November 8th, 2018
If I were to ask you who you think the most produced playwright in America is, chances are you’d say someone like Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, or Eugene O’Neill. If so, you’d be wrong. Lauren Gunderson has been towards the top of American Theatre’s list of Most Produced Playwrights for the past four years, reaching the Number One spot in the 2017-2018 season. Though regional theatres seem to champion her plays, chances are that unless you are a diehard theatre fan, as Daniel Pollack-Pelzner wrote for The New Yorker, “You’ve probably never heard of America’s most popular playwright.” Lauren has written nearly 30 produced plays, but her new piece Natural Shocks marks her first time writing a one-woman show. Presented this fall at WP Theater, in a production directed by May Adrales, Natural Shocks tells the story of Angela, played by Tony Award nominee Pascale Armand, who is hiding in her basement in attempt to ward off a terrible and tumultuous storm. I recently spoke with Lauren, May, and Pascale about the challenges of working on a one-woman show, how comedy can foster empathy, the community-building aspect of theatre, and more.
Let’s start by talking a bit about the unique experience of doing a one-woman show. Lauren, is this your first time writing this type of play?
Lauren: Yes, very much.
What was it like for you to write this piece, in terms of form and structure, compared to the other plays that you’ve written?
Lauren: It was very different. I’ve even written a few two-person plays, and I thought, “Well, I’ve written a two-person play, I must be able to write a one-person play.” It’s very, very different. What you have to do is have a character that has a personality, secrets, and goals that are immediate and urgent and active. You really have to have an internal engine to the play itself, and I think that’s why the character’s personality is so high octane, because you don’t want a sleepy person for a one person show. You need somebody who’s creative, and smart, and constantly iterating. Once I realized that, I could have a ton of fun with her. The more zany and funny and self-deprecating and curious she became, the easier the play was to churn, and roll, and go. Structurally, I always know the ending, or a version of the ending, before I start writing. I don’t always know how I’ll put it together, but I know where I’m going. Certainly, for a one person show, you can’t really wander. You go where you’re going. Another technical thing I learned is this isn’t the kind of show where the character plays other people in her life or assumes other characters. It’s not that kind of one-woman show, but there are different modes she gets in, in terms of how she expresses her feelings and her passions and her secrets and her love. There are moments when it’s more like a novel. She’s rapidly describing a thing, and it should paint a picture in our minds as we’re watching it. And it snaps into funny memory from her past, and an urgent passion that she gets to go into in an obsessive and nerdy way. The different ways of communicating should keep us as part of that engine, the rapidity. You’re writing a runaway train, writing and riding a runaway train, but it shouldn’t feel like she’s pushing the story forward. It’s going, and she’s running. That’s a fun place to write in.
What it is like for you, May, to conduct this runaway train?
May: I love that metaphor. When Pascale and I were talking about this collaboration, I said, “I think as a director you’re the first audience member. You’re part acting coach, and part friend and champion.” I do think that it’s different for steering this ship, which feels like so much more of an intense collaboration with Pascale than it would be [otherwise]. I just helmed a musical, where you have a lot of different working parts and there’s a little bit more distance. Here, I feel like I can be down in the trenches, and also provide that needed outside eye, so that I can keep ahead of it and know where we’re going. I think to direct a piece like this is to keep the levity and to keep afloat all of the different nuances that are in the writing, and keep things popping and rolling.
Pascale, I know you’re still in rehearsal and only just starting to get to know your character Angela, but how would you describe your experience with her so far?
Pascale: It’s new. Well, just the whole categorization of doing a one-woman show [is new]. I have not done that in my career. I’m looking forward to it. I’m scared. But they’ll make sure that I do the damn thing. I have to say that I feel safe, and that’s really important to me. I also feel very buoyed, supported by the Women’s Project, by my director, and the playwright. The fact that Lauren’s ben able to come and be with us is awesome, because sometimes you don’t get that opportunity. So, it’s really very much a collaborative process, which is what I’m all about. I’ve been in shows where you just take the direction, and it’s like “hit it and quit it and go.” There are lots of things to be talked through here, sharing experiences that help me to enter into this world and stay in it, and not just stay, but then go deeper. There are many directions for me to go, and I feel like I’m getting to all of those places with the help that I’m getting and the people that I’m surrounded by. I feel really good. I don’t know what we’re going get in the end, but I’m feeling pretty good about the process so far.
Lauren: Our first reading was tremendous. I had to watch on Skype from San Francisco, and I was still like, “This is going to be so good!”
This character reveals a deeply troubling secret by the end of the play, but throughout, she also comes across as really fun and—I think Lauren used the word zany. Does it help you, as a performer, to balance out the intensity of what is going on underneath with the upbeat humor?
