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How I Learned to Drive - Off-Broadway

Norbert Leo Butz stars in the revival of Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Pulitzer Prize Winner Paula Vogel on the Alaskan Summer That Inspired How I Learned to Drive

Pulitzer Prize Winner Paula Vogel on the Alaskan Summer That Inspired How I Learned to Drive
Paula Vogel
Writing about driving made me want to drive, badly.

About the Author:
Long before the earning the imprimatur of a Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive in 1998, playwright Paula Vogel wasn’t pulling any punches. In plays like The Oldest Profession, And Baby Makes Seven, Hot 'N Throbbing, The Mineola Twins and The Baltimore Waltz, Vogel has always sought to find the theatricality in stories with traditionally controversial issues, from prostitution and pornography to AIDS and domestic violence. How I Learned to Drive, which explores the complicated relationship between a socially isolated young girl and her uncle, is certainly no exception. The play premiered in New York in 1997, starring David Morse and Mary Louise Parker, and is now back in town for the first time in 15 years in a Second Stage revival starring Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Reaser. Below, Vogel tells of how she first got to work on the shocking, moving and ultimately sympathetic story of How I Learned to Drive.

My heart beat wildly as the large plane approached the Juneau airport. And not just for the thrill of the approach: Every landing in Juneau seems highly improbable. The airport is nestled among sharply rising mountains on a flat plateau running along the Gastineau channel. In high winds, the pilots sometimes have to bank the plane on steep angles towards the mountain (called the Lemon Creek maneuver) during takeoff to catch an updraft of air, a heart-stopping maneuver.

But the winds this day were auspicious. Rather, my heart beat wildly about: How do I tell them? I knew there would be a welcoming committee from Perseverance Theatre at the airport to welcome me and my collaborator, Cherry Jones, to our residency for the next four weeks.

And there lay the conundrum. A few days before our departure, Cherry had called to inform me that she had been offered a dream part on Broadway in a revival of The Heiress. “You’ve got to take it! Cherry, that’s a terrific role!” But what, she worried, were we to do with the project we had worked on, the research I had done, for an historical play to be written in a residency at Perserverance? For me, it was my first significant grant: money to underwrite two years of work and research in Alaska with Cherry Jones, from idea to page to workshop and production, endowed by the generosity of the Pew Charitable Trust. “Never mind, we’ll come up with something. This is the role of a lifetime for you. ” Turning it down was out of the question.

The bumps told me we were on Alaskan soil, and my mouth felt dry. Sure enough, as I disembarked, there were colleagues and friends from the theater in the lounge. After shrieks and hugs, the “Where’s Cherry?” question echoed from all. “Well, good news and better news. The good news is that Cherry has a terrific role in The Heiress and has had to drop out. The better news is that I think there’s this little play I can write quickly for the company….”

And so I set out to work. Juneau in the summer is a writer’s paradise. There are gorgeous, inspiring distractions: watching the eagles, walking up mountains, watching the dolphins swim in the channel, or the small bush planes land in the water near the dock; the ubiquitous cruise ships floating by.

But the best of environments: there are not countless movies to watch, there are only a few restaurants, the distractions of human culture are few—if one wants to see theater, then one has to write, rehearse and produce theatre in the renovated bar on Douglas Island that seats 150 souls.

Best of all, in the summer, there is no night, only a twilight that lasts for a few hours. At 5:00 AM, there is a bright sunshine, conducive to lawn mowing, jogging or writing. It’s hard to sleep more than three to four hours in Juneau in summer. And so I wrote this little play, working through the night, watching cruise ships float outside my window, playing sixties music in a loop, and pausing only at 5:00 AM. I would drive the theater truck up a mountain to a ski slope and sight the little Sitka deer scampering when they heard the gravel crunching, then back to my cabin for a nap, to wake and begin the whole obsessive cycle of a first draft again.

The pages flew. I gave the draft a name, How I Learned to Drive. I was halfway through in a week. But suddenly I felt claustrophobic. Writing about driving made me want to drive, badly.

There are only 50 miles of road throughout all of Juneau. The town is crouched at the foot of the Perseverance Mountains. If you drive across the bridge to Douglas Island, at one end there is parking overlooking the widening channel (and a beautiful skyscape for northern lights in winter); at the other end of the road, there is a beach, and forest with deserted mining camp houses deteriorating into the rainforest.

In Juneau, the road ends in an oil depot on one end, and the channel on the other. And that, folks, is it. It’s a town with myriad attractions, but drag racing on an endless highway is not one of them. There are only two ways out of town; boat or plane.

The desire to drive was becoming a mania. I could not write the rest of the play. And so I left the cabin, went to the airport, and booked a flight to Fairbanks. I’d never been in Fairbanks, but I didn’t stay longer than it took to rent a car one-way to Anchorage.

I got into that car, and drove across Alaska. I turned the radio up, and put the windows down. The highway felt endless; with no cars in sight, the speedometer edged past 100, and I stuck my hand out the window to feel the rush.

Denali passed by in a blur. Another day I’ll visit, I promised myself.

Too soon I pulled into the Anchorage airport, but now my pulse was humming. I could hardly wait to return to the computer in the cabin, and by the end of that week, I typed END OF PLAY on the bottom of the page.

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