Is America’s Favorite Playwright Too Much for New York?
October 7, 2019 2:31 PM   Subscribe

Lauren Gunderson has more plays staged every year than anyone besides Shakespeare. By Dan Kois for Slate "I can’t disagree with what Gunderson said when I asked her if she wouldn’t rather be known for plays with a little more of an edge: “I would rather have a show that a lot of people will do,” she replied. Every theater needs a holiday show, she pointed out, and “I’d rather that holiday offering be a big feminist play that critiques the institution of marriage and puts five women onstage. You know how rare that is?”
posted by bq (37 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
As someone who a) grew up in the NYC metro area and b) is currently a Montana resident, that Rankin bioplay is really up my alley.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:03 PM on October 7


Damn. A Christmas-themed Pride and Prejudice play is a work of marketing genius if nothing else--the Venn diagram of "insatiable desire for Austen fanfic" and "sees a play at Christmas" is a circle.
posted by betweenthebars at 3:17 PM on October 7 [40 favorites]


starring Kate Mulgrew of Orange Is the New Black

OITNB is certainly her more recent work, but damn if seeing that instead of Voyager didn't throw me a bit.
posted by Dr. Twist at 3:30 PM on October 7 [19 favorites]


I want to see these plays!
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:43 PM on October 7


A nice piece, thanks for sharing.

I think the article though lets Gunderson's audience off the hook. This is to me the core of the piece:
And while the plays are political in their way, those politics play very comfortably to middle American audiences. ADs who spoke to me praised Gunderson’s work for its feminism, and it’s true that her plays do feature strong female characters shedding the yoke of sexism (usually, the sexism of bygone eras). But they’re certainly not meant to challenge theatergoers, unlike the most acclaimed new political work in New York—plays like Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer-winning Fairview, which is designed explicitly to force white audiences to physically confront the damage done by racism and exclusion.
But it's not really 'middle American' audiences that respond so well to Gunderson -- she's based on the West Coast, and it's Marin and Portland that love her, not Peoria and Des Moines.

One of the comments I think more accurately names her audience as "upper-middle-class liberal women who want to feel guilty, but not TOO guilty."
posted by crazy with stars at 3:54 PM on October 7 [20 favorites]


she's based on the West Coast, and it's Marin and Portland that love her, not Peoria and Des Moines.

I can't speak to those Midwestern cities specifically, but multiple small town theaters here in Michigan have produced her in multiple seasons.

That's anecdotal, and I can't speak to her full geographical spread, but she's not just West Coast popular.
posted by HeroZero at 3:59 PM on October 7 [5 favorites]


Royalty-free readings help, too.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:48 PM on October 7 [4 favorites]


I've seen Silent Sky and Miss Bennett and enjoyed both very much. The Wickhams is playing in my area soon.

I thought this entire article was cool. Go Lauren!
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:53 PM on October 7 [1 favorite]


“I love that there are two gasps in that play I can clock,” she said with a wicked grin. “And … gasp! And … gasp! And then people crying but trying not to make too much noise. I live for that shit.”

I don't get to enough theater, will have to watch for one.
posted by sammyo at 5:20 PM on October 7 [1 favorite]


OITNB is certainly her more recent work, but damn if seeing that instead of Voyager didn't throw me a bit.

Also weird to not mention, in this context, her extensive work on- and off-Broadway ... particularly Tea at Five, her Kate Hepburn one-woman show that really broke her to the theater world.
posted by mykescipark at 5:37 PM on October 7 [5 favorites]


But it's not really 'middle American' audiences that respond so well to Gunderson -- she's based on the West Coast, and it's Marin and Portland that love her, not Peoria and Des Moines.
I am extremely unconvinced that this is true, based on the fact that Google told me that her play The Revolutionists just wrapped up a run in Dubuque, Iowa, which is not very far from either Peoria or Des Moines. Ada and the Memory Engine was at Theater Cedar Rapids last March. Her political satire The Taming was at Riverside Theater in Iowa City in early November 2016, which must have been... an experience. So yeah, it's looking to me like Lauren Gunderson is pretty popular in Iowa and non-Chicago Illinois, for what it's worth.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:39 PM on October 7 [6 favorites]


(Silent Sky in Des Moines this summer and in Peoria last February. It is actually kind of amazing that I have never heard of this person and she seems to get performed all the frigging time in my general vicinity.)
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:42 PM on October 7 [5 favorites]


"upper-middle-class liberal women who want to feel guilty, but not TOO guilty."

