Kool Kat of the Week: Playwright Lauren Gunderson Spins A Victorian Techie Tale with her Play ADA & THE MEMORY ENGINE’s East Coast Premiere During the 2017 Essential Theatre Play Festival

Posted on: Aug 8th, 2017 By:

This Week’s Kool Kat of the Week, award-winning playwright Lauren Gunderson hails from Decatur and joins a cast of fantastic local writers and performers at the 2017 Essential Theatre Play Festival, running through August 27 at the West End Performing Arts Center. Her Victorian-era play ADA & THE MEMORY ENGINE depicts the life and times of mathematician (credited as being the first computer programmer in history) Ada Byron Lovelace takes the stage in all its wounded, beautiful glory (schedule of performances here). In addition to Gunderson’s play, performances at the festival also include 2017 Essential Theatre Playwright Award winner G.M. Lupo’s ANOTHER MOTHER, and Dad’s Garage company member and writer for Turner Classic Movies, John D. Babcock III’s one-man show about legendary actor-director John Cassavetes, INDEPENDENT. If you love history, science, and formidable women, come on out and catch a glimpse of Gunderson’s lively portrayal of Ada Byron Lovelace, one of history’s forgotten gals of science, while supporting your local theatre!

Gunderson, named by American Theatre Magazine as the Most Produced Living American Playwright of 2016 hails from Decatur and has rejoined her Essential Theatre family with the East Coast Premiere of her homage to the forgotten women of science, ADA & THE MEMORY ENGINE, directed by Essential’s Ellen McQueen, and starring Ashley Anderson as “Ada,” Mark Cosby as “Charles Babbage,” and Brandon Partrick as “Lord Lovelace.” Gunderson’s writing career began to take root with her first play, Parts They Call Deep, winning the first Essential Theatre Playwriting Award in 2001, followed by her second ETPA award in 2004. She went on to procure other envied awards including the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, Aurora Theatre’s Global Age Award, the Eric Bentley New Play Award and the Dramatists Guild’s Lanford Wilson Award. Gunderson continues her prolific writing career, spinning tales for the stage and in the pages of children’s books (Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog: Blast Off to the Moon!).  Atlanta will have the opportunity to experience more of her works in the coming months at Theatrical Outfit and Synchronicity Theatre, which if they’re anything like ADA, we at ATLRetro be dying to catch them! We caught up with Gunderson for a quick chat about her love of writing, what draws her to the forgotten women of science, and coming home to her Decatur/Atlanta roots.

Lauren Gunderson

ATLRetro: You hail from Decatur. Was there anything you did while growing up here that fed into your ultimate career in theatre?

Lauren Gunderson: I was lucky to be in the care of some amazing theater teachers both in theatre and in the sciences. In high school theater I was lucky enough to play roles in some of the best literature there is, Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare. Lynn Hosking, Peggy Hasty and Olivia Roller allowed me those chances to be onstage and I’ll never forget it. Performing those plays gave me the kind of intimate relationship with good writing that would lead me to having a single clue as to how to write a good play. One of my favorite teachers was Joe Winterschiedt who taught physics at Decatur High. He was such a jubilant and creative science teacher and he opened the door to my understanding that science isn’t just memorizing equations and facts; it’s a completely creative and transcendent approach to knowing and proving what’s true. These are the stories I most often tell in the theatre, the stories of great moments in science, of discovery, of the tough and exciting quest for real truth.

Your first professional play, “Parts They Call Deep” won the Essential Theatre Playwriting Award in 2001, when you were just 18, and you won again for BACKGROUND in 2004. Of course, you went on to win many other awards, but what was it about Essential then that helped nurture you as a beginning playwright?

They gave me my start as a playwright. I didn’t even know if I’d actually written a play until I gave it to Peter Hardy and he said, “It is a play AND it won our new award for Georgia writers!” I’ll always credit Essential Theatre as giving me the boost, the confidence, the experience and the first professional production of my career.

