Lauren Gunderson’s powerful voice fills my office as I hop on a call with her. Vocalized or on paper, her words are firm and take you far. At the top of the American Theatre’s Top 20 Most-Produced Playwrights list (she was second only to August Wilson, who is deceased), San-Francisco-based Gunderson recognizes the power of her story-telling.
“I’m trying to find moments and people in history that most are not familiar with and adapt those for the stage. Theatre is a chance to say things we may not be comfortable saying as one person just by ourselves. On stage, we can illustrate an idea so it’s not just a statistic or an opinion, but it becomes a human story, a lived experience,” Gunderson says.
Loli: Tell us the nitty-gritty about you.
I was born in Decatur, Georgia and while at Emory, I studied English, Creative Writing and Theater. My dad was a writer and a social activist and my mom worked in medicine — in cardiology. I always loved theatre and writing and so I combined them to become a playwright. I started being interested in theatre in kindergarten, I was very young. The first play I wrote was in high-school. I then had a few plays produced at Emory but mostly did a lot of theatre on the performance side. I acted in all the plays I could, professionally and in student groups — I was also in the Rathskellar improv group. Back then, Theater Emory was just starting to produce student plays — mine was the first. In 2003 they selected my play, Leap — it was one of the first times I had that kind of production experience as a writer.
How would you describe yourself? How does theatre serve you?
I’m positive, hopeful. I do believe that theatre has this kind of magic power to bring people together in a physical space listening to a story together. That changes the artists who do the work but also the people who see it. Especially now, theatre has an anti-technology [character] — it keeps us focused and present. Life is so mobile and individual and digital — theatre is analog in a really liberating and empowering way.
Tell us about your plays. Do they have a recurring motif? What are some of their loudest characteristics?
They are very different. They have some patterns, but a lot of it is based on what I’m interested in at the time. Many are about the history of science and women. There’s a lot of feminism, many are funny, political. A lot of them end with some type of big theatrical gesture, some explosive moments.
What are some projects you are working on right now?
A ton. Some for TV, a bunch of plays produced all over the country. In Atlanta, there’s a play on right now at the Essential Theatre [her story about 19th-century mathematician Ada Lovelace, Ada and the Memory Engine] as well as one at the Theatrical Outfit called Miss Bennett. Next summer, my play called The Taming, will be at Synchronicity Theatre.
You play-wrote extensively. What are some of the plays that have a special place in your heart?
There is a play called I and You which won the Steinberg Award — it was a big step in my career. I’m really proud of it because structurally, I think is some of my finest work. It’s really funny, really moving; also surprising and unexpected. It’s going to the U.K. next year and it has brought a lot of people together for conversations. I’m proud of that one.
What are some of your proudest accomplishment as playwright?
I was on the list of the most produced playwrights for a couple of years in a row. This year, I was named the most produced living American playwright. I won several play awards: the 2016 Lanford Wilson Award from the Dramatist Guild, the Otis Gurnsey Award for Emerging Writer and the prestigious 2014 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award. A bunch of them, I’ve been quite lucky.
How does a regular workday look for you?
It starts early. As early as I can, with the kids. I have an office in my house, upstairs. I can get to work right away, even in my pajamas and sometimes I don’t leave the house the entire day. I do try to get out from time to time, though [laughs]. I usually get to my computer at 8 and work until about noon. It depends on the day, some days work is a lot of research and reading, some days it’s a lot of emails. But when I’m working, I really like to write, so I try to spend as much time as I can in the scripts. From noon until about four — since it’s my less creative time of the day, I’m more creative in the morning — I’m doing more practical things. Doing business and promotional stuff, responding to emails or editing manuscripts. The morning is where I try to have the big thoughts and ideas of the day.
How do you balance work and personal life?
I don’t know if I do it very well [laughs]. I have a lot of help to be honest, I have great support from my husband, my sister and my parents. Luckily, I’m surrounded by people who believe that what I do is important and I get the help I need. I’m trying to remember that stories are stories and they’ll always be there, but my kids are growing too fast already — my oldest one is almost three now. I’m trying to spend time with them and I realize that nothing replaces my time with them. I’m trying not to get too stuck with my head in a book or in a computer. I wrote a kids’ book that came out this year [Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog Blast Off to the Moon] and it was very nice to see them choose it [for their nighttime story].
