What is a #PLONY? Find out here, and also read an explanation as to why I’m writing a series of #PLONY Profiles.
While a New York playwright is a New York playwright, there are many stripes of #PLONY. Lauren Gunderson lives in San Francisco, a thriving theater arena and new play incubator to be sure, but not always the first place people think of when they consider the best cities for playwriting—and that’s despite wonderful resources like the Playwrights Foundation and Playwrights’ Center. But for Gunderson, arguably the best known playwrights in the Bay Area, it’s been the perfect place both to write and grow her impressive career (which you can check out here); in fact, American Theatre Magazine’s list of the Top 20 Most-Produced Playwrights of the 2105-16 season includes Gunderson at #8, and the second woman of five on the list! (It also includes her fellow Atlanta-native playwright, Steve Yockey, who should be showing up here sooner rather than later.) So…
How long have you lived in San Francisco, and how did you come to live there?
About six years. I was in New York for grad school, and then Atlanta, where I’d grown up and went to Emory for undergrad.
So you were in New York, but chose to leave. Why?
I was going to live there, but came out west to work with some theater companies, and fell in love with San Francisco, and also fell in love with who later became my husband, so it was an easy decision. I suppose it was somewhat conscious, but it was also delightfully accidental. It was hard for me to leave New York; that’s where I’d assumed I’d be and if not for some extenuating circumstances, I still would be. But it’s a plane flight away, my agent is there, and friends, so I have access to the city in all the fun and good ways.
Did anybody advise you not to leave?
No one actually said that to me, but in conversations with good friends—many who are playwrights and theater artists—I felt like I had to really think hard about it. But everything was just kind of pointing me to San Francisco. It’s a struggle for a lot of writers in that they feel they have to be there because it’s a mecca for our business. But writers have to write wherever they write best, and be wherever they are happiest and healthiest, and wherever you can keep as many books as you can buy, and that ended being San Francisco for me.
Do you ever feel like not being in New York is a disadvantage to your playwriting career?
Sure. There are so many incredible writers living in New York so New York companies have a lot to choose from as far as building relationships with writers down the street instead of across the country. For them to look outside New York, it has to be a really juicy and tasty play; I get that. I wish I still lived in New York sometimes and I love reconnecting with everyone when I visit. I just had my first real professional New York production last year when BAUER transferred to 5959E from San Francisco Playhouse. This year at that same theater, Merrimack Rep’s production of I AND YOU is transferring, so it’s really very recently that I’ve had productions there besides smaller productions very early in my career. One of those was Young Playwrights Inc when I was 18.
There are also residencies and writing groups and all sorts of things like that I’m sure would have made a difference. And the relationships with directors and other writers, which I have where I live but not to the great extent that the community of New York City provides. Something like New Dramatists, where resident writers benefit from that incredible community, and they only have one slot for non-New Yorkers. Those are the most obvious examples.
Conversely, has your career benefited from not living in New York?
Definitely. I had six productions, almost all premieres, in the Bay Area last year, which is kind of extraordinary privilege and extraordinary creative productivity that I wouldn’t have had if I weren’t here. These were not readings and workshops, but fully staged productions with incredible companies in various shapes and sizes. I have a cohort of actors whom I love and respect and who make my work better here, too. Working with Playwrights Foundation, who were the first people who said “You’re here; let’s bring you into our network.” And Crowded Fire premiered EXIT PURSUED BY BEAR, which ended up going to a ton of cities. I AND YOU started here at Marin Theatre and went on to be produced all over the place. It’s just been a great gift to have the Bay Area as my home.
EXIT PURSUED BY BEAR at Crowded Fire, 2011
So stepping back a little bit, what were the opportunities that brought you to the West Coast?
I’d been commissioned by South Coast Rep outside of LA right at the start of my professional career, so they were sort of a foothold for me, and gave me my first professional commission and first big production. They were really proof that writers can be welcomed outside of the traditional New York ideal of what a playwright’s career looks like. And then Marin Theatre Company brought me out to workshop a new play, and that is the company that later premiered I AND YOU, which won the Steinberg and was a Blackburn finalist. So it was really Marin and South Coast.
How did those things come about so early in your career?
