Monday, January 03, 2011

I Interview Playwrights Part 300: Lauren Gunderson

Lauren Gunderson

Hometown: Decatur, GA (just outside Atlanta)

Current Town: San Francisco, CA

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I enjoy a little too much going on. I also love lists. So:

1) A new "revenge comedy" called EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR starting its rolling premiere with Synchronicity Theatre in Atlanta March 4, rolling to San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theatre in August, then to Seattle's ArtsWest in October.

2) My second commission for South Coast Rep (a true story period science lady play with a math-music obsession) called SILENT SKY directed by Anne D'Zmura - running April 1-May 1

3) My first commission from the Kennedy Center Theatre for Young Audiences (a mystery science musical with a talking dog - yeyah) called THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF DR WONDERFUL AND HER DOG directed by the awesome Sean Daniels with music by Brian Lowdermilk

4) My first commission from SF Playhouse currently called BRIGHT WHITE LIFE - a true story of non-objective artist Rudolf Bauer.

5) FIRE WORK is finalist for the Global Age Project at Aurora this winter.

6) EMILIE is opening at ArtsWest Jan 24th in Seattle

7) A super cute family Christmas musical with music/lyrics by Harry Connick Jr.

8) Other plays in their annoying infancy (one with Just Theatre that's kind of about Macbeth)

9) And the requisite TV pilot ideas, HuffPo essays, plays I should not let myself write until I finish the aforementioned ones, etc...

Q: Tell me about writing for the Huffington Post.

A: I got involved because I knew the new Arts Editor (who is an incredible painter) and she suggested I write about theatre as a member of the emergent creative community in the performing arts. So we found a complementarity - I get to write about theatre from a playwrights perspective and they get a more diverse readership.

I'm treating this blog as a markedly optimistic assignment - I want to inject more of the good news into our field, but not shy away from the tougher realities either. I'm not interested in reviewing but I am interested in connecting with the reasons we make new plays - the goals of various productions, the individual standards of the artists.

I start with more positivity, more delight, more of the reason we all started in this ridiculous field. I want to share some of that with new-to-theatre folks.

I mean I get anxious like everybody. But I fundamentally believe that there is joy and urgency in this work. So I write from that. Plus, if we don't have some cheering, it all looks completely bipolar. We go from raves to blasts; from "theatre changes the world!" to "lovely but irrelevant" to "it all sucks and we suck and everyone sucks". Theatre is better than that.

Q:  Tell me about SILENT SKY.

A:  It's a true story of this amazing (but dusted over by history) woman living at the turn of the last century when women couldn't vote, couldn't attend the best institutions, couldn't do much professionally besides teach high school. Henrietta Leavitt took a rather boring job at Harvard Observatory calculating star magnitudes and ended up culling out incredible patterns in Cepheid stars. Her work led major later astronomers (namely Edwin Hubble) to understand and unlock the universe on the grandest scale yet known.

I have a science fixation, always have. I found about about Henrietta when I was living in NYC and killing time in the basement of The Strand bookstore (where the Science sections are tucked away). I picked up George Johnsons's lovely little book called Miss Leavitt's Stars. I thought, as I often do, "A female astronomer about whom I don't know? Investigate and dramatize".

I was looking for a subject for my next South Coast Rep commission and this fit perfectly for them and for me. This is a play that combines so much of what I love and find magnetic on stage: women risking it all, the gorgeous kinds of science, catalytic moments in history, discovery, complex family, love stories.

In fact I told Mr. Johnson just a week ago that I wrote a play based in part on his book. But I added the suffragette movement and some kissing. Luckily he said that he loved the idea of Henrietta in love. So we're cool. It's going to be a beautiful production.


A:  This is a very new kind of play for me (and VERY different from SILENT SKY) - a wild comedy that combines my Southern roots, my deep heart for women's empowerment and preventing domestic abuse, my great debt to Shakespeare, and my love of obsessive people, Jimmy Carter, best friends, and nature documentaries. And karaoke. It's a funny play about serious things. The characters in it would say its a very serious drama - but to the audiences its funny. Because its true. And ridiculous.

BEAR came about because of a lot of support and trust from some key folks - namely Amy Mueller at The Playwrights Foundation and Rachel May at Synchronicity Theatre in Atlanta. When I moved to SF Amy kick started the play - encouraging me to finish writing it, and giving me a reading. Then Rachel picked it right up and was bold enough to say "hell, let's just produce this thing". From there we got the idea to do a rolling premiere which now has 3 cities.

Q:  How did you become first Playwright in Residence at the Kavli
Institute of Theoretical Physics?