what demographic is it, exactly, that reliably goes to the theater in order to feel TOO guilty?

and are they right to do so? is feeling exactly the right amount of guilt at the theater, I don't know, a good goal? for women of a certain class or race? or for all women, all around?

for anyone besides women?
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:09 PM on October 7 [46 favorites]


But it's not really 'middle American' audiences that respond so well to Gunderson -- she's based on the West Coast, and it's Marin and Portland that love her, not Peoria and Des Moines.
Two of her pieces just played in my Montana town, so that's not really true. I think the Slate piece captured the contradictions of her work. I find a lot of her work too pat, but at the same time, she's a great champion of female heroines, which I strongly approve of.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:13 PM on October 7 [4 favorites]


I appreciate this. The article does make her work sound a little predictable but I'm not really in the mood to be challenged by a lot of art these days. Her plays sound (at minimum) like something enjoyable and pleasant that you wouldn't feel stupider for watching.
posted by Emmy Rae at 7:43 PM on October 7 [3 favorites]


That was an interesting article. Her plays sound like they are not my kind of thing, but she is clearly a successful artist who is connecting with her audience.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:49 PM on October 7 [2 favorites]


The local community theatre is doing Bennet as their holiday show and I was like, ugh, really? An Austen pastiche?

But now maybe I will see it.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:29 PM on October 7 [1 favorite]


If your first thought was “ugh, really? An Austen pastiche?” then my experience says you will find that it does not exceed that expectation.
posted by fedward at 8:45 PM on October 7 [3 favorites]


for anyone besides women?

I was wondering about that too, queenofbithynia. I couldn't help but notice that while contemptuously dismissing the popularity of a female playwright, only the women were spat upon. Is the assumption that no man would go to a play written by a woman? Or that "upper-middle-class liberal" *men* are so inherently sophisticated that they aren't taken in, but merely attend to laugh internally at their female companions for being moved?
posted by tavella at 8:56 PM on October 7 [12 favorites]


And while the plays are political in their way, those politics play very comfortably to middle American audiences. ADs who spoke to me praised Gunderson’s work for its feminism, and it’s true that her plays do feature strong female characters shedding the yoke of sexism (usually, the sexism of bygone eras). But they’re certainly not meant to challenge theatergoers, unlike the most acclaimed new political work in New York—plays like Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer-winning Fairview, which is designed explicitly to force white audiences to physically confront the damage done by racism and exclusion.

The term middle America is used to reinforce the idea that coastal white liberals are the good white people; the real racists and misogynists are all in the midwest and the south. Meanwhile in reality engaging in the same racism, misogyny, and class fuckery they always have, particularly the upper middle class. This idea is stated directly in the above quote, but privilege means you getting to wear blinders and not get called out on it.
posted by MillMan at 9:04 PM on October 7 [6 favorites]


It’s worth pointing out that in this particular article, “middle America” means “not New York City”.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:03 PM on October 7 [9 favorites]


I'm old enough to remember when Neil Simon wore the mantle of "most popular American playwright" and was similarly dismissed by critics as unsophisticated and sometimes corny.

Of course, Neil Simon was also performed in New York all the time and won a few Tonys and eventually a Pulitzer and I can't recall anyone sneeringly classifying his audiences as rubes and probably, you know, women.

What is the difference I wonder.
posted by kyrademon at 1:06 AM on October 8 [15 favorites]


There’s also plenty of unchallenging, pander-y theater in New York. I don’t think Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird is probably going to challenge liberal white male sensibilities, based on the entire history of Aaron Sorkin, who has never written anything that didn’t pander to liberal white male sensibilities.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:57 AM on October 8 [12 favorites]


I’ve never heard of any of her plays in Portland. Then again we go watch plays like Kiss at Third Rail Repertory Theater, so I guess I’m not her demographic?

But it's not really 'middle American' audiences that respond so well to Gunderson -- she's based on the West Coast, and it's Marin and Portland that love her,

Also, I’m going to suggest you come to Portland and go to a season at Coho Theater or see some other Third Rail shows before you disparage the entire theater scene.
posted by herda05 at 2:52 AM on October 8


what demographic is it, exactly, that reliably goes to the theater in order to feel TOO guilty?

