A Conversation with Playwright Lauren Gunderson

By Steven Brodsky

Lauren Gunderson’s plays are enormously in demand.  American Theatre said that she is “the most-produced living playwright in America, who reaches that spot on the strength of six separate titles.”  One of those is  “I and You,” scheduled for production at People’s Light from March 29 – April 23, 2017.  The script won the 2014 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award.  The questions and responses will endeavor to avoid spoiler territory; the play is best enjoyed in the absence of foreknowledge of its denouement.

Lauren Gunderson Photo by Kirsten Lara Getchell

What stimulated your interest in theatre? 

The words came first. I loved crafting ideas through language even from an early age. I remember being so proud of a fifth-grade creative writing assignment where I wrote about a baseball being pitched in a World Series game (I was a big tomboy and loved Braves baseball). It was from the baseball’s perspective. The ball flew through the night air, cutting through the bright sports lights, spinning dizzily and arrested in the leather glove with a splash of wind and a smack on it’s cheek. I thought I was the first person in history to play with perspective like that.

I also loved acting and my mom will still tell the story of me playing Baby Bear in my kindergarten’s production of “The Three Little Bears” in Spanish. So playwriting was a combination of two things I loved and it’s what has kept me writing to this day.

At age 16, you wrote a letter to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Margaret Edson.  Tell us about the letter and the friendship that ensued.

Maggie is an Atlanta writer and teacher. I was overwhelmed with admiration for her play “Wit” when it came out and wrote her a note out of the blue expressing that. Amazingly she wrote me back and invited me over for tea to talk about writing. I couldn’t believe it. I will never forget the power of that gesture to a young writer. The respect and friendship she offered me set me going with confidence and inspiration. We connect every time I get back to Atlanta and I am deeply honored to call her a friend.

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a vehicle of connection for the two characters in the play.  Tell us about your first exposure to that poetry collection and how it affected you. 

I remember reading Whitman in high school on a misty fall night in Atlanta sitting on the roof outside my bedroom window. His poetry was so invigorating to me, so rebellious and bold. It was one of the first American literature assignments that felt so charged and scandalous and rule-breaking. But it was also hopeful – even defiantly so. I think his work really affected my sense of what art can do for us. It can surprise, challenge, inspire and energize us to keep being better people and living louder and seeing the goodness  and connectedness in all of us. Yawp!

How much fun was it to write about teenagers?

The language is fun, swift, rhythmic. It flows really easily and there is a lot of humor – self-deprecating or sassy. They can withstand emotion better than many adults because they can pivot from one feeling to another. The best part about writing teenagers is that they are at a time in their life where their future adulthood is imminent but inaccessible. They are all hope, idealism, and potential. They can be anything they dream… just not yet. That encourages a kind of grand thinking that is fun to write and also meaningful and nostalgic.

What did you experience in your teenage years in common with either or both of the characters? 

I was much more of a nerd like Anthony but way less athletic. I can admit to some of Caroline’s angsty tendencies but I was too much of an optimist to align with her personality.

What are some of the most gratifying comments you’ve received from people who’ve attended “I and You”?

One teenager saw it at a high school matinee and brought her parents and grandparents back with her to see it again! I also love seeing so many young black men on stages across the country in this play. Diversity onstage is deeply important to me and I am proud that this play is a part of that trend towards representation equity in American theatre. 

Was the writing process for this script much different than it was for your other plays? 

Yes! This play works like a music box – the mechanics must be tight yet fluid to earn the pop at the end. I had to really be conscious of creating honest characters with depth of heart so it’s not just about the surprise. But I definitely knew where it was going before I started writing it. I had to know the ending to craft the story just right.

What locations and conditions do you find conducive to writing plays?

Morning + coffee + quiet.

Tell us about your writing routine.

See above☺

You were the first playwright to present a Perspectives in Criticism Talk at ATCA’s annual conference.  How daunting was carrying out that honor? 

It was riveting actually. I was honored to speak to a room full of theatre nerds and everyone was excited to talk about real issues. The first line of my speech was, “Hello my name is Lauren, I am a playwright and you are a room full of critics and this won’t be awkward at all.”

Have reviews of your plays affected your creativity?

No. I have a policy of enjoying the good reviews and ignoring the bad one. Life is too short to feel bad if someone didn’t understand or appreciate your work. So I just think, “onwards!”

Who do you rely upon for constructive criticism of your scripts?

I have some brilliant friends who are writers and I often ask them to read early drafts. But I learn the most from hearing the work in the mouths and bodies of excellent actors. Their ideas and experiences within my work are always the best lessons on its efficacy and authenticity.

Does rewriting tend to be less joyful than composing first drafts? 

I love rewriting! It’s like solving a puzzle.

Were there many rewrites of “I and You”?

There always are. We learned a lot from the first production and continued honing the script after that. A lot of the rewrites were about heightening the tension between the two so it can burst and soften as they really start to connect on a deep, emotional level.  

Information about the People’s Light production of “I and You” is at: www.peopleslight.org.

Posted 3/21/17

Posted in Theatre.