The Year of Gunderson has begun in Colorado

The Catamounts are presenting Lauren Gunderson’s political comedy ‘ The Taming,’ featuring Laura Lounge, in Boulder through Oct. 8. Photo by Michael Ensminger.

The Year of Gunderson has begunderson in Colorado theatre.

Three Colorado theatre companies, including the DCPA, are presenting three different plays by 34-year-old wunderkind Lauren Gunderson. Sure, that’s impressive and all, but let’s consider this playwriting phenomenon from a slightly larger context:

Gunderson is officially the most-produced living playwright in the country right now, according to American Theatre Magazine. And she’s No. 2 overall, behind only the august August Wilson. Yes, ahead of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. (But not ahead of William Shakespeare or Stephen Sondheim, who, for whatever reasons, do not count in the magazine’s annual survey. Still … )

Lauren Gunderson quote “This is a pretty amazing moment in my career,” Gunderson said from her home in San Francisco. “I have always dreamed of having a place in a smart, adventurous theatre community like the Denver/Boulder area. I am really honored and excited to have my work be in that soup. Colorado gets me.”

Oh, Colorado gets lots of Gunderson between now and May 2017 – and probably lots thereafter. Boulder’s The Catamounts just opened their sixth season with The Taming, a wild political farce being offered up just in time for this hilarious election season. In February, The DCPA Theatre Company will launch the world premiere of The Book of Will, which tells how Shakespeare’s greatest plays were snatched from the dustbin of history after his death. And in April, Boulder’s Ensemble Theatre Company will present Silent Sky, about pioneering Harvard astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt.

“That really makes me happy because those three plays represent three phases of my life and three very different styles of my writing,” Gunderson said. “They are kind of a microcosm of my dream career.”

What’s most remarkable, American Theatre wrote in announcing its survey results, is that Gunderson has become America’s most produced living playwright largely without the New York stamp of approval. Of the 16 professional productions of Gunderson’s plays in the 2016-17 season, only one was set to be staged in the Big Apple.

Gunderson, also the mother of two, attributes her place on the list to her personal propensity for working on three plays at a time – an instinct that was catalyzed in her when she began writing plays as a 15-year-old in Atlanta.

“Writers write,” Gunderson said. “You just have to write, and write a lot.”

She started writing – a lot – when she realized most plays don’t have parts for a teenage girl or her friends, so Gunderson started to write her own. “It really was kind of selfish,” she said with a laugh. “I was trying to write as a way to explore the extent of one’s emotional capacity.” She began by emulating her heroes: Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Paula Vogel among them. But eventually, she said, “I got the confidence to write about who I am right now.”

Here is a brief look at the three Gunderson plays that will be presented to Colorado audiences this season:

The Taming
Presented by The Catamounts
Now through Oct. 8
Carsen Theatre at the Dairy Arts Center, Boulder
303-444-7328 or ONLINE TICKETING

The premise of The Taming sounds like the start of a bad joke: You take a Republican, a Democrat and a libertarian, and lock them in a hotel room. … Only it’s actually a really good joke.

“Oh, it’s a laugh riot, which is the only way I could get away with writing such a political play,” Gunderson said. “Basically everyone gets skewered, so you will be able to laugh at whichever side you don’t like.”

The Catamounts' 'The Taming. Laura Lounge, McPherson Horle. Photo by Michael EnsmingerThe Taming focuses on three women, led by a Miss America contestant who has political aspirations to match her pageant ambitions. All she needs to revolutionize the U.S. government is the help of a conservative senator’s aide and a bleeding-heart liberal blogger.

“It is definitely based on The Taming of the Shrew,” said Gunderson. The Miss America contestant is named Katherine (naturally), “but it is not an adaptation or a re-telling of Shakespeare. It was really all of the misogyny in his play that inspired me to write mine. I am going to go out on a limb here and say I don’t ever need to see The Taming of the Shrew ever again. It’s just useless right now, and maybe even a little dangerous. And it’s not even very funny. I walk away from that play thinking, ‘So the abuser definitely won, and nobody seems to have a problem with that. Fabulous.’ ”

The frustration Gunderson felt watching The Taming of the Shrew is the same she feels looking at Congress. “So I wanted take the misogyny out of Shakespeare’s play and put congressional partisan politics in its place.

