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Interview: Lauren Gunderson Talks Collaboration, New Musical at Arizona Theatre Company

The most popular playwright in America has two shows in ATC's new season, including a world premiere of her brand-new musical.

Interview: Lauren Gunderson Talks Collaboration, New Musical at Arizona Theatre Company

Lauren Gunderson has published roughly two dozen plays in two decades. It's no longer a question of how she managed to become the most produced playwright in the country, but rather a question of how the broader public managed to wait so long to recognize a generational talent.

Gunderson's prolific oeuvre makes it virtually impossible to keep her under the radar. At 39 years young, she churns them out with astonishing speed (she admits to writing fast) and shows no signs of slowing down. Theatre companies can't seem to get enough of her (ATC is producing two of her works this season).

It's safe to ascribe her staying power to a common theme: a relentless commitment to amplify the voices of consequential women in science and history. That she loves to craft a good story doesn't hurt her cause, either.

An avowed feminist, Gunderson is wont to feature women with a pioneering influence on social change (Marie Curie in THE HALF-LIFE OF MARIE CURIE, Ada Lovelace in ADA AND THE ENGINE, Henrietta Leavitt in SILENT SKY, among others). At the risk of confounding the average thinker, the playwright may lean on bookish details to justify her academic focus. Nonetheless, she's a gifted storyteller who can weave an arcane chalk talk on cosmology as a way to unfurl a theatrical yarn about a multidimensional protagonist.

That said, not all of her champions are women, and not every play is a historical drama. She also writes full-length comedies with a twist and 10-minute plays with wide-ranging themes. Through it all, Gunderson maintains a knack for authentic engagement by telling an urgent story rooted in our primal connection to community.

That's a potent recipe for gaining public attention; to steal a tired quip, her name has gone viral.

On a rare, cool desert afternoon not unlike the proverbial sweater-weather of her home city of San Francisco, I sat down for an interview with Lauren Gunderson. She had just arrived in Tucson for the first time to observe a three-day workshop of JUSTICE, her musical-in-development about Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, slated for a spring premiere at ATC. Gunderson wrote the book during the pandemic, reuniting with familiar collaborators Bree Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan (music and lyrics). If there's anything currently under the radar, it's the magical piece of theatre incubating in those hallowed halls of Arizona Theatre Company.

BWW: I've learned a great deal from Sean Daniels about the new face of Arizona Theatre Company and the kinds of new work he aims to develop here. I'd like to start by asking you to talk about the inception of your collaboration with Sean, leading up to the decision to include two of your shows this season.

LG: Right! Sean and I have known each other for so long. In high school, I remember seeing him perform at Dad's Garage in Atlanta as an improv-er, when he was running the company and performing. I was just so excited and inspired by what he and his colleagues were doing. And of course I just had a marvelous time watching them be terribly silly on stage, doing wonderful improv. He's been involved in my kind of journey as an artist for a very long time, ever since I was a kid. As life would happen, we kept running into each other as we kept advancing in our careers. Then finally, once I started really writing, after college, we had the chance to work together. He's been one of my most fierce advocates, [among] the kindest and most generous friends. I love his tastes -- nobody directs comedy better. He's a total feminist dad of a daughter now, and so this is like -- perfect! I basically followed him around the country, when he was leading the theatre company in Boston. I just keep going wherever he goes.

And so when he took the job here, I was really excited because it obviously felt like a homecoming for him, and partly because I didn't really know the theatre company that well. I'd heard of it but I'd never been here, never had a show here. Of course when he got the job, he was like, "Alright, one of the first things I'm doing is putting you on a season." And I said, "I'm so there. Couldn't be happier." So to have both of these shows at the same time is just wild.

BWW: Are you coming back to see the shows?

LG: Yes! I just want to be here all the time. I'll bring my family next time, certainly for JUSTICE.

BWW: MISS BENNET (CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY) has had previous runs. Am I correct in assuming that we get to see JUSTICE before anyone else?

LG: Brand new. Total world premiere! MISS BENNET has been done all over the country and we're very grateful -- my co-writer, Margot Melcon, and I are just so pleased that the show has had the success it had and that it's one of the most produced plays in the nation right now. We think we've done a good service to the American theatre by giving a new Christmas story, a holiday play that's female-centered, and to be cast with intentional diversity. It's all about agency and finding yourself, being loved for who you are, and all that good stuff. Plus costumes are pretty; snow, Christmas tree, and everything you want in a holiday show. You can take your grandma to it. Everyone likes it. It feels really great, especially since this is the first Christmas show that Arizona Theatre Company has ever done, which is amazing.

Interview: Lauren Gunderson Talks Collaboration, New Musical at Arizona Theatre Company

The thing about a holiday show is that it's many people's gateway to theatre. Oftentimes the only show they see, or the first show that they have seen, is being brought during the holidays. So it's really fun to imagine that this might be some people's first time in the theatre. And if we do a good job, they'll have a fabulous time and come back.

And JUSTICE -- it's basically Sean's idea. Midway through the pandemic, he says, "Crazy idea: Would you want to write a show about Sandra Day O'Connor?"

BWW: Wow, so it was his pitch?

LG: Yes, it was his pitch. "Would you write a show?" I said, "Yes. But two questions: Can Ruth Bader Ginsburg be in it, and can it be a musical?" And he said, "Yes and Yes." So I took his very simple idea and complexified it. And then I asked my colleagues, Bree Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan, to build a show with me. They're an amazing composer-and-lyricist team.

