Vogel was born in Washington, D.C. to Donald Stephen Vogel, an advertising executive, and Phyllis Rita Bremerman, a secretary for United States Postal Service Training and Development Center. She is a graduate of The Catholic University of America (1974, B.A.) and Cornell University (1976, M.A.). Vogel also attended Bryn Mawr College 1969-70, 1971-72.
A productive playwright since the late 1970s, Vogel first came to national prominence with her AIDS-related seriocomedy The Baltimore Waltz, which won the Obie award for Best Play in 1992. She is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned To Drive (1997), which examines the impact and echoes of child sexual abuse and incest. Other notable plays include Desdemona, A Play About A Handkerchief (1979); The Oldest Profession (1981); And Baby Makes Seven (1984); "Hot 'N Throbbing" (1994); and The Mineola Twins (1996).
Although no particular theme or topic dominates her work, she often examines traditionally controversial issues such as sexual abuse, and prostitution. Asserting that she "writes the play backwards," moving from emotional circumstances and character to craft narrative structure, Vogel says, "My writing isn't actually guided by issues. ... I only write about things that directly impact my life." Vogel's family, especially her late brother Carl Vogel, serves as an influence to her writings. Carl's likeness appears in such plays as The Long Christmas Ride Home (2003), The Baltimore Waltz, and And Baby Makes Seven.
"Vogel tends to select sensitive, difficult, fraught issues to theatricalize," theatre theorist Jill Dolan comments, "and to spin them with a dramaturgy that’s at once creative, highly imaginative, and brutally honest." Her work embraces theatrical devices from across several traditions, incorporating, in various works, direct address, bunraku puppetry, omniscient narration, and fantasy sequences. Critic David Finkel finds this breadth in Vogel's career to be reflective of a general tendency toward stylistic reinvention from work to work. "This playwright recoils at the notion of writing plays that are alike in their composition," Finkel writes. "She wants each play to be different in texture from those that have preceded it."
Vogel, a renowned teacher of playwriting, counts among her former students Susan Smith Blackburn Prize-winner Bridget Carpenter, Obie Award-winner Adam Bock, MacArthur Fellow Sarah Ruhl, and Pulitzer Prize-winners Nilo Cruz and Lynn Nottage.
During her two decades leading the graduate playwriting program and new play festival at Brown University, Vogel helped developed a nationally-recognized center for educational theatre, culminating in the creation of the Brown/Trinity Repertory Company Consortium with Oskar Eustis, then Trinity's artistic director, in 2002. She left Brown in 2008 to assume her current posts as adjunct professor and the Chair of the playwriting department at Yale School of Drama, and the Playwright-in-Residence at Yale Repertory Theatre. Vogel previously served as an instructor at Cornell University during her graduate work in the mid-1970s.
Vogel had two brothers: Mark, and Carl, who died of AIDS in 1988. Carl is namesake for the Carl Vogel Center in Washington, D.C., founded by their father Don Vogel. The Center is a service provider for people living with HIV.
Vogel married Brown University professor and author Anne Fausto-Sterling, in Truro, Massachusetts on September 26, 2004.
Subsequent to her Obie Award for Best Play (1992) and Pulitzer Prize in Drama (1998), Vogel received the Award for Literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004.
She won the 1998 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.
In 2003, the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival created an annual "Paula Vogel Award in Playwriting" for "the best student-written play that celebrates diversity and encourages tolerance while exploring issues of dis-empowered voices not traditionally considered mainstream."