Pick up a random Bay Area theater's brochure this year, and there's a surprisingly large chance you'll see the name Lauren Gunderson in it. The Georgia-born, NYU-educated playwright, who has lived in the Bay Area since 2009, has an unheard-of four plays premiering in the Bay Area in one year, two of them in the coming week: The Taming, produced by Crowded Fire, is about a conservative, a liberal, and a Miss America contestant getting trapped in a hotel room; and I and You, produced by Marin Theatre Company, follows a pair of high school students of different races and cliques forced to do a school project together on Walt Whitman. We found a rare moment when Gunderson wasn't writing or in rehearsal to talk about her process as a playwright and how she sees her work in relation to the theater scene as a whole.
SF Weekly: First, I'm sure all the writers out there want to know — how are you so prolific?
Lauren Gunderson: One play is not going to be enough. It doesn't satisfy me, and it doesn't satisfy my bank account. Unlike a Shepard or a Mamet, who have their thing that they do, I'm like a Pollock.
It seems like much of that productivity is inspired by a voracious interest in history — I and You, for instance, clearly required a great deal of study of Walt Whitman.
I never finish a book. I can barely get through it before I'm trying to read and type at the same time. One detail can give you 10 plays. You don't write what you know. You write what you want to know. That's why I started doing tumblrs [iandyouplay.tumblr.com, the tamingplay.tumblr.com] for my plays. A play is an efficient thing. I find the world of the play is just as fascinating.
In many of your plays, the dialogue zips by, seemingly with a punch line at the end of every line. What do you pay attention to when crafting your language?
My plays are very quick. You get on a roller coaster and don't stop, partially because I'm scared of being bored. It's all about the rhythm for me. Something as a small as one word can make you go from [she giggles] to [she guffaws]. "Pants" is a funny word. "Trousers?" Not as funny. Most plays can be solved through rhythm.
Also across your work, your female characters are agents of this comedy at least as often as your male characters are — which is not a common quality among playwrights. What's your feeling on how women are typically represented in theater?
The larger symptom is that you assume the hero, the driver of the energy, is the man. You have all-female plays that do that. I hate female characters who are evil because of a man. As a younger writer I wasn't as conscious of that. Most of my plays have equal if not more women than men.
Both of your plays premiering this week, The Taming and I and You, feature characters who normally would have no reason to be in the same room together.
That's especially true of The Taming. It's about the sense that we shouldn't have friends who disagree with us politically. We want to know why we're not compromising — but we're never in the same room together!
That play makes some pretty radical proposals about what our country should look like — dismantling the Electoral College, imposing term limits for Supreme Court justices. But it also seems to come from a deep love of America and being an American.
It's exciting to me, the idea of being a patriot. When you think "patriot," you think "conservative white guy from Wyoming." It's like the word "feminist." Some women say, "Oh no, I'm not that," like it's a bad thing. This play is about what would happen if "patriot" meant "someone willing to fight for or dismantle their country to make it better for everyone."
The division in I and You is less about politics and more about technology. What's that all about?
In that generation, there are a lot of screens. They separate and diffuse. That play is partly about what would get [the character of Caroline] away from her computer and really connect.
But that play also shows another side of young people — their capacity to give of themselves in a way that older folks become hardened to.
It's such a valentine. It's so small, and then it's huge. So rarely do you get a surprise in theater that totally overwhelms. And it's that hope that reminds me of being young — it's oil in the engine of humanity.