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Lauren Gunderson's Natural Shocks debuts at the WP Theater
Lauren Gunderson had wanted to write a play about women and guns in America for decades, ever since her activist days in high school and college. But the inciting idea didn't take hold until earlier this year. In what she describes as "a flurry of about a week," she churned out the first draft of the monodrama Natural Shocks, about a woman waiting out a tornado accompanied by her fears and her gun. That was shortly before a shooter killed 17 people at Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day.
"It shook me, like it shook so many people, to the core," says Gunderson over the phone from San Francisco, where she lives with her husband and two young sons. "But what was incredible was seeing the actual traction that [the issue of gun control] was finally getting because of these kids."
Inspired to do something in the wake of yet another gun tragedy, Gunderson partnered with her friend, theatre producer Christina Wallace, to arrange readings of the play all over the country to mark the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre.
"Christina had the idea to give the play royalty free to any community who wanted to do it as long as it was a fundraiser for gun safety or women's rights," says the dramatist. "We had over 100 readings on one April weekend in 45 states in the U.S. That's how this play was born, which is insane. I'd never had a workshop of it and then suddenly there were 107 readings all happening at once."
Now Natural Shocks is having its fully staged world premiere Off-Broadway courtesy of the WP Theater. Directed by May Adrales, the production stars Eclipsed Tony nominee Pascale Armand as a gun-owning insurance agent who unpacks her life over the course of 75 minutes. Gradually, the lies she's been telling everyone, including herself, emerge. Her marriage, statistics and even Hamlet are topics of conversation. The show actually gets its title from that Shakespeare play's iconic "To be, or not to be" speech:
"To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd."
"I've always been fascinated by Hamlet," says Gunderson. "He is using us in those soliloquies much like my main character uses the audience, bringing them very closely in line with her perspective while being challenged by their presence, and challenged by even the idea of articulating these big, necessary, urgent thoughts of hers."
Although a handful of Gunderson's plays have previously been produced in New York City, Natural Shocks is the first to debut here. That said, she's a regional theatre darling. In fact, she is the second-most-produced playwright this season in the US according to American Theatre magazine. (Last season she was No. 1.) Overall, the 36-year-old has authored or coauthored 20 to 25 plays by her best estimate. ("Everyone asks me, and I never just sit down and count," Gunderson says with a laugh.) Her work frequently involves math, science and real-life figures, including 19th-century mathematician Ada Lovelace (Ada and the Engine), 20th-century painter Rudolf Bauer (Bauer) and astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (Silent Sky). In addition, to give companies an alternative to A Christmas Carol, Gunderson cowrote a couple of holiday plays with Margot Melcon that are inspired by the characters in Pride and Prejudice: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, centering on the often overlooked Mary, and The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, which will have its world premiere at California's Marin Theatre Company later this month.
"If there is a strategy to my career choices, it is certainly looking at what are the plays that are missing that I would absolutely run to see were they offered," Gunderson says. "That's certainly what Margo realized, that we needed another Christmas option that is feminist and joyful and transformational and hopeful. I have found myself being in the category of writers that people go to when they want a play by a woman that really puts women center stage. I'm glad that category exists now."
Gunderson is working on a few plays currently, including a musical for young audiences for the Kennedy Center to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in 2019. One problem she doesn't have: writer's block. "I just decided not to believe in it," she says matter-of-factly. "If you're blocked on a play, write another one. Write a terrible scene and then delete it. You still tend to unlock something if you can engage with it somehow."
Top image: Pascale Armand in Natural Shocks. Photo by Joan Marcus.