Pascale: Definitely. There are layers to every human being. It’s being able to wear both masks. There’s drama, there’s comedy, there’s tragedy. You have to be able to call on these different masks and wear them accordingly, so that by the end, you can see the entirety of the whole picture instead of just one thing. You have to stay ahead of it. Even though you’re riding this runaway train, I still have to be able to stay ahead of the audience, and there’s no doubt, with the way that Lauren writes that if I can’t stay ahead of the audience, then I’m doing something wrong. It’s not anyone else but me, so that’s a lot of responsibility on my part in order to keep this boat afloat. I can’t say enough about the fact that we’re too nuanced as human beings to just stay on one emotion. It’s the act of being private in public. In showing those parts and pieces of yourself, there’s no way for someone to say, “I don’t identify with at least one smidgen of her.” It allows people who may not have had any type of experience like this to say, “I may not have gone through everything that she’s gone through, but I know that part. I understand what that is.” That way, the audience ends up empathizing with the character.
Lauren: The heart of comedy, as I’ve always seen it, is crisis. Whether it’s emotional or physical or you’re being caught, or you want something you can’t have, all comedy is based on high stakes. Part of what comedy also does is let you get closer to those stakes because of the weight and the pleasure and the joy and the surprise and the delight, and all of the things that comedy does. The biomechanics of physically laughing let us relax and realize there are other people in the room who are thinking the same thing we are. It communalizes, and it conjoins, and it makes this a group experience in a way that becomes safe. And so, a comedy that is about real things lets an audience get closer to those real things than a drama would. Sometimes, a drama can easily be too much, or as an audience, you can know what you’re getting into when you start. But a comedy makes you lean in. You could categorize most of my plays as comedies. And I think the reason why is that, with a comedy, you get to do more work. Empathetic work, philosophical work, political work. And it works on people before they even know it. Sometimes, if you’re going into a political drama, you’re like, “I’m prepared to talk about things. I’m a good citizen right now.” And [in Natural Shocks], you should just fall in love with her. She’s the lady at the cocktail party that you’re like, “I don’t know what she’s talking about, but I want to go talk to her!” She constantly keeps the conversation rolling, and surprise, you’re learning things. What she gets so excited about, we get excited about. The funniest places are with your friends, talking about stuff that happened ten years ago, and making fun of each other because you love each other. You feel welcome, and that intimate space is, in as many ways, what we’re creating, physically and mentally, with the one-woman show in the Women’s Project space, which has intimacy built into it. So, it is the secrets and the giddiness of a friend that you get to see in this show.
May: Right now, I can’t think of a more appropriate time for this play to come to life. Not just because it focuses on a woman’s story, but because of the honesty and the comedy. The ability to talk about really difficult political, often polarizing issues, and actually bring people to the table and create a communal experience, is our own act of revolution right now. One of the things that’s in the character description is, “She may be wearing something that might cause the audience to judge her,” as in: they wouldn’t have something in common. I think that right now, when we’re living in such a divisive time, if you can actually find empathy with somebody that doesn’t look like you, or you don’t think reflects the same values as you do, and you can actually find empathy with them and be moved by their experience, or relate to your own self, then I think that theatre is doing its job. I’m really interested in theatre that does that, especially right now, because I’m craving some salve for the current political mayhem that we’re living in, to have some kind of reassurance that dialogue and engagement is still a part of our civic discourse. We can still make leaps and talk about difficult things. We can still find a way to reach out to somebody that we don’t think is like us. I think it’s hard to do right now.
Pascale: Comedy is that route. It’s the way in. It’s a disarming device. It helps to un-otherize all types of people.
Another “disarming device” in the play might be the fact that this character openly says, very early on, that she lies all the time. So, she’s an unreliable narrator. By the end, the audience comes to understand why she is lying. But how do you approach a character like that? How do you know what is true about what she’s saying, or does that not matter, so long as it’s her truth?
Pascale: She’ll tell you when she’s lying. She’ll come right out and say it.
Lauren: The small lies, she tells you.
Pascale: But I think it’s the way that she tells you that you could probably discern for yourself.
