You’ve Probably Never Heard of America’s Most Popular Playwright

Originally Published in The New Yorker
By Daniel Pollack-Pelzner | October 16, 2017

Lauren Gunderson, at thirty-five, has had more than twenty works produced, and is currently the most produced playwright in the U.S.

Pollack-Pelzner-Youve-Probably-Never-Heard-Americas-Most-Popular-Playright

Photograph: Mark Lyons / NYT via Redux

On a six-hour drive from San Francisco to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a few years ago, the playwright Lauren Gunderson raised a question: What does American theatre need? “It was ridiculously presumptuous,” Gunderson told me recently, over the phone, “but it’s the conversation everyone is having.” Gunderson was travelling with her friend Margot Melcon, a former literary manager, who reminded her that every theatre needs a holiday show: something clever, heartwarming, and family-friendly enough to entice an audience inured to “A Christmas Carol.” Gunderson recalled their idea: “You know what people love? Jane Austen. You know what people really love? Christmas and Jane Austen.” By the time they finished the drive, they had outlined a script on Starbucks napkins: a holiday reunion for the Bennet sisters, from “Pride and Prejudice,” with a courtship plot for Mary, the pedantic middle sister, who emerges as a surprising feminist heroine. (Mary and her beau spark over a copy of Lamarck’s “Zoological Philosophy”; Gunderson calls Mary an emblem of “geek chic.”) “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is now a regional-theatre hit.

Increasingly, theatres are banking on Gunderson, who, at thirty-five, has already had more than twenty of her works produced: among them witty historical dramas about women in science (“Emilie,” “Silent Sky,” “Ada and the Engine”), giddy political comedies (“Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” “The Taming,” “The Revolutionists”), and wildly theatrical explorations of death and legacy (“I and You,” THE BOOK OF WILL). According to American Theatre magazine’s annual survey, released last month, Gunderson will be the most produced playwright in the country for the 2017–18 season. Her plays are staged almost twice as often as anyone else’s on the list, far ahead of venerated figures like Eugene O’Neill and August Wilson, who edged her for the top spot last year. (The survey excludes Shakespeare, America’s perennial favorite.) Although men still write three-quarters of the plays that get produced, Gunderson has built a national reputation with works that center on women’s stories. And, though most playwrights also teach or work in television, she has managed to make a living, in San Francisco, by writing for the stage.

A typical Gunderson protagonist resembles her author: smart, funny, collaborative, optimistic—a woman striving to expand the ranks of a male-dominated profession. She has revived Émilie du Châtelet, an Enlightenment genius who revised Newton’s laws of motion; Olympe de Gouges, a playwright who fought for women’s equality in the French Revolution; and Henrietta Leavitt, a twentieth-century Harvard astronomer who figured out how to measure the distance between Earth and the stars. Gunderson grew up in Georgia, and “desperately wanted” to be a physics major, but she tired of plodding through “the normal stuff” before she could get to “the cool stuff.” She went to Emory and majored in English; one of her first scripts, written when she was eighteen, centered on a cosmologist. “Moments of scientific discovery are inherently dramatic,” Gunderson told me. She is now married to a Stanford biologist whom she met when her agent suggested that she interview him to research a potential story. Relationships form a part of her characters’ arcs, but it’s their intellectual desires, their yearning to transform themselves and their world, that Gunderson foregrounds. Her plays are less likely to end in a kiss than in a beautiful explosion of computer data.

That’s what happens at the climax of “Ada and the Engine,” which dramatizes the life of Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, a Victorian math whiz who worked on the first computer algorithm. In a swirl of light, sound, poetry, and music, Gunderson stages the aftershocks of Ada’s discovery: that the iambic heartbeat of her father’s verse contains the alternating pulse of binary code, and that the beauty that Ada found in math now programs our own digital age. The final stage direction calls for Ada to appear with “ones and zeroes echoing around her” until “a strange new light and a strange new sound take over. . . . It’s the blue light of modern computer screens—laptops, iPhones, iPads—all giving off their ghostly light on her. All playing her song.”

Gunderson calls such passages in her work “transcendental ‘holy crap!’ moments.” Several years ago, she wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal on the importance of endings, in which she called a play’s concluding image “the final meaning, the consummation, the last held breath before the unscripted world courses back in.” Her breakthrough ending came in “I and You,” probably her best-known work, which won the American Theatre Critics Association’s New Play Award in 2014. It starts in a girl’s bedroom, where two high schoolers are doing a homework assignment about pronouns in Walt Whitman’s poetry, trading study-buddy banter. (“Back away from the craft project.” “I’m agnostic on glitter.”) By the close, Gunderson has guided us toward a sublime transfiguration that encompasses “Leaves of Grass,” John Coltrane, Jerry Lee Lewis, space and time, bodies and spirits, death and rebirth.

