The first thing you need to know about Lauren Gunderson, the most popular playwright in America, is that she writes really fast. The day I met her, she sent me an email telling me that in rehearsal, the cast of her newest show would be reading through Act 2, “which I just re-wrote this morning.” She sent the email at 8:45 a.m.
The second thing you need to know is that Lauren Gunderson writes an astonishing number of plays. At age 37, she already has more than 20 scripts in circulation, and more are on their way. The rehearsal I would be attending was for Jeannette, a musical about America’s first congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin, and her fight for the 19th Amendment. (Gunderson is writing the script; a young composer named Ari Ayesha Afsar is writing the music.) Jeannette was undergoing an early workshop at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in eastern Connecticut, but it was far from the only play that Gunderson was working on this summer. At any given time, Gunderson has a good half-dozen shows commissioned or in early readings or workshopping or preparing to premiere in theaters around the country.
In a cavernous basement rehearsal room, 15 or so actors, diverse in race and gender but uniform in otherworldly beauty, were assembled around a couple of tables shoved together, the new Act 2 pages fresh off the laser printer and clipped into three-ring binders. As I sat down, two actors playing Rankin’s congressional aides discussed her plans for advocating women’s suffrage. “We can work on a meeting with the president, but I’d suggest building a coalition. We’re going to need a lot of support,” said one.
“Male support,” said another.
“What other kind is there in Washington?” sighed the woman playing Rankin.
“Scene 4,” said the director, Erin Ortman. “Jeannette and LaGuardia at dinner—”
Lauren Gunderson, sitting next to her, gently interrupted. “You know, we’re going to move to 5,” she said, flipping through script pages.
Gunderson looked up. “I think so. We know what the scene needs to do and what it wants to be, and we’re going to work to get it there. But I don’t need to hear it again.”
Each fall, American Theatre magazine combs the season announcements of nearly 400 regional companies and releases a list of the country’s most-produced playwrights. The list excludes Shakespeare and A Christmas Carol and regularly features the big guns of American theater history: Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and August Wilson are regulars, their plays reliably mounted by 15 or so theaters each year. For a living playwright to make the list, they typically need to ride a single New York hit as it makes its way around the country. Last season, for example, Lucas Hnath’s 2017 Broadway sensation A Doll’s House, Part 2 was performed in Pittsburgh and Portland and Fort Worth and St. Louis and Key West and 22 other cities.
But the most popular playwright in America has no Broadway hit to her name. In fact, she’s never had a play on Broadway. In fact, she’s only had a handful of New York appearances at all. According to American Theatre’s just-released list, in the 2019–20 season, 33 different productions of Lauren Gunderson plays are going up at theaters around the country. That’s 15 more than the second-place playwright on the list, Lauren Yee. Indeed, Gunderson has dominated American theater for several years: Last year, she finished just behind Hnath on the list, and she also topped the rankings the year before.
In 2009, Lauren Gunderson left New York for the West Coast, and since then, she’s made a career in America’s regional and repertory theaters, writing brisk comedies about plucky women, classical literature, romance, and the history of science. Her shows are enormous hits, beloved by the mostly white, older audiences that subscribe to regional theater. This fall, a play of hers is finally premiering in New York: The Half-Life of Marie Curie, starring Kate Mulgrew of Orange Is the New Black, produced not by Manhattan Theatre Club or Scott Rudin but by Audible, the audiobook company. Is New York City ready for the rest of America’s favorite playwright?
As the actors read, Gunderson laughed at the jokes, conferred sotto voce with Ortman and Afsar, made notes on her script. When Gunderson focuses on a performance, she likes to twist a long strand of her dark brown hair in her left hand, then pull it under her chin like the strap on a bike helmet. She describes her personal style as “’90s mom,” and on this day, the pink streaks on each side of her hair matched her pink Swatch and pink running shoes.