A:  I mentioned my science thing. It's been there for a while. So I worked with the folks at Kavli some years ago as most of my plays are about science, science-history, women in science, etc. I have a bunch of friends in the physics community who have done their Journalist-In-Residence program. So I thought - "heck, we need some dramatists there!". So I approached them about adding a playwriting residency. Then my life got way complicated with a ton of projects that meant that I couldn't be in Santa Barbara right away. But I knew this wonderful playwright Lila Rose Kaplan was there so I hooked them up. I'm so excited that Lila is there and that Kavli is committing to the arts. Great for theatre and science.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  The story my dad would tell you is the time I played Baby Bear in my Kindergarten production of Goldilocks... which they made us do in Spanish... before any of us knew Spanish... so we clenched our scripts like a Metro map having no clue what we were doing or saying. My mom made my little bear costume, of which I was torridly proud, and it got to my big scene with the porridge... and with one wisp of a spotlight I promptly overacted with a grand theatrical gesture and sent my script flying off the stage. Parents gasped, cast mates snorted, and I (without ever having actually attempted to do the part well or memorized) spat out the perfectly accented grammatically correct Spanish line "Someone's been eating my porridge and they ate it all up!" That's when my dad says he knew that words and theatre were my natural habitat. And that my priorities were definitely akimbo to modern America.

I also remember the moment that i realized that people still wrote plays - like new plays - like that was a thing people did with their time and - gasp - careers.

And in high school I remember when I was trying to finish my first play - PARTS THEY CALL DEEP (which I realize sounds like a porn video now, but back then... y'know...). I was at the dinner table and I was pondering how the hell do you END a PLAY? It doesn't really end unless I kill everybody, right? I don't want to kill people. Maybe one person. No wait... maybe I could... oohh! And I ran upstairs and wrote a scene that was emotionally true but realistically not - people changed and grew but not in real time or real space. It freed me to use theatre for what it was - made up. It's fiction, its magic, we're all playing along. I can do ANYTHING. And that's opened up my taste for theatre that really surprises my senses but maintains humanity.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  I will admit that I'm anxious about critics. I think a lot of us are. And not in a healthy way. In a very sad way that more often cripples new ideas than carbonates them. So I would change the relationship of playwrights/theatre artists to critics. Paula Vogel reminds us of a time when Eugene O'Neill and the major critic of the day (can't remember his name) were friends, they had dinners together, they discussed and argued and activated their ideas. The critic gave O'Neill a trunk. I saw it. It's in his house in CT. A trunk.

I would take time but I would have the kind of community wherein critics and creators can actually communicate - to talk about taste and "Theatre" and art and audience and the point of all this. It wouldn't feel so much like a gladiatorial thumbs up/down arrangement. It could help the creatives understand reviewing and reviews; and help reviewers more intimately understand the choices, competencies, and process of the particular artists. I know reviewing is NOT an easy job. But I'll go ahead and wager that writing a play, navigating the theatrical landscape to get a production, collaborating constantly on that production, and working to the very last second before opening, then releasing your idea into the world is the harder, riskier, and more time-consuming activity.

I've learned a lot from reading reviews and theatre essays - these are smart folks talking about what I love the most. One of my great friends is the theatre and culture critic Mark Blankenship - who I think re-imagines and energizes criticism. And I agree with the critics as often as I don't. So I don't want criticism to go away. I just wish it didn't feel so charged, but felt more symbiotic - we all want theatre to be its best, right?

Or maybe I'd just make all theatre shows $10, and all theatre become heavily endowed, and all theaters have playwrights in residence that are also heavily endowed (with so much health insurance that its fun to get sick), and have everyone see each others work, and everyone will be happy and supported and singing in the streets. That'd be nice.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Tennessee Williams - southern, poetic, dreamy, brilliant, broken and edgy. Bless his mess.

Paula Vogel - Her inventive and ambitious play structures, her wicked humor, her bravery in emotionally tough subjects

Tom Stoppard - his wacked out science/philosophical/historical/literary masterpieces are like Guinness - thick, rich, and filling (which I realize also sounds like a porn... oy...)

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Big ideas, true stories, true meanings, complete fiction, beautiful theatre, muscly acting, cheap magic, expensive magic, characters risking for truth, funny funny stuff, characters that are supremely human, love stories, LOVE stories, active theatricality, activist theatre, issue plays about big issues, Holy Sh*t Theatre. You can't fake making your audience feel. That excites me.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  See a lot. Read a lot. Write a lot. I think its so silly when people who want to be in theatre DON'T go see theatre. You have to go. That's the whole point. Find your family in theatre - some crazy aesthetic relatives you never knew you had, and see their work, talk about it, reach out to the writer, actors, director. Also don't only do theatre. Certainly find and grow to love the people that tell you the truth about your work - that know most of your work (your tendencies, your quirks), that tell you to stop doing what you always do, that tell you "goddamn this is your best yet," that gently say "um... this is... not great...", that are there for you.  Shout out to Steve Yockey who is this incredible writer/dramaturg/friend/teacher/genius for me. And Lucy Alibar who is my cheerleader and co-dreamer. And Suehyla El-Attar who is my curious realist, connective thinker, and constant conversationalist.

But my actual motto is: Be Nice. Do great work. Find your family. Surprise yourself.