Lauren Gunderson, at 32, is a very busy playwright. She has two plays being produced in multiple theatres around the country, another, based on artist Rudolf Bauer, is heading for New York. She has rehearsals and openings to attend, and was just named the keynote speaker for the American Theatre Critics Association’s annual meeting at next month’s Humana Festival in Louisville. One of her plays, I and You, is part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premieres. It closes at Olney on March 30 and then transfers to Geva Theatre in Rochester, NY for an April 10 opening, while Phoenix Theatre has its own production closing mid-April. More plays are in the queue. And she has ideas for new plays and TV pilots.
Talking with her is like playing a fast-moving game of catch using exclamation marks.
Are you making a living from all this?
Yes! Oddly enough. With theatre, it is hard to make it a consistent income. I’m lucky to be married to an incredible man who smooths out those low spots in terms of finances. But, yes, it’s a great moment when I think that without much help, I could do this on my own. Though I would probably be just about at the minimum wage.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a southern girl … originally from Atlanta .. At Actor’s Express, which is quite a well-known contemporary theater, I played the sassy little sister of some character [at 12], and I kind of realized, over the next couple years, that people still wrote plays and that changed my career idea from being an actor to being a writer. I certainly liked the idea of changing the ending of things, and writing characters for women, which I didn’t see enough of when I was a young aspiring actor.”
Describe your writing day.
Good question. I get up pretty early, you know, seven o’clock is the average. I pop right up and right to the computer… oftentimes I will do a little bit of research, and reading… part of my creative process is writing about writing, so I keep blogs and Tumblrs for each project, what it’s like writing this play at this moment. And oftentimes they pick up during rehearsals, so the I and You Tumblr has all of the essays and research and things that are inspiring – I’m kinda my own dramaturg.
I mean, my dramaturgy is more on the research end and what’s the world of this play, what’s the world of the characters, what would they like and read and listen to. You know, seventy percent of my work is wondering, and walking around the city with ideas that are kind of starting to form, and talking to my colleagues and my husband, really trying to describe the play I’m trying to write.
I tend to find a lot of clarity that way. So that when I sit down, and am actually dealing with lines of dialogue and stage directions, I already have a kind of structure in my mind. It’s easier and more efficient writing.
OK, if I were to tell somebody this story [I and You] in one paragraph, how would I say it? I’d say ‘there is Caroline, and she’s sick, and she doesn’t have any friends. And what she wants changes at the end.’ And then when I actually write it, I can have that in my mind, as opposed to the approach of ‘I’m going to start a play. I have no idea what’s going on.’ I’m very scared of that. I pretty much know an ending to a story, before I start writing.
You knew this ending?
Oh, yes. Certainly for I and You. It began with that twist [which will not be revealed here]. And then it was – how can I earn that?
It certainly was earned. We just didn’t see it coming.
You know, nobody does. It’s really satisfying…
[We discussed one particular sound effect that ushers in the shift in the play.]
I have to say I’m very proud of that moment, because I think some playwrights forget to write for designers. I love writing for sound and for costume, even, for lighting. There are just so many writing choices – I think – how can sound do this work for me? I’m not a sound designer, lighting designer, so I don’t know actually how to pull it off but I give them the opportunity specifically in the play, saying this is a sound moment that saves us or this is a light moment that transforms us.
It really reminds us that wow, that’s really what theater is. We have these wonderful tools that kind of supercharge our imaginations. And let’s use them.
You seem so confident about your work.
It kind of doesn’t work without confidence. I have to point the boat in the right direction – that’s mixing metaphors….I have to know where I’m going, or else I can’t steer properly. This play [I and You] could have ended, ‘here’s the deal, I love you’, hug and bye now.
I loved how Thaddeus Fitzpatrick (Anthony in the Olney production) played the lines you wrote for that moment; he played it as “I can’t stand this anymore! I have to tell you!”
Yeah. It was so good. He’s going to be with us for a long time in the American theater, I know. This [Olney] cast I feel really dropped into the rhythms of their people while retaining the rhythms of being able to go from teen speak to Walt Whitman. Especially when Thaddeus speaks the Whitman lines, it sounds like Shakespeare to me. I mean, he sounds like Hamlet – it’s wonderful, and then he drops down to the ‘like’s and ‘whatever’s and ‘I don’t know’s. It’s really cool.
I understand that you specify one of the two actors playing teenagers in the play should be African American.
There’s a character description that Anthony is African American and Caroline is white. But it also says that the race can be reversed. The only thing is that they can’t be the same race. One day I hope I see a Vietnamese Anthony. Would love to see how it changes the story.
