Interview: Paula Vogel on Revisiting Her Pulitzer-Winning How I Learned to Drive

Paula Vogel discusses why she thinks her play has remained sadly pertinent over the past two and a half decades.

Paula Vogel on Revisiting Her Pulitzer-Winning How I Learned to Drive
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

“I’m a very lucky playwright,” says Paula Vogel, acknowledging the remarkable success of the new Broadway production of How I Learned to Drive. But, of course, it’s more than luck. It’s a testament to the playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize for the deeply affecting coming-of-age story that resonates as strongly today as it did 25 years ago.

The current production at the Manhattan Theatre Club also amazingly captures the magic of the play’s premiere 1997 Off-Broadway incarnation, reteaming the original leads—Mary Louise Parker and David Morse—and its director, Mark Brokaw. How I Learned to Drive moves nimbly back and forth in time as it chronicles the damaging seven-year affair between an 11-year old girl, Li’l Bit, and her Uncle Peck, who’s three decades her senior. Despite its disturbing subject matter, the wonder of Vogel’s memory play is that it’s no sentimental melodrama with clear-cut villains and victims. Instead, we have a keenly observed, deftly crafted piece of theater which unexpectedly infuses the tragic story with humor and empathy.

Shortly after the new production’s premiere last month, I spoke at length with Vogel about How I Learned to Drive. Our conversation covered a range of topics, from why she thinks her play has remained sadly pertinent over the past two and a half decades, to what she feels it reflects back at us in the context of a new reproductive rights movement.

Did you have any trepidation returning to How I Learned to Drive?

We were all nervous. We’ve been talking about this for more than a decade, trying to find a way to bring us together again. The very first conversation was that we weren’t going to do a revival but a reinvestigation. And we wanted to also embrace the two actors in the production [Alyssa May Gold as “Teenage Greek Chorus” and Chris Myers as “Male Greek Chorus”] who had never performed it before. It was great to have those outside eyes, as well as those of many of the new designers. So we just got back in the room and asked questions. Is this play important to do now? Do we still stand behind it? I think it resonates in a very different way. I think the audiences are coming in, if you will, with a literacy of abuse that we did not have in 1997. And I think that comes from the ground-breaking documentaries and films, as well as having had an abuser-in-chief in the White House for four years.

What was it like seeing the play on Broadway?

It’s the one time in my life that I haven’t had stage fright. After the first reading I thought, “They’ve got this and I’m just coming along for the ride.” It was so layered and magnificent. I have this sense that I’m working with these incredible artists at the height of their abilities. The thing that’s new for me this time is that I can say, yes, this is autobiographical and the many issues that I think I grapple with—and I imagine other survivors grapple with—is that, in many instances, we feel affection and love. And very particularly, we’re now looking at this play in the aftermath where people who’ve come forward as much older women are being questioned. “Why didn’t you come forward earlier? Why didn’t you talk about this when it happened?” So, I think, the impact of trauma and memory is more pertinent now than it was. What’s brought back into sharp relief is that the aftereffects of abuse and the power dynamic between children and adults lingers for decades and decades.

That ghost we see in the back seat?

Yes, that was the starting image that allowed me to write the play. The importance is to make sure that the ghost is in the backseat, no longer driving the car.


It was quite daring 25 years ago to not turn Uncle Peck into a stark villain or Li’l Bit into merely a victim. It feels so even now as well. Were you concerned that the greater public awareness that you talk about might work against the play today?

That was one of the questions. Whether our empathic approach to the characters will be seen, in a way, as being un-woke, or that we would be condemned by our empathy. My feeling has always been that it is easier to survive and, if you will, defeat predatory behavior from a human being rather than from a monster. And so, to me, the empathy of reducing the uncle in the play to the dimensions of a human being leads to healing for me. I said this 25 years ago, and I will say it again: This is not Bastard Out of Carolina. This is grooming.

I guess it gets people off the hook when the perpetrator is a monster instead of the person next door or a relative…

First of all, the profile for many pedophiles is a married heterosexual man—and it’s power that’s a kind of elixir for them, regardless of the gender of the child. I feel that, in a way, we’re becoming used to Hollywood studio action-figure films that really do assert that there are heroes and there are villains. That’s not the way our world works. It’s much more insidious and compelling, but also much more conquerable to see them as human beings.

When we first talked about this play in 1997, you mentioned that reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita stayed in your mind when you were conceiving this play. How do you feel about the book today in the wake of #MeToo?

Yes, it had a tremendous impact. I haven’t read or seen Lolita—I’ve seen all the film versions—in probably a decade. But this reminds me of a recent conversation I had on Twitter. I expressed that I couldn’t wait to go and see MJ and someone said, “Ms. Vogel, didn’t you write How I Learned to Drive?” I said, “Yes indeed, and?” And this young man said, “But then how can you go and see MJ?” And I said to him, “For the same the reason I’m glad to read Lolita. For the same reason that I’m interested in documentaries about Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. We have to keep embracing a desire to understand. I don’t think we can heal unless we continue the search for understanding. How do we break the repetition of it happening over and over and over again in each generation? Lolita is critical and crucial to me. I’m very fortunate that I read it because it then occurred to me how powerful the impact of empathy is.