The South Coast literary manager a couple of years ago was Megan Monaghan, and I knew her as a young writer in Atlanta, so when she moved into that position at South Coast, she recommended they give me a commission, and that resulted in three more and two productions there. And then at Marin, I knew the artistic director Jasson Minadakis from Atlanta as well, because he was the artistic director of Actors Express there, so we’ve been friends for over a decade. So it was that kind of thing where you go along in your career far enough and look around and see people you knew from 15 years ago who are still in professional theater. It’s really relationships that start in your early career that manifest in unexpected ways.
How did you get started?
I started writing in high school, really early, which meant that I had my first production in high school, and readings as part of new play festivals in college. My first production was with Young Playwrights Incorporated, which was a company for under-18-year-olds. My strategy was to take advantage of contests and awards and anybody who said they’d like to read a new play. I sat in Decatur, Georgia with the Dramatists Guild Sourcebook, and submitted a ton. Some were “no thanks,” and every now and then, somebody gave me a reading or workshop or production, and through those, I gradually got some perspective about life in the theater for a writer. It was through one of those early productions while I was at Emory that I met Megan Monaghan, who directed my play there; it something of note to have my play produced as a senior because they didn’t really do student’s plays. And then Megan moved to South Coast and that play was on her mind when it came to commissioning.
Nick Toren and Monette Magrath in the world premiere of SILENT SKY at South Coast Repertory
After grad school, I kind of jumped into a couple of different things: I was at The O’Neill with my play FIRE WORK, I was teaching writing in Atlanta, I had a workshop in SF, and that led me to where I am now. I was a busy bee. Since I knew I wanted to be writer, the advice I got is “Writers write,” so you have to be writing even if you delete it all at the end of the day, because you’ve learned something and have something to show for it. That’s been kind of my motivation and instinct, so it doesn’t feel like work. There were times when it certainly felt like it was a long time before that next production, but there was always sort of something that was cooking, which helps your momentum.
In high school, what made you want to write plays as opposed to, say, short stories or poems?
I started out as an actor, and I guess I just wanted to write for myself. I was the kind of actor who wasn’t going to be playing ingenues, and there weren’t a lot of acerbic, smarty-pants roles for girls and young women, so I fancied myself writing them. Once I got into the writing, it felt really natural. Here’s where you’re able to say everything you need to say, and control the ending, and decide who wins and who doesn’t, and write the exit scene where everybody cheers, and it’s just like being a very small god.
What have been some key turning points in your career?
All of the firsts, but the first commission was one of the biggest things. And the very first was an educational play called A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING for Actors Express in Atlanta when Jasson was running it. It was a touring play about science to be taken into high schools, which would be terribly boring, but I had a lot of fun with it and found my voice in it. I kept playing with my sense of humor and the speed at which I like to write, and I liked the rhythm of the play, which has stuck with my work.
Another would be EMILIE, which was the first commission from South Coast Rep, and my first time in the Pacific Playwrights Festival. That was the trajectory of my dreams, a commission gets workshopped and produced and is part of a festival where people from all over the country come to see new plays. That was the biggest thing that transferred me from someone attempting to be in this business to someone who’s working it. That’s where I learned how to be a playwright in a rehearsal room. And I was working with a big company with a big board, lots of money for plays, which means productions can be top-notch, so it was pretty incredible. I will always love them for that.
Rebecca Mozo, Natacha Roi, and Don Reilly in the world premiere of EMILIE at South Coast Repertory, 2009
How did you get agent?
It was being in the Pacific Playwrights Festival; the head of Creative Artists Agency was in the audience. This is the real deal with agents: they’ll find you. In that way, I hope it takes the pressure off writers who are looking for agents. You can’t go to them; they’ll come to you. Keep getting productions and readings and getting work out there. Don’t worry about them. Focus on the writing; that’s really your job.
You’re known as a prolific playwright; how do you feel that’s helped you?
I’m lucky in that I write quickly and, at this point, I have a lot of ideas and plays in me, and I’m always typing, which is good. I create two or three first drafts a year, maybe more. I don’t really keep track. Of course in rehearsal and development the plays keep changing and growing, so they’re not really done after two whole productions, and it can take a few years to reach that.
How many full-length plays do you have?