Given my upbringing, I’d say Catholics.
posted by joedan at 4:27 AM on October 8 [1 favorite]


Or that "upper-middle-class liberal" *men* are so inherently sophisticated that they aren't taken in

I'd just un-charitably assume it means that upper-middle-class men aren't interested in feeling guilty in the slightest, that they'd rather live the unexamined life.
posted by explosion at 4:31 AM on October 8 [4 favorites]


What I would give to see her slightly woke books usurp Norm Foster's endless parade of misogynistic middle-class pabulum in Canada's small town theatres.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:32 AM on October 8 [6 favorites]


To McNulty, the issue keeping Gunderson out of New York is not taste but sexism. “A male writer who has the career that Lauren has, they get anointed. Those successes would have progressed them more,” she said. “I could name 10 male playwrights who tell stories in a traditional way, whose work doesn’t break through any theatrical barriers and is getting produced all the time in New York. You know, I love Tracy Letts, but is Tracy Letts breaking new ground? Why is she square and they’re not square?” Cote made a similar point. “I could be a total snob,” he said, “and say New Yorkers are far too intelligent to have this middlebrow stuff flatter them. But tons of middlebrow stuff gets produced in New York.”
To me this is the crucial paragraph in this article. Yes, she's middlebrow, but lots of New York playwrights are middlebrow too and generally get away with it because they're men. It's the same reason action movies are supposed to appeal to a general audience but romances are hopelessly uncool and for women-only.
posted by peacheater at 4:53 AM on October 8 [24 favorites]


Fascinating, well-written piece, bq, thanks. I'm gonna keep an eye out for her plays locally.
posted by mediareport at 5:37 AM on October 8


I’m glad she found success as a playwright. I recall her earlier work as a poet, which was not as well-received.

A limerick writer named Gunderson
Dealt often with rhyme schemes quite cumbersome.
Her pieces all were fine
Until the last line
When she cried out, “Dammit, how do I get myself into these situations?”
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:54 AM on October 8 [5 favorites]


If your first thought was “ugh, really? An Austen pastiche?” then my experience says you will find that it does not exceed that expectation.

My main issue with Austen pastiches (and, in fact, Austen adaptations) is that they always seem to forget that Austen was both rather biting and funny about social mores and also emotionally resonant-- they pick one or the other, but not both. The article suggests that Gunderson might manage both, even if the humour is only addressed at social mores that affect rich white women.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:17 AM on October 8 [1 favorite]


I don't know her other plays but The Revolutionists seemed to be playing everywhere in the mid Atlantic area a couple years ago.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:35 AM on October 8


I'm old enough to remember when Neil Simon wore the mantle of "most popular American playwright" and was similarly dismissed by critics as unsophisticated and sometimes corny.

THANK YOU. I was thinking of Gunderson in comparison to Neil Simon during the entire article and surprised that the comparison never really came up. Their subject matter doesn't sound very similar but their popularity (based to a significant degree on audience tastes, ease of staging, market demand) does.
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:48 AM on October 8 [7 favorites]


Silent Sky has been done by no less than four community theaters in the past season here in Northern Suburban Boston. It's one of the most sought-after works, I think, because it's set in a historical period, has great characters for women to play, and is challenging, but not controversial.
posted by xingcat at 8:35 AM on October 8


Ha, just googled up local Gunderson productions and found

1) a neat local company, the Justice Theater Project, is staging "The Taming" in Raleigh in a couple of weeks. Tickets about to be bought.

2) another neat local company, Raleigh Little Theater, staged "The Revolutionists" a year ago (review is by a pal of mine who's been a drama critic for decades in this area; note he does mention "some script deficiencies")

3) my absolute favorite local company, Burning Coal Theater (which routinely takes interesting chances), is staging "Silent Sky" this coming April.

I bet further digging would reveal many more. Thanks again, bq. Really intriguing stuff.
posted by mediareport at 9:33 AM on October 8 [4 favorites]


So the premise of the article is that Gunderson has 33 professional productions in the 2019-20 season (as cataloged by the "Theatre Communications Group"). You can see the list here.

I threw together a quick map of the location of those 33 productions.

While there are many productions in 'middle America' (e.g. one in Hailey, Idaho), there are plenty of productions in coastal places, including 3 in Northern California, 3 in New England, 1 in Portland, 1 in DC, etc.

There are none in New York, though, so maybe the article is onto something with resistance to her in New York in particular.
posted by crazy with stars at 11:02 AM on October 8 [1 favorite]


Her plays sound fun! Maybe not super challenging, or unpredictable, or artsy, but what the hell, when I spend my limited funds on live entertainment I want to have fun. There could be much worse than an entertaining, well-structured play about little-known aspects of feminist history.
posted by storytam at 1:13 PM on October 8 [5 favorites]


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