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Vogel, Paula (b. 1951)  
 
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In her work, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel has tackled difficult topics, including AIDS, incest, and prostitution.

Born November 16, 1951 in Washington, D. C., Paula Vogel grew up in the Maryland suburbs of the city. Her parents divorced when she was eleven, and the break-up of the family led to "a very painful adjustment," as she stated in a 1999 interview. Vogel and her older brother Carl remained with their mother while the eldest sibling, Mark, lived with their father, who remarried.

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Vogel said that her stepmother "didn't want [her] around" and that, in any event, her mother discouraged her from communicating with her father.

It was Vogel's brother Carl who became her protector and guide after their parents' divorce. Only thirteen years old at the time, he declared, "I'm her father," and proceeded to encourage her to do well in school so that she could attend college.

Vogel later commented, "In a working-class family, college is extremely alien. It's almost as if you are leaving your class and repudiating your family." Nevertheless, with her brother's support, she won a scholarship to Bryn Mawr. She left after two years, however, because the college ruled her concentration in dramatic literature "not academically valid" and consequently reduced her scholarship so much that she could not continue there.

She transferred to Catholic University, earning her bachelor's degree in 1974. She pursued graduate studies at Cornell for the next three years.

Vogel's brother Carl also went to college and graduate school. During his student days he became a gay activist, for which he paid a heavy price: he was beaten up; some faculty members shunned him; and his apartment was broken into and ransacked.

Carl Vogel fell ill with AIDS in the late 1980s, and the family rallied around him. Paula Vogel was impressed with the "incredible generosity" of their brother Mark, who was accepting of the homosexuality of both of his siblings. Their father also showed a positive attitude. For their mother it was more difficult to come to terms with her children's sexual orientation, but eventually, said Vogel, she "came to a point where she was personally proud."

Carl Vogel died in 1988. In his memory, his father founded an HIV/AIDS counseling and treatment facility, the Carl Vogel Center, in Washington, D. C.

Paula Vogel commemorated her brother with a play, The Baltimore Waltz (written in 1989, first produced in 1992). In the play, Anna, a young woman in Baltimore, thinks that she has contracted a fatal disease that, because it generally afflicts a largely marginalized group, is receiving little attention and research. Her brother Carl takes her on an imaginary trip to Europe to try to save her. It is he, however, who is actually dying of AIDS. Upon his death, Anna dances the Baltimore Waltz with him.

The off-Broadway production, which starred Cherry Jones, won an Obie Award for Best New American Play.

The Baltimore Waltz was the first play to bring Vogel to public attention but far from the first that she had authored. She had been writing plays since she was twenty, although, she said, "the first ten I wouldn't confess to anybody!"

Despite the quip, she did enjoy some successes with her early works. Meg (her eleventh play), about Sir Thomas More's daughter Margaret, staged at Cornell in 1976, earned her an American College Theater Festival Award for Best New Play. The play later had a production at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D. C. and brought Vogel several more awards.

Vogel received a playwriting fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979 and another from the MacDowell Colony in 1981. During this time she authored a number of plays, including The Oldest Profession (1981), which concerns four prostitutes rather well up in years and their madam, who plied her trade in New Orleans's Storyville before transplanting herself to New York City. Critic David Rooney of Variety called a 2004 production "an absorbing, compassionate vignette from Reagan-Era America" that "comment[ed] on the depreciating currency of women's bodies" and also "acknowledge[d] the increase in poverty and homelessness during a political period that created as many down-and-outs as it did billionaires."

Vogel is no stranger to controversial themes. It was a play about incest, How I Learned to Drive (1997), that won her the Pulitzer Prize.

In the play, which was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1955), a middle-aged woman known as Li'l Bit relives the days when she was learning to drive as a teenager. Since her father is gone, her alcoholic Uncle Peck becomes her teacher. The man is obsessed with his beautiful young niece and uses the driving lessons as a strategy for being alone with her. Though the play in no way condones Peck's behavior, he is seen more as a tragic figure than simply a villainous one.

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Paula Vogel with actor Alan Safier in 2010.
  
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