What is it like being back at Essential now. How did this production come about and what’s it like to work with Peter Hardy, director Ellen McQueen and the rest of the company?

It’s an honor. I’m so proud to be in the Essential family of artists. I was working remotely with most of the team because I live in San Francisco. But I have a contingent of Atlanta friends and family who always come to see my work. (Hi MoBo moms! Hi Oakhurst Family! Hi Emory!).

Production Still: Ashley Anderson as “Ada”

How did you become interested in Ada Byron Lovelace and what about her made you think she’d be a great play protagonist? We are in the age of tech and she started it! Hers is an amazing story for me to tell because of the convergence of art and science that swirls around her history. He father was the great poet Lord Byron, her mother was a mathematician and the company she kept included the greatest minds in England. She was a visionary, a rebel, a feminist before feminism, and a woman of passion and skill. She’s also deeply flawed and broken. That makes her a great human to build a story around.

What research did you do to write the play? Were you surprised by anything you discovered about Ada?

The most fun I had while researching was visiting the Computer History Museum out here in Palo Alto, CA, where they have a working full-scale model of Babbage‘s Difference Engine (his calculator). They actually run it once a day out here and it’s a sight to see. It’s as tall as a bus and about 10 feet long. The clanging and clacking when it’s calculating is mesmerizing. I took video. So cool. Check out the video here.

Also the wonderful spirited repartee between Ada and Charles Babbage. How much of that comes from their letters versus your imagination?

Many of the letters you hear in the play are taken directly from their actual correspondence. The sass and sexual tension is all mine! (Heh!)

When and where was the play first produced? Any anecdote about that production?

I wrote it for a company here in Berkeley called Central Works, for my friend and actor Kat Zdan as “Ada” and Kevin Clarke as “Babbage.” It was a dream to write for them and a wild process putting the play together. Much like Essential’s production, the premiere was a small company, a simple production – very intimate. I think the play works well like that. But the premiere had only 4 actors and Essential is doing it without doubling – a larger cast, a bigger landscape of characters.  The original song sung in the play was written by the incredible band The Kilbanes (Kate Kilbane and Dan Schlessinger). They wrote something magnificent for the show – mathematical, moving, soaring, sad, and beautiful. I’m so impressed with it. I sing it to myself often. You can hear it on the tumblr page here.

Production Still: (l-r) Ashley Anderson, Mark Cosby (as “Babbage”)

Without giving away spoilers, Ada’s “reading aloud” of “She Walks In Beauty” frames the play. Why this particular short work rather than another of Lord Byron’s many poems?

This was the first Byron poem I remember and it still haunts me – the elegance, the meter, the imagery. I find it terribly romantic.

What was the most challenging part of writing ADA AND THE MEMORY ENGINE?

The ending. Even though the final scene was the first one I wrote, it asks a lot of the actors, the play, and the audience to go with me. But I think it surprises you and deepens the story beyond where you might think it could go.

Do have a favorite scene, either that was fun to write or that when you see the play performed, you are especially delighted by?

I love their fight at the beginning of Act 2. It’s so great to see the actors let loose and get messy with their emotions.

This isn’t your first play about forgotten women scientists. Who else have you written about, what draws you to this theme, and will there be more in your future writing?

I write a lot about science and particularly women in science. Partly because GO LADIES OF SCIENCE! And partly because there is inherently more struggle in a woman’s story than in a man’s. The world is tougher for her – it’s biased, it judges, it wants her to fail. That’s even before she gets into a male dominated field like tech or the sciences. More struggles mean more obstacles mean better drama.

It’s hard to earn a living as a playwright (or as a writer in general) but you were dubbed the Most Produced Living American Playwright in 2016 by American Theatre Magazine. What’s your secret and do you have any advice for young playwrights?

Production Still: Mark Cosby, Ashley Anderson

I write a lot. I write fast. That is, in no short order, why I’m on that list. I love to write, I love figuring out the way a story works. Writing is like solving a mystery or cracking a puzzle. I love the work, which also means I do a lot of it. If you want to be a playwright, see a lot of plays, read about dramatic structure, and write every day.

