Feature: Creative Process

Playwright Lauren Gunderson offers insight into Marin Theatre Company residency

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Award-winning playwright Lauren Gunderson’s play ‘Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley’ is a continuance of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Photo by Jeff Berlin.

“A lot of my writing process is thinking, and not typing,” admits playwright Lauren Gunderson, of San Francisco. “What that means is that I tend to work on several projects at once, crossing from one to the other, back-and-forth in my mind, comparing and considering how this one could go and what the possibilities are for that one. And I’m usually also editing another mostly finished project, while preparing to pitch a new idea to a different company.”

In other words, writing—for Gunderson, anyway—is as much about juggling thoughts, keeping ideas spinning and researching the details of every fresh project, as it is about actually sitting down and putting words on a page.

Gunderson should know. Though only in her mid-30s, she’s put more words on more pages than many playwrights do in their entire careers. The astoundingly prolific playwright, with 27 stage productions taking place around the country during the current 2017-2018 theater season, is, as a result, among the most produced playwrights in America.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Gunderson studied writing and drama at Emory University, and then dramatic writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Displaying an obvious appreciation for science and literature, her plays have generally featured real-life women or men of science or art, and many employ themes borrowed from Shakespeare. Her better-known plays include Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight, about the little-known 18th century French mathematician, Leap, about a young Isaac Newton, Silent Sky, about pioneering astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, I and You, about a pair of modern teens unlocking the mysteries of life and death while collaborating on a Walt Whitman project for school, and the recent Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley—a sequel, of sorts, to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

And that’s just the beginning.

Now roughly halfway through a three-year residency at Marin Theatre Company (MTC), Gunderson’s fast-growing catalog of plays is soon going to expand. In addition to teaching playwriting and adult acting workshops, Gunderson is hard at work on at least three new titles.

“As part of the residency, I’m writing a few different plays of different sizes,” she says. “One that’s an intimate drama, one that’s a bigger, epic piece and one that we’ve still yet to decide on.”

Though she prefers not to elaborate on the subjects of the plays she’s developing at MTC, Gunderson does drop one juicy morsel of information.

“We are working on a companion piece to Miss Bennet,” she says, describing the play-in-progress as, “Another side of the same story, going downstairs this time, and spending some time with the servants of Pemberley. There are a couple of characters you will know from Pride and Prejudice, that were hidden in the last play, and then one infamous character from Jane Austen’s novel. The production in Marin was so much fun, and so successful, we really thought it would be a joy to continue telling the story.”

With that work, and the as-yet-unnamed others, the development process has been a bit unusual, Gunderson observes. Working with a core group of MTC actors, Gunderson brings in new pages every few months. Sometimes she’s got several pages, and sometimes only a few, “depending,” Gunderson says with a laugh, “on how productive I’ve been able to be. It’s like having a constant deadline.”

Asked if she’s the kind of playwright who needs a deadline to get going, Gunderson laughs again.

“Well, I love writing,” she says, “so I generally get up every morning, barely able to wait to get going. So, no, I don’t tend to need a deadline. But since I have a lot of different projects going on in my head at all times, choosing which one to hone in on is where having a deadline helps. ‘Oh, I have a reading of a play in two weeks? I guess I should probably get to writing that one.’”

Working with MTC, she adds, gives her an additional incentive.

“Just knowing that when we get in the room together to work on new stuff, something interesting will happen, that’s a pretty great motivation,” she says. “All of that interaction and conversation is incredibly valuable, as a writer. Usually, a playwright finishes the play they are writing before getting that kind of feedback. But for me, working with Marin Theatre Company, I get to hear all of that stuff as I go. It’s really very cool.”

Workshops with Lauren Gunderson

Playwriting Intensive: The Why of Theatre—Saturday, February 3, 11am to 3:30pm.

Playwriting Intensive: The How of Theatre—Saturday, Feb. 10, 11am to 3:30pm; registration deadline Feb. 2.

Each workshop is $125; there is a 30-minute lunch break; Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. To register, contact Ashleigh Worley, director of education at 415/322-6049, or ashleigh@marintheatre.org.

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