Playwright Lauren Gunderson on Science, Storytelling, and Being the Most-Produced Playwright in America

For the past few years, Lauren Gunderson has found herself on the top of American Theatre’s list as the most-produced playwright in America. Here is what Gunderson had to say to Beltline to Broadway about science, writing, and women in the theater.

“Wonder is the shared trunk from which the curiosities, craft, vision, and perseverance of both science and art spring.” – Lauren Gunderson

Beltline to Broadway: You gave a speech at the Wisconsin Science Festival, which fascinates me because I have an artist’s brain, my husband has very much of a science brain, and never the twain shall meet. Tell me how your curiosity in both science and art informs who you are as a playwright.

LG: I think the reason we tell stories is to unpack an idea, to do thought experiments. I think that’s what plays and stories are, thought experiments for both the creators and the audiences to play with an idea of, what would I do or what would I risk. And so, I think since the dawn of language, we have used storytelling and fiction to play out possibilities and learn from them. It’s a way of testing our social intelligence. So, I do think of theatre not as a kind of entertainment that is extraneous to a productive life, but as fundamental. It is part of how we learn how to be human and how we keep ourselves going. And I love the science, some of which is more theoretical because we’re talking about something from a very long time ago which we don’t have good evidence of in terms of early civilization’s relationship to storytelling, but, it’s not a far leap to see how what we do today has a kind of primal origin. That is my relationship in terms of the science of playwriting and storytelling. But I also love stories of science. I was lucky to start as a playwright when I was in middle school and high school, so I learned early what I wanted to do. That is to say, early on in middle school and high school, I had a few really great science teachers, some of whom were great because they talked not only about equations and theories and hypothesis but the people who made the discoveries. So, we didn’t just learn about gravity, but we learned about Isaac Newton. And that, to me, suddenly clicked in going, “Oh, there are people behind these great moments in intellectual history.” And what is a play except moments where things change and moments that are humanized that we can put on stage and dramatize? Those moments are moments of great revelation and great decision and where everything changes for the protagonist and their world. And that’s science. All of these people have incredible moments, the eureka moments, and that makes great theater because it is, again, inside the human experience. We can see the look on their face, the gasp when they realize, ‘I’ve got this idea, I think it might be true.’ All of the drama related to proving science. That’s great drama. And it also makes theater about something very real.

Beltline to Broadway: You’ve compared yourself to a character from one of your plays, Olympe de Gouges (The Revolutionists), a French playwright and activist, and said that it is clear that when you’re writing about her, you’re kind of talking about yourself. So, tell me about the similarities between you and Madame de Gouges. 

LG: Madame de Gouges… Well, the conversation I am always having with myself is, does art matter? Does fiction matter? Does storytelling do anything beyond entertaining? I believe that it does, but it is easy to hear the other argument. If you believe in something, why would you write a play about it instead of protesting or becoming a lawmaker and changing the law or starting a non-profit? There are lots of ways to affect the world. So, I am having this conversation, much like the playwright Olympe de Gouges in the play is. She kind of believes that she’s doing some good, but she also feels like she’s kind of getting away with something by just writing about it and not being active about it. And in a way, I recognize that, and I think that’s why that play can exist. But she certainly comes to the revelation that there is the bravery in writing something you believe in and standing by it, putting your name on it, which on a good day, that’s what I do.

Beltline to Broadway: Do you view your plays as political plays or political theater and if not, how would you describe them?

I hope they are political. I think part of what is certainly political now is the very act of going to see a play, which is challenging the way that our socialization in America works right now. The theater is designed for random people to come together in a physical time and space, which is already pretty dramatic and revelatory, to have it not be on-demand, not be scrollable on your phone, not be downloadable, but in person, with strangers, and we turn our attention to a life that’s not ours. And even the very act, no matter what the play’s about, that act in itself, has empathetic qualities. That’s the gift of theater. That is the primal source of its power. It is a community builder. I think that is political in and of itself, no matter what the play’s about.

Every play of mine is a feminist story, even if there are more men in it than women. In that way, it’s also a humanist story. I think feminist plays are not just for women, they’re for everybody. Much like ‘Hamlet’ is a play that is usually about a man but is for everybody, why should a play about a woman not be for everybody as well?

I think a lot of my plays are science focused, which apparently that’s political now, to admit that science is a thing, truth is a thing. I didn’t think that part of it would be so political, but sure, I’m happy to fight that fight.

LG: A lot of the stories are about progressive decisions, some of which are self-sacrificial for the greater good. And you know, I think theater, as a whole, tends to hold up examples of progressive values. I do think that theater and storytelling as a whole, might just be progressive in its DNA.

