One of the most produced playwrights in the United States, Lauren Gunderson’s oeuvre includes plays, musicals, screenplays, and picture books. Many of her works focus on the lives of real and imagined heroines, particularly women in the sciences, and explore themes of innovation, morality, and discovery.
Lauren Gunderson was born in Decatur to parents with careers in both the arts and sciences—influences that would later inform her work as a playwright. She developed an interest in theater at a young age and performed in a number of Atlanta-area productions while still a student. Her first play, “Parts They Call Deep,” was produced by Atlanta’s Essential Theatre when she just seventeen years old.
Gunderson’s theatrical efforts continued as an undergraduate at Emory University, where she majored in English and took part in multiple student productions. She credits the staging of her play Leap (2004) by Theater Emory, the school’s resident professional theater company, as a formative experience. The play, which explores the discoveries and legacy of Isaac Newton, reflects her interest in both the sciences and the stage, providing early evidence of the themes that would define much of her professional work.
After completing her undergraduate studies, Gunderson earned an M.F.A. at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she was also a Reynolds Fellow in social entrepreneurship. In the years that followed, Gunderson embarked on a professional career notable for both her prodigious output and her early, almost immediate, success. The South Coast Repertory, in Orange County, California, commissioned two of Gunderson’s earliest works, Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight (2009) and Silent Sky (2011), both of which are based on the lives of women in the sciences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It also commissioned I and You (2013), which won the prestigious 2014 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. The plot centers around two teenagers, Caroline and Anthony, who form a deep friendship when completing a shared homework assignment about Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Gunderson considers the play to be an outlier amidst a body of work that either focuses on women in history and science or “wilder, comedic modern plays…often with a thread of Shakespeare in them.” I and You was lauded by the American Theatre Critics Association for its wisdom and its humor, and the play earned nationwide praise for its tender explorations of morality, friendship, and youth, as well as its artfully surprising ending.
Though it remains one of Gunderson’s most acclaimed works, I and You was just one in a series of successes for Gunderson during this period. Others include Exit, Pursued by a Bear (2011) and the Kennedy Center-commissioned The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog! (2011), which was later adapted as a picture book. These and other works allowed Gunderson to occupy a series of niches uncommon in the world of theater: as a woman in a field still dominated by men; as an artist enamored by science; and as a playwright without a day job.
But most remarkable perhaps is the fact that she has achieved such success outside of New York, the capital of American theater. After completing her M.F.A., Gunderson left New York for San Francisco, taking up residence in the Bay Area and forging close ties to the regional theater companies that have made her the most-produced American playwright in recent history.
Gunderson has a knack for writing scripts that delight mainstream theatergoers—a gift best evidenced by Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (2016), an original sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, cowritten with Margot Melcon. The comedy, which was initially scribbled on napkins over the course of a road trip between California and Oregon, takes place after the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy, during holiday festivities hosted at Pemberley, the fictional country estate that provides the setting for Austen’s novel. Mary Bennet, the middle Bennet sister, enjoys a focal role that positions her bookishness and awkwardness as relatable, even charming. She stumbles through an emerging romance with fellow visitor (and fellow bookworm) Arthur de Bourgh, culminating in what critics have described as a new holiday classic, as comforting and effervescent as A Christmas Carol.
In addition to her comedic fare and her many works exploring scientific history, Gunderson has also become known for her political engagement. After the 2016 presidential election, Gunderson organized free, nationwide readings of her feminist political commentary, The Taming (2013). An irreverent rejoinder to the Bard’s The Taming of the Shrew and one of four productions that compose her Shakespeare cycle, the play appeared in more than forty cities on Inauguration Day 2017, raising generous sums for progressive causes. The following year, she launched a campaign against gun violence, organizing free, public readings of her one-woman show Natural Shocks in theaters across the country.
Gunderson returned to The Kennedy Center in 2019 with Earthrise, a commissioned children’s musical, in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11’s lunar landing. Peter Pan and Wendy, her adaptation of the J.M. Barrie classic, premiered later that same year at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.
Though best known for her plays, Gunderson has published a wide variety of works, including short stories, poems, and columns, and lectures regularly on the intersection of art and science. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, renowned virologist Nathan Wolfe, and their two children.