Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Lauren Gunderson: I love a kind of sensitive direction when you can tell an actor has full control of their craft and their, <music fades> as they say, instrument, those silent moments. An actor that can be quiet on stage that does not need a line, and our hearts are breaking or we’re furious or we want to go to battle with them. That, to me, is my favorite part about theater.
Jo Reed: That was playwright Lauren Gunderson, and this is “Art Works,” the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. <music fades> I’m Josephine Reed. If I asked you, “Who was the most produced playwright in American for the 2019-2020 season?” you would be right if you said, “William Shakespeare.” But if we take Shakespeare out of the equation, then Lauren Gunderson once again takes the honors. She’s been at the top of the list for the past half dozen years or so, but with a whopping 33 productions in the recent season, her plays have been staged almost twice as often as anyone else on the list. Given that men still write about three-quarters of the plays that are produced, Gunderson’s track record is remarkable, and she’s made her reputation with plays that center on women’s stories. Regional theaters, the heart and soul of the American theatergoing audience, love her work, which typically features protagonists who are smart, funny and determined, and if they’re involved with science, so much the better. Science is a topic Gunderson returns to again and again. In “Ada and the Engine,” for example, she tells the story of Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, who worked on the first computer algorithm. She’s written a play about the physicist, Emilie du Chatelet, and this season she’s had two plays produced in Washington, D.C., both touching on science and both supported by the NEA. The most unlikely is her adaptation of “Peter Pan” called “Peter Pan and Wendy,” which was mounted at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. In her version of the story, Wendy happens to be an aspiring astronomer. Lauren touched on astronomy again with the “Silent Sky,” produced by Fords Theatre. I’ll let Lauren Gunderson tell you about it.
Lauren Gunderson: Well, it’s based on a true story of a turn-of-the-century astronomer named Henrietta Leavitt, and she and other women, including Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, were at the Harvard Observatory, and this was as group of women who were there to be what literally they called computers, because they computed. <laughs> They did the math for the male astronomers, and they did so by looking at glass plates, pictures of the night sky. This was the beginning of stellar photography, and so the play follows Henrietta as she leaves her home and her sister, who has chosen a much more domestic path. Gets to Harvard, starts this work and starts seeing things in these plates, more and more of what’s called a Cepheid star, which is a blinking star. She spends her nights trying to figure out what is going on with these stars and if there’s a pattern. She senses there might be a pattern in them. Little love story comes and kind of goes through the play, and at the end of the act break she makes her great eureka discovery of a pattern in these stars that could perhaps tell us one of the great mysteries of the universe. The second act is about the kind of wake of that discovery. She sees her name in print with the publication of her pattern called the period-luminosity relation. It’s a riveting title.
Lauren Gunderson: And the end of the play kind of follows her through this sense of, “Did I matter? Is this important what I did? Did my life mean anything?” We end kind of zooming into the future through all of the kind of discoveries of science for the last decades, and it ends quite beautifully. I only know that because it made me cry. My own play made me cry last night. I’ve seen that play a lot of times, so I was quite proud. <laughs>
Jo Reed: It was beautiful, and it was beautifully mounted. You write plays that have women as main characters, as protagonists. They’re not helpmates, they’re not bedmates for male characters, and I want you to talk to me about that dynamic that happens on the stage when women are foregrounded.
Lauren Gunderson: Mm. Such a pleasure to do this work because of that, the foregrounding. What you find is a oftentimes entirely missed depth of story. So many times women’s stories are offstage, and in some ways it was just a selfish reason to say, “Well, you’re missing all the good stuff.” <laughs> “Let’s put the good stuff in the center,” and when you find that you find much like “Silent Sky” or several of my other plays, where it’s not about just one interesting woman. Even some of the great classic plays, “Hedda Gabler” or “Antigone,” it’s one or two women, not more than that, <laughs> and if you get two you’re kind of lucky. Any other women are actual servants in the play or, you know, moving sets. But the characters, when you find women, have other women friends, and so “Silent Sky,” for example, is not just a play about this amazing woman, Henrietta Leavitt. It’s about Annie Cannon. It’s about Williamina. It’s about her sister Margaret, and suddenly we have a stage populated with women, and they’re talking about science and they’re talking about love in their hearts and husbands and love interests, because women do talk about that as well. But they’re talking about their own passion, their own agency, their own dreams, and you realize, “Gosh, how much more rich would the canon of literature have been had there been more plays where women actually got to talk about what was important to them and show their lives and progress?” So I love that. I think it’s often very funny. <laughs> It’s often very soulful, and the truth is that we talk about things with our friends that we don’t with our partners, with our parents, and so when you do that you find a kind of really luminous truth and honesty and vulnerability that can come out, and this is true with male characters as well or, you know, any group of friends, but because we’ve had such a dearth of women’s stories where, again, there are more than one <laughs> woman having their lives happening at the same time, it to me is an obvious source of storytelling.
Jo Reed: Well, you challenge the notion that a male perspective is universal and a woman’s perspective is particular.
Lauren Gunderson: Mm-hm. Yeah. I should say that often, that “Hamlet” is not a male play, but my plays are often categorized as women plays, and I definitely challenge that notion, and I think it’s, frankly, up to the coming generations of theatergoers and readers to challenge that category, and for young art patrons and theater patrons to go to the theater and say, “No. This is a story that matters to me,” even if I’m a man watching this story, and I do challenge the labeling of me particularly as a female writer. Just a writer is fine. Because I write women’s stories, but just stories is fine. <laughs> So I do think that is part of our discussion. It has to be how are we categorizing these things and how do we write off stories? Perhaps it’s a story about a person of color. Perhaps it’s a story about an immigrant. Perhaps it’s story about a person that’s differently abled. That those don’t actually need any categorization besides they are stories of people, and women’s stories are certainly the same.
Jo Reed: I’d like to take a play of yours that recently closed in Washington, which I also got to see. It was at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and that’s “Peter Pan and Wendy,” which is a reworking of the James Barrie play that we all know. Why did you take that on?
Lauren Gunderson: <laughs> It does seem a little funny, in retrospect. Well, I took it on because Simon Godwin took over the theater, and he and Alan Paul had a conversation with me and I respect both of those men deeply, and Simon had this idea to take a theater company that in its 40-year history had never done a show that would appropriate for anyone under, say, 15. Coming from the National Theatre. He wanted to bring this tradition of during that end-of-the-year time, during that holiday time, New Year time, to do a show that everyone can see together, and their idea was “Peter Pan,” and they brought it to me and I thought, “Well, they’re not dumb men, so this-- <laughs> there’s got to be a great reason for this,” and at first I said, “No,” because I-- the play’s too complicated now, a hundred-year-old British play that has these terribly racist stereotypes of Tiger Lily and her family, terribly sexist, just kind of shallow characters for women, and even Peter Pan himself, as charming and puckish as he is, he’s a character that doesn’t change. He has no feelings. He can’t be touched. He solves everything with violence and thinks he’s a boss of everybody. I’m not sure that’s what the world needs right now. <laughs> But with the conversation they immediately said, “No, that’s what we want you to fix, because the heart of the story is so captivating to so many generations. The heart of the story is about youth and wonder and adventure and taking a leap,” and I said, “Okay, okay.” So I started thinking. I had this proposal of all the things I wanted to change, and they said, “Yes” to almost every single one of them. So in reworking that play it felt like a chance to really bring those stories up into a way that matters now, and the truth is you do that by having them feel, and everyone thinks I changed Wendy the most. I turned her into a little astronomer. She dreams of being like Marie Curie and being a scientist and--
Jo Reed: I loved Wendy.
Lauren Gunderson: Ah, I did too. She’s the greatest.
Jo Reed: And a great actress.
Lauren Gunderson: Ah, wonderful. Yeah. Sinclair Daniel did amazing job. What we did is change Wendy. Instead of this kind of lovesick girl who just wants to darn socks and as soon as Peter comes in she wants to kiss him, I said immediately “No” to that, <laughs> she has her own dreams. She has an adventurous, explorational heart, and she has a dream of being a scientist, wants to study the stars, and so when this boy comes in and says, “I live in the stars, Neverland, go-- it’s,” you know, “It’s the second star to the right, straight on until morning,” she’s like, “I’m coming with you.” <laughs> She’s not following him, she’s leading, in many ways, and then Tiger Lily, of course, was the priority, and doing that with a kind of respect and sensitivity, which required me, not a indigenous woman, and so I instantly got some incredible consultants who helped me think through all of those perspectives and respond to the work as I was making it, and our incredible actor Isabella Star LeBlanc, who is a indigenous woman, she provided such incredible conversation to really make sure that that role was done with all the humor and all the power and all the vulnerability and all the truth that we never get from usual “Peter Pan” renditions, and honoring the fact of how damaging that stereotype has been certainly for that community, and talking about colonialism. I mean, we’re dealing with pirates and people taking over her land, and it’s like, “Well, we could either erase that or we could talk about it,” and this play talked about it, which was an incredible honor to be a part of that conversation. It’s such an important one. But looking at that story, everyone thinks I changed Tiger Lily a lot, which I did, but mainly the people around her. I changed Wendy a lot. But I really changed Peter the most, because of what I mentioned. In the original he doesn’t change, and it’s kind of adorable that he doesn’t change, and he doesn’t feel, and it’s kind of adorable that he never feels and he doesn’t know that everyone is in love with him, which, again, changed the fact that everyone’s in love with him. <laughs> But what the-- the real point of that story turned into a chance to take a young man and make him learn. Learn from these predominately women around him, and say, “Oh, maybe not feeling and solving everything with violence and being the boss of everybody is not the way to live,” and it’s the women who say, “If you live the way that you’re living you can’t connect with people. You don’t want to work with anybody and you don’t believe that anyone’s feelings matter but your own. You’re not going to beat Captain Hook, you’re going to become him.” And that, to me, that line, that moment, was the reason I wanted to write the whole play. Because I have two boys, and the idea of writing something for them that says, “You can be the hero. You can be swashbuckling, you can fly, you can save the day, and you can still be vulnerable and work together and have feelings. Feelings make you stronger, not weaker.” So anyway, all of it turned into this kind of gorgeous circus of <laughs> all the stuff we love about Peter but all the stuff that really important to do right now, and I am really proud of that one. <laughs> It was a lot of fun.
Jo Reed: Yeah. <laughs>
Lauren Gunderson: Tinkerbell is still, like, a total jerk <laughs> to everybody and is hilarious.
Jo Reed: But--
Lauren Gunderson: Captain Hook is fabulous and dastardly and... <laughs>
Jo Reed: Yeah, it was a lot of fun, and again, beautifully mounted. My God, that set.
Lauren Gunderson: Oh, the set, and we have, you know, a Jurassic Park sized crocodile on stage. We have Tinkerbell flying all over and--
Jo Reed: And Nana.
Lauren Gunderson: Ah. And Nana, a live dog. Nana, of course, got the most applause of everyone.
Jo Reed: Of course.
Lauren Gunderson: As dogs should.
Jo Reed: Actually, after-- <laughs> after I saw the play that night, I saw somebody taking Nana for a walk, and I said, “Oh. Oh. I just saw him on stage.”
Lauren Gunderson: That’s right. Got to take the actors for a walk after the show.
Jo Reed: Exactly.
Jo Reed: Well, you mentioned Wendy loves astronomy, and science is something you’ve returned to over and over again in your work. What does scientific inquiry give you as a playwright to work with?
Lauren Gunderson: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, to me gives me everything. I think it gives me a reason to write, because I do think that theater is not just a lovely entertainment humanity has kind of come up with along the way. I think it is foundational to our species. I think it is the reason that we know how to relate to each other. Thinking about storytelling around those fires so long ago, that is how we turn all of our attention collectively to someone other than ourselves. It’s how we ask ourselves to be empathetic, and it’s how we work together. It’s how we test ideas. How do we manage this human life? How do we manage each other? And I think of theater as every play’s a bit of a thought experiment. “Well, what happens if this person is met with this crisis and has to try to solve it this way? Let’s play it out and see,” and use it as a lesson. “Well, maybe one day I will face these feelings.” Of course you will, because we’re all humans and humans actually face <laughs> a lot of the same things in life. So for a medium that is that rich and important, I wanted to ask myself, you know, what to write about, and I don’t think it’s the small stuff. I think theater is made for the biggest questions we can manage, and science is one of them, because science is, like religion, like the arts, is the thing that says, “What are we doing here? What is the point of this? How does it all work?” So combining those two felt very natural to me. I also think it’s deeply dramatic those moments of scientific eureka, and as you see in “Silent Sky” and several other of my plays, these moments of going, “I got it. I got it. I figured it out,” is so riveting. It feels like a Super Bowl to me.
Lauren Gunderson: So I love that and I think it belongs on stage. It is never the wrong time to realize that science is one of those things that helps us know what’s real, helps us agree. We have a scientific method for a reason. It is so that we can all get aligned about what is true, what is real, what is provable. So plays about science help humanize that and help add delight to it.
Jo Reed: How much research do you do? For example, for “Silent Sky.”
Lauren Gunderson: So much. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Is it hard for you to stop and then start writing? I mean, can you get lost in the research?
Lauren Gunderson: I actually-- it’s the other way around. I start writing too soon sometimes because I’m so excited. “I can see it, I can see it. Ah, that’s going to be such a good scene.” But the truth is, when you’re writing science for stage, the biggest work is distillation. How do I essentialize this theory? How do I essentialize it so that I can step out the discovery? What are the pieces that had to fall into place for the scientist to get her great idea? And that’s the part of unwinding the discovery to figure out how to set it in motion so we can watch it go forward and just enjoy it. So that’s the most kind of brain work is figuring out, “What did she learn first and then second and then that made her think this and then that,” and then, “Oh, my God.” Then it all came together. So that’s really important and certainly for “Silent Sky” that has astronomy and there’s a lot of math, <laughs> and so making that simple and enjoyable so that you get the concept and you don’t actually have to feel like you’ve passed third level of physics to understand and appreciate the play. So those who are right on top of the science can enjoy it on that way, but if you don’t quite get all of it, that’s totally fine. You’re going to get the point in general.
Jo Reed: I wonder, when you’re premiering a play, how you work with the cast’s ideas, with the director, that back and forth. Theater is so collaborative.
Lauren Gunderson: Oh, gosh.
Jo Reed: I mean, it takes-- it takes you, as the playwright, as the director, the actors, the designers, and you all--
Lauren Gunderson: Oh, yeah.
Jo Reed: --have to come to some kind of an agreement about what’s going on on that stage.
Lauren Gunderson: We do. It’s incredible. It’s like the reason why I do this is to get in those rehearsal rooms for that first week or so of a premiere of a new play, because I will tell you, I now can kind of count on it, it’s a bit like clockwork, that first week for me on a brand-new play, I will reprint the script in total at least twice, <laughs> because there’s so many little changes. I’m a kind of a rhythm playwright, and so if a line is off by even a syllable it just doesn’t sound right, so we’re going to cut this, move that. Sometimes it is moving a few lines, sometimes it’s one. Sometimes it’s a word, but all of that really does matter. It’s the small stuff that matters the biggest when you’re at opening night. So I love that. I adore actors. They have incredible instincts, and once we kind of find our flow, and for those actors who’ve done a bunch of my plays, we just, you know, click right into it. So I have kind of a cohort of people that speak my language, <laughs> quite literally, and I trust them. I mean, you try to find that trust, and actors that are able to experiment and say, “All right. Let’s do this way.” “All right. Let’s just tone up the anger a ton and do it again.” “All right. Let me rewrite it and then we’ll do it,” and, you know, really listening to them to find those moments, and I try to always ask a cast, “If we go through the first couple weeks and you have that, that sense of, ‘This character’s unfinished. There’s something they haven’t done...’” Have they yelled at someone yet? Have they said, “I’m sorry”? Have they said, “I love you”? Those things actually really do matter, and sometimes as a playwright I’m thinking macro and they’re thinking one-track, and that conversation is really important.
Jo Reed: Can you feel when you have the audience, and conversely, can you feel like, “Oh, dear”?
Lauren Gunderson: Oh, yeah.
Jo Reed: I mean, we’re talking about something that is you can’t exactly put your finger on and touch but at the same time it can be so real. Can you just describe what both are like?
Lauren Gunderson: Oh, yeah, yeah. I will describe the unfortunate feeling first.
Lauren Gunderson: I mean, the thing is, again, this is a collective form. So we all come to the theater together. This is why it’s unlike anything you can download or stream or even read. Theater is alive. It is collective. We are a congregation in that moment, so in some ways we are one thing. We are one being, the audience watching a show, and somebody’s rustle, somebody’s cough, somebody’s guffaw, affects all of us. That’s kind of theater’s magic. But it can also <laughs> be really, really hard when you go, “Oh, we lost them.” “Oh, gosh. The monologue’s too long.” “Oh, no. Oh, no,” and, you know, people rustle and <clears throat> and things. Programs start to flip and you can tell people are checking watches and you go, “No.” So that I instantly note and cut, <laughs> you know, dramatically for the next show the next night. But when it works, it is quite literally breathless. You can’t hear anything. It does feel like the whole audience is holding their breath in the way that there’s a bit of a underwater sound or feel to me, when everyone is leaning forward, they can’t wait for that next word. Some big secret or revelation is about to be unleashed on the stage. You can feel it, and my job as the writer, as well as the director’s job, and actors’ too, is to surf that. To plan that, and to say, “Okay. I want them to do that here.” It’s not an accident that people laugh when they do. It's not an accident when they gasp or, “Aww,” when they do. We’ve designed it that way, and that, to me, was one of my revelations as a growing playwright, of saying, “No. That’s my job,” is to say, “Yes, laugh here,” and, you know, laughter’s a funny beast, so sometimes <laughs> it happens when it’s not supposed to, which it’s still always supposed to. Great. But those feelings of kind of, “Ah,” “Mm,” “Oh,” “Wow,” “Uh.. <gasps> oh, no,” those are planned. They’re designed, and that’s good storytelling, right. So I, knowing that that’s part of my job, those held-breath moments, I know when those are going to happen, hopefully, and if they don’t, then it’s my fault, it’s not the audience’s fault, right. The audience is always right.
Lauren Gunderson: I have to fix it and organize it and aim it for it to be a successful story.
Jo Reed: I’m curious if you rework plays. Your plays are produced constantly throughout the country. Do you rework them when they’re being remounted?
Lauren Gunderson: Yeah, sometimes I do. INU had a really big production in the U.K. in 2018, I believe, with “Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams and Zach Wyatt, who is a incredible young actor, directed by Ed Hall at the Hampstead Theatre, and that was a big enough moment, and I’ve always kind of wanted to tweak that play. It’s been-- it was-- been around for several years at that point, so I got to do a new version, which is the one that Playscripts publishes now, so that was really great. Some ways it’s updating it. Sometimes it was just-- sometimes it’s just taking out a few things and I’m like, “You can work that, but let me just-- the rhythm may be better without it.” So yeah. I, if allowed, I would constantly be changing plays.
Lauren Gunderson: But sometimes I have just, like, close my ears and walk away and let it be what it is.
Jo Reed: Well, what’s your process for writing? Do you have one? Are you an everyday kind of writer?
Lauren Gunderson: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Are you I’m walking around as I’m thinking about it kind of writer? Or do you have to be nailed to the desk?
Lauren Gunderson: <laughs> Yeah. No, I love writing. The way it gets better is to make it, and make it better and come back to it again and again. So I’m-- practically, I’m a morning person, coffee person, as soon as I get the kids to school person. But I believe that you kind of got to get that first draft out there for it to be the thing to become the best thing it can be, and so I try to rush or race through that first draft so I can see what’s there, to pull it apart and share it with a few people, maybe even do a private reading, to say, “Okay. So this is a big hole. This really works well. I think we may need another character,” or, “I have one too many characters,” and-- but you kind of don’t know. You can’t start asking yourself until you really have the thing yet, and then better and better drafts, better, better, better, better, better drafts, and doing readings in between, having conversations in between. So it is-- some ways it’s kind of like a watercolor, where you just keep adding layers, layers, layers, to get a real, real, real rich product.
Jo Reed: What part excites you the most?
Lauren Gunderson: Mm, the rhythm part. The part of going, “Oh, I can get that crackle banter just perfect,” and then I know, “Right here--” it’s exactly what I was talking about, planning the “oohs” and “aahs,” planning the laughter and going, “Oh, I know. If I build this argument perfectly and she drops this bombshell right here...” <gasps> “The audience is going to do that.” <laughs> I love that. Love it, love it, love it. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Is that what you mean you refer to transcendental “Holy crap” moments?
Lauren Gunderson: Yes, indeed. Love a “Holy crap” moment.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Lauren Gunderson: Ah, man. That’s the dream.
Lauren Gunderson: Yes. <laughs>
Jo Reed: You’re the most produced playwright in America, Shakespeare accepted--
Lauren Gunderson: Indie. <laughs>
Jo Reed: --for the past few seasons and I just can’t help but think this is, in part, because you have women foregrounded in your work.
Lauren Gunderson: Mm, heck, yeah. No, I-- again, maybe that’s-- I think that’s a secret ingredient. People have been thirsty for these stories for a long time, I think, and now in, you know, the past decades, we’re also seeing more women in leadership roles in theater and on boards and just more women prominence in the world, and a kind of female voice in the world that is insistent and saying, “No. I’m not going to-- I’m not going to be polite about this. We matter. We’re important.” Half the damn world. There’s also that wonderful study that came out that showed that not only are women-- 60 percent of the seats in theaters are filled by women. They’re 70 percent of the ticket buyers. So they’re the ones making the decisions. They’re the ones coming to the theater. So why on earth do we think we could overlook them in such a flagrant way that so much classical theater has? And even mid-century theater. I mean, it’s just been-- it keeps going, <laughs> going and going. Now I see a lot more wonderful plays being written by men and women, thank goodness, and so I think we are really in a wonderful time, a rich time. But it’s those shows still need to be programmed, and not just in New York. So I think that’s part of what we’re seeing is going, “Proof is starting to be undeniable that if you put plays about women, people will come.” If you put them on Broadway, if you put them in community theaters, if you put them in high schools, if you put them in regional theaters of all levels, they will come, and they’ll be excited about it and you may even get new audiences. So I think we’re in a great time to wave that flag and say, “Not only is it fabulous theater,” which is the most part-- we could full stop there. It’s fabulous theater. Done. Just do it.
Lauren Gunderson: Much less you get to say, “Wow. We have an-- we’re employing more women actors, asking for more women directors, more designers.” Because plays that kind of ask for that then suddenly becomes an employment issue. Women are being employed more in the theater the more that you choose stories that want women around them, to make them. So I think it’s nothing but good news, and I’m certainly happy, if that is a part of why I’m on that list, to give people more and more stories to tell, that foreground women and also men. I will say, I do love writing a wonderful male ally. Alternately I also like writing a nice villain.
Lauren Gunderson: Who doesn’t love a great villain? <laughs>
Jo Reed: No one. What excites you about theater? What theater excites you?
Lauren Gunderson: Mm, whoo. I just-- I love so much theater. I love excellence. Excellence... Lyrics and I love a kind of sensitive direction when you can tell an actor has full control of their craft and their, as they say, instrument. Those silent moments. An actor that can be quiet on stage that does not need a line, and our hearts are breaking or we’re furious or we want to go to battle with them. That, to me, is my favorite part about theater, and actor--
Jo Reed: For me as well.
Lauren Gunderson: I will say, as a writer, I try to write those moments in, which is why I will fight furiously, until my dying day, to make sure people respect stage directions. <laughs> That sounds like a very technical issue that like, “Why is Lauren going to battle about that? Oh, my God.” But it is--
Jo Reed: Well, you did write a play called “Exit, Pursued by Bear.” <laughs>
Lauren Gunderson: I did indeed. I love a stage direction, and the truth is that if you think that playwrights only write the lines, you are missing more than half of what a storyteller does, because I write those silent moments in, and the most communication human beings have is nonverbal. In order for playwrights to have full capacity for their storytelling wonder and the subtlety of storytelling, the subtext, we have to be able to trust that those nonverbal communication strategies and mysteries are there. So that’s why I love when an actor can prove that that’s what’s-- that’s what is possible, but also that a writer can trust that they can write those subtleties in there and it will be so much more rich and so much more interesting because of it, and so to play with the full depth of that is to really see those tiny, beautiful, perfect moments. So I love a glance way more than I love a monologue. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Yeah, and I like the way you said “to play with it,” because it’s a play.
Lauren Gunderson: Yeah. Gotta play.
