From the playbill: Interview with playwright Lauren Gunderson

Lauren Gunderson is having a busy year. By the time summer 2014 arrives, she will have had five different plays premiere at five different theater companies around the Bay Area, all within a twelve month stretch. After working steadily since earning her MFA in playwriting from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and moving to San Francisco four years ago, this prolific playwright is hitting her stride. The variety being showcased in the current productions of her plays reveals the dynamic range of styles and subjects she confidently weaves into her stories.

Her resume includes a series of small-cast comedic farces inspired by Shakespeare (Exit, Pursued by a Bear, Toil and Trouble and The Taming, the last of which is being performed at Crowded Fire Theater this October), a succession of smart and engaging plays about pioneering women in science whose stories have never gotten their due (Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight and Silent Sky, which runs at TheatreWorks in January 2014), biographical profiles of passionate artists (Bauer at SF Playhouse in March 2014) and gripping, theatrical stories about families in crisis (Rock Hill: Southern Gothic and By and By, which ran at Shotgun Players this past May).

Gunderson’s play I and You shares qualities with her other work – witty, sharply drawn characters; previously unheard ideas on smart, NPR-worthy topics; enormous humanity and emotional heart – but in some ways is a departure. It follows the story of two teenagers, strangers at the beginning of the play, who ultimately find a deep connection as they learn about each other and themselves while digging deep into the meaning buried in Walt Whitman’s extraordinary poem Song of Myself.

With this play, Gunderson is writing in the voice of two preternaturally intelligent kids, members of a savvy generation who have a lot to say about how fast the world around them is moving. She is exploring their journey of self-discovery in parallel with a similar journey expressed by one of America’s finest poets over 150 years ago in a beautifully articulated, revealing piece of literature.

On the first day of rehearsal, Gunderson took a moment to look back at how this play and these characters took shape, and what she drew on from her own journey of discovery to bring the story to life.

Why do you think it’s so hard to write young people accurately?

I think because they change so quickly and because – and I’m not the first genius to think of this – social connectedness and media make people update all the time. But the essence of what it means to be young remains the same – you’re not an adult yet, but you know enough to survive. You are tasked only with protecting yourself, with making smart decisions, and learning and exploring and being curious.

There is something compelling to me about the curiosity and that verve and the fickleness of that era in your life, and what that allows you to think and do and try and be surprised by. At that age, I remember and certainly tried to capture in this play, that sense of hope, the yearning for what’s next.

How is it writing a younger character dealing with the incredibly adult problem of being sick?

The only way to write it without the play becoming a play-about-a-sick-girl is to write a girl who is defiant, who stares her illness down and says “you’re not gonna win.” That’s a person I want to watch. Even though there is some general angst, there’s nothing complacent about her, or about this situation. She understands her disease, she even undermines it, and there’s a fascinating power in that.

What about Whitman’s Song of Myself inspired you to pull that particular poem into the fabric of this play?

One: the poem has this sense of unity through democracy. Whitman says that we are all one because we are all equal, even though it might not look like it at times. There is a universal oneness.

Two: that rebellious spirit. Whitman paints a picture of a crazy American stomping through the world and yelling out his yawp because the world is so beautiful, or falling in love, or being so mad at war, or as Caroline is doing as she defies death, or whatever’s going on. It’s not a sit-back poem, it’s a lean-in poem, it’s a yawp poem.

And then third, it is the very literal wrestling with death. As a kid, I remember being fascinated with dying, not in a morbid way, but in a “oh, that happens and we don’t know what happens after that, and where does the self go, and it happens to literally everyone” kind of way. In some ways, it was scary, but reading Whitman and Darwin and poets and thinkers and scientists calmed me down – that kind of agreement we make with dying to make our lives matter. So: oneness, yawp, death. And out of all three: life.

What do you remember about yourself from when you were Caroline and Anthony’s age?

I’m sure that a lot of people have an image – or two or ten – of themselves when they’re 16. That image is very present with me all the time. When I zoom back to me at 16, it’s always in my room, it’s always on my bed, it’s always at midnight, moonlight streaming in the window that was right over my bed, with a book or – you know, this is before phones did anything besides make a call, or whatever. I remember this kind of secret space that was disconnected from everything else, which was just mine, and something really mysterious and beautiful and empowering about that space, as isolated and as kind of out of time as it was. I thought that would be an interesting thing to capture in a play: isolated, out of time, but everything you are and hope to be.