One of Gunderson’s playwright heroes, Sarah Ruhl, has argued that modern American theatre derives from two medieval genres: morality plays, evident in the sturdy architecture of an Arthur Miller fable, and mystery plays, which suffuse the spiritual poetry of Tennessee Williams. Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” is the perfect American play, Ruhl proposes, because it interweaves morality and mystery strands: an aids drama of national shame and redemption that hinges on theatrical fantasy. (Part 1 ends with an angel crashing through the ceiling.) You could see Gunderson as an inheritor of these twin legacies, too, composing dramas where attention must be paid and creating a transcendent form that invites us to pay it willingly. Her father was the reverend at a progressive Southern church, and, just as science often serves as substitute religion for her characters, theatre seems to provide her own religious surrogate. “Theatre is the place I go to ask the biggest questions I can think of and hash them out in human scale,” she told me. “I and You” begins with a teen-ager quoting Whitman: “I and this mystery here we stand”; over the next ninety minutes, the play manages to unfold the mystery without diminishing it, forging communion through the language of poetry.

HVSF-BookOfWill-FINAL_CreditsDespite all this metaphysical weight, Gunderson’s plays are fleetly comic. (She’s more a Lizzie Bennet than a Mary.) Her latest play, THE BOOK OF WILL, takes an unlikely subject—the efforts of the surviving members of Shakespeare’s theatre company to collect his unpublished scripts in the First Folio, of 1623—and turns it into a nimble caper, replete with “Pericles” gags, eleventh-hour reversals, and good lines for the women who revered Shakespeare but knew him as a mortal, too. Juggling printers, editors, compositors, actors, and patrons, Gunderson crafts a lively backstage drama that opens into a moving meditation on theatre as the space of shared memory and resurrection. And the ending is, of course, transcendent. Shakespeare’s pals present a copy of the First Folio to his widow; when they open the volume, the stage erupts into the future enabled by those scripts: “a beautiful cacophony of actors’ voices performing Shakespeare’s tempests, and time warps around us—the speeches swirl—different accents, different languages . . . all the world’s a stage and it’s funneled into Anne Hathaway’s living room at this moment.”

Gunderson is currently writing a follow-up to “I and You,” as well as another Austen comedy with Margot Melcon that spotlights the servants at Pemberley, and a collaboration with the actor Reggie D. White about institutional racism in the private prison system. She’s also been commissioned by Marin Theatre Company, where she’s a resident playwright, to try a play that she is scared to write: a “huge intersectional feminist epic” covering five hundred years of American history. It sounds daunting, but she took a 2013 trial run in “The Taming,” a farcical all-female response to Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” In it, a Southern beauty-pageant contestant locks a conservative Senate staffer and a left-wing blogger in a hotel room and leads them on a dream journey to rewrite the U.S. Constitution. After last fall’s Presidential election, she thought that producing it might rally people feeling despair at Donald Trump’s victory, so she licensed “The Taming” for free staged readings on Inauguration Day. (There was a hashtag: #TameTrump.) More than forty readings took place around the country, many of them raising money for Planned Parenthood. “It is a powerful thing to come together and laugh in a scary time,” Gunderson said, especially with “a feminist farce that is insane and wild and irreverent.” She went on, “I’m not saying that those readings are going to change public policy or get us a new Supreme Court Justice anytime soon, but there is the important work of creating and sustaining community that theatre can do because it’s congregational. It’s a real-time interaction, with real people saying those words, with breath and resonance in real space. That’s not something you can get from watching TV.”

Daniel Pollack-Pelzner teaches English at Linfield College, in Oregon.

 

Advertisements

Our Three-Actor COMEDY OF ERRORS is Coming to an Elementary School Near You!

We’re bringing Shakespeare’s slapstick comedy of love, family, and mistaken identity to regional elementary schools this fall.

Our 2017 Fall Education Tour, a fast-paced COMEDY OF ERRORS adapted by local playwright Mona Z. Smith and directed by clown extraordinaire Zachary Fine, hits the road in just a few short weeks! The production is expected to visit over 20 schools throughout the tri-state region between October 30 and December 8, 2017.

Shakespeare’s hilarious tale of twos – often staged with an ensemble cast of ten or more – receives a judicious, high-energy cut this season, as just three actors bring the worlds of Syracuse and Ephesus to life in a 60-minute production suited for young audiences. The signature clowning sensibility of Fine, a 2015 Helen Hayes Award winner and dreamer/director of our 2016 production SO PLEASE YOU, will be on full display as the cast offers a healthy serving of puppetry and physical comedy in this serendipitous story of two sons, two servants, and two cities.

Fresh off his run as the tomfoolish Feste in HVSF’s 2017 summer season production of TWELFTH NIGHT (and ensemble roles in several of the Festival’s 2016 and 2017 productions), COMEDY OF ERRORS cast member Michael Broadhurst has established himself as one of HVSF’s most versatile new clowns. He is joined by the vibrant Melissa Mahoney, who appeared in HVSF’s 2016 Fall Education Tour of THE TEMPEST & THE SWORD IN THE STONE. Broadhurst and Mahoney completed the Festival’s 2016 Conservatory Company training program for early career actors together and both appeared in SO PLEASE YOU, directed by Fine. HVSF newcomer Jarrod Bates (The Drilling Company, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot) rounds out this trio of comic force.

