Special Post by Michaela Goldhaber.
Lauren Gunderson is currently the most produced living playwright in the U.S. according to American Theatre’s analysis of the 2016-17 season. There will be 16 productions of her plays at theatres across the country this year.
Gunderson has achieved the often impossible dream of making her living as a playwright, and it is especially remarkable, because she is doing it from San Francisco. As she points out, she is living proof that “you don’t have to live in New York, or even have that much of a presence in New York, to have a career.”
As a teenager living in Atlanta, Gunderson was frustrated by the lack of good acting roles for women. That frustration drove her to start writing her own plays. “My first professional production was the result of winning the Essential Theatre Award for best play written by a Georgia writer when I was 18,” she says. “The award included a production. I had never had a play rehearsed and developed, so I had to learn that huge part of our work – discovery through collaboration.”
After she completed an MFA in playwriting at NYU in 2009, she made her way to the San Francisco Bay Area, In the years since, her plays have been produced by dozens of companies in the Bay Area and across the United States.
About Her Writing Process
Gunderson explains, “My process usually involves ruminating on the idea until getting a clear idea of what the ending might be, what the play will amount to both literally, aesthetically and philosophically. Sometimes that is a vision of the last moment or image the play will offer the audience. Once I know the ending I can write toward it. Then I start at the beginning and write as fast as I can to get the first draft down. You can only make it a great play once you have the full play in front of you.”
Once the plays are written she continues to work on them during private readings and right up to opening night of the first production. She adds, “I find that a play isn’t completely realized until a second production. It’s a long process but I love every step of it.”
Her prolific output is due partly to the fact that she works on three projects at any one time. She credits her popularity to building relationships with theatre companies. “Several companies are mounting the second or third play of mine that they’ve done. If they had success with one play, I point them to newer plays. It creates a continuous conversation, which is what we hope for in the theatre.”
Her Most Successful Plays
Her most frequently-produced plays are I and You and Silent Sky. I and You is a coming-of-age story that focuses on two very different high school students who explore the mysteries of a Whitman poem, unaware that a deeper mystery has brought them together.
This video is the trailer for Marin Theatre Company’s 2013 production of Lauren Gunderson’s I and You, directed by Sarah Rasmussen and featuring Jessica Lynn Carroll & Devion McArthur.
Silent Sky is the true story of 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt that plays out against a landscape of fierce sisterly love, early feminism, and universe-revealing science. (See the video clip of Silent Sky excerpts below.) Her political comedy, The Taming, has seen several productions, and her new holiday comedy co-written with Margo Melcon, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is gaining momentum.
“The clearest connective feature for all of these plays is hope . . . these plays are very different in tone, subject, era, and structure; but they all share that kind of ending that asks you to hold some wonder or motivation or compassion in your heart as you go back out into the world.”
Theatre & Science
Science is a recurring theme in Gunderson’s work. Ada and the Engine tells the story of Ada Lovelace, a Victorian mathematician who is credited today with creating the first computer program. Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight tells the story of Émilie du Châtelet, a brilliant physicist of the Enlightenment whose commentary and translation of Newton’s Principia is still used today.
Gunderson returns to science not only in order to tell the stories of women who are otherwise neglected by history, but because she finds science itself irresistible as a source of drama. “I realized that the scientific process is deeply and inherently dramatic because it conveys the moments of discovery,” she says. “Drama is about following what changes as it changes the people in a world, and science does this exact thing over and over again.”
Another common thread is Shakespeare. She’s written four plays that are inspired or draw heavily from The Bard: Exit Pursued by a Bear (The Winter’s Tale); Toil & Trouble (Macbeth), We Are Denmark (Hamlet), and The Taming (The Taming of the Shrew).
It’s Shakespeare’s grandness and urgency that brings her back again and again, she says. “Shakespeare always reminds me to raise the stakes in my plays – bigger risks, bolder actions, grander scenarios, characters at the edge. Everything in his plays is ultimate: life or death, kingdom or wasteland, love or loss. That’s a good reminder, especially now, for writers to write about the biggest themes we can imagine, the most universal, the most important. Don’t waste your pen on trivialities. Use it to spelunk into the heart of the human condition and show the world its depths.”
She’s come back to Shakespeare again in her latest play, The Book of Will, which is about how the Bard’s friends collected his plays and published them after his death. “It’s my biggest play and one that has been a joy and a challenge to work on. I’m so pleased with its recent premiere at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts directed by Davis McCallum.”
Theatre & Politics
Gunderson thinks the theater should embrace politics with open arms. She writes frequently on social media about telling stories to cope with the current political climate. She believes that the new realities make theater more urgent than ever.
“I’m dealing with this new world order day by day, but I refuse to give up faith in storytelling, in art, in community, and in democracy. Things that remind us of our unifying efforts at decency and empathy are never going out of style and cannot be made silent.”
Her all-female political farce, The Taming, was written in 2013 but seems even more relevant today since it is about a beauty queen who has trapped a conservative senator’s staffer and a liberal blogger in a hotel room with her to force a discussion about the meaning of the Constitution.
Gunderson made The Taming available for free to any company that wanted to do a reading of it on Inauguration Day. More than fifty theater companies around the country staged benefit readings and raised thousands of dollars for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.
“Theatre is often accused of ‘preaching to the choir.’ But I think that the choir needs preaching to these days. That’s part of why I wanted to allow people to do readings of The Taming. We all need to be reminded to come together, to laugh at hypocrisy, to be better and do better, and that art and story are here for us, and always have been when times get dark.”
“We need to be reminded that history is made of people not impenetrable forces, and that change is possible and in fact, constant. That hope needs us. That the future is malleable if we show up and work together, and refuse to give in to baseness and division.”
Read more about Lauren Gunderson on her website>>
About the Author
Michaela (Mickey) Goldhaber is a playwright, director, and the associate editor for Women Arts. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, her works include The Lady Scribblers, The Rehab Follies, and What Does it Matter? A Morality adapted from the short story by E. M. Forster. In New York, she co-founded and served as Artistic Director for Flying Fig Theatre, a company whose mission was to tell women’s stories on stage by commissioning new works and rediscovering plays from the past. For more .information, please visit michaelagoldhaber.com/.