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: Blast-Off Has Their Cake and…! Dickie Van Dyke Celebrates Kissing, Shaving and a Decade of Burlesque Madness!

Posted on: Sep 7th, 2016 By:
Photo credit: Chