On a six-hour drive from San Francisco to the Oregon Shakespeare
Festival a few years ago, the playwright Lauren Gunderson raised a
question: What does American theatre need? “It was ridiculously
presumptuous,” Gunderson told me recently, over the phone, “but it’s the
conversation everyone is having.” Gunderson was travelling with her
friend Margot Melcon, a former literary manager, who reminded her that
every theatre needs a holiday show: something clever, heartwarming, and
family-friendly enough to entice an audience inured to “A Christmas
Carol.” Gunderson recalled their idea: “You know what people love? Jane
Austen. You know what people really love? Christmas and Jane Austen.” By
the time they finished the drive, they had outlined a script on
Starbucks napkins: a holiday reunion for the Bennet sisters, from “Pride
and Prejudice,” with a courtship plot for Mary, the pedantic middle
sister, who emerges as a surprising feminist heroine. (Mary and her beau
spark over a copy of Lamarck’s “Zoological Philosophy”; Gunderson calls
Mary an emblem of “geek chic.”) “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is
now a regional-theatre hit.

Increasingly, theatres are banking on Gunderson, who, at thirty-five,
has already had more than twenty of her works produced: among them witty
historical dramas about women in science (“Emilie,” “Silent Sky,” “Ada
and the Engine”), giddy political comedies (“Exit, Pursued by a Bear,”
“The Taming,” “The Revolutionists”), and wildly theatrical explorations
of death and legacy (“I and You,” “The Book of Will”). According to American Theatre magazine’s annual survey, released last month, Gunderson will be the most produced playwright in
the country for the 2017–18 season. Her plays are staged almost twice as
often as anyone else’s on the list, far ahead of venerated figures like
Eugene O’Neill and August Wilson, who edged her for the top spot last
year. (The survey excludes Shakespeare, America’s perennial favorite.)
Although men still write three-quarters of the plays that get produced,
Gunderson has built a national reputation with works that center on
women’s stories. And, though most playwrights also teach or work in
television, she has managed to make a living, in San Francisco, by
writing for the stage.

A typical Gunderson protagonist resembles her author: smart, funny,
collaborative, optimistic—a woman striving to expand the ranks of a
male-dominated profession. She has revived Émilie du Châtelet, an
Enlightenment genius who revised Newton’s laws of motion; Olympe de
Gouges, a playwright who fought for women’s equality in the French
Revolution; and Henrietta Leavitt, a twentieth-century Harvard
astronomer who figured out how to measure the distance between Earth and
the stars. Gunderson grew up in Georgia, and “desperately wanted” to be
a physics major, but she tired of plodding through “the normal stuff”
before she could get to “the cool stuff.” She went to Emory and majored
in English; one of her first scripts, written when she was eighteen,
centered on a cosmologist. “Moments of scientific discovery are
inherently dramatic,” Gunderson told me. She is now married to a
Stanford biologist whom she met when her agent suggested that she
interview him to research a potential story. Relationships form a part
of her characters’ arcs, but it’s their intellectual desires, their
yearning to transform themselves and their world, that Gunderson
foregrounds. Her plays are less likely to end in a kiss than in a
beautiful explosion of computer data.

That’s what happens at the climax of “Ada and the Engine,” which
dramatizes the life of Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, a Victorian
math whiz who worked on the first computer algorithm. In a swirl of
light, sound, poetry, and music, Gunderson stages the aftershocks of
Ada’s discovery: that the iambic heartbeat of her father’s verse
contains the alternating pulse of binary code, and that the beauty that
Ada found in math now programs our own digital age. The final stage
direction calls for Ada to appear with “ones and zeroes echoing around
her” until “a strange new light and a strange new sound take over. . . .
It’s the blue light of modern computer screens—laptops, iPhones,
iPads—all giving off their ghostly light on her. All playing her song.”

Gunderson calls such passages in her work “transcendental ‘holy crap!’
moments.” Several years ago, she wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal on the importance of endings, in which she
called a play’s concluding image “the final meaning, the consummation,
the last held breath before the unscripted world courses back in.” Her
breakthrough ending came in “I and You,” probably her best-known work,
which won the American Theatre Critics Association’s New Play Award in
2014. It starts in a girl’s bedroom, where two high schoolers are doing
a homework assignment about pronouns in Walt Whitman’s poetry, trading
study-buddy banter. (“Back away from the craft project.” “I’m agnostic
on glitter.”) By the close, Gunderson has guided us toward a sublime
transfiguration that encompasses “Leaves of Grass,” John Coltrane, Jerry
Lee Lewis, space and time, bodies and spirits, death and rebirth.

One of Gunderson’s playwright heroes, Sarah Ruhl, has argued that modern
American theatre derives from two medieval genres: morality plays,
evident in the sturdy architecture of an Arthur Miller fable, and
mystery plays, which suffuse the spiritual poetry of Tennessee Williams.
Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” is the perfect American play, Ruhl
proposes, because it interweaves morality and mystery strands: an AIDS drama of national shame and redemption that hinges on theatrical fantasy. (Part 1 ends with an angel crashing through the ceiling.) You
could see Gunderson as an inheritor of these twin legacies, too,
composing dramas where attention must be paid and creating a
transcendent form that invites us to pay it willingly. Her father was
the reverend at a progressive Southern church, and, just as science
often serves as substitute religion for her characters, theatre seems to
provide her own religious surrogate. “Theatre is the place I go to ask
the biggest questions I can think of and hash them out in human scale,”
she told me. “I and You” begins with a teen-ager quoting Whitman: “I and
this mystery here we stand”; over the next ninety minutes, the play
manages to unfold the mystery without diminishing it, forging communion
through the language of poetry.

Despite all this metaphysical weight, Gunderson’s plays are fleetly
comic. (She’s more a Lizzie Bennet than a Mary.) Her latest play, “The
Book of Will,” takes an unlikely subject—the efforts of the surviving
members of Shakespeare’s theatre company to collect his unpublished
scripts in the First Folio, of 1623—and turns it into a nimble caper,
replete with “Pericles” gags, eleventh-hour reversals, and good lines
for the women who revered Shakespeare but knew him as a mortal, too.
Juggling printers, editors, compositors, actors, and patrons, Gunderson
crafts a lively backstage drama that opens into a moving meditation on
theatre as the space of shared memory and resurrection. And the ending
is, of course, transcendent. Shakespeare’s pals present a copy of the
First Folio to his widow; when they open the volume, the stage erupts
into the future enabled by those scripts: “a beautiful cacophony of
actors’ voices performing Shakespeare’s tempests, and time warps around
us—the speeches swirl—different accents, different languages . . . all
the world’s a stage and it’s funneled into Anne Hathaway’s living room
at this moment.”

Gunderson is currently writing a follow-up to “I and You,” as well as
another Austen comedy with Margot Melcon that spotlights the servants at
Pemberley, and a collaboration with the actor Reggie D. White about
institutional racism in the private prison system. She’s also been
commissioned by Marin Theatre Company, where she’s a resident
playwright, to try a play that she is scared to write: a “huge
intersectional feminist epic” covering five hundred years of American
history. It sounds daunting, but she took a 2013 trial run in “The
Taming,” a farcical all-female response to Shakespeare’s “The Taming of
the Shrew.” In it, a Southern beauty-pageant contestant locks a
conservative Senate staffer and a left-wing blogger in a hotel room and
leads them on a dream journey to rewrite the U.S. Constitution. After
last fall’s Presidential election, she thought that producing it might
rally people feeling despair at Donald Trump’s victory, so she licensed
“The Taming” for free staged readings on Inauguration Day. (There was a
hashtag: #TameTrump.) More than forty readings took place around the country, many of them raising money for Planned
Parenthood. “It is a powerful thing to come together and laugh in a
scary time,” Gunderson said, especially with “a feminist farce that is
insane and wild and irreverent.” She went on, “I’m not saying that those
readings are going to change public policy or get us a new Supreme Court
Justice anytime soon, but there is the important work of creating and
sustaining community that theatre can do because it’s congregational.
It’s a real-time interaction, with real people saying those words, with
breath and resonance in real space. That’s not something you can get
from watching TV.”

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