Paula Vogel & Blanka Zizka Break New Ground At The Wilma

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday March 26, 2014

Editor's note: Playwright Paula Vogel and director Blanka Zizka embark on a unique collaboration for the premiere of "Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq." Between rehearsals last week at the Wilma Theater, they talked about the unique genesis of the play.

Playwright Paula Vogel has been at the Wilma Theater for months developing her new play, which concerns about a Marine's return from war to his native Philadelphia and finding that his lover missing. He also deals with realities of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and embarks on a surrealistic journey of self-discovery. Vogel is no stranger to topical and controversial subjects: she won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1997 play "How I Learned To Drive," which dealt with the volatile issue of incest with nuance; as well as "The Baltimore Waltz," a surrealistic dramedy about AIDS that references the post-War thriller "The Third Man."

Last week, Vogel was rewriting a lengthy bit of text for one of characters just days before "Don Juan's" opening, but showed no signs of stress, due in part to her collaboration with Ziska, the artistic director of the Wilma. The pair used unconventional and exploratory methods to bring "Don Juan" to the stage.

Vogel explains, "We've been doing workshops with war veterans in Philadelphia for the past year. It was something that I asked for because I thought it would be something that would ground me - in terms of their voices. We found vets willing to create short pieces about their own experiences, which will be turned into a staged reading." The personal stories of the soldiers are not directly used in the play, but they helped Vogel shape the characters for "Don Juan."

It gets personal

For Zizka, this collaborative process has been a catalyst to explore a new approach to mounting plays that make it more creatively engaging. With it, the Wilma creative team is trying to break the status quo, or as she puts it, the "assembly line way" plays are produced by companies.

The themes of the play also had personal resonance for the Zizka that she sought to fully understand. "I think (we) don't pay enough attention to veterans or the consequences of the wars we allowed just in the last 11 years. I felt a huge gap between myself and the veterans. I don't know what they are going through now. But through workshops that Paula led, where everybody was involved in the act of creation -- the vets had to write, actors had to write and I had to write -- we broke down the barriers that would have been there otherwise."

One of the revelations from the sessions Zizka realized was that she "learned that a big issue with veterans is continuity. They are trained to do something in war and they come back; but what they learned is not helping them whatsoever, often it is hindering them in civilian life. What was really fascinating to me was to see those veterans have their writing being read by actors and then participating in the next step, which was reading and acting themselves what they wrote. I saw how transformative theater still is and validating the experience can be."

Among the many related events during the run of the play, there will be a staged reading of the writings by the veterans in a free performances "Veterans on Stage" (April 8) and "A Conversation with Warrior Writers" (April 10).

It pays in many ways

Vogel found a concrete starting point for the "Don Juan" when she saw Kate Czajkowski, who played Harper in Wilma's production of "Angels in America" last year, "she's an amazing actor, I was watching her in several plays and immediately thought of her as the image of the character Cressida," Vogel said. "Now I'm looking at nine actors and understanding who they are as performers and understanding their voices as artists too."

The creative exploration coincides with initiatives that Zizka has been contemplating, to keep experimentation at the center of theater arts at the Wilma. Casting Don Juan involved working with 22 actors for more than a week, doing improvisational work, Zizka paid professional salaries to all of the actors for their work in the sessions. Noting that this is part her creative goal of the Wilma as an important aspect of creating a more meaningful experience at every phase of a play's development.

For instance," she said, "Keith Conallen, who is playing Don Juan. If he would be auditioning in a line-up of actors for a character named Don Juan and we resorted to typecasting such a part, he probably would have no chance. But by creating a company of actors, encountering a text, bringing in new ideas about the piece and you look at it from different angles, instead of doing the same clichťd thing, he did. It almost never happens now in commercial theater on this level."

Different challenges

Still, Vogel's process created another set of challenges. "For a long time Paula was writing in her head and not on paper," Zizka recalls, "But of course we had to start thinking of the designs. We just got the first 40 pages in the fall and by November, we had to design the set to get the construction underway before the play was finished, also a very different process from the normal way of working.

It was very clean that the play was a surrealistic exploration of PTSD, so Matt Saunders, the set designer and I, decided we wouldn't be literal, that we would rather explore the idea of what PTSD is and try to externalize on stage. We came up with the idea of a platform that pivots in all directions, so you get these different angles and get that sense that you are really on the edge psychologically and physically. You never know where you are exactly, with a sense of compressing space and time." Zizka said that it reminds you of expressionistic theater of the 1920s in Europe. Otherwise, it is an uncluttered set, which, Zizka feels, "puts a focus on actors to fill that space. For that, they have to be able vocally, spiritually, physically, to be present in the space. So many actors are training for film, acting more with their faces, not with their diaphragm. Having that kind of presence dancers have and yet really connected to the emotions and voice of character," Zizka explained.

In addition to writing and teaching, Vogel has done a lot of advocacy work for GLBTQ causes. After teaching playwriting at Yale, she is now "adjunct at Yale. Then I'm freelancing at universities at all these playwright boot camps, just did a crash course at Playpen (InterACT) here in Philly. One of the reasons I stayed in theater was to create community."

However "Don Juan" is received, Vogel will be celebrating on opening night because it is her wedding anniversary with her wife, Anne Fausto-Sterling which falls on the play's opening night (March 26). Fausto-Sterling is a scientist, writer and professor at Brown University. "We're legal for 10 years, but we've been together for 25 years, last year she was lecturing at International Women's Day in Istanbul. Her books have just been released in Paris. I get the best gigs by going with her," Vogel gloated. Meanwhile, the couple will be in Philly to celebrate at the Wilma.

"Don Juan Come Home From Iraq" runs March 26-April 20 at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce St. Philadelphia, check for performance times and complete information.

Two related events:

"VETERANS ON STAGE" April 8, 7:30pm
Evening of stage writing created by Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam veterans in workshops with master teacher Paula Vogel during the creation process of "DON JUAN COMES HOME FROM IRAQ," read by cast members of the Wilma's production. Featuring work by Kevin Basl, Madison Cario, Maurice Emerson Decaul, Jenny Pacanowski, Bryon Reiger, Susanne Rossignol, Steve Scuba, Jacob Siegel, and Michael P. Toner.

Warrior Writers provided valuable consultation throughout the development process of "Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq."

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.