Playwright Paula Vogel honored for LGBT activism

Paula Vogel receives award
Jon Craig/Provided
Paula Vogel receives the Steven W. Siegel Award from the Cornell University Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association.

Paula Vogel’s long and winding road from Ithaca in the 1970s to Broadway in 2017 was revisited April 8 in Manhattan, where she was honored with the third annual Steven W. Siegel Award by the Cornell University Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association (CUGALA).

About 100 people attended the dinner, which served as a fundraiser for the LGBT Resource Center and coincided with the Broadway opening of Vogel’s play, “Indecent,” at the Cort Theatre. The play became her revised doctoral thesis. “Indecent” tells the story of “The God of Vengeance,” a 1906 Yiddish play that featured the first lesbian kiss on the Great White Way, a kiss that resulted in the cast and producer being arrested on obscenity charges.

Sara Warner, associate professor of Performing and Media Arts, called Vogel one of America’s best writers and her works “fierce, funny and unabashedly queer.”

“I am indeed honored to be in your orbit,” Warner said, describing Vogel as “that rare visionary with grit and generosity.”

Vogel, M.A. ’76, Ph.D. ’16, said the 1970s “was an interesting time to be out in Ithaca, New York … there were only a handful of female faculty and there were very few female playwrights being produced or taught anywhere in the country.”

As a graduate student, Vogel taught courses on dramatic literature and playwriting. She also taught as an adjunct professor in the fledgling Women’s Studies Program. She left Cornell in 1981, having completed all the requirements for her doctorate but without a diploma, which she received in 2016. She won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in drama for “How I Learned to Drive,” becoming the first out lesbian to receive that award.

Vogel talked about her brother, Carl, who died of AIDS, and the Obie Award-winning play, “Baltimore Waltz” that she wrote for him. The play is celebrating its 25th anniversary this spring with a production at San Francisco’s Magic Theater.

She called it important to “continue making sure there are opportunities for young people to take the roads not currently culturally traveled. It’s a thrilling time in terms of that.”

Vogel has taught for 24 years at Brown University and for five years at the Yale School of Drama, where she was the Eugene O’Neill Professor of Playwriting.

Vogel was a finalist for the most recent Kennedy Prize and won the New Dramatists’ 2017 Distinguished Achievement Award.

She said she is very proud “to be the prodigal daughter returning home.”

The CUGALA award is named for Steven W. Siegel ’68, who led the association for more than 25 years. He was remembered as a fearless, tireless advocate of gay and lesbian rights at Cornell while leading one of the nation’s first LGBT groups. According to current President Emanuel Tsourounis ’00, J.D. ’03, CUGALA has more than 3,600 members.

Aiden Cropsey, assistant director of the LGBT Resource Center, said that Siegel loved Cornell, and the annual award in his memory recognizes people who have shined a light on LGBT and people of diversity.

Cropsey said of Vogel: “She has been a vocal advocate that the LGBT story is told.”

Jon Craig '80 is a writer based in New York City.

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