What are you writing now, or what was your last completed work and when/where can we see those being produced? Any more productions coming up at Essential or any other Atlanta companies?

I’ve got about a thousand things going on including raising two kids and a cat. I am overjoyed that Theatrical Outfit is producing my play MISS BENNET this holiday season, co-written with Margot Melcon. And then Synchronicity Theatre is producing a wild, southern, political feminist farce, THE TAMING next June. Yay plays! I am so grateful to the Atlanta theatre community. It’s so rich with talent! Also my children’s book Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog: Blast Off to the Moon! just came out. It’s about a little girl scientist/adventurer and is pretty awesome with gorgeous illustrations. The Little Shop of Stories has signed copies in Decatur.

What’s your favorite thing to do when you come back to Atlanta/Decatur, and why?

Eat pimento cheese on the porch of my mom’s cabin in the North Georgia mountains, visit The Little Shop of Stories in Decatur to buy books for my boys, visit with friends and drink wine at Donna’s house, see some plays, walk the Highline, hug my friends at Oakhurst Baptist Church.

Photos courtesy of The Essential Theatre and Lauren Gunderson, and used with permission.

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Kool Kat of the Week: Sabin Epstein Goes Wilde, Oscar Wilde at Georgia Shakespeare

Posted on: Jul 6th, 2012 By:

 

Sabin Epstein. Photo courtesy of Georgia Shakespeare.

Georgia Shakespeare is going Wilde, as in Oscar Wilde, for the first time this summer with THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, running from Fri. July 6 through August 3 at the Conant Performing Arts Center at Oglethorpe University.  The plot is a familiar one – two young friends, Jack and Algernon, both masquerade as a libertine named Ernest, to win the hearts of their unsuspecting loves, Gwendolyn ad Cecily.

You may ask what’s 20th century about that? But in keeping with the notorious playwright’s own Bohemian lifestyle, what follows is no stiff Victorian comedy of manners but a frenzied farce with plenty of political incorrectedness that has stood the test of time. Plus we have to admit we just love both Oscar Wilde and Georgia Shakespeare and have great memories of sitting on the lawn, picnicking and watching some great theatre under the original tent in the late 1980s, so we think it’s mighty cool that the company has survived, grown and prospered into an Atlanta summer tradition that performs more than the Bard!

What better reason to name director Sabin Epstein Kool Kat of the Week. He may not be named Earnest but he was happy to sit down and share some secrets about why it was time to go Wilde, what he and the cast have done to keep this much-acted play fresh and funny and a few memories of  the festival’s early outdoor days.

ATLRetro: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST has been a standard for theatre companies for more than a century. What do you think is the secret behind its seemingly timeless appeal? 

It seems people have been falling in love since time began and sometimes the course of true love doesn’t run smoothly. We love complications, of our own making or other people’s making. EARNEST is one very complicated and clever love story with wonderfully droll and daffy characters and very clever logic.

In Shakespeare, there’s quite a bit of gender-bending. Is that why you decided to stir up the sexes with a couple of characters?

The reversed gender casting just happened, it wasn’t planned- these seemed the best actors for the role, each bringing interesting qualities to the characters that helped open up a new way of looking at them.

Cecily (Ann Marie Gideon, center) encourages Algernon (Caleb Clark, left) and her guardian Jack (Joe Knezevich, right) to make amends. Photo credit: Bill DeLoach.

Without giving too much away, what else have you played with to change things up and keep the play fresh?

The visual design of the piece is nontraditional. We started with the Lewis Carroll/Alice in Wonderland aspects of the play, the upside-down logic, and let the design evolve from there. We’re using a unit setting, so it has to accommodate both indoors and outdoors simultaneously – the overall look of the piece is theatrical, tightly controlled (like the world it is mirroring) and, I believe, not lacking in wit.

