"Increasingly, theatres are banking on Gunderson, who, at thirty-five, has already had more than twenty of her works produced: among them witty historical dramas about women in science (“Emilie,” “Silent Sky,” “Ada and the Engine”), giddy political comedies (“Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” “The Taming,” “The Revolutionists”), and wildly theatrical explorations of death and legacy (“I and You,” “The Book of Will”). According to American Theatre magazine’s annual survey, released last month, Gunderson will be the most produced playwright in the country for the 2017–18 season. Her plays are staged almost twice as often as anyone else’s on the list, far ahead of venerated figures like Eugene O’Neill and August Wilson, who edged her for the top spot last year. (The survey excludes Shakespeare, America’s perennial favorite.) Although men still write three-quarters of the plays that get produced, Gunderson has built a national reputation with works that center on women’s stories. And, though most playwrights also teach or work in television, she has managed to make a living, in San Francisco, by writing for the stage.
A typical Gunderson protagonist resembles her author: smart, funny, collaborative, optimistic—a woman striving to expand the ranks of a male-dominated profession. She has revived Émilie du Châtelet, an Enlightenment genius who revised Newton’s laws of motion; Olympe de Gouges, a playwright who fought for women’s equality in the French Revolution; and Henrietta Leavitt, a twentieth-century Harvard astronomer who figured out how to measure the distance between Earth and the stars. Gunderson grew up in Georgia, and “desperately wanted” to be a physics major, but she tired of plodding through “the normal stuff” before she could get to “the cool stuff.” She went to Emory and majored in English; one of her first scripts, written when she was eighteen, centered on a cosmologist. “Moments of scientific discovery are inherently dramatic,” Gunderson told me. She is now married to a Stanford biologist whom she met when her agent suggested that she interview him to research a potential story. Relationships form a part of her characters’ arcs, but it’s their intellectual desires, their yearning to transform themselves and their world, that Gunderson foregrounds. Her plays are less likely to end in a kiss than in a beautiful explosion of computer data.
That’s what happens at the climax of “Ada and the Engine,” which dramatizes the life of Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, a Victorian math whiz who worked on the first computer algorithm. In a swirl of light, sound, poetry, and music, Gunderson stages the aftershocks of Ada’s discovery: that the iambic heartbeat of her father’s verse contains the alternating pulse of binary code, and that the beauty that Ada found in math now programs our own digital age. The final stage direction calls for Ada to appear with “ones and zeroes echoing around her” until “a strange new light and a strange new sound take over. . . . It’s the blue light of modern computer screens—laptops, iPhones, iPads—all giving off their ghostly light on her. All playing her song.”
SHE’S THE TOP: For the third year in a row, Lauren Gunderson is on our Top 20 list. Last season she was No. 2, behind August Wilson. Now she’s leapt to No. 1, despite having only two major New York City stagings (and no plays in wide circulation this season). It’s Gunderson’s America; we just live in it.
Emory joint major in playwriting