Scene 5 was a charged reunion between Rankin and her onetime girlfriend, a radical suffragette. (The character is a composite, based on a number of Rankin’s actual complicated romantic and political relationships.) The encounter is cut short by an announcement of a congressional vote to authorize World War I. Rankin, a pacifist, votes no, and is mocked in the press, with reporters claiming she “wept like a schoolgirl” while casting her vote.
As I watched Act 2 of Jeannette, it was easy to see what had drawn Gunderson to the story: a previously untold American history tale, real-life early-century queer feminists, a sympathetic male foil in New York congressman Fiorello LaGuardia, who falls for Rankin but can’t win her heart. LaGuardia, who voted yes on the war, defends Rankin’s vote to the press—“I’ll be honest, I couldn’t see her because of the tears in my own eyes,” he says in the script—and then prepares to enlist. First, though, he asks Rankin to marry him. The Montana congresswoman has great fondness for LaGuardia, but she declines.
“Do you have to go?” the actor playing Rankin asked the actor playing LaGuardia. Her curls were casually tucked behind her ears, but it was not hard to see the glamour she could bring to the role onstage. He wore a backward baseball cap and had an easy charisma.
“Yes,” LaGuardia said. “And I want to.”
“Which makes you braver than me.”
LaGuardia leveled his gaze at her. “Nobody’s braver than you,” he said. Around the table I felt that little shimmer of delight that theater people emit when a line really lands.
When the reading was finished, Gunderson returned the conversation to the troublesome Scene 4. “We’re trying to figure out what to do with this very valuable real estate,” she said. “This space used to be where Jeannette and LaGuardia fell in love with each other, but now we don’t do that.” But the show still needed a scene right there of them forging the warm friendship that would be crucial to make later moments work. “He may be a little mansplainy at times,” Gunderson said with a smile at the actor playing LaGuardia, “but he’s a good guy. That quote about the tears in his eyes, that’s real, that’s true. He said that.”
Gunderson talks extremely fast, rat-a-tat-tatting through jokes, ideas, expressions of delight. I’ve found that the only way to capture her multitude of tones, fittingly, is to use stage directions. “They’re a good team,” Gunderson mused about Rankin and LaGuardia, “but to her that means (chipper, professional) ‘We’re a good team!’ and to him it means (sultry) ‘We’re a good team.’ ”
The actors had many suggestions; Gunderson met each one with warmth and then subtly bent the bad ideas to the good. “Oh, that’s great,” she replied at one point, “that’s (singing) soooo greeeaaaat!” Eventually, everyone agreed with Gunderson that what Scene 4 needed to be was something montage-y that shows the two building their working relationship: him introducing her around, her charming other congressmen, one of them proposing an idea and the other running with it. “In the shitty version of this,” she said, “they high-five after one meeting goes really well.”
It’s easy to imagine the shitty version of a lot of Lauren Gunderson’s plays, just from hearing their log lines. Silent Sky: the true story of 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, who discovered a way to measure the distance to the stars. Ada and the Engine: the true story of Ada Lovelace, Victorian mathematician and Lord Byron’s daughter. I and You: Two high school students, one of them fighting a life-threatening illness, debate Walt Whitman for a school project.
The shitty versions of these plays are both fusty and trendy: devoted to history and the Great Works, but with a pop-feminist sheen that helps to sell them to modern audiences. You worry that the plays feature a lot of montage-y sequences ending in anachronistic high-fives, meant to make unsophisticated audiences shout, “You go, girl!” (In my reading of Gunderson’s plays, I found only one actual high-five, and it was appropriately deployed.)
Gunderson acknowledges that her plays seem square—and that this is one reason she hasn’t had a New York breakthrough. “My plays end with that big emotion that I want to feel when I go to the theater. But in shitty versions, that’s melodrama.” We were eating cafeteria lunch in a room overlooking the sparkling blue of the Long Island Sound. “I think in New York they think, Danger danger, this is getting into cheesy love story mode. But people fall in love all the fuckin’ time! It’s not weird to write about it!” She laughed. “There’s great satisfaction in, I know these characters are gonna kiss at the end, and I can’t wait!”
