Lauren Gunderson, writer of The Book of Will, is America's most popular playwright you've probably never heard of.
October 16, 2017
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.
Despite 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.”