“But it’s really all about, ‘How do we work together to save the country?’ We can’t even have a conversation anymore. We’re not even the same species. And that means nothing is getting done. Our country has stalled, and you can see that now more than ever with this election cycle. That’s why I think theatre companies are doing this play all over the country this year.”

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

So if not the shrew, then … who is being tamed here, exactly?

“America,” Gunderson said with a laugh.

The Taming is the first production since The Catamounts’ public pledge to produce at least one play per season by a female, LGBTQ or non-white playwright. To which Gunderson says: Right on.

“I am deeply excited by who The Catamounts are, and that they are doing this play,” she said. TICKETS

(Pictured above right: McPherson Horle and Laura Lounge in The Catamounts’ ‘The Taming.’ Photo by Michael Ensminger.)

Our video interview with DCPA commissioned playwright  Lauren Gunderson, author of ‘The Book of Will.’

The Book of Will
Presented by the DCPA Theatre Company

Jan. 13-Feb. 26, 2017
Ricketson Theatre
303-893-4100 or ONLINE TICKETING

A Book of Will Lauren Gunderson 600 2The Book of Will, an original DCPA Theatre Company commission, is based on the true adventure of Shakespeare’s great friends and fellow actors, John Henry Condell and John Heminges. “They were responsible for editing, curating and publishing Shakespeare’s First Folio, without which we certainly would have lost half of Shakespeare’s plays, including some of the absolute timeless greats,” Gunderson said. “We know how valuable Shakespeare is to the world at large, but they didn’t know it at the time. They had no idea how impactful this project would be to everyone.”

But her play, she said, is ultimately about friendship and mortality. “It asks: What do we leave behind? What’s worth saving? Why is it valuable? What does theatre do for society and culture and civilization?” she said. “The play really starts to hone in on those things. But it does so, ideally, with a real, grounded heart.”

(Pictured above right: ‘The Book of Will’ was a featured reading at the DCPA’s 2016 Colorado New Play Summit. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)

Silent Sky
/Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
April 6-30, 2017
Grace Gamm Theater at The Dairy Arts Center, Boulder MORE INFO

Gunderson was going through New York’s famed Strand Book Store when she came across a pamphlet on Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a little-known astronomer whose research led to the theory of the expanding universe.

Silent Sky. Monette Magrath. South Coast Rep 2011“I was shocked to find a female scientist I had not yet heard of, because I gravitate toward those stories,” said Gunderson. Leavitt was tasked by the Harvard College Observatory to measure and catalog the brightness of stars in 1893. But as a woman, she wasn’t even allowed to use a telescope. “They were just looking at numbers and at glass photographic plates of the sky – not even the real sky,” Gunderson said.

So while the play is about astronomy and math, it’s really about the subjugated women forced to conduct their work in an enclosed office. Nevertheless, Leavitt found a pattern in a certain kind of blinking star that led to the modern cosmology we have today, including the works of Edwin Hubble (ironically, of the telescope fame).

Leavitt’s discovery felt immediately theatrical, visual and musical to Gunderson. “I thought those things sounded like they belong on stage,” she said.

There are at least two commonalities at the heart of Gunderson’s works. One, she said, is “getting the story back into women’s bodies and women’s brains and women’s mouths.”

And the other is legacy. “My work usually ends up coming to grips with facing the future without us, and what we leave behind,” she said.

“For The Taming, it’s all about how do we change this country? Katherine’s big goal is literally to rewrite the Constitution. Silent Sky is about contributing to science, even if you don’t get to see where the end of that exploration goes. And of course, The Book of Will is about launching one of the most important books in the Western canon.

“To me, the big question usually comes down to: ‘What we can do to change the world around us for the better?’ ”

(Pictured above right: Monette Magrath in ‘Silent Sky’ at South Coast Rep in 2011.)

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

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