Fifteen or 20 at this point. I don’t actually know. Everyone asks that and I never know the answer. Seven are published, and others that aren’t published have had productions and are, I suppose, circulating.
What’s your writing routine?
I try to work five or six days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. This is my current schedule, as I just had a baby which changed my 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. regimen. I work on many things at once, but find that I must focus if I’m doing a full draft or rewrite. What I mean by working on multiple things is, for example,in one week, I can switch projects every day if needed. But this really only works if each project is at a different stage in its development. One is a brand-new idea, one is draft10, one is in need of primarily typo editing, etc.
Jessica Lynn Carroll and Devion McArthur in the world premiere of I AND YOU at Marin Theatre Company. I AND YOU is the winner of the 2014 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, recognizing playwrights for shows that premiered professionally outside New York City.
What do you with a draft once you’ve finished it?
I always print it out. That’s a big deal, that’s when my husband knows this is a real thing. I print it out for myself and do hand edits on the page; after that, I invite my actor friends and colleagues over for a glass of wine and vegetarian chili and read around my kitchen table. After that, more edits and rewrites, and then I send it out. I’m lucky to have great friends who also incredible artists and dramaturgs and sometimes send it to them, and send it to agents and managers, colleagues who have worked with or commissioned me to say “Here’s something new.” I definitely discuss with my agent who does this feel like, who do you think would be interested I this. And I can’t kind of help but reading it over and over and making little changes. I never put it away.
Do you make your living from writing?
It’s tricky question in my city, but, by most metrics yes, I’m doing fine. It did take me a while to get here. Even when I was some version of “successful,” it doesn’t mean the money was always there or that it was always consistent. I started writing for film, and you see immediately why people do it, because, damn, they pay you a lot of money! But that opportunity came from plays. This big producer read I AND YOU, and that’s what got me Hollywood work, so plays aren’t just for art fans in dark corners of the country. A good story is a good story, and that’s what people are looking for. You can believe that if you have an idea that is fresh and exiting and moving and theatrical, somebody is going to give it a chance and that’s the good news. It’s pretty amazing and says something pretty good about Hollywood that a new play is enough of an instigator to say let’s give the writer a chance to write for us.
What advice do you have to offer fellow #PLONY?
It’s luck combined with fortitude. You have to be writing so you can jump on opportunities when they happen. You have to have more than one-act or ten-minute play or full-length play, and you have to constantly be seeking ways to develop those plays. Because plays belong in the bodies of actors in a visceral state of production to really comprehend. I will say that I was a little bit of that delightfully annoying ambitious person who said, “I think I can do this and I want to do this, and I have something worthwhile, so I’m not going to give up.” You can have luck, but if you don’t have any plays to show or any ambition no amount of luck or connections is going to get you anywhere.
The best writing advice I got is to write, write a lot, write all the time, and that serves me well. It’s why I could have five plays premiere in one year in one city, because the plays were all different. One was a crazy farce, one was a history play, one was a musical, one was all science and feminism. When you have a lot of work and you’re finding companies your work speaks to, people start asking, “What’s next?”
Write often, write much seems to be the consistent mantra of #PLONY thus far.
How can we improve the perception of #PLONY?
One of the things that this series allows us to explore is we’re all American writers and New York is an American city, and there are certain plays that aren’t going to work in New York, and certain plays that won’t work somewhere else, and that’s okay. But the idea is we can really be everywhere and anywhere. We’re aware of what’s going on in New York just like I’m aware of Kansas City and Denver; the idea that we are isolated or just a regional or New York writer isn’t really true, and I think your happiness as a person is more important than being somewhere you’re “supposed” to be. Do what you do and be where you want to be to make you happy; that’s what’s going to make you happy and a better writer.
It’s also taking the pressure off of oneself to achieve, and this sense of urgency and competition, because it’s really about finding people who get your voice. Some of the people who get my voice are really tiny companies, but I am delighted to work them, because they want to do this play that I’ve been dying to write. It’s a reminder for us to ask not what we should be doing, but what makes us happy. In what community do we find inspiration and collaboration that makes us better and happier with what we do? I think I sound a little Oprah there, but we’re artists, we make plays, we make meaning; it’s supposed moving and it’s supposed to be fun.
Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.
To read more entries in this series, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.