Tackling themes of love, family, resilience, and forgiveness, COMEDY will allow K-5 audiences to connect with Shakespeare’s original language through self-discovery and personal reflection. Actor-driven storytelling and minimal props/set pieces will encourage a deeper understanding of the characters, themes, and plot points in this classic comedy, and will support an array of classroom skills, including active listening, close reading, and speaking and listening. Performances will be followed by a talkback with the actors, and educators will be provided with a corresponding, in-depth study guide.

TO BOOK THE TOUR: Please contact Associate Director of Education Nora Rosoff at nrosoff@hvshakespeare.org or (845) 809-5750 ext. 13. For more information and to view the COMEDY OF ERRORS curriculum sheet for educators and administrators, visit hvshakespeare.org/education.

HVSF_Button_LearnMore


About the Artists

Smith-Mona_HeadshotMONA Z. SMITH, Playwright: Mona Z. Smith is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, published author, and former newspaper reporter. Comedy of Errors marks her third commission from Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF) to adapt Shakespearean plays and other literary classics for young audiences. Smith’s play Fire in a Dark House, about hate crimes set in WWI, will be seen in Los Angeles in fall 2018 during WWI centenary events. Her play Borderlands, about women refugees in wartime, was staged last year in Amsterdam; Borderlands was previously awarded the national Berilla Kerr Prize. Her other plays include All That Remains, a ghost story about Japanese-American soldiers who fought in WWII (winner, Po’okela Award, Hawai’i Theater Association), and Northern Lights, inspired by the short stories of Hans Christian Andersen and commissioned by HVSF. Smith has also written a play, book and screenplay based on a decade of research on the life of Canada Lee, a groundbreaking black actor and civil rights activist of the 1930’s and ’40’s who was erased from public memory after he was named as a Communist and traitor during the Red Scare. Smith’s biography of Lee is titled Becoming Something (Faber & Faber). A native of Nebraska, Smith earned an MFA in Theater from Columbia University and now lives and writes in the Hudson Valley. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild and Writers Guild.

fine-zachary_headshot.jpgZACHARY FINE, Director: Zachary Fine is an actor, writer, director and teacher. He has taught Clown, Games and Shakespeare in actor training programs throughout the country and is currently on faculty at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. His original comedy shows Walled In and Manifest Destiny both premiered at the IRT Theater in New York City. All of Zack’s original work has been produced by Frances Black Projects. Zachary is the recipient of the 2015 Helen Hayes Award for his work in Fiasco Theater Company’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. Broadway credits include China Doll with Al Pacino. Off-Broadway credits include The Pearl Theater, The Acting Company, The Mint Theater, Theater For A New Audience, New York Classical Theater. Regionally, his credits include work at the Guthrie, Folger, Playmakers Rep, Asolo Rep, Fulton Theater, Colorado Shakespeare Festival and two seasons at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. As a Director: Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Key West Theater; Thin Air Shakespeare Festival, The Performing Arts Project, Tony nominee Bryce Pinkham’s solo show Between The Moon and Me, NYU. TV / Film / Commercial / Voice-Over credits include: Person of Interest, BlackBox, One Life to Live, Z-Rock, Grand Theft Auto 5 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (New Book Press). His writing has been supported by the Lark, EAT Festival’s One Man Talking, Space on Ryder Farm, IRT Theater, Off-Square Theater and The Acting Company’s Write-On! New Play Series. Zachary apprenticed with Christopher Bayes and trained at Ecole du Phillipe Gaulier, MFA from the University of Tennessee and B.A. (Summa Cum Laude) Oberlin College.

bates-jarrod_headshot.jpgJARROD BATES, Actor: The Drilling Company (Bryant Park): The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Merry Wives of Windsor, Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare in the Parking Lot: All’s Well That Ends Well, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Other NYC credits: Clown Bar (Pipeline Theatre Co.), Major Barbara (Helluva Theatre Co.), King John (Hudson Warehouse), Writopia Lab’s Worldwide Plays Festival. Training: The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, The Funny School of Good Acting. jarrodbates.com

Broadhurst-Michael_HeadshotMICHAEL BROADHURST, Actor: With HVSF: Feste in Twelfth Night, Isaac Jaggard in The Book of Will, Ensemble in The General From America, Silvius in As You Like It, Elbow in Measure for Measure, and Peaseblossom in So Please You, as a member of the HVSF Conservatory Company. Other selected theatre credits include: Easy Laughter (Dirt Theatre Co., NYC), Men of Tortuga (E.A.T., NYC), The Cherry Orchard, Exit The King, and The Seagull (all for The Living Room Theatre Company, VT, of which he is a founding member). You might recognize him from his extensive commercial work which includes spots for ESPN, Nickelodeon, Cumberland Farms, TiVo, and Optimum, among many others. Love to his wife, Rocky!

Mahoney-Melissa_HeadshotMELISSA MAHONEY, Actor: Recent credits include: Henry V and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Shakespeare in the Square), Big Green Theater Festival (The Bushwick Starr), The Tempest & The Sword in the Stone (HVSF Fall Education Tour), As You Like It, Measure for Measure, So Please You (Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival), The Pirate La Dee Da (Atlantic Theater Company/NYT Critics’ Pick/OBAA Best Family Show). BFA NYU/Atlantic Acting School. melissamahoney.me