This play contains some marvelously witty dialogue and situations. Do you have a particular favorite scene to direct and why? 

The real challenge is in looking at so many famous scenes and famous lines and famous characters and forgetting about what made them famous in the first place and to just dive in to the piece as if its a brand new play. In that regard, every scene has been fun to work with and all the characters fascinating.

You’ve assembled a nice line-up of seasoned Atlanta actors including some long-time Georgia Shakespeare regulars, such as Megan McFarland. Can you talk a little about the cast?

We’ve had a wonderful time in the rehearsal room; the cast is a delightful mix of actors new to me and dear friends; the atmosphere has been relaxed, loose and playful, due largely to the trust and experience generated playing in rep over the years. I’ve wanted to challenge those actors I’ve worked with before with non-type-casting, and get to know the new actors playing into their strengths. They’re all adept at working with “high language,” which is a requirement for this piece – anyone who can speak Shakespeare and Shaw and make them make sense/resonate with contemporary audiences is perfectly suited to this material, and everyone in the cast fits the bill.

Jack (Joe Knezevich, center) discovers his true identity in the presence of Lady Bracknell (Mark Cabus, from left), Miss Prism (Marianne Fraulo), Algernon (Caleb Clark) and Cecily (Ann Marie Gideon). Photo credit: Bill DeLoach.

Finally you must be proud at how Georgia Shakespeare has grown and blossomed over the past nearly 30 years. Do you ever miss those early days under a tent in a field and do you have a favorite memory? 

The early days were full of adventure and the unknown – even though we’re now in air-conditioned rehearsal rooms, that spirit of adventure seems to thrive with Georgia Shakes and that’s why I love returning to the company. My first project here was MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING in the second season, in the tent; I’ve loved working on Moliere and Orton with the company as well as Shakespeare- wonderful memories of THE MISER, THE TEMPEST, TWELFTH NIGHT, MERCHANT OF VENICE, KING LEAR, WHAT THE BUTLER SAW, the black and white shows, the colorful shows – they’re all my children. How could I possibly single one or two out? It’s just wonderful to have the opportunity to do work I’m invested in with a company that isn’t afraid to take risks and be adventurous and truly supports its artists.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is running in repertory with this year’s other productions, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, ILLYRIA: A TWELFTH NIGHT MUSICAL and THE EMPEROR AND THE NIGHTINGALE, a world-premiere family musical based on a Hans Christian Anderson story (July 14-Aug 3), click here. A fun night to see the show is Friday July 13, when you can stay late and see cast members also present the Girls (and Boys) Gone Oscar Wilde Cabaret, no holds barred at this “Wildely” naughty performance (*Appropriate for ages 13 and up), after the 8 p.m show. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.gashakespeare.org or call the Georgia Shakespeare Box Office at 404.504.1473.

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Really Retro: Lisa Stock Explores an Older, Darker Side of Fairy Tales in Her Play of Neil Gaiman’s SNOW, GLASS, APPLES

Posted on: Aug 22nd, 2011 By:

Carrie Anne Hunt as the Snow White Princess in Lisa Stock's play of Neil Gaiman's SNOW, GLASS, APPLES, which opens Aug. 24.

SNOW WHITE has a reputation for being a cheery story about a cute princess and seven mostly affable dwarves, but the only time I ever hid my eyes in a movie as a child was when the evil stepmother queen transforms herself into a hideous wicked witch in the Walt Disney version. Trust author Neil Gaiman (SANDMAN, AMERICAN GODS) to cleverly latch onto the darker side of that familiar tale and consider that mere jealousy might not be sufficient motive to drive the queen to murder by poisoned apple. And maybe the prince wasn’t exactly your normal kind of hero either. “I was reading Neil Philip‘s [PENGUIN BOOK OF] ENGLISH FOLKTALES, and a rereading of a version of SNOW WHITE made me stop and wonder what kind of person she was, and what kind of person sees a dead girl in a glass coffin and wants to keep her…,” Neil said in an email last week when asked what led him to write the short story, SNOW, GLASS, APPLES. Now Snow White’s white skin, blood-red lips and coffin-sleeping take on a new meaning with disturbing erotic implications, and the queen becomes a protagonist with a difficult moral choice.

