A Conversation with Lauren Gunderson on the Power of Theater Activism
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Lauren Gunderson. Photo by Kristen Lara Getchell
Needless to say, American theatergoers can’t seem to get enough of Lauren Gunderson. She holds the spot as most-produced playwright of the 2017-18 season, and just two weeks ago won the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award for The Book of Will, after previously winning the same award in 2014 for I and You.
Now, she is launching a national campaign of theater activism against gun violence.
For the weekend of April 20, the 19th anniversary of Columbine and the day of the National School Walkout, theaters across the country will be offering free readings of her new play Natural Shocks. Gunderson waived royalties for these readings in exchange that the events raise money for anti-violence organizations.
Inspired by Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Natural Shocks centers on a dynamic woman waiting out an imminent tornado in her basement. According to Gunderson, the woman can be of any race, from any region, with any accent.
In typical Gunderson fashion the piece has an astonishing twist ending, in this case about the reality of guns in America, that will stick with you long after the reading ends.
We were able to get in touch with Gunderson via email to ask a few questions about using the power of theater to start a national movement.
How did you get the idea to offer Natural Shocks as free readings for theaters nationwide?
What is true about theatre is true about politics: it’s all personal. Writing this play and offering it to anyone to produce is a way of making something national, local; making something theoretical, intimate. It's such an enormous honor to see over a hundred women telling the same story at the exact same time; and all raising funds to make a real difference in stopping gun violence. It’s easy for huge events to seem distant but theatre allows us to intimately understand the humanity at the heart of it all.
What was your inspiration behind the piece?
I've wanted to write a play on these issues (women, violence, guns) for a long time but never found the right voice. In was a sudden rush of inspiration I wrote this piece in about two weeks. Two weeks later, Parkland happened and it felt more urgent than ever.
Can you tell us a little more about the woman in the play? What are her views on owning guns, and how do these views come up while she is waiting out a tornado in her basement?
You'll have to see the show and hear it from her! She's hilarious and warm and sardonic. I feel like you'll make a new best friend when you meet her.
What do you hope people take away from coming to the readings?
That whatever you think about guns there is more at play, more determining factors, more predictive factors that can help keep us all safe. On either side of the issue we all want to be safe, to keep our families and kids safe at school, church, movie theaters. So I hope plays like mine can help us come together around the things we do agree on. If people walk away thinking that we are all connected when anyone becomes violent. That there’s no safety for any of us if there’s not safety for all of us.
Do you plan to attend any of the readings?
I am actually performing two readings at Marin Theatre Company (located in San Francisco), where I am the playwright in residence. I’m more than a little nervous, but this cause and this project are so incredibly important to me that I had to do something really special. Here we go!
Some Midwest companies participating in the readings include:
Forward Theater in Madison: April 20 reading at 5 p.m. at the Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison, WI 53703 (Reading Reservations Sold Out: RUSH line begins at 4 p.m.)
A joint effort by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Renaissance Theaterworks, and Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee: April 20, 4:30 p.m. at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee, WI 53202
Outskirts Theatre Co. and Carroll Players in Waukesha: April 20, 7 p.m. at Carroll University’s Otteson Theatre, 238 N. East Ave, Waukesha, WI 53186
Theatre Lumina and Chimera Ensemble in Chicago: April 21, 7:30 p.m.at the Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N Milwaukee Ave Floor 3 Chicago, IL 60622 ($10 per ticket, All profits from tickets sales will go to Everytown for Gun Safety)
DePaul University in Chicago: April 20, 5 p.m. at DePaul University’s Student Center, 2250 N. Sheffield Chicago, Il 60614
The Comrades in Chicago: April 20, 7:30 p.m. at Vagabond School of the Arts, 4001 N Ravenswood, 5th Floor, Chicago, IL 60613