One of my best colleagues, who is African American, said “I’m really excited that this is a role for a person of color but that it’s not about being a person of color.” It doesn’t have to be a point of tension. Just a fact. He’s a wonderful person who saves the day and just happens to be a person of color. I want more of that on American stages.”
With the rolling world premieres, I and You will have three different production companies, and four premieres.
That’s right. I’m so grateful to the National New Play Network for making this a rolling world premiere. I really do think that rolling world premieres are an exciting idea in American theater right now. It really connects the local artists in all the wonderful cities making theater to each other. It adds the sort of things like diversity and partnership, that really helps young plays grow. Without the National New Play Network this play might have gone nowhere after its first San Francisco production. This play has whatever longevity it will have because of National New Play Network.
Won’t it be exciting once high school students are able to perform these characters their own age?
Yes. That’s interesting. At the first reading at South Coast Rep there were high school teachers in the audience and I kept in touch with them because it really meant a lot While we were premiering, a high school in Irvine were doing a reading. They were the exact age [as the characters], so it was really cool to have them working on it while I was working on it.
You once said your ideal for a play is to have two or more women talking about something other than men. Have you written that scene?
I try to write about science and history too. My last play, Silent Sky, is about Henrietta Leavitt, and other female astronomers so most of their discussion is about science and the course of human knowledge. They talk about love a little and sisterhood but women are a lot more than the men next to them.
In the fall of 2015, in the Washington area, we’re going to have a festival of new unproduced works by women playwrights. And the reason for this is that women playwrights are saying that there are unfair barriers to getting produced. You seem to be both prolific and produced, and I’m wondering what your sense is of that.
I definitely think it’s a very real and permanent phenomenon. I have been lucky to be produced in the last year or two with some regularity, and that’s an incredible turn in my career, but before that, it was not necessarily slow, maybe once a year, once every year and a half. Which is, you know, pretty normal, but I do write pretty quickly, and all of a sudden there were a lot of productions, but that took some years – I’ve been writing for fifteen years.
Frankly the bar, wonderful as it is, is still really low. That you would commit to one new world premiere play by a woman. I mean, that’s pretty low. But that’s great, and it doesn’t exclude other plays by women that aren’t world premieres. As the rolling world premiere model shows us, the first production, frankly, isn’t as hard to get as the second and third. Really, to make a play a part of the canon, or part of the American theater landscape means committing to a play’s second and third and fourth productions, which gives it time to mature as a play, to be seen by more communities, and which makes it an American play, as opposed to just a San Francisco play, or a Denver play.
The thing that is most important to me, even more so than the female writer, is female characters. I think that’s what audiences really want to see. What changes perception is who we see on stage. Women can be writing plays and if they’re still mostly about men, we’re still in the same conundrum that we were before. My great friend Steve Yockey, who wrote that wonderful play Pluto, that’s disturbing and creative and is one great play, has a wonderful woman character there.
I want more writers like Tracy Letts, out there. Wonderful men writers. I really want more women out front. And of course more women writers, director and designers and more women onstage.
I AND YOU
Closes March 30, 2014
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
Olney, MD 20832
1 hour, 25 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $53 – $63
Wednesdays thru Sundays
I’ve read that you wish the critic and the playwright could have a collaborative relationship.
Sure. It’s kind of funny that critics, interviewers and theatre makers, we all occupy the same space, we work in the exact same field but we don’t really talk to each other. I feel like we’re these great carriers of knowledge and opinion but we don’t share it very much.
I know people need their independence, so practically I don’t know how it would work. I just think we could have a fascinating collaborative space. I know that so many critics that I respect – even the reviews I read including Tim’s where he made interesting connections which I hadn’t made yet about my own work. It’s a cool thing.
It would make everybody including the community where it’s happening more aware of each other and more in tune with each other’s process. We’d sit down and talk: ‘tell me the plays you love and I’ll tell you the ones I love.’
I am a fan of being supportive of each other’s work. It helps all of us and theatre as a whole. Sometimes there is a snarkiness to reviews that is detrimental to everyone involved and I’m not sure how that contributes to the longevity of a form that is not going to die but that needs reminders of how important it is.
Would you answer this question: If I weren’t a playwright, I would be
…. a fulltime activist for women’s rights and women’s safety across the world. I think that’s what drives me to write some of the plays- – telling women’s stories to remind the world that women are complete and complex human beings and that men and women live together, our lives are all together.