The Gunderson Effect

In this internet age, to say something is unprecedented is just asking for challenge.  But I am confident in my research.  I have been unable to find any examples that even come close to this:  A living playwright who will see eight – yes, eight – of her plays fully produced by seven different professional theatre companies within a roughly 40 mile radius of San Francisco and within less than three years.  That count includes six world premieres and two regional premieres but does NOT include several separate readings and workshops of some of those plays, nor her developmental work right now at Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor summer residency lab on yet another new piece.  The few remaining Bay Area theatres without a relationship with Lauren Gunderson must be blinking rapidly and wondering how they missed this train.

Lauren Gunderson

Lauren Gunderson


The versatility and diverse nature of her work allow it to fit into different theatre spaces and seasons and may partly explain her widespread appeal.  Those eight plays are:  Exit, Pursued by a Bear (Crowded Fire Theatre 2011); Emilie La Marquise du Chatalet Defends Her Life Tonight (Symmetry Theatre Company 2012), Toil & Trouble (Impact Theatre 2012); By and By (Shotgun Players 2013); The Taming (Crowded Fire 2013); I and You (Marin Theatre Company 2013); Silent Sky (TheatreWorks 2014); and Bauer (SF Playhouse 2014).

(To get a better understanding of the diversity of her work, take a look at the expanded list of these eight Bay Area productions with more detailed dates and a brief description of the plays’ subjects which I’ve included at the end of this post.)

Eight plays in less than three years.  Seven plays in less than two years.  FIVE PLAYS IN TWELVE MONTHS.   Produced.  In the Bay Area.  Start measuring whenever you choose — It is stunning.

The Bay Area part of this is interesting, and convenient for Lauren since she lives in San Francisco.   Theatre Bay Area has noticed.  Sam Hurwitt, Editor-in-Chief of TBA’s magazine wrote an article about her a year ago: “Keep An Eye On:  Lauren Gunderson”.  And Theatre Bay Area named her as one of its 2013 Faces of Theatre honorees.  However, California is not the entirety of this extraordinary catalogue of recent and planned productions of Lauren Gunderson plays. I and You will not only premiere at Marin but will roll on to premiere  at Olney Theatre Center in Maryland. Toil & Trouble is playing in Cincinatti this summer.  Her play Exit, Pursued by a Bear has been and is being produced in regional theatres around the country (Fort Worth, Texas this August).  The Taming will also play at ArtsWest Seattle this October.  Her first musical The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog!  played The Kennedy Center last fall and continues its life in a state-wide tour in Florida this summer.  One of her earlier plays, Emilie… is schedule for WAM Barrington stage this November.  I do not undertake to warrant any kind of completeness outside the Bay Area.  It’s just too burdensome.  Whew.

Jennifer LeBlanc Michael Patrick Gaffney  in By and By

Jennifer LeBlanc
Michael Patrick Gaffney
in By and By at Shotgun Players

So, human nature being what it is, why haven’t all the other playwrights in America commenced a campaign of some childish name-calling or something?  Because — it’s very hard to meet Lauren Gunderson and not fall immediately and completely under her spell.  Whether it’s holdover southern charm from her Georgia background or just deep charisma and natural sweetness,  she is captivating.

Lauren describes herself as “really southern” – particularly after moving to the Bay Area. The storytelling tradition in the South and in her personal family history was an important influence on Lauren’s chosen career and from an early age she felt a kindred spirit with other “writer ladies of the South — Flannery O’Conner, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams (who was basically a writer lady of the South).  I remember thinking:  those writers are funny, dark  – unforgettable.  I will be one of those women.”

That’s a theme’s that’s enthusiastically embraced when I raise it in my telephone conversation with Lucy Alibar, the playwright and screenwriter of the award-winning film Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Ms. Alibar is one of Lauren’s closest friends ever since they both won, at age 14, the Young Playwrights Inc. National Playwriting Competition in Atlanta.  She told me that “the South is full of storytellers.  We put our whole lives into stories in order to understand them, to make sense of them, to challenge them. . . . Lauren and I both definitely still have a strong connection to the South.  Especially after leaving it, we both feel very much of the South and I have enjoyed seeing that develop in her work.”

It was clear from my talk with her friend that Lauren’s success today really just plots the current point on an almost inevitable uphill axis resulting from consistent hard work and “old school work ethic” buttressed by  her “deep focus and critical thinking, coupled with a soaring imagination”.  Add significant talent and a heaping spoonful of “it” and that’s the recipe.  lg banjo

I first met Lauren when she was in a group of artists doing short presentations at a private writers’ showcase at TheatreWorks.  I expected her to read from a play in progress but instead she came out with a banjo and told us she was going to sing us a bluegrass song called “Storm Still” she was working on for a play based on King Lear and on the the loss of her grandfather and this would be the first time she’d sung it for “anyone other than her drunk friends or her cats”.  (She snapped the self-photo on the right to commemorate the occasion; I purloined it from her Instagram post.) My first (but not last) lesson not to expect this woman or her work to be predictable.

Lauren Gunderson is a phenomenon.  Which is somewhat fitting given that she has woven into many of her plays  the stories of female scientists in history who were both phenomenal themselves and who helped to discover, invent or understand scientific phenomena in fields ranging from physics to astronomy to computing. (I have inside information that she’s working on a play about Ada Babbage, an early computer genius.)

