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Theater of the Obscure

How Lauren Gunderson became the most-produced playwright in America—without getting famous.

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Lauren Gunderson (left) with her writing partner Margot Melcon in Gunderson’s San Francisco home office. Gunderson and Melcon’s play The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley opens this month at Marin Theatre Company.

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Actors Maisie Williams and Zach Wyatt in rehearsals for Gunderson’s I and You at the Hampstead Theatre in London. 

Photo: Manuel Harlan

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Adam Magill and Martha Brigham in the 2016 debut of Gunderson and Melcon’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley at Marin Theatre Company.

Photo: Kevin Berne

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The hectic part of the morning is nearly over for Lauren Gunderson as she finally sits down at the dining table. She’s just seen her eldest, three-year-old Charlie, off for his first day of pre-K—“It’s kind of a bigger deal for me than for him,” she says—and her younger boy, Asa, two, is being prepped for a stroll around the neighborhood. The living room of Gunderson’s gorgeous three-level home in Ashbury Heights is, as usual, littered with toy train tracks and building blocks. The cat keeps threatening to upset a cup of coffee on the table, and Gunderson’s husband, Nathan, is heading out the door himself.

It’s hard to imagine that any working artist in the country, in any medium, has more balls in the air than the 36-year-old Gunderson does right now. By her own count, she has a dozen plays currently in production or being mounted imminently, including her first New York City premiere, and perhaps another half dozen works in various stages of readiness. Her latest, a sort of Pride and Prejudice spin-off, is opening in Marin later this month and in Minneapolis in December. And then there’s the fast-approaching deadline for the audio play about Marie Curie and a British physicist she’s been commissioned to write by Audible; the sex trafficking–themed feminist interpretation of Euripides’s The Trojan Women to finalize; the musical about the 19th Amendment that she’s cowriting with actor Arianna Afsar; the musical adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife that she’s been commissioned to do in the U.K.; and a couple of TV and film projects on the back burner that could threaten to boil over at any moment.

But even amid this near-constant frenzy, Gunderson retains her capacity for bright-eyed wonderment. And the subject that’s got her particularly revved up at the moment is Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens. “We could have had language that was just fact-based,” Gunderson says excitedly, describing the leap in human cognitive development that gave the world drama. “The lion is over there. Don’t go over there; the lion will eat you. But we have fiction, where I’m going to tell you a story: I’m going to be the lion, and the lion’s going to tell a joke. And, like, the lion is God.”

For anyone who’s seen one of Gunderson’s plays—and if you’re a Bay Area theatergoer, chances are you have—that motormouthed enthusiasm may strike a familiar chord. Gunderson, who is finishing up a three-year stint as the artist in residence at Marin Theatre Company, is among the nation’s most prolific, and most successful, working playwrights. In 2017, American Theatre magazine determined that her plays were the most widely staged in the United States that year—Simon Stephens came next on the list, with Arthur Miller clocking in at sixth. (Shakespeare, the perennial winner, isn’t counted.) The year before, only August Wilson beat her out, and this year, in which she mounted even more productions than in 2017, Gunderson is behind only Lucas Hnath. Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, eat your hearts out. Despite never having staged a play on Broadway and with only a few New York productions to her name, Gunderson has blazed a path to theater-world success with the help of a set of characters who are not unlike herself: plucky, funny, curious, and always up for a challenge. Margot Melcon, Gunderson’s writing partner on two recent works, calls her “the hardest-working playwright I’ve seen in my life.”

Gunderson’s ascension to theatrical royalty hasn’t been as meteoric as, say, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s, nor has her work earned mass critical plaudits. (The Guardian described her as a “middlebrow Tom Stoppard,” referring to her tendency toward idea-themed plays.) Rather, she has built an empire with a steady stream of smart and accessible crowd-pleasers that have become staples on the regional-theater circuit. This month’s offering, The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, is a companion piece to her 2016 hit Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Both take place within the world of Jane Austen’s most famous novel, fleshing out the story lines of lesser-seen characters—in the first, the neglected middle sister, Mary Bennet; in The Wickhams, the downstairs help. Miss Bennet, which Gunderson co­wrote with Melcon, a longtime dramaturge, had a rolling opening in 2016 at three theaters and went on to be staged at some two dozen across the country—a verifiable hit and an instant go-to for venues in desperate need of new holiday fare. Other oft-staged works of hers, including The Book of Will (about the efforts of Shakespeare’s theater troupe to produce a definitive collection of the Bard’s works after his death) and The Revolutionists (a play-within-a-play dramedy concerning a foursome of French Revolution–era women riding out the Reign of Terror), have also become ­midsize-theater staples. (Will was performed at this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, at the 1,190-seat Allen Elizabethan Theatre, a high-water mark for Gunderson.)

To be earning her way as a playwright outside New York City makes Gunderson a theatrical anomaly. “It’s really a matter of her making a decision to pursue success in a different way,” Melcon says. “It’s not about ego for her; it’s about storytelling. And her stories are being told, and that’s infinitely more important than the world knowing who she is.” Jasson Minadakis, the artistic director at Marin Theatre Company, says that although Gunderson has yet to break through into the mainstream, “I have a feeling that’ll change. I think she’s poised to make that leap.”

That’s not to say that Gunderson is a total unknown back East—the publicity around being named the country’s most produced playwright led to coverage in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. And she has also spent time in New York: Having grown up in suburban Georgia, Gunderson graduated from Emory University with a degree in English and creative writing (after a brief dalliance with physics) and completed an MFA program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. It was at Emory, though, that she met Minadakis, then the artistic director of Actor’s Express, a theater in Atlanta. After coming west to take the helm at Marin Theatre Company (with a mandate to focus on new American plays), Minadakis invited Gunderson out to workshop an early effort, Rock Creek: Southern Gothic, in 2009. She also tested a stage adaptation of Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything—a version of which was performed at local schools, featuring the then-unknown Bay Area actor Daveed Diggs. During that time, Gunderson stayed at Minadakis’s house and met her future husband, Nathan Wolfe, a virologist and the founder of the biotech firm Metabiota. A permanent move to the Bay Area followed shortly thereafter, and in 2016 she accepted a funded position at the theater through the Mellon Foundation. The Wickhams and The Trojan Women adaptation are products of that arrangement.

The Gunderson oeuvre, now consisting of more than 20 full-length plays, is largely defined by feminist, or at least female-­forward, reinterpretations of familiar characters and historical events, often with a focus on scientific discovery. She’s written about the Victorian-era computer science pioneer Ada Lovelace, the 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, and Émilie du Châtelet, an 18th-century physicist. “I’m kind of a science nerd,” she says, pointing to her NASA-emblazoned T-shirt. “Science is really dramatic, and it’s something you can see onstage: You can dramatize that eureka moment, them dropping their pencil, holding their hand to their forehead. The best drama pivots on those moments when everything changes.”

Gunderson is best known for her science-focused period dramas, but she also trades in what she describes as “contemporary heartful comedic American dramas” and, in a third basket, everything else. It’s in that catch-all category that I and You, possibly her most popular work, belongs. The play, about a pair of teenagers studying for a school project on Walt Whitman, premiered in 2013 at Marin Theatre Company and has since been performed professionally more than 30 times around the country. It won a Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and is set to make its London debut this fall at the Hampstead Theatre, with Game of Thrones’s Maisie Williams cast as Caroline, a quick-tongued high schooler confined to her bedroom with a chronic illness who’s visited by an earnest classmate eager to sing the praises of Leaves of Grass. The two, stuttering at first to find a rapport, bond over the prose, setting up a cosmic third-act twist of an ending—one of Gunderson’s writerly hallmarks.

Gunderson has an undeniable gift for crafting stage-ready, reliably entertaining plays. But even a winning formula runs the risk of feeling, well, formulaic, and Gunderson’s work, with its fast-talking, joke-cracking characters, has been criticized for coming across as facile and sentimental. And it’s true that her treatment of historical figures can border on the reverential. But there’s a real warmth and inclusiveness that exude from her plays, even at their most farcical. Hers, Minadakis says, is “a generous humor. You’re never laughing at someone’s expense.”

Gunderson is unapologetic about her forays into sometimes-maudlin territory. “There’s this space for genuine human feeling and heart and soul,” she says. “It’s easy to not write that, out of fear of being cheesy or whatever, but I think that’s the bravest thing you can do onstage—to be fully alive and emotional and vulnerable. That swell of heart is what I go to the theater for.”

Melcon describes “a fundamental positivity” that enlivens Gunderson’s work. Where other playwrights like to “lean into the dark places,” she says, “Lauren’s constantly flipping that around, finding the lights.” Minadakis similarly marvels at Gunderson’s brand of optimism. “In pretty much every one of her plays, there’s a deep belief that hope will pull us through even the darkest stuff,” he says.

It’s a message that’s clearly resonated thus far, but it remains to be seen whether Gunderson’s “little Christmas plays,” as she self-deprecatingly calls them, can graduate to bigger stages—or whether she even wants them to. Back in the Gunderson home, she shows me the kids’ room, in which a hand-painted image of the Milky Way takes up an entire wall, and her top-story office, where Post-its surround her computer and half-sketched ideas are written in chalk on the rear wall above a space-themed rug. Among the scribbled notes are several ideas that she thinks might best be brought to life away from the stage—either in film or on television, which she’s begun dabbling in. Perhaps it isn’t Broadway that Gunderson is ultimately fated for but Hollywood. She doesn’t rule out the idea. For now, though, she seems content with a life and career based in San Francisco, and awed by theater’s emotional reach. “It’s an incredible power,” she says. “I can make people cry. I can make you cry! And I can make you laugh—not just you, but hundreds of people at the same time. That’s kind of magic.”

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco 

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