Decatur native Lauren Gunderson is the most-produced living playwright in the United States, a feat she has accomplished almost completely outside of the theatrical hotbed of New York City. CONTRIBUTED BY KRISTEN LARA GETCHELL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Lauren Gunderson: Decatur native makes mark as playwright

Having 27 plays in production is a challenge when you’re only a 36-year-old playwright, but Lauren Gunderson got an early start.

When she was a fifth-grade student at Winnona Park Elementary School in Decatur, Gunderson re-enacted Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s eloquent 1848 Seneca Falls speech on behalf of women’s suffrage.

“It was breathtaking,” remembers Debby Miller, who was teaching first grade at Winnona Park at the time. “I remember her walking across the stage in costume, with a bustle in the back, and totally in character.”

Since those days, Gunderson has stayed busy, writing or co-writing continuously. Last fall, she was named the most-produced playwright in the United States for the 2017-18 season by American Theatre magazine, with almost twice as many plays in production as many of the runners-up.

Gunderson’s choice of Stanton as a figure worthy of study prefigured her writing choices to come. While most plays being staged on and off Broadway and in regional theaters are by written by men — and most speaking parts in those plays are for male characters — Gunderson’s plays feature strong women.

As she points out in a column in Huffington Post, writing women into plays isn’t just the right thing to do, it also makes for good business, since females buy 70 percent of theater tickets and dominate theater audiences. (She also points out that shows written by women pull in more box office dollars than those written by men, which is corroborated by research from a Princeton economics student.)

Elizabeth Diane Wells played Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Brandon Partrick played Peter Shaw in Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky,” which was staged by Theatrical Outfit in 2015. CONTRIBUTED BY BREEANNE CLOWDUS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In a profile last year, The New Yorker wrote, “A typical Gunderson protagonist resembles her author: smart, funny, collaborative, optimistic — a woman striving to expand the ranks of a male-dominated profession.”

Those protagonists are often rescued from the inattentive history books. In “Ada and the Memory Engine,” she sings the unsung Victorian-era Ada Byron Lovelace, who wrote programs for the first mechanical computer created by her friend and soul mate, Charles Babbage.

Amateur astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, who recognized that Cepheid variable stars were the key to determining the actual dimensions of the galaxy and the universe, is the star of “Silent Sky.” Leavitt remained a simple data-entry laborer at the Harvard College Observatory while Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble used her discovery in their groundbreaking research.

Kathleen McManus (from left), Ashley Anderson and Mark Cosby performed in a recent Essential Theatre production of “Ada and the Memory Engine” by Lauren Gunderson. Anderson played Ada Byron Lovelace. CONTRIBUTED BY ELISABETH COOPER
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As these brainy characters suggest, Gunderson was headed toward the sciences, but switched from physics to English, graduating with a degree in creative writing from Emory University.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband, Stanford biologist Nathan Wolfe, and their two children.

Getting theaters to stage more plays about women is sometimes a matter of simply asking, “So... how many of your plays are about women?” she wrote, in an email exchange.

“Once they count, it often surprises them, and they start to correct themselves. Being diverse is not just a chance to do the ‘right’ thing but it will make your seasons more compelling, your stories more valuable, and the performances more impactful.”

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