At one point in her career, Gunderson was on the path to being a New York playwright. After growing up outside Atlanta, she attended the graduate playwriting program at NYU, the launching pad for any number of ambitious writers, from Tony Kushner to Kenneth Lonergan to Annie Baker to, yes, Lucas Hnath. “It broke me in a lot of ways,” Gunderson remembered. “I was writing these dense, heavy intellectual history plays and weird artsy stuff. And I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t sing.” Studying dramatic structure, she said, helped her find a way out of that quagmire. “What’s the architecture that makes us care about these made-up people? Now I see a play, and I try to solve the puzzle, to figure out why it works. I feel now that’s a superpower I have.”
Just after graduation, Gunderson was invited to San Francisco to workshop a play at a small theater in the North Bay. While crashing on the artistic director’s couch, she fell in love with the theater community in the Bay Area—and with a virologist with whom she went on a first date after she interviewed him about his research. “I had an apartment waiting for me in New York,” she recalled. “But I just stayed.”
That spur-of-the-moment decision has defined her professional life. (And her personal one—she and the virologist, Stanford’s Nathan Wolfe, are now married with two kids.) “I’m on those lists of most-produced playwrights because I’m not in New York,” she said. “If you’re in New York, you’re in the New York support network, and New York supports playwrights through readings and workshops. Which are great—you’re honing the work—but eventually you gotta put the play on a stage. In San Francisco, I got produced.”
For a while, it seemed her regional focus was holding her back. It was hard to convince her agents at the Creative Artists Agency that the little plays she was writing for little theaters far away would lead to anything; they certainly weren’t leading to the high-paying Hollywood work that many playwrights (and agents) depend on. “They were like, (urbane agent voice) ‘You’re not the fanciest.’ They basically dumped me.” She found a new agent at another company, “and then of course almost immediately afterward was when everything blew up in my career.”
These days, Gunderson is the rare playwright who spends nearly all of her time writing and developing plays: no teaching, no TV writers’ room, very occasional screenwriting work. (That’s uncommon enough that on a recent episode of the theater podcast Three on the Aisle, the hosts wowed when Gunderson confirmed she has no day job.) Gunderson owes the torrent of productions over the past half-decade to the regional theaters that fall in love with her work and program it over and over. Gunderson assiduously built those relationships, and at this point, you can’t swing a cat in the small world of regional theater artistic directors without hitting someone who’s known Gunderson for years and eagerly programs her work. Marissa Wolf was the artistic director at a tiny theater in San Francisco, Crowded Fire, when she commissioned Gunderson’s The Taming, which premiered in 2013. Now she’s the AD at Portland Center Stage, where her first season showcases Gunderson’s Jane Austen sequel Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.
“Lauren has a knack for hitting the regional theater audience sweet spot,” John Glore, the associate AD at South Coast Repertory, told me. “She naturally writes plays that non–New York audiences respond to.” I heard this again and again from ADs: Gunderson’s plays are irresistible to their audiences, who while they share some characteristics (whiteness, affluence) with New York audiences, differ in important ways. The average Broadway playgoer attends nine shows per year; the average off-off-Broadway attendee attends 23, according to an unpublished 2015 study provided by the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation. That’s far more than the typical regional theater audience member, said ADs I spoke to, who agreed that this results in their typical attendee being perhaps less theatrically sophisticated and more risk-averse than, say, those New Yorkers who go to the theater all the time. “It’s Wednesday night, you catch a show after work,” said Brent Hazelton, the AD at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. “You want something fulfilling, but you also don’t want something that’s going to crush your spirit. You still have to go to work tomorrow.” On Gunderson, Hazelton pointed out that “there’s an optimism in her voice that is very appealing.”
“Lauren’s always trying to find: How can we come out of this situation with a more optimistic, hopeful view?” said Jasson Minadakis, the artistic director at Marin Theatre Company and the guy whose couch Gunderson slept on 10 years ago. “When the nation’s in a pessimistic state of mind, programming pessimistic plays is tough. You’re beating the audience over the head with what they’re getting all day long.” Marin commissioned Miss Bennet and premiered it just after the 2016 election. “It was the perfect play for that moment,” he said. It was the second-best-selling show the company has ever produced.
