EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW
Below are excerpts from the January 4, 2018 The Guardian interview with The Revolutionists playwright Lauren Gunderson.
LAUREN GUNDERSON: THE MOST POPULAR PLAYWRIGHT IN AMERICA TODAY
One recent Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, after the cast had taken their bow, the actor Dawn Ursula waited for the applause to taper. She made a short speech from the stage aimed at eliciting donations. She told the audience they had just watched a drama written by the most-produced playwright in America. And that playwright is a woman. There was a fresh burst of clapping.
The play that afternoon at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre was The Revolutionists and its author is Lauren Gunderson, a writer rapidly becoming familiar to cities across the length and breadth of the US. According to American Theatre magazine, she will be the most popular playwright in the country for the 2017-18 season, with 27 productions (including eight co-writing credits), ahead of Britain’s Simon Stephens on 19. (Arthur Miller is in sixth place with 14.) The survey excludes Shakespeare from its ranking because that would make it boringly predictable: he will have 108.
With 27 productions in the 2017-18 season, the 35-year-old writer has brought incisive wit to the stage and she’s thrilled to be at the forefront of a cultural shift in a male-dominated world.
“It’s quite a confirmation of many years of typing alone,” Gunderson says with a laugh in a phone interview, paying tribute to all the artists she gets to work with. “So I’m quite overwhelmed and delighted by it all. But of course the real most produced playwright is William Shakespeare. That always has to be mentioned; he has a list of his own so I’m happy to be second. I don’t think anyone’s going to topple him.”
Gunderson’s reverence for Shakespeare, for example, is the real deal. She wrote him a play-length love letter with The Book of Will, telling of the heroic efforts of the surviving members of his theatre company to rescue his unpublished scripts for posterity and publish them in the First Folio. Set after the Bard’s death, it is in similar territory to Shakespeare in Love, but emphasises the role of women, including the “dark lady” of the sonnets.
It recently packed the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland. Would she like to see it performed in Stratford-upon-Avon? “Absolutely, but it’s terrifying,” she laughs. “So many British writers will be like, ‘I’m sorry, this American girl wrote about ...?’ But yes, what an overwhelming honour that would be one day.”
But France gets a look in with The Revolutionists, which is about four real women during the Reign of Terror in Paris: Olympe de Gouges, a feminist political playwright; Marie Antoinette; Jean-Paul Marat’s assassin, Charlotte Corday; and the Caribbean revolutionary Marianne Angelle. It is fast and furious and its plea for the importance of art is explicit; little is left to subtext.
“It’s hard to disguise fully that I am really writing about myself when I’m writing about Olympe de Gouges,” Gunderson says candidly. “She’s a bit more of an extreme than me but certainly I often question the role of art, the role of theatre, especially when things get really hectic and scary in the ‘real world’. But I argue in the play that the stronger the art the better, the more art the better. It’s not a distraction from the real world. It’s another way of engaging with it and understanding it and really exploring what the real human options are in a time of crisis. Oftentimes we can’t do that in real time but we can do it with the distance and the objectivity of art.”
She wrote The Revolutionists before Donald Trump was even a candidate for US president but finds it apt for this moment. “A lot of productions of this play in particular are happening now, and no doubt because of where America is right now, it’s starting to feel more and more like the French revolution, with a lot of useless wars and large gaps between the poor and the rich and a kind of tone-deaf quality of the people in charge about the reality of life for most everyday citizens, disregard for women, racism. There’s so much that is eerily similar to hundreds of years ago.”
“I have great optimism and excitement and am frankly inspired every single day by the work of my female colleagues.”
A 2015 study found that only about one in five productions staged at theatres nationwide were written by women. But Gunderson, who has described women as “the moral beacon of theatre” and puts them at the centre of her plays, does not talk about glass ceilings for herself.
“I have come along at a very open time. In my career, if there has been massive sexism against me, I haven’t felt it much or perhaps I’ve been too busy to notice or something! So I have great hope for the future and we’re already seeing it: we’re already seeing entire theatres intentionally programming seasons by women and, in a more impressive way, unintentionally programming seasons of all women. That’s the most exciting, when people go: ‘Oh look! We chose the best plays we could find and they’re all by women.’ So I have great optimism and excitement and am frankly inspired every single day by the work of my female colleagues.”