Science, generally, is one of Lauren’s favorite subjects – to think about, write out about and, presumably, for breakfast table chat (since her husband is Dr. Nathan Wolfe, virologist, biomedical researcher, Stanford professor and writer of “The Viral Storm”).  My personal experience of Lauren’s work, to date, has involved my learning a bit about  physics, force vive, thermodynamics, human cloning, and patterns of luminosity of Cepheid stars and their role in measuring earth’s place in the universe. And I’m just getting started delving into her work.

"Exit, Pursued by A Bear" Chicago's Theatre Seven

“Exit, Pursued by A Bear”
Chicago’s Theatre Seven

But not all of her plays involve science.  Exit, Pursued by a Bear, for example, is a darkly comic play about domestic violence.  (I am probably giving too much away to say that, as originally used in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale,  the title here is also a stage direction, with, perhaps, dire consequences for an abusive husband.)

I think Lauren Gunderson is particularly good at making her plays relevant for a broad 21st Century American audience — even when they involve science or history or are set in another time or place.  As she said in her program notes for Shotgun Player’s recent production of By and By:  “What breaks our hearts does not change, even as our world does.”

In addition to her playwriting, Lauren is a prolific essayist and participant in internet dialogues about theatre.  Hard to choose among many, but my favorites are probably her essay for the Huffington Post from 2010, still apt today, titled “An Openly Optimistic Letter to Performing Artists Freaking Out About Relevance During Hard Times” and her piece on “All Plays Are Classics: On Lineage, Trust and the Necessary New” from a year ago and the fascinating and extensive commentary it evoked.

When writing about a playwright, it is tempting to try and find a pithy shortcut summary to describe her work – Lauren Gunderson writes plays about historical female scientists.  Yes, but she writes other plays too where science is a theme, even a critical character.  And what about her series of Shakespeare revenge comedies?  And the musicals?  And the newest one (newest for me anyway) about an artist imprisoned by the Nazis who ultimately inspires the building of the Guggenheim museum?

TheatreWorks Jan 2014

TheatreWorks Jan 2014

She does seem to have some themes she returns to:  science, smart women, smart people, under-appreciated smart women, history, romance, politics, humor (always humor).  I do not believe it is possible to summarize Lauren Gunderson or her work. I, at least, cannot do so.  The best I can do is make a broad generalization about her plays:  in varying degrees, they all make us laugh, ache a bit and think a lot.

So, I recommend you see one of her plays if you can — and you can soon!  If you live in Berkeley, San Francisco, Marin, the Penninsula, the South Bay (anywhere in the Bay Area) or in Seattle, or Florida, or Maryland or Fort Worth, Texas or Cincinatti or near Barrington Stage in Massachusettes or  . . . near any of the as yet unannounced but fortunate theatre companies that will be producing Lauren Gunderson’s work.

toil and trouble cincinatti

Here is the expanded list of the eight Lauren Gunderson Bay Area productions to date:

  • Exit, Pursued by a Bear, August/September 2011 Crowded Fire Theatre San Francisco (rolling world premiere – also Seattle and Atlanta), [a domestic violence victim ties up her abusive husband in what will become known as the first of Gunderson’s Shakespeare revenge comedies];
  • Emilie La Marquise du Chatalet Defends Her Life Tonight, June/July 2012 Symmetry Theatre Company, Berkeley (regional premiere),[historical character Emilie was a mathematician and physicist known for her translation  and commentary on Isaac Newton’s work in the early 18th Century, as well as her affair with Voltaire, also a main character in the play];
  • Toil & Trouble, November/December 2012 Impact Theatre, Berkeley (world premiere)[second in the Shakespeare series of revenge comedies, "a laugh-outloud contemporary take on MacBeth""];
  • By and By, May/June 2013 Shotgun Players, Berkeley (world premiere)[play about human cloning and its accompanying ethical questions and moral conundrums];
  • The Taming, October 2013  Crowded Fire Theatre, San Francisco (world premiere)[“mashes up  America’s cracked political rhetoric and the sexy power play of Shakespeare’s Shrew with the help of some choice pharmaceuticals and a sweet singin’ beauty queen”];
  • I and You, October 2013 Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley (world premiere) [two high school students with seemingly little in common are put together to study Walt Whitman's poem "Leaves of Grass" --  a “deceptively simple ode to life, literature, and young love”];
  • Silent Sky, January 2014 TheatreWorks, Mountain View (regional premiere/second production) [Historical figure Henrietta Leavitt took a rather boring job at Harvard University Observatory in 1893 and ended up discovering the relation between luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars that first enabled astronomers to measure the distance between Earth and faraway galaxies; add a love story,  a sister, some good friends = a good story];
  • Bauer, March/April 2014,  SF Playhouse, San Francisco (world premiere)[“ Imprisoned by the Nazis, he sketched on scraps. His fiery love affair with Hilla Rebay (Guggenheim curator) lasted a lifetime. The Guggenheim was built to house his work. Why did the genius that survived all that suddenly stop painting?"]

As Emilie La Marquise du Chatalet learns in her play:  “…I think that happiness may not be having all the answers. . . it may be having time and space to wonder.”   Lauren Gunderson’s stories give us lots to wonder about.

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  1. lucinda
    Jun 29, 2013

    Clearly a brilliant star rising … thank you!

  2. Tiffany Cothran
    Oct 8, 2013

    Hi Susan! What a terrific post. I JUST came across it. We’ll link to it on our social media outlets. I do hope you can make it to THE TAMING! We had a fantastic opening last night. All best, Tiffany

  3. Susan Fairbrook
    Jul 3, 2013

    See Lauren’s great website for details and updates on her work — she has ANOTHER! new play reading THE REVOLUTIONISTS at ZSpace in San Francisco July 9th.


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