What are some experiences at Emory that were formative for you?
I had a couple of very formative experiences. One was when I was writing the play that Emory would end up producing, Leap. I was talking to my mentor, Jim Grimsley, and there was a scene that I thought was so clever. We looked at it over and over and I couldn’t quite get it right. It was through conversations with him that I realized I could cut the whole thing. And it felt so hard to cut something that I worked so hard on, I thought “we have to keep it, I wrote it, I created it.” I had to defend it. But when I cut a whole chunk of my work with him — I think that’s when I became a professional playwright. Cutting it made the rest of the play flow. Art is not about defending all you created but doing the hard decisions of trimming and pruning and even in some cases, throwing things out to have a solid material that is not weighed down.
And then, I remember very clearly watching my play that was produced from backstage under the risers, taking glances at my work from another position. I still do that now, I love watching my plays from the side of the stage. I also remember quite clearly when I was acting, [there was] the backstage area, which is a whole different world, opposite to the well-lit order in front of the stage. That purgatorial landscape that is backstage [laughs]…
What would you recommend to emerging Emory artists based on your experience at the school?
The one thing that comes to mind is more of a regret. As a Theater student, I wished I took courses in every design element I could: a lighting course, a costume course, set-design, directing. I focused primarily on writing and acting and realized now that I kind of missed a whole world of conversation and language and ideas I could’ve used in my work as a playwright. In whatever form you’re studying, whether it’s painting or dance, try to get as much experience as you can in all of the expertises that surround what you want to do. I wished I took a lighting design class so that I could think like a lighting designer. An example: as a writer, if you write from the perspective of a lighting or sound designer, your play will pick on a whole new life. There are several moments in my plays — some of the most successful ones — that have involved writing a moment that a sound or lighting designer would just love. They could take that moment and use their skills to the fullest. It becomes really unforgettable as part of the production. I wished I learned that lesson earlier!
What are your plans, both on professional and personal levels?
I want to keep inventing, to keep trying out every version of what I do. I’m waiting to experiment with my next big aesthetic idea. There are so many stories to tell, a thousand plays I want to write and I’m trying to figure out when to write each one. Which is the one I should be writing right now? What’s the world that we’re in and what play can engage with it and serve it and challenge it? There are also a couple of new venues to explore, including plays that are in the form of audio-books. What’s theatre’s conversation with this new media format? What’s theatre’s conversation with TV and film, dance and the internet? There’s so many ways to tell stories and we’re so thirsty for them, all over the world and all the time. How can we use that thirst to make more responsible and respectful societies? I think that’s the big dream. Figure out how theatre can help change the world.
I go back to theatre more now because of how technology wants me to stay by myself. The way theatre engages with social media — you need to leave all of that alone and at the door of a play. You don’t want to bring that into the world of the theatre. That’s one of my questions: is there a way that social media and phones and that kind of constant digital presence could be welcome in a play? In the same time, theatre is such an ancient form of storytelling, that you kind of don’t need all the new stuff to allow it its most power. It’s an ancient thing for humanity to gather around a fire and tell stories to each other. It doesn’t work alone, not even when there are only two people — you need a group of people. You don’t feel the kind of shake of a group laughing if you’re by yourself or in front of a screen. You don’t feel the thrill of an audience, or the applause, the thunder of it. That’s all ancient information for us as human beings. I feel like technology can’t achieve that, it’s the least competent at targeting big group behaviors that have defined us for millennia as creatures. Let’s maybe leave technology to do what it’s good at, let’s not give technology too much credit. Like in farming, if you’re interested in the food, go back to the source, to the cow that gives you your milk. That’s a certain way of investigating the power, the source and the pleasure of a thing. In some ways, theatre is the farm, the home that stories came through. So I think it’s thrilling to go to a play and see people in their full bodies and hearts and voices tell you a story that won’t be told the same way ever again. It’s so unique and riveting and powerful.
As I ask for some last words of wisdom, Lauren tells me that an important creed she goes by is “writers write.” The desire to fulfill her position as a writer is a reason why she gets up excited every morning. She realizes that emerging yourself in a story can change you — physically, mentally and spiritually. In that way, Lauren has long been a life-changer and she doesn’t appear to slow down anytime soon.