Lauren Gunderson (04C) was a College senior completing a degree in English and creative writing when her play, “Leap,” premiered in February 2004 as one of the first professionally produced student-written plays to take the stage. Fourteen years later, Gunderson boasts the title of the “most produced living playwright in America,” according to American Theatre magazine.
While nearly two-thirds of American plays produced are written by men, Gunderson has emerged as a prominent female voice in a male-dominated profession.
Gunderson, who went on to earn her Master of Fine Arts in dramatic writing in 2009 from New York University Tisch School of the Arts, took the No. 1 spot on American Theatre’s top-20 list for the 2017-18 season, with 27 plays produced and eight co-written.
This year, for the 2018-19 season, Gunderson was named runner-up with 29 plays produced and 14 co-written. She appeared on the lists for the 2016-17 and 2015-16 seasons as well.
Gunderson recalled feeling giddy the first time she appeared on the top-20 list. When she was named the runner-up in 2016-17 behind August Wilson, who American Theatre magazine called “a titan of the American theatre,” she said that it was an honor to be in his shadow.
“My plays [mean] things to people,” Gunderson said. “They [mean] things to a lot of different communities. I wouldn’t be on that list if a lot of my plays weren’t being produced in a lot of places. The stories are working and that’s incredible.”
Many of Gunderson’s plays center on women, such as Caroline, the heroine of “I and You” whose chronic illness fails to dampen her spark. “I and You” won the 2014 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and was a finalist for the 2014 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.
“I naturally am drawn to telling the stories of women, partly because a lot of [those stories] are unspoken and people aren’t telling them,” she said. “There’s incredible strength and struggle that you get when you write about women because so much of the world is against them.”
Gunderson collaborated with dramaturg, manager and writer Margot Melcon, on “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” a spin-off sequel to Jane Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice.” With 13 productions, the play became the fourth most produced play of the 2018-19 season, according to American Theatre magazine.
“As a writer, Lauren has so many extraordinary talents, but her strongest assets are her sense of wit and comedy and her fierce dedication to lifting the voices and experiences of women,” Melcon said. “She insists on creating a world on stage where women are dynamic, hilarious, strong in themselves, unafraid to be vulnerable, perfectly messy and messily perfect.”
During her undergraduate years, Gunderson was involved in Theater Emory as an actress and a playwright, as well as in mime, and Rathskellar, Emory’s improv comedy troupe. She began acting in elementary school, but her playwriting career began in high school. Gunderson’s play “Parts They Call Deep” was produced by the Essential Theatre in Atlanta when she was 17 years old.
For Gunderson, the production of “Leap” with Theater Emory was a critical experience that taught her the directing process, dramaturgy and how to develop a play in rehearsal. She said the lessons she learned while producing “Leap” formed the foundation for her current philosophy — that playwriting does not begin until the first day of rehearsal. Great actors, Gunderson said, can expose the holes in a play and point to areas that require revision.
English and Creative Writing Professor of Practice Jim Grimsley, who served as Gunderson’s mentor during her time at Emory, commended the playwright’s resolve.
“It’s hard to think of myself as mentoring her when she needed so little along those lines,” Grimsley said. “Lauren always knew what she wanted to do, how to do it and how to get where she was headed as a playwright. I’ve never seen a student or any other person who moved more directly to her goals.”
Though Gunderson dabbled in and discovered a talent for fiction writing, she eventually returned to playwriting, or “what she loved,” Grimsley said.
Gunderson said Grimsley influenced the way she perceives her career.
“The critical thing that Jim said to me was that … the act of writing — of articulating your thoughts, of trying something and seeing if it works — that’s the heart of being a writer,” Gunderson said.
While Gunderson is also a screenwriter and fiction writer, she said playwriting appeals to her because of its intimacy. When audiences sit down in a theater, the stories of dynamic characters have the ability to “change hearts and minds,” Gunderson said.
“What you’re doing is writing for a congregation of people that are in real time and real space with the art — they’re not separated by a screen,” Gunderson said. “They’re not watching it on demand in their bed. It’s very church-like. You’re writing for a group of people that have come together to see this journey.”
Gunderson was unabashedly determined to make a living out of writing, saying she would “confidently learn” anything she didn’t know. Today, her boldness allows her to carve a space for women in the spotlight.