To an avid theatergoer who sees and reads a lot of plays, the downside of Gunderson’s infatuation with structure is that many of her plays proceed beat by predictable beat. Characters deliver monologues proclaiming their I wants with the bluntness of a Disney princess. “I have questions, I have fundamental problems with the state of human knowledge!” exclaims Henrietta in Silent Sky. “Who are we, why are we—where are we?!”
“Wisconsin,” her sister replies, the snappy but unmemorable wisecrack a trademark of Gunderson’s dialogue. I’m no apologist for the endless developmental treadmill many New York playwrights find themselves on, but when I read an exchange like this, I can’t help but wish it had gone through a set of rewrites that took longer than a morning.
At the same time, Gunderson’s devotion to emotion means that her work can be deeply satisfying, especially to viewers who don’t see a lot of plays. This is particularly true of her endings. Lauren Gunderson is not a writer whose plays end quietly, or unresolvedly, or with a Chekhovian straggle of dots. Gunderson’s plays end in exclamation points that send audiences out into the lobby tingling. Sometimes that’s a big twist or reveal, as in her play I and You, which brought Gunderson to London last year for the first time for a fairly well-received production starring Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones. “I love that there are two gasps in that play I can clock,” she said with a wicked grin. “And … gasp! And … gasp! And then people crying but trying not to make too much noise. I live for that shit.”
In her historical dramas, Gunderson favors a kind of telescopic, whiz-bang ending that takes her characters out of time and whisks them into the future, to witness and comment on all that their discoveries have wrought. “I end a lot of plays like that, with an exploration of what happens after we die,” Gunderson said. Early in her career, she was convinced by a theater to rewrite the ending of Silent Sky to take out the section in which the astronomer Henrietta Leavitt flashes forward to tell us about the Hubble telescope and the Nobel Prize she never got. A few years later, in the show’s second production, she put it back in. “You know, some people thought it was too theatrical, too different, too much,” she recalled. “And I guess I’ve realized I’m a too-much playwright.”
In making connections to the present day, the endings also have the benefit of satisfying curious audiences hungry for nuggets of unknown history. Gunderson herself loves that stuff. “I don’t want to read that in the program. I want to see it on the stage.” In The Book of Will, as the characters who’ve fought to bring Shakespeare’s First Folio into print open their copy of the book, “the world around and ahead of them explodes into the sound of centuries of forthcoming speeches … a beautiful cacophony of actors’ voices performing Shakespeare tempests and time-warps around us.” Then there’s a quiet grace note, and a blackout. The endings are theatrical, moving, and—importantly, for curious but cautious audiences—instructive. When my mother-in-law saw The Book of Will this summer in Cedar City, Utah, she called me on the phone to say, “Dan, I saw the most fabulous play. I learned so much.”
And while the plays are political in their way, those politics play very comfortably to middle American audiences. ADs who spoke to me praised Gunderson’s work for its feminism, and it’s true that her plays do feature strong female characters shedding the yoke of sexism (usually, the sexism of bygone eras). But they’re certainly not meant to challenge theatergoers, unlike the most acclaimed new political work in New York—plays like Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer-winning Fairview, which is designed explicitly to force white audiences to physically confront the damage done by racism and exclusion. “Her voice is so profoundly feminist, but it’s not one of those agitprop political voices,” said Hazelton. “It’s not that the play is having a didactic conversation around feminism,” said Wolf. Instead, “the play is offering a world where women’s experiences matter.”
Gunderson doesn’t view the inviting nature of her plays and the sunniness of her feminism as problems. These plays stand in defiance, she said, to the “edgy political stuff” that gets put on in downtown theaters in New York. “That can be great but can also feel like work,” she said. “I’m interested in emotion. I sometimes find myself defending emotion. I mean, it seems to me that’s our job, to put emotion onstage. But so often I see theater shy away from that. They’re afraid of melodrama, or cheesiness. So they go after plays that are political, or (lowers voice, raises one eyebrow) interesting.”
