula said, “We’ll take care of you.” 

On Cape Cod, Paula entertained my big girl Anna with making Kleenex into puppets. Anne grilled fish. We swam in ponds. This was the house that Paula had taken me and two other graduate students to, years ago. She had told us to look out on the deck at the view of the Atlantic Ocean and say to ourselves, “This is what playwriting can buy.” (She bought the house with the proceeds from How I Learned to Drive.) 

Now, pregnant with twins and terrified for my writing life, I sat and looked out at the same blue. Anne is a great naturalist and bird-watcher, and a great many birds flew over. In a quiet moment I asked Paula, “Will I ever write again?” 

She gave me her penetrating gaze, which I think is almost a form of hypnosis, a summoning. If I were a soldier, Paula would be a general, coaxing me into battle. She said: “Of course you will.” 

We named our twins Hope and William. Hope Street and Williams Street was the intersection in Providence where my husband and I met. And where we grew up. And that is most of my story. 

So, back to the abstract question: is playwriting teachable? Of course it’s not teachable. And of course it is teachable. It lives in a paradox. It is as teachable as any other art form, in which we are dependent on a shared history and on our teachers for a sense of form, inspiration, example, and we are dependent on ourselves alone for our subject matter, our private discipline, our wild fancies, our dreams. 

The question of whether playwriting is teachable begets other questions, like: is devotion teachable? Is listening teachable? Is a love of art and a willingness to give your life over to art teachable? I believe that these things are teachable mostly by example, and in great silences. There is the wondrous noise of the classroom, the content, the liveliness of the teachings themselves, the exchange of knowledge, and then there is the great silence of relation. Of watching how great people live. And of their silently communicating: “You too, with your Midwestern reticence, can go out into the great world and write. And when we fail, we’ll have some bourbon, and we’ll laugh.” This is all part of the teaching of playwriting over time, and it’s unbounded by the classroom. Just as love is unbounded by time.

 I find myself thinking of Paula a great deal now that I am teaching playwriting for the first time to graduate students at Yale. I began as Paula’s substitute teacher. I wonder what I can possibly give to the students, and whether it will be a dismal fraction of what Paula gave me.

 Having young children, I think about preschool a lot. About Maria Montessori, who revolutionized early childhood education by giving children the ability to be independent learners. I think: what would the graduate playwright version of the Montessori classroom look like? It would give playwrights freedom and implements, and would let them direct their own courses of study. In short, it would give playwrights actors. The teacher would be a listener, a first audience. It strikes me that people who are defensive about the teachability of playwriting are uncomfortable with the humble but important position of being a first audience. Or perhaps they worry that if playwriting is teachable it dampens their originality, or the originality of their students. But I believe that humble, anti-guru teaching like Paula’s encourages originality by respecting the privacy of her students, never interfering with their unconscious processes. 

Speaking of gurus, I am working on a play right now about reincarnation. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, when a great teacher or lama dies, the student goes out and looks for his teacher’s reincarnation in a baby. The student then brings up this baby, his former teacher, in a monastery and teaches him what he himself was taught. I find this continuity very moving. In the western tradition, we have no such cyclical tradition that preserves an unbroken chain of knowledge. In the playwriting tradition, many of the transmissions are oral. It is then essential that we get into rooms together and share knowledge, and share presence. 

I would be a different person if I hadn’t gone to Brown, if I hadn’t met Paula. I’m not sure who that person would be. Less brave, I think. And so the best I can do to thank her is to try and encourage other young writers as they test their fragile bravery on the world. 

Sarah Ruhl
Sarah Ruhl

is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Tony Award nominee, and a recipient of the MacArthur Award. Her book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write was a Times Notable Book of the Year. She teaches at the Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn with her family.