Interview: Lauren Gunderson Talks Collaboration, New Musical at Arizona Theatre Company

BWW: And I believe you've worked with them before on another project, yes?

LG: Bree, Sean, and I had worked on a couple of other musicals at the Kennedy Center together. So it was kind of a coming together. It's going well.

BWW: So when did you start writing the book for JUSTICE?

LG: That was last year. It's a very new project. For a moment, in the pandemic, I thought maybe we could do it very soon (as in last year), and then of course....

BWW: You write very fast, sounds like.

LG: Yes. Yes. Certainly musicals, where you have other people writing with you. Like, "Bree, write a song!"

BWW: Is this your second musical -- or how many other musicals have you done?

LG: I have written several musicals for younger audiences, one of which Sean directed at the Kennedy Center. Bree and I have written three or four musicals together, mainly for young audiences. But oddly, in the last five years, so much of my work is writing musicals now. They're all about to premiere in a row. So we have JUSTICE premiering, WE WON'T SLEEP in D.C., and then I have a U.K. premiere of a new musical. And those are all for adult, mainstage audiences."

BWW: I have a question about the workshop you're here for. It has to be so exciting for any playwright to have a chance to see their work transition from the page, if you will, to a place where you get to see creatives hash things out. First question is: How much rewriting happens after a workshop like this? And second question: How much does an actor's input impact your rewrites?

LG: Massive amounts, on both. Just today -- my work, when rehearsal ends, will be to go and rearrange the whole thing. Move this song there, move this here, put this scene there, but rewrite this scene...I mean, the point of the workshop is it's work, it's not like "let's perfect it." To me it's like -- take it apart.

BWW: So it's about discovery on all fronts.

LG: Tons of discovery. This is a very small play, actually, because there are only three actors.

BWW: Who's the third character?

LG: Chanel (Bragg) is playing a fictional character... of an incoming justice of the Supreme Court. So we have three women, and that means they're just incredibly valuable, this trio.

BWW: What prompted your initial question to Sean about including Justice Ginsburg in his proposed play? Was it a kind of reaction to RBG having just passed away?

LG: It was actually before, weirdly. We were all just working on it, and when she passed, it was, Oh My God! So basically, what I think made this not just hagiography -- if it were just about O'Connor -- is the fact that O'Connor, a Republican and Ginsburg, a Democrat, became real sisters on the Supreme Court. And although they were ideologically distinct, in some ways they did share a lot of views. It harkens back to a time when you could have a calm conversation with somebody of a different political party. And maybe even agree! This was not unreasonable or unexpected; so comparing that to the time we are in now, it felt like a really healthy way to say, like, "it didn't used to be like this." So to have them represent both sides and also come together....

BWW: Which brings up a curious thing -- how much does politics drive what you write?

LG: You the case of JUSTICE, a lot! I mean, it's hard not to. It is literal politics as well as the personal politics of each character that we know. I am of the mind that plays should be universal, so there has to be ways to open the doors to lots of audiences. There'll be some people who'll walk out being like, "I don't like it." But I think more people will say, "I never thought of that before," or "What an interesting way to view that subject," or "That makes me want to have a conversation," as opposed to tuning out. And that's what we really want to do with this. And that, again, is part of why writing a Republican like Sandra and a Democrat like Ginsburg...there's room for somebody to say, "I'm here for Sandra," and "I'm here for Ruth" -- and that's fine. Both are watching the same play.

BWW: Sean and I have briefly touched on the subject of parenthood and what it means to be a working artist and a full-time parent at the same time. It's a kind of elephant in the room. I understand you have two young boys; how do you manage staying prolific as a writer while taking care of your little guys?

LG: The truth is -- help. I mean, when they're in school, that's when I usually write. I have great help in my husband, and we have childcare, thankfully, that I can count on and schedule. But it's always a little hard, you can always feel torn. But now that they're getting older, I also have the chance to readily share it with them. So what's been the most meaningful part of that balance -- that kind of art-and-mom balance -- has been when I get to bring them to the theatre. Bree and I, the last show that we did, was a musical at the Kennedy Center about the Apollo 11 mission. And my boys just loved it! They're space nerds, so they showed up in astronaut costumes, and they loved it so much. So the stuff that I can include them in is always meaningful. But they also know -- and my husband and I both try to describe to them why we do what we do, and why we love it. That work can be wonderful and fun and fulfilling, and that it shouldn't be a competition between them and this other thing we love, which is what we do. And you know sometimes that works, and sometimes the tantrums come. And it's also about forgiving yourself; there's no version of perfect that's attainable. Like, that's good enough for today.

BWW: Well, I'll let you get back to the workshop. Is there something you'd like to add about ATC, your experience here and what you expect the next few months to be?

LG: Yeah! I just think it's really brave and exciting. And I will give Sean the most credit because he is the person that always leads with a YES, as opposed to a no. Basically any crazy idea -- he'll say, "let's try it". What an amazing leadership model, to lead with the positive and the possible... His leadership style is to center the person; he is so open and he asks questions, he is so generally curious, a good person and a good friend. And for artists, it's a place to bring ideas -- and they may not work, but they might. You'll never know if someone like him doesn't say, "Sure, come on, let's make it. Let's give it a try." It's the greatest thing. So I'm so happy to be here, and I'm so excited about Miss Bennet coming. It's such a warm and fun and funny play. A little Christmas rom-com!

For tickets and information, visit

Tucson: (520) 622-2823 Phoenix: (602) 256-6995

For more on Lauren Gunderson's plays and other works, visit:

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