You mentioned “grooming” earlier. In the play, Uncle Peck isn’t only grooming his underage niece but also mentoring her. In fact, in teaching her to drive, he’s providing Li’l Bit with the tools with which she can eventually resist him. Isn’t this a far cry from how Republican politicians use the term, throwing accusations of grooming at teachers for even acknowledging the existence of anything LGBTQ in the classroom?

That’s absolutely correct. I remember when I did the research—this was maybe more than 25 years ago—I was reading in The New York Times about children who were involved in a pedophile sting, who were very, very loath to name or to testify against the predator. They felt a [kinship] to them. They felt an affection. They felt that someone was paying attention to them. And so that leads to this feeling of guilty complicity in children that I think is ubiquitous. It’s very hard to shed. And that’s the reason why the play is structured the way it is—that we constantly go back to a younger and younger age with Li’l Bit. Does it feel okay now that she’s 17. Does it feel it okay now that she’s 16. And so on.

I’ve always felt this drama is most compelling when it’s in the gray, not in the black and white. And the difficulty about being in this moment of time is that right-wing extremists are using “pedophilia” and “pedophile” as meaningless terms that they sling about, which devalues the terms. To be aware that in states that are passing similar laws to Texas and Florida, that are policing children in terms of [sexuality and gender presentation], you’re basically creating silence and shame. So I think what’s happening right now—and it’s very, very dangerous—is that the notion of rights for children are being eroded. When there’s silence and shame you’re creating a breeding ground for pedophiles. It’s like crying wolf. You cry “pedophile,” “pedophile,” “pedophile” at every Democratic opponent and when a pedophile comes around no one will see it. I also think that what goes hand-in-hand with pedophilia is also attacks on the agency of women—and that goes hand-in-hand with the agency of children.


You use the context of the driving manual to highlight that the lessons for girls are different from the lessons for boys, particularly in the 1960s when Li’l Bit, and yourself, were coming of age.

One of the things that I really worry about is that pedophilia is underreported in boys in the same way that molestation is underreported by men and women in the military forces. I think that there’s still a greater cultural shame that exists for men as survivors because of the notion of masculinity—toxic masculinity—in this culture. What’s of great concern, I think, is that what we’re seeing right now is an attempt to make sure that the distance between what men can do and what women can do in this society is reversed back to pre-Roe vs. Wade. Obviously that’s on my mind now—that women won’t be able to seek a college education because they don’t have control over their bodies and their reproductive systems. I worry that it will widen the gulf in terms of the gender roles for men. It’s been so exciting, generationally, for men who are now parenting children, fathers who are taking care of children. I’m now worrying again about that reversal to a 1950s toxic masculinity. These concerns are as alive now as they were in 1997. In many ways I feel the play may be even more of an alarm bell.

Would you say that we were on the cusp of a change for the better when you wrote the play in the late 1990s? Does it seem like we are going backwards now?

Actually, I’m sure this has been ongoing since the election of Ronald Reagan. So many of us who support reproductive rights have been basically saying that this is coming, this is coming. And that the cancellation of the powers that we have over our own bodies is gong to present us very soon with a lot of pregnant teenagers. The one thing that I feel really great about with regard to seeing the play today is that I wrote it as a teacher when I was 45. I kept listening to the stories of my undergraduate students, and [this was my way of saying to an audience] that you don’t need to be victims the rest of your life, that you can switch to survivor, that you can tell your secret, that you can discuss your feeling of shame but acknowledge that you were a child and there is an innocence that was lost. And, whatever happened to us as children does not predicate the rest of our lives. We still can reclaim our agency. We must reclaim our agency. I’m hoping people feel the lift I feel in having the actors bear up my story.

What’s coming up next for you?

I’m working on a commission for Second Stage for the Helen Hayes and I’m working on two other theater projects. And, I’ve just written my memoir that I’m getting eager to rewrite as soon as I hear from my editor. And then there’s Bard at the Gate [a start-up play series founded by Vogel to spotlight works that have been overlooked and never produced, along with plays that deserve a wider audience], which is the love of my life right now.

What about a movie adaptation of How I Learned to Drive? Wasn’t there talk about it some time ago?

A long time ago it was an HBO project that was greenlit with Laura Ziskin as the producer but she got involved in the Spider-Man franchise and so it got dropped. It was very difficult back then to find directors who were willing to do it. One of the interesting things back in the 1990s was that people were questioning—any actor, any director, any person involved—why they were seeking to do this. [The assumption was] that they must be survivors themselves. That scrutiny may or may not exist anymore and I’m hoping that a movie can be made. I’ve written two drafts of screenplays and I’m hoping that someone has the courage to do this.

Gerard Raymond

Gerard Raymond is a travel and arts writer based in New York City. His writing has appeared in Broadway Direct, TDF Stages, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and other publications.

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