Beltline to Broadway: In an interview with the New York Times, you called certain passages in your work “transcendental holy crap moments.” Can you tell me about writing some of those moments?

I love those moments in theater. Those are why I watch theater, why I love it, why I love writing it, and those are the moments that I’m most excited by and proud of in my work. Probably the most obvious example is not in the two plays you mentioned but in the play ‘I and You.’ The end of my play ‘I and You’ has a really big kind of twist, revelation, cool, holy shit kind of moment, which that one has worked really well. I’m quite proud of that one.

Often times, they’re not big twists or surprises, but they are just emotionally raw moments. There’s a moment in The Revolutionists when the character, Marianne, reads the letter that her husband died, and the only person next to her is Marie Antoinette, who at the beginning of the play, she has zero tolerance for. And their scene, I think is really gorgeous because it requires so much of that emotional rawness. And both plays, both Emilie and The Revolutionists have this kind of unfolding of truth and bravery. One of the most common themes in my work is legacy and mortality and facing an end we all know is coming, but with grace and bravery.

Also, the big holy shit moments often break the structure, break the rules that you set up for the rest of the play. There is a moment in ‘Emilie,’ and I won’t spoil it, but where the rules of the play that we’ve seen so far shut down just for a moment.

LG: Often those moments are about secrets coming out, they’re about people crossing a line and not being able to put up with bullshit anymore and finally standing up for themselves. And they can be simple too. A play of mine, Silent Sky has a moment where a character drops something of great value. And it’s the tiniest thing, right? It’s just something breaking on stage and yet the metaphors contained in it, the viscerality of hearing something fragile break, it actually is a wonder. You have gasps from audiences for something as simple as that, which I love. I feel like I’m best at my craft when I can come up with those moments.

Beltline to Broadway: You’ve described women as the moral beacon of theater. What do you mean by that and do you think that women in this industry, are at the forefront of a cultural shift in this somewhat male-dominated industry?

LG: Yes. I think often of what Ruth Bader Ginsburg said about how many women should be on the Supreme Court and she said, ‘nine.’ And I think of that in terms of all industries, all mediums, all art forms across the world. And I wonder what it would look like if literally, every position in American theater was a woman. I don’t think that is necessary. Theaters strive on diversity of all kinds and having inclusion of all kinds. But what would it be like if for the last hundreds of years, plays had been written mostly by women? I don’t know. I’d like to find out. I do think because there’s an inherent struggle for a woman in the world and even more so for women of color, for disabled women, for trans women, that the struggle and the way women think about the world is different than a man’s perspective. That’s part of what I mean about the moral beacon. If you ask a woman, she’ll tell you a different thing, different elements in the world that she thinks to be fixed right now, then perhaps a man would. Because men have been in charge, their concerns get addressed first. Perhaps they don’t even know the concerns of women because they’ve never asked. And we’re getting to a point now, thank God, where those concerns are coming more to the forefront, but there’s a lot that women know that isn’t vocalized, that isn’t addressed. I hope that we can all continue amplifying the voices of women in the arts and of course all around the world. It’s certainly what I think about daily, about the various stories that I get to tell. 

Beltline to Broadway: You consistently make American Theatre’s list of top 20 most-produced playwrights. In 2017-2018 you earned the title of being the most produced playwright. What is it about your plays that speak to people and really make them so popular?

LG: I don’t know. That would require being my own dramaturg, which I’m not. But I’d like to think that they are stories where the audience can walk away with some hope for the future, for the world, for themselves, for other people. I like that there is an inspiring tone to a lot of the stories, the undiscovered stories of profound female scientists from the past or even hard-fought love. Even if the character dies in the end or loses in the end or betrays in the end, there is still hope and there is a vision of a better world not too far away after the show goes down. I think ‘The Revolutionists’ is a good example of that. So, I think that’s part of why. I’m certainly not as afraid of emotion. And it’s funny to think that in theater. We’re usually known for being too emotional, but some plays aren’t. They shy away from it. They back away from it. I love as much earned emotion as you can. I think that makes them good for actors [and directors]. I’m not afraid of comedy. I love a really smart comedy. I think theatergoers and theater producers are always looking for a good comedy. So I think that’s part of why. I also just write a hell of a lot of plays. That may be it. It may just be math.

Beltline to Broadway: There’s a little bit of a time travel, voyeur element to your plays. If you could time travel back and have a dinner conversation with any of the women in your plays, who would it be and why?

Oh my God. All of them. Can we just have a very big dinner party and they’re all invited? I think probably the most fun at a party would be Emilie du Chatelet or Ada Lovelace. They would be quite fun. I think Ada Lovelace, maybe. Yeah, I find her fascinating. I feel like she needs a good friend. I’d like to be her best friend and help her out a little bit.

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