Playwright Paula Vogel holds forth on theater like a missionary on Christianity: It’s “vital,” it’s “infectious,” it’s “spiritual.” And, unwary of hyperbole, she maintains that “everyone is an artist,” as if it were her mantra.

As the new writer-in-residence at Arena Stage, the 46-year-old Vogel, whose play How I Learned to Drive won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is determined to “democratize” theater and make it a less precious, less elitist institution in the city. “I will drag people into the theater” if necessary, she says.

As a young theater student at Catholic University in the early ’70s, she didn’t get the same kind of warm welcome to the trade: “Women were not permitted to touch the lighting boards back then,” she recalls with amusement.

Her arrival in D.C., then, is a homecoming. For the past 18 years, she’s been teaching at Brown University, where she established a program in play writing. While she hasn’t exactly been dragging folks into the theater, she has seduced a fair number into taking up the tools of drama—and not just Ivy League students. She also set up a play-writing program for women in prisons, who worked with Brown students as their mentors.

At Arena, she plans to complete a play called A Civil War Christmas, about the last Christmas in Washington during the war. She also intends to keep up her proselytizing at the theater, where she expects to hold writing workshops and stage readings for the uninitiated. “I have been taught by my playwrights,” she says, and ventures that she has probably learned more from them than they learned from her. “If I can stop two or three writers from law school,” she avers, “then I’ve done my job.”—Guy Raz

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