HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE by Paula Vogel
Royall Tyler Theatre, 2012
How I Learned To Drive was presented in conjunction with a large scale symposium on the state of women in theatre with key note speaker, Paula Vogel.
After studying the script, I felt the greatest challenge in bringing the play before an audience was finding the appropriate tone. The play is a beautifully structured memory piece that tells the story of Li’l Bit’s coming of age and her journey to extract herself from an emotional and sexual relationship with her Uncle Peck; a relationship that began when she was 11 years old.
I was intrigued by the use of the central character, L’il Bit as a narrator who breaks the fourth wall intermittently throughout the play. I saw her as a character who’s psychological and emotional need to heal was so great that it merited the construction of the theatrical event in order to overcome her past. I was also immediately drawn to the play’s minimalist style and use of non-chronological time, as L’il Bit brings the audience into her life and revisits key segments from her past that chart her relationship with her uncle. While the scenes with L’il Bit and Peck must be steeped with emotional investment for the actors, some of the play’s memory segments with L’il Bit and her family members, along with other characters from her past, are broadly amplified. Some scenes border on surrealism and take on an unmasked theatricality as a “Greek Chorus” (as Vogel refers to them) portrays the multiple auxiliary characters throughout the play. These seemingly differing approaches in acting styles had to be connected by a commitment to a truth and honesty in the moment, leading to a unified world and an internal logic.
I saw the play as a window into the land of memory. Much of my initial work on the play after analyzing the script and breaking it down by action beats, was to listen to music from the period that L’il Bit focuses on in her story. The key years extend from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. I allowed myself time to listen to music from the period and contemplate the nature of memory. My central goal for the play was to lay bare the ways in which memory works and the purpose of memory as a means of coping with past trauma. L’il Bit is the survivor of childhood sexual abuse, who recognizes the lasting effects of her emotional scars. I felt it imperative to identify a central need for the character in taking us, the audience, on the play’s journey. This led to the concept and conviction that she uses the present live storytelling time with the audience to work through her past and emerge with a profound sense of understanding and forgiveness. This approach was useful when it came to collaborating with actors, primarily the lead actor, in answering the overarching question of “why?” It became useful to invest in the concept that only in the theatrical medium where the private becomes public could this character relive the trauma of the past and reach a sense of ownership over her life and the past conditions that left her open to abuse.
Research is never linear. Thinking about memory and listening to music might provoke a vision of a physical space to tell the story, and the space might require historical research which would bring me back to the script for deeper analysis, which in turn would require more time for contemplating memory. My directorial process generally includes an initial period of contemplation and personal reflection. It’s vital to gain an emotional “hook” into the world of the play, or the story, or a particular character. For this play, I allowed myself to think about my own past, my own childhood, and my own emotional scars as a means of understanding the main impulse in the action and purpose of the play. The play’s action mechanism charts a course toward a sense of resolution for the central character. I knew that resolution would have to be earned and I knew the way to earn it would be to delve deeply into the psychology of the main character and witness the struggle (inner conflict) in extricating herself from the relationship.
Once I was clear on the “hook” into the play, I began thinking about putting the story in space on the deep thrust stage of the Royal Tyler Theater. The concept of memory lent itself to an approach for set pieces that were highly suggestive and minimalistic, as well as an acting space that was flexible and open. In the same way that memories occupy the empty stage of our minds, I worked with the set designer to create a raised open area that could be filled with the specific the memory symbols that L’il Bit’s subconscious conjures as a means of driving the story toward climax and resolution.
Since the Greek chorus emerge as highly theatrical, there was no need to shy away from the fact that the play is a construct of theatrical memory. All actors, except the actor playing L’il Bit moved set pieces and props in a fluid choreographed manner. As another nod toward memory, the set designer and I decided on the creation of an upstage area that served as a storehouse for the items that would be needed to reconstruct L’il Bit’s past: period chairs from the 60s, a vintage dining room table, an old sink unit, a small mini bar, and other key items, would all be set and struck by the actors to establish the locations for the memory scenes. The text includes several passages in L’il Bit’s monologues that address rural Maryland as the geographical location for the important memories in her past, and near the climax of the play a series of letters are sent by Uncle Peck to L’il Bit. Vintage postcards inspired the creation of a large “Welcome to Maryland” sign which occupied the upstage center space, suspended over the warehouse of items that comprised L’il Bit’s past.
The Greek Chorus wore basic costumes suggestive of the period, then added key costume pieces to embody certain characters from L’il Bit’s life. Items included a jacket, a shower cap, a hat, a purse, a letterman jacket, etc. Uncle Peck wore a costume suggestive of the late 1960s and one that represented the quintessential memory image L’il Bit would have of her uncle. L’il Bit wore jeans, a basic black tank, and a demin shirt. We opted for a contemporary look for her and one that would support the notion that she was a character in present time, but also believable as a character from the late 1990s, which is when the play was originally produced, and the time period at which L’il Bit’s age as an adult woman would match the time period references to the 1960s and 1970s in the text.
One of the most challenging but fulfilling aspects of the production was choosing the music that was used for scene changes and for scene underscoring. Since the play is memory piece, I was guided toward the cannon of music that would have been the soundscape of L’il Bit’s early life: The Beach Boys, The Monkeys, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, The Dave Clark Five, to name a few. The play opened with a montage of period songs, suggesting a dial on a radio from the past was being tuned to various channels.
The process and result of directing this play, which I directed at the University of Vermont, was greatly satisfying. I was very fortunate to have an exceptionally talented cast of young actors, several of whom went on the prestigious MFA acting programs. And I was very fortunate to meet Paula Vogel through the process, who was extremely gracious and highly complementary after attending the production. Her response after seeing the production: “Whoa, you directed the f*#k out of that play!”