Lauren Gunderson: Discussions on Playwriting, Storytelling, and the Role They Play in Bringing Us Together
Written by Lauren Hartman
Photography by Noah Laroia-Nguyen
With her wide grin, pink-streaked ponytail, and chunky black glasses, Lauren Gunderson looked every bit the part of the charming, teasing playwright. Currently the most produced playwright in America, Gunderson approached her lecture with humility, often interjecting wry comments with a smirk. Her lecture was presented by the UW Arts Institute and Department of English in recognition of the fact that her play I and You is playing at the Overture Center through November 19.
When I arrived at the Madison Public Library, it was to a standing-room-only conference room. Gunderson began by reading a scene from her play The Book of Will, in which two friends of Shakespeare sit on the steps of London’s Globe Theater at midnight in 1620, discussing what they were doing on stage as actors and why. She read the scene emphatically, pausing dramatically for the audience to chuckle at all the right times, before using the excerpt to lead into a discussion about the primal nature of storytelling and the evolutionary advantage it poses to humans. While storytelling makes us laugh and beautifies the world around us, it also teaches us about both our uniqueness as individuals and the commonalities we share as human beings.
Gunderson continued on to discuss the book Art as Therapy and specifically a chapter entitled “What is the Point of Art” that concerns the problematic perspectives art helps us correct. We have a tendency to forget what truly matters, losing hope and feeling isolated and persecuted due to our misjudgment of normalcy. Additionally, it is easy for us to become unbalanced and lose sight of our best attributes, making us difficult to get to know. Because we often become desensitized by familiarity–unappreciative of the small joys in life or unphased by the everyday tragedies we are faced with–we often reject things that seem unimportant. These are all difficulties that art can help us to overcome. For example, because plays are designed to be a group experience rather than a passive activity to be left at the theater, they remind us of our similarities and the things we share. Stories allow us to get close to an immense crisis and experience a revelation to find ourselves.
Gunderson also discussed her writing process. When considering plots, for instance, she asks herself, “Why am I telling this story now? Why does this matter to me?” Additionally, she knows the ending before she begins writing while still leaving unknowns for her to develop as she writes. According to Gunderson, a successful ending must be both surprising and inevitable, often transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary and vice versa. There is, after all, much engineering behind great art.
Finally, Gunderson closed her lecture by discussing activism as art. Empathy is the magic of the theater, she said, in that we listen to someone who has nothing to do with us and our daily lives. Because we are all built to be together, the theater can become a place of almost worship, a safe haven to learn life’s greatest lessons.
Overall, Gunderson’s lecture was engaging and fun, full of heartfelt advice and honest confessions but also sly witticisms. Her play I and You will be at the Overture Center through November 19.