.Arts: Theater Activism

Lauren Gunderson’s creative national campaign against gun violence

On Friday, April 20, Marin Theatre Company (MTC) acknowledged the 19th anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, with a casual but keenly poignant reading of playwright Lauren Gunderson’s one-woman-play, Natural Shocks. On the same evening, all across the country, hundreds of schools, theaters and nonprofits gave simultaneous readings of the same play, with several of those in the Bay Area, including Sonoma County, where Marin County actor Molly Noble performed the piece at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West.

Gunderson, who lives in San Francisco, waived all royalties for the weekend, encouraging companies large and small to perform her piece, on the condition that the event be used as a benefit for gun control advocacy groups, and to inspire community conversation on the issue of gun violence in America.

The MTC presentation—a fundraiser for Marin Moms Demand Action—stands out from those others in that it was the only reading of Natural Shocks that was performed by the acclaimed playwright herself.

music in the park san jose
music in the park san jose

“Now I remember why I’m a writer and not an actor,” Gunderson exclaimed, as she struggled to contain her emotions in the wake of the intense, 65-minute play’s powerful, heartwrenching climax. “This,” she said with a laugh, while wiping away tears, “is so hard!

Named for a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Natural Shocks is told from the point of view of a woman waiting out a tornado in her basement, gradually revealing details of a story that is as horrific as it is statistically commonplace. As such, artfully packed as it is with stunning statistics on gun violence—80 percent of those killed by guns in the U.S. are women; victims of domestic violence are five times more likely to be murdered if there is a gun in the house—Natural Shocks is more than just another piece in Gunderson’s long string of zeitgeist-capturing plays.

Like her 2015 comedy, The Taming, a sharp political satire that Gunderson similarly made available for free on Inauguration Day, 2016, the new solo piece is an inventive fusion of political activism and impassioned, highly personal theater, with a crafty added touch of savvy economics.

“People love free stuff,” Gunderson said, answering a question about the gradually increasing trend of playwrights giving away the rights of politically driven works, to mark significant anniversaries and events. Other notable royalty-free, theater-as-activism projects have included Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, a 2004 documentary theater piece by Gillian Slovo and Victoria Brittain, and Suzan Lori-Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays, a massive nationwide project in which theaters presented short plays that Parks wrote, one per day, over the course of a year.

“It’s a model that is proving to be pretty effective,” Gunderson said. “At this point, I think I’m going to do some more work on the piece, and then … I don’t know, maybe we’ll do this again next year, also on the anniversary of Columbine. This is obviously an issue I care about a lot, and think about a lot. And anything we can do to shift attitudes about guns in this country, we obviously should do.”

Learn more about ‘Natural Shocks’ at naturalshocks.org.


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