Lauren: It’s a challenging play to write because the drive for a really good one-person show is that you have to have an unreliable narrator. I’m also prone to literature that uses the same trope; it makes me feel activated as an audience member to be constantly gauging and trying to figure out what this person is hiding, what they’re not saying, what the truth is behind the lie. I think it’s the way to propel the drama forward. All good drama has reveals, and truths that come out. O’Neill has the same structure. Shakespeare does too. And so, for a one-person show, how do you have a reveal? The hardest, most vulnerable, and thus the most dramatic thing, is hard honesty. I think in almost every great play there are moments of great drama, those moments of, “This is the thing I’ve been trying to say the whole time. This is the truth that I’ve been trying to deny, and I can’t deny it anymore.” That’s the point of writing it, for those moments. And so really, truth is the whole point of drama, because the truth is hard, and it’s there, and you can’t edit it as much as you’d like to. That is the human reality. The human experience is confronting truth—your own, other’s truth of the world you’re in, and/or trying to make a new truth, in terms of changing the world and changing reality. I think Angela does a lot of that; as she says, she lies because it’s easier. And that is why people do a lot of things. It is only when you’re forced, because of circumstance or condition, to do the harder thing. And so, what we see her go from is the easy to the hard. That’s the very tiny version of the journey of the play. But it is, in many ways, the journey of every person, every society.
Is it true that this play was partially inspired by the “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy from Hamlet? Can you talk a little bit about how you see Angela in relation to Hamlet?
Lauren: I adore Shakespeare. I certainly adore Hamlet, partly because I have a very “it’s complicated” relationship with Hamlet. But the play came first. Angela came first. And then I thought, “I think I’m writing Hamlet”. Then I was like, “Well, maybe just put Hamlet in. We’ll just see. We’ll just compare.” What she is doing is talking a hell of a lot to change the world, to save her soul, to be her best self, to fix things, to right wrongs. Those are all the things that Hamlet does. He’s very thoughtful about it, and she’s very thoughtful about it. He’s cheeky, and she’s cheeky. It’s dangerous in Denmark, and it’s dangerous being underground for a tornado. So in many ways, when I played that out, I loved the idea of a woman who you will judge when you see her at first, because whatever that stage direction and that character description allows you to do, there’s something about comparing that person, and definitely a woman, to one of the greatest written literary icons of Western drama, who is a man. Usually. Bernhardt/Hamlet, I know! Anyway, there’s something about the feminism of that, of describing her very forcefully as Hamlet, and putting this great male written literature square into this female story. Then, of course, the soliloquy itself talks about the great choice to live and die. She is a very math-y character. She’s a very strategic and practical character. She’s a thinker. And Hamlet is too. I love that the way this character appreciates Hamlet is not the way I appreciate it, which is the poetry and the drama. The way she appreciates it is that he’s thinking through the hardest thing, but being practical about it. “To be or not to be.” It’s not like, “Oh, my heart.” He’s like, “No, no. This is a dichotomy. Let’s unpack this.” As she says, “Hamlet is my people,” which is kind of great. I think it does that subtler work of unfortunately legitimizing this woman’s story. As we’ve seen in the world, in the last year, a woman’s story is hard to take seriously. It’s hard to believe. We’re going through this play and we’re just like, “Kavanaugh everywhere.” To that end, comparing it to this great titanic male figure does a little bit of that work. “You would buy Hamlet’s story, but not hers?” Hopefully the audience can start to check those gut reactions.
Pascale: The thought that women are lesser than has always been completely anathema to me. I don’t get that the fact that we’re like 51, 52 percent of the population, and we bring life into the world, and yet we’re treated like second-class citizens. It does not make any sense to me. So whenever there is a chance for me to level the playing field, to have you think twice about the fact that you could be going through the same things that she’s going through, and vice-versa, I take it.
There is something really powerful about this particular story being told by and about women. Lauren, you’ve spoken to the importance of women’s stories before, particularly in the context of how you’re the most produced playwright (not female playwright) in America right now.
May: It’s a hard time for women to be believed and taken seriously.
Lauren: For the words to actually matter, and mean what they mean.
May: Right. There is such a violent and antagonistic approach to women who’ve raised their head about the parapet. They are beaten down in the public sphere, taken down based on a lot of stereotypes that are rooted in white patriarchy. I think being able to tell the story now, where women’s voices are the prominent voices, and we will not be silenced for that precious hour and fifteen, however long this play runs, I think that is why we really need to have this story in the world right now.
Pascale: Yep. It’s been too long. And despite women coming forward to say what they need to say, and voice their experiences, which are just as important as others’ experiences, they’re still not heard.
Lauren: Or heard and not believed.
Pascale: Which is even worse. While the [Kavanagh] vote was coming in, people were protesting and screaming. It was so parallel to what they were protesting against.