“Lauren isn’t worried about being cool,” said South Coast Rep’s Glore. “Those of us who don’t think of ourselves as cool love that.”
The most deeply uncool of Gunderson’s plays is absolutely Miss Bennet, which Gunderson co-wrote with Margot Melcon, once the literary manager at Marin. The inspiration for the show was a long drive Gunderson and Melcon took together in which they posed the question, “what sort of show did the American theater most need so that people could add it to the season planning processes?” Gunderson told the New Yorker that by the end of the trip, they had the show outlined on Starbucks napkins. The result is a play seemingly designed in a lab to appeal to regional theater subscribers: a cozy Christmas sequel to Pride and Prejudice, with a feisty Mary Bennet despairing that her scholarly bent will prevent her from married bliss—until she meets Mr. Darcy’s bookworm cousin, handsome Arthur de Bourgh. As Washington Post critic Celia Wren put it in a lukewarm review of a local production: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a theater aspiring to community goodwill, not to mention a dependable income stream, must be in want of a holiday show.”
But come on: The show is, indeed, irresistible. I would absolutely take my kids and my mother-in-law to it. It has a reliable stream of Austen gags and ends with, as the script’s stage directions instruct, “a great big beautiful kiss—the one we’ve been waiting for.” And I can’t disagree with what Gunderson said when I asked her if she wouldn’t rather be known for plays with a little more of an edge: “I would rather have a show that a lot of people will do,” she replied. Every theater needs a holiday show, she pointed out, and “I’d rather that holiday offering be a big feminist play that critiques the institution of marriage and puts five women onstage. You know how rare that is?”
The lesson of Gunderson’s career is that New York doesn’t have to matter, but the way Gunderson talks about her New York experience—and her upcoming premiere—makes it clear that New York still matters to her. Her history there is spotty: three off-Broadway productions of plays that previously premiered elsewhere, none of which were particularly well reviewed. Most recently, last fall, WP Theater (formerly the Women’s Project) mounted Natural Shocks, a one-woman show about the intersection of domestic violence and guns. “It was produced, I assume, because we’re now in this feminist moment,” said Laura Collins-Hughes, who panned the show in the New York Times. “The knowledge that she is the most produced playwright in the country sets expectations high. Not expectations that she’s excellent, but it does set an expectation that you’d be able to figure out what all these theaters see in her.”
David Cote, who was for many years the head critic at Time Out New York, noted that “New York’s theaters at this moment are interested in dealing with identity politics and messy intersectional issues.” Maybe Gunderson, he speculated, “is simply not an edgy enough feminist?” Minadakis, the Marin Theatre AD, hears New York theater people dismiss Gunderson’s plays as “not serious” because of their inveterate optimism. Lisa McNulty, the artistic director of New York City’s WP Theater, who produced Natural Shocks, rejects that assessment. “People predecide what women are writing about and make decisions about what the work is. You know: Oh, it’s domestic.”
To McNulty, the issue keeping Gunderson out of New York is not taste but sexism. “A male writer who has the career that Lauren has, they get anointed. Those successes would have progressed them more,” she said. “I could name 10 male playwrights who tell stories in a traditional way, whose work doesn’t break through any theatrical barriers and is getting produced all the time in New York. You know, I love Tracy Letts, but is Tracy Letts breaking new ground? Why is she square and they’re not square?” Cote made a similar point. “I could be a total snob,” he said, “and say New Yorkers are far too intelligent to have this middlebrow stuff flatter them. But tons of middlebrow stuff gets produced in New York.” Cote compared Gunderson with a writer whose once-edgy work now seems much less provocative: “She’s a much better playwright than Neil LaBute, and for a while everything he wrote was being produced.”
