Q&A: ‘Revolutionist’ Lauren Gunderson is America’s most-produced playwright

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Lauren Gunderson's 'Revolutionists' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON —  If you asked theatergoers to name America’s most-produced playwright of 2017, they might guess Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams.

But the real answer is Lauren Gunderson, a “revolutionist” in San Francisco who was just named “America’s Most Popular Playwright” by The New Yorker and the “Most Produced Playwright of 2017-2018” by American Theatre Magazine. In fact, her plays are staged almost twice as often as anyone else on the list (the annual survey notably excludes Shakespeare).

“It’s deeply gratifying,” Gunderson said. “It speaks to a changing landscape in American theater, how we are counting on and excited about women’s voices, not just my own. The other people on that Top 10 list [include] Lisa Kron and Domi Morisseau, so it really is a time [for] female voices that’ve had a harder go at being heard. … Now we can prove that we are powerful, funny writers with a lot of wit, heart and soul. It’s an honor to lead that charge.”

This week marks your final chance to see Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists” at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre. Set in 1793 during the French Revolution, head-rolling queen Marie Antoinette (Beth Hylton) collides with assassin Charlotte Corday (Emily Kester), playwright Olympe de Gouges (Megan Anderson) and Caribbean spy Marianne Angelle (Dawn Ursula).

“It’s actually based on a totally true story, which I found inspiring, shocking and really curious,” Gunderson said. “It’s so full of suspense and humor and a really interesting, edgy kind of feminism and intersectionality. I’ve always been interested in the French Revolution and I’ve always had my eye on Charlotte Corday. Who is this young girl who has the balls to go up to Jean-Paul Marat — this very famous political activist at the time — and stab him to death?!?”

While the play is set centuries ago, its themes are just as timely as ever.

“It really became important to me thinking about our current time in America,” she said. “Looking at this division between the wealthy and the poor, a distaste of authority, misogyny, racism. One of the things that was really profound to me was that France during this time was fighting for liberty while they had a slave colony in the Caribbean. The discord and hypocrisy of that. It felt like I could bring four women to represent the corners of the various battles going on and make something that was beautiful but also radically funny about revolution.”

The cast is comprised of four familiar faces. You’ll recognize Hylton from “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Everyman; Kester from “The Hard Problem” at Studio Theatre; Anderson from “Rabbit Hole” at Olney Theatre Center; and Ursula from “A Raisin in the Sun” at Arena Stage.

“I basically rewrote the beginning of the play for them,” Gunderson said. “They are such an amazing group of women and so funny that I was able to discover new things and, based on their really insightful ideas, deepen the play, which I really love to do to make it personal to the cast. What you’re going to see at Everyman is really special and written to their strengths.”

Director Casey Stangl helps to shape a fast-moving comedy with a very modern edge.

“The main tone of the play is going to feel like this combination of what you might hear in 1793 and a really modern, edgy, rebellious, Tina Fey-Amy Poehler, rolling kind of humor,” Gunderson said. “I felt that was the way to make it engaging, fast, funny and surprising. What you’re going to see is beautiful costumes [that] are just luscious. There’s something kind of ominous about the set, which as the play goes on, you’ll see why it deserves that. … You may think that you know what’s going to come, but I think we’ve got some surprises for you.”

“The Revolutionists” is the culmination of a life of theater dating back to her youth in Atlanta.

“I always wanted to be an actor when I was little … forcing my sister to sing various ‘Lion King’ musical numbers around the backyard and living room,” Gunderson said. “Then I realized the real power is with the writer. They’re the ones who decide who’s the hero, why are they the hero, what do they learn, what’s the entire story about? So that became my second addiction.”

She pursued it more seriously in college with a B.A. in English & Creative Writing at Emory University and an M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing at NYU. She then became a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship, received a Mellon Foundation for Residency with the Marin Theatre Company, and won the Lanford Wilson Award from the Dramatist Guild of America.

Of all the plays she’s written — including “Emilie,” “Silent Sky,” “Ada and the Engine,” “Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” “The Taming” and “The Book of Will” — which is her personal favorite?

“It’s a very small little play called ‘I and You,'” Gunderson said. “As much as I love writing big plays … this one is a really simple play about two teenagers doing homework, which sounds like the most boring thing in the world. But I’m really proud of what I was able to accomplish in terms of a titanic surprise at the end. I love that play because it makes people laugh and weep and gasp at the end. The structure is tight like a music box. I like doing a lot with a little.”

Today, Gunderson’s place atop the list of most-produced playwrights marks obvious social progress, but she notes that men still write three-quarters of the plays that get produced.

“I’m an optimist, so I’m going to say we’re close,” Gunderson said. “The audience for theater is often more than 60 percent women. … Embracing the idea that ‘Hamlet’ is just a play, where a play by me might be miscategorized as a female play. So really trying to even the way that we describe plays. ‘The Revolutionist’ is a universal play … not something defined by sex. I hope the more we see plays by women, the more we’ll see that we don’t even need the qualifier of who wrote it. It’s a play for all of us and speaks to humanity, not just to half of humanity.”

Will the recent Harvey Weinstein tidal wave open the door for a seachange of new voices?

“Definitely,” Gunderson said. “When you look at the Harvey Weinstein stuff, it’s not just their personal behavior, it’s the stories they brought into the world. … Often those stories have minimal roles for women. … When you allow women to tell stories that define [the] human experience, you get to pop those myths and say there’s agency beyond who you marry and who gets to own you at the end of the story. That’s what we’re seeing now in this seachange.”

Click here for more on “The Revolutionists.” Listen to our full chat with Lauren Gunderson below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Lauren Gunderson (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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