Lauren: The truth is that it is getting better in the theatre, to see women’s stories told, and more female directors and designers, and not just white women’s stories being told. Feminism has its own work to do in terms of intersectionality and all that. But to go back to Hamlet for just a second, Hamlet is not a man’s play. It is a universal play. But often my work is categorized as female stories. Stories about and for women. “Even though it was a play about women, my husband and I really liked it.” Do you ever say that about Tennessee Williams? For women there’s always a category, and often three or four categories that we’re squinched in the middle of, in this very narrow state of existence that is okay for us, where it’s not controversial, not too loud, not too soft, not too ambitious, not too shrill, all the freaking words you want to use. I think then about all of the horror that has happened in the last two years. It has made me so proud of the women I see being the bravest creatures I’ve ever witnessed, communally loud and not beating each other behind. So many women are marching en masse and showing up together and getting arrested together and insisting that this is the worst it’s going to get, and we’re going to make it better. There’s everything incredibly powerful about that. So, I think that’s part of writing this show, and it’s part of the joy and the privilege of writing this story, and frankly, why this play and this company with this team is the best thing that’s happened in this moment in time. I could not think of a better thing to be doing with my life than this play with this company. I think there is a conversation to be had about women’s voices that goes back thousands and thousands of years about who tells the story, and what kinds of stories are written for women. And then, you see something like Trojan Women; they knew some shit back then too.
Pascale: We’ve always been here. We’re not waiting anymore. Bad things had to happen to like every other woman on the planet for us to finally say, “I’m not keeping a lid on it anymore for everybody.” And then when the lid is blown everybody goes, “Oh, it happened to you too, you too, you too, you too? Oh my gosh!” Well, now we have something to say about it, and everybody’s going to hear.
Lauren: Even with Hillary running, there was some collectivity forming, but not the urgent, necessary stuff.
May: It was conforming to what has traditionally been male leadership. Now, I feel with this play, with some of the work, with some of the activism that’s coming out of this moment, that women are celebrating womanhood and owning our own power and not trying to fit into this other, patriarchal system that has been unfair.
Pascale: I hear what you’re saying but what still irks me is that women have to come together en masse in order to be heard. One man comes up against Kevin Spacey, and everybody understands him, and Kevin Spacey is ruined. Whereas a whole bunch of women had to come up against Harvey Weinstein. Why?
Lauren: Women can’t be their own proof.
Pascale: Right! One woman saying that dude did something to her should have been enough. We’re never enough. It’s disheartening. It’s enraging. And it has to stop.
Lauren: The way that information works in the world right now [is] quick, bite-size, tweetable, say the thing, say it loud. Theatre has a different architecture. Theatre takes you on a journey. We start in a place, and in our place, and it’s funny, it’s intense. There are stakes, and there’s speed, and charm, and colliding with some real crisis, and all this stuff happening through the journey. That’s the radical thing about women being funny. Comedy does what it does—as I mentioned earlier, it collectivizes, it comforts. Chemicals are firing in your body that make you feel good and connected, and that is why theatre is so urgent right now. For that journey, we go from a statistic or a bite-size sentence or an activist chant, to an entire life. Theatre continues to be the antidote to the high speed, quickly judging social media frenzy that we cannot seem to get out of. So, the journey of a story is the vitamin, is the nourishment, is the satisfaction that you can get [when you] engage with something that is not so quickly digested and swallowed and gone.
You’ve frequently found ways to used theatre as a political activism tool. For instance, even before Natural Shocks had its world premiere, you did a fundraiser where you waived your own royalty fees and raised awareness for gun violence.
Lauren: I had a draft [of Natural Shocks], and I was just about ready to send it out when Parkland happened. So, I posted something on Facebook basically saying, “I think I have a play about guns in America. Can we talk about this? Who wants to help me?” And then my friend Christina Wallace, who is an amazing woman and an entrepreneurial producer person, was like, “Can I read it? I think we should do this in every state in America on the 19th anniversary [of the Columbine shooting] in April.” We ended up producing this nationwide, for 46 or 48 states. We had readings in all of them all over the same weekend. There were over a hundred readings, and they were all fundraisers. More than raising money, it’s actually the community building; it is that congregational thing that I think is in some ways more valuable than the money. The money’s more symbolic of the group that you created. By coming together just for one night, in the same place, at the same time, and experiencing the same story. That’s the collective women’s voice; the critical element is congregation. The women who read the role of Angela were every age, race, ability. There were eighteen-year-olds doing it out of high schools and an eighty-year-old woman doing it at her church. And women were talking to each other, “Well, I did it in Minneapolis! You did it in Miami! How did you do it?” There are all these little groups forming, and women talking are to each other. The every-woman-ness of this story became so radically important to me, and really took on this life of its own. It was so fascinating. To me, it was like there was a thirst, and this was the glass of water for all these women to go “I’m angry, and I’m scared, and also, I am determined to be a part of something that is bigger than myself to fix this, to bring women together, to be in the room and tell the story.” So the idea that this is where the play has landed, at Women’s Project, is kind of incredible because we have all of those women behind us. They are all the community behind us that’s going “Yes! Go! Go!” which feels right, certainly for this play.