It’s notable that this fall, when Gunderson is set to get that New York City world premiere that has long eluded her, the opportunity comes not from an established theater company but from Audible. In 2017, the audiobook giant, eager to expand its audio drama offerings, assembled an advisory board of New York theater eminences (Lynn Nottage, Oskar Eustis, David Henry Hwang, et al.) to commission new plays using a $5 million fund. The next year, it selected Gunderson as one of its inaugural round of “emerging playwrights.” (That she was “emerging” the same year she was the most-produced playwright in America was a designation that would only be made by New York theater people.) Now that commission will premiere onstage at the off-Broadway Minetta Lane Theatre, starring Kate Mulgrew and Francesca Faridany, opening Nov. 19. Naturally, the play is about history and science and feminism, and provides two meaty roles to older women: Marie, reviled in the press for taking up with a new man years after the death of her famous husband, and Hertha Ayrton, a British inventor and suffragist who takes in the Nobel winner at her lowest point.
Gunderson was stung by the reception Natural Shocks received in New York and said she’s learned from the experience of that production. Bringing a show to New York, where bad reviews can scuttle the future potential of a play, is different from opening in Denver or Atlanta. “Maybe the lesson of that show was to make sure that next time, I should say, ‘Let’s do this at a time when I can 100 percent focus on it.’ ” She said she’s told Marie Curie’s director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch, “I would rather not do it than do it too quickly.”
This conversation was in early September. I pointed out that the show hadn’t even been fully cast or even announced yet, and it was supposed to open in November. “We are still kinda rushing it,” she admitted. “But at least I said that out loud.”
Sitting on the porch after lunch that summer day at the O’Neill Center, I said I couldn’t help but notice Jeannette’s Hamilton-style aspirations. (The show’s songwriter, Afsar, in fact, played Eliza in the first Chicago production of Hamilton.) “That show has a lot to do with ours,” she agreed. “Historical figure, pop music, a diverse cast telling a mostly white story. But ours is really different too. It’s female-driven, about feminism and womanism and queerness. I loved Hamilton, but that was what I missed when I watched it.”
Was she worried about the comparison? She laughed. “If someone’s like, ‘Oh, it’s Hamilton but for women’?” She threw up her hands in mock horror. “Oh no! The most successful musical maybe of all time?!”
Afsar stopped by on her way to lunch. With Gunderson-ian speed, she’d just written a whole new song, but she wasn’t sure it worked. They speculated about reusing an old song that had been previously cut, called “Now or Never.”
“How great if we could just slide that one right in there,” Gunderson said.
“I think Erin hates that song,” said Afsar, referring to the workshop’s director.
“I think she’s like, ‘What’s now or never?’ ” They both laughed. “I’m like, life!”
“It’s life!” Gunderson said with glee.
“Don’t question it!”
There were a few hours before the next rehearsal, and Gunderson had to find a quiet room to write a new Scene 4, “the LaGuardia moment.” She ticked off on her fingers everything the scene had to accomplish: “They start their friendship, they work together, we see she’s good at her job, he starts falling for her. That’s the puzzle I need to solve.”
How would Lauren Gunderson end this story? Let’s zoom forward. A few weeks from that summer day, Gunderson would be at the Kennedy Center, rehearsing the premiere of a musical for young audiences about the moon landing. While in Washington, she would attend casting meetings at the Shakespeare Theatre, which commissioned her to adapt a new version of Peter Pan premiering in November. (“I’ve turned Wendy into a little scientist, of course.”) Then Gunderson would host an informal reading of a fresh rewrite of The Wickhams, the sequel to Miss Bennet, in her living room, with friends playing all the parts. Shortly after, a staged reading at South Coast of another new commission, Beatrice: A Life of Mostly Happiness, a chronicle of one woman’s everyday life. And then Marie Curie in New York, and more plays after that, plays that are only ideas right now, ideas to be placed over the scaffolding of her perfect structure and then matched to the theater and the audience that will love them.
Lauren Gunderson tucked her laptop under her arm and smiled. “I keep saying yes,” she said.