Lauren Gunderson: A Playwright for All Theaters

by Jean Schiffman

Local playwright Gunderson has learned that ultimately, human relationships must be at the core of every play.

For Atlanta-born, San Francisco-based--and now nationally known--playwright Lauren Gunderson, writing isn't about what you know, it's about what you want to know.

In recent local premieres, she wanted to know about cloning ("By and By") and about 18th-century French mathematician Emilie du Châtelet ("Emilie, La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight"). When she wanted to learn about astronomy, she wrote "Silent Sky," about early-20th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, which premiered at South Coast Rep in 2011 and will be staged at the Peninsula's TheatreWorks in January.

Also this season, she is digging deep into American history ("The Taming," a world premiere this month at San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theater), probing the teenage mind ("I and You," a world premiere also opening this month, at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley) and examining another early-20th-century historical figure: German-born artist Rudolf Bauer ("Bauer," a San Francisco Playhouse commission opening in March).

Gunderson also loves to use Shakespeare's plays as prompts to explore contemporary issues: "Toil and Trouble" and "Exit, Pursued by a Bear" (part of a rolling world premiere at Crowded Fire in 2011). Both those plays have been published by Playscripts.

"The Taming," a satirical comedy that explores the genesis of this country's deep political and ideological divisions, was inspired by Gunderson's least-favorite Shakespeare play, "The Taming of the Shrew."

"It's hard to make 'Taming of the Shrew' anything more than a big, misogynistic joke," the playwright says, over lattes at a Mission Street café. It is the day of the play's first rehearsal after a year and a half of development. A gray fedora sits atop Gunderson's long brown hair, and she wears horn-rimmed glasses, blue nail polish and a huge smile. "So for me it's a play about two alphas trying to tame each other. And it's a world of men. …So taking that as a jumping-off place, 'The Taming' had to be full of banter, of Voltairean barbs…fierce. And the battle of the sexes became the battle of the red and blue states."

The cast comprises three women (with, says Gunderson happily, an all-woman production team). In the first act, the three women cross paths--and purposes--at a beauty pageant in which Southern belle Miss Georgia (Kathryn Zdan) manipulates both liberal blogger Bianca (Marilet Martinez), who's promoting a save-the-endangered-panda-shrew campaign, and conservative Patricia (Marilee Talkington), aide to a Georgia senator. In the second act it is 1787, the year of the Constitutional Convention; several founding fathers--George Washington (Zdan), James Madison (Talkington) and delegate Charles Pinckney (Martinez), plus Washington's terrifying wife, Martha (Zdan again)--gather to discuss (and squabble over) the writing of the Constitution.

Crowded Fire brought in two scholars from local universities--one in constitutional law, the other in feminist studies--to add to, and deepen, Gunderson's own considerable research. The play has gone through many drafts, starting out very much like Shakespeare's "Shrew," with a man and a woman. By the time rehearsals started for the mainstage premiere, actors were reading from the 12th draft. "The play was very funny and ridiculous," explains Gunderson, "but I felt it didn't mean enough, didn't say enough about American history and how we got where we are and what our Constitution is. I had to do what I call a page one rewrite: Don't look at the draft, start all over again, same characters, same setting, just write." Now, she says, the script is smoother, clearer and stronger.

At a rehearsal in Crowded Fire's India Basin offices, Gunderson sits at a long table along with artistic director Marissa Wolf and the other women on the team. Most hunch over laptops; Gunderson, however, is scribbling notes on her script with a faux-quill pen. The actors are working on a scene in which Miss Georgia covertly spikes both women's drinks with ruffies and then bursts into a rousing rendition of "America the Beautiful." There's a big American flag on one wall with the words "Tame this!" and a collage of photocopied, inspirational images on the other (a portrait of George Washington, photos of beauty queens and other all-American icons). Gunderson occasionally pipes up with a stage direction, explains a character's motivation, instructs actors to change a word here and there. She announces she'll rewrite Miss Georgia's introductory speech.

"She shows up at each theater [where she's working] with an openness and a hunger to work with that theater," observes Wolf the next day. "I love that she has a warm openness in her ability to connect with a theater on its own terms." Wolf was eager to commission Gunderson after working with her on "Exit, Pursued by a Bear," a battle-of-the-sexes comedy. "It's important for us to invest in playwrights long-term," she explains.

Wolf initially asked Gunderson what she was hungry to write, and Gunderson said, "So much screaming across the aisle, politically, and virtually no one listening." She also told Wolf she was thinking about "Taming of the Shrew," and Katherine's horrifyingly submissive speech at the end. "So that intersection was really interesting," says Wolf. "Lauren has a feminist way of being and deconstructing images and text." Wolf encouraged the playwright to create big theatrical gestures and have "weird fun." Says Gunderson, of "The Taming," "It's so feminist, and so accusatory of America and so patriotic at the same time.…Hopefully through comedy you see the truth."

Also comic, with a surreal undercurrent, is "I and You," in which two particularly smart and articulate high school kids, of two different ethnicities, connect emotionally; they're collaborating on a school project analyzing Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." The two-character play, directed by Sarah Rasmussen, is full of humorous and precocious banter--and it ultimately has a dark and powerful theme braided into its potent mix of poetry, jazz and youthful yearning.

A much larger theatrical palette is required for "Silent Sky," to be directed by Meredith McDonough. Gunderson, who has an abiding interest in science, happened upon a book about Henrietta Leavitt, an astronomer who made certain significant discoveries. "Henrietta works with the Magellanic Clouds, and the Hubble images are so beautiful, so extraordinary," Gunderson says. "I thought, What is the theatrical version of that?" She envisioned a production that is a visually beautiful period piece and, more importantly, that uses musical themes to represent Leavitt's pioneering understanding of the patterns within variable stars. The play is partly a historical drama, partly a romance--not that Leavitt necessarily had one--set during the suffrage movement. Some of the characters are composites of Henrietta's various colleagues.

"Bauer" is a departure for Gunderson from her female-heavy plays. Rudolf Bauer, a German nonobjective artist from the Bauhaus era, is little known today--some of his art is in the Weinstein Gallery collection downtown--but in his time, says Gunderson, he was more famous than his contemporary, Kandinsky. Gallerist Rowland Weinstein approached San Francisco Playhouse artistic director Bill English with the idea of creating a play based on the artist, who was jailed by the Nazis for subversive art, was brought to America by his lover (Guggenheim curator Hilla Rebay), then stopped painting altogether. English commissioned Gunderson to write the play several years ago; they've been working on it in readings and workshops ever since. "She's a dream to work with," reports English. "During a week of workshops, we'd take a day off and she'd show up the next day with 25 new pages."

In writing "Bauer," Gunderson contemplated what could induce an artist to stop painting. "It's just Bauer and two women [his wife and his lover] in one room, and it's about the memories and hopes and baggage that everyone brings into that one room," she says. "I'm used to writing about people at the other end of their lives, youth and young love. This is a play about age and mortality and what lasts after you."

With an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU Tisch, Gunderson has been exploring intellectual ideas over the course of the 25 or so plays that she's written thus far. She jumped into writing from acting because, she says, she wanted to control the ending--"to be in charge of who wins and why and who the story is about." But she had to learn, along the way, that ultimately human relationships must be at the core of every play, that "you have to be very clear with the undergirding, the heavy stuff, and that it's always about the heart. Not necessarily romantic…but balancing these deeply human desires is what we're about."

The Taming, Oct. 3-26, Crowded Fire, Thick House, 1695 18th St. 746-9238.

I and You, Oct. 10-Nov. 3, Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. 388-5208.

Silent Sky, Jan. 15-Feb. 9, TheatreWorks, Mt. View Center for the Performing