Lisa Stock. Photo credit: Jaclyn Cook.

Originally published as a benefit book for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in 1994, SNOW, GLASS, APPLES captured the imagination of so many readers that it was reprinted in two anthologies—TWICE BITTEN: LOVE IN VEIN II (1997), edited by Poppy Z. Brite, and Neil’s own collection SMOKE AND MIRRORS (1998). One of those readers was Lisa Stock, who like the storytellers of old, had her own thoughts about taking the tale in a new direction from page to stage. Through a few mutual friends, the then-New York-based writer/director for theater and film politely asked Neil nicely for a chance to have some fun with his story of bloodlust and mistrust. Charmed by her vision, the idea of seeing his creation come to life and the fact that all proceeds would benefit charity (East Atlanta Community Association), he granted her wish. “I love live theatre,” Neil said. “There’s a magic you cannot get from anything else when it’s good.”

While this real-life fairy tale so far may seem more CINDERELLA, it’s Atlanta audiences that really are the lucky ones. SNOW, GLASS, APPLES has its world premiere here Wed. Aug. 24 through Sun. Aug. 28 in the unusual venue of the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market, re-envisioned by Lisa as a dreamlike Spring Fair. Artists and photographers also will have a chance to draw and photograph cast members in costume and preview the phantasmagoric sets during a Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School Atlanta field trip on Mon. Aug. 22. Performances are rated “R” for simulated violence and adult themes, but a special family-friendly show will be held Aug. 28 at 6 p.m.

ATLRetro recently caught up with Lisa to find out more about what drew her to the dark story, crafting a truly unique audience experience, why it’s the perfect fit for a Dr. Sketchy and a little about her other mythic projects, including the upcoming independent feature film TITANIA.

For those unfamiliar with Neil Gaiman’s SNOW, GLASS, APPLES, without giving away too much, how is it different from the Disney version of SNOW WHITE we grew up with? And more like the original darker versions that date back to Medieval times?
For me, Neil Gaiman’s version reflects the earliest forms of the tale, some [of which] trace back to the myth of Persephone (eating pomegranate seeds and falling into a half-life in the Underworld). The tales were originally much darker in nature and true morality tales. SNOW, GLASS, APPLES for me is just that—a cautionary tale about trusting or mistrusting your instincts. It’s also about self-preservation in a brutal world, and how you deal with the choices that have been handed to you. Our protagonist doesn’t get saved and have all that’s hers by birthright returned to her. She makes her own decisions—for better or worse—and goes out to protect, on her own, what she holds dear.

How did you discover SNOW, GLASS, APPLES and what drew you personally to the story?
I discovered SNOW, GLASS, APPLES through a haunting illustration by Sarah Coleman of the princess that led me back to Neil’s story. I love new perspectives on old tales and those that speak to human instincts. Instincts are such a basic, fundamental part of being human, and yet we often ignore them. The Queen does that in this tale; I’ve done that more times than I can count. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve been defeated. We all have. And I think this short story brings out a side of us we may not want to own up to—it talks about fear and failure, but also responsibility and integrity. Though Neil has made the Queen the protagonist, she hasn’t lost any of her edge or her darkness. Instead, with the perspective in her corner, we recognize that in ourselves.

I also love all the visual reminders of her fear in the story: the vampiric princess who keeps coming back to life, the princess’ heart strung above her bed, the forest folk disappearing, nothing is as it seems, reminders to look deeper. Think about it. What are you afraid of? It takes up a lot of your time and space. That’s our nature. And in Neil’s story, the Queen goes out to do something about her fear; whether she’s successful or not, she tries to survive it. Was it the right thing to do or not—that’s for each of us to decide.

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