Jo Reed: Gotta play. Tell me what’s next.
Lauren Gunderson: Oh, so many things. I’ve been doing a lot of musicals lately, which I adore, because for the first part of my career I didn’t really touch them that much, and then I started working with some theater-feeling audiences. I’ve worked at the Kennedy Center twice on two commissions for them and it is just the greatest experience, and now that I have kids I even appreciate it more because what they do is write incredible musical theater that is mature, that is the highest quality, designed for families. It’s designed for young people, and what a greater gift than that? So instead of, you know, loud yelling and big, crazy colors and talking like babies to kids, no. We’re telling you a sophisticated story, and the ones that I’ve written are about science and the last one was called “Earthrise,” and it’s about the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, so it’s about the kids of the people who got us to the moon and what it’s like for them to watch that incredible moment, and I wrote that with Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan, who are some of my favorite people to write musicals with, and we just wrote the hell out it. It’s such a good show. I mean, for me, I was like weeping every time and I actually wrote it for my kids and I’m like, “Never mind. This is for me.”
Lauren Gunderson: So I’ve started to write more mainstage musicals now. The one I’m writing right now with Ari Afsar, this is her first musical. She’s written a ton of pop songs, but she’s coming to the theater and writing a story about the first female congressperson ever in American history, and actually in the Western world, the kind of first democratically-elected woman to that high of a position. Her name is Jeanette Rankin. She’s from the state of Montana, and our story follows her during that moment when she realizes her commitment to women’s suffrage. This was a turn-of-the-century, you know, 19-oh-- 1910 is when we meet her. She is elected to Congress in 1916. That is four years before women got right to vote across this country. How did that happen? Who is this woman? What did she do when she got to Congress? And the music is just incredible. <laughs> So part of what I love about musicals is I get to be impressed as I go along. You know, it is not with myself. I get to say, “Oh, my God, it’s so good.” I’m actually talking about-- mostly about the music. Me? My part is fine. Mainly just get to the song.
Lauren Gunderson: So that’s a really-- we worked on that at the O’Neil this summer, so we’re really excited to aim that towards exciting regional theaters and, you know, maybe even Broadway. We’ll see.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Lauren Gunderson: Yeah.
Jo Reed: That would be great. Well, Lauren, thank you so much.
Lauren Gunderson: Yeah. Thank you.
Jo Reed: I really had such a good time last night--
Lauren Gunderson: <laughs> Great.
Jo Reed: --with “Silent Sky.”
Lauren Gunderson: Oh, great.
Jo Reed: It’s a wonderful play, and--
Lauren Gunderson: Thank--
Jo Reed: --beautifully done at the theater.
Lauren Gunderson: Thanks.
Jo Reed: So thanks.
Lauren Gunderson: Thank you so much. Thanks for these great questions and all you do here.
Jo Reed: Not at all. Thanks.
Jo Reed: That’s playwright Lauren Gunderson. You can find out if a play of hers is being produced in your region by going to laurengunderson.com. You’ve been listening to “Art Works,” produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to “Art Works” wherever you get your podcasts, so please do, and then leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
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It may come as a surprise to discover that in the 2019-2020 season, (Shakespeare aside) Lauren Gunderson is the most produced playwright in America. She’s achieved this in no small part by putting women’s stories at the center of her work. And she doesn’t just create the lone female protagonist—she has women interacting with other women-- sharing dreams, hopes, disappointments and successes. Her protagonists who are smart, funny, and determined and if they’re involved with science—so much the better. Science is a topic Gunderson returns to again and again in her work. As Lauren said in our interview, “I think theater is made for the biggest questions we can manage, and science like religion, like the arts-- is the thing that says, “What are we doing here?” That literally was the question at the center of her play Silent Sky that was recently produced at Fords’ Theater in Washington DC (and partially funded by the NEA). Silent Sky is based on a turn of the century astronomer named Henrietta Leavitt, who worked at the Harvard Observatory. Although she is little-known, Leavitt’s work and discoveries are crucial to our current understanding of the stars and the universe. In this podcast, Lauren talks about Silent Sky, her adaption of Peter Pan (in which Wendy is an aspiring scientist), her love of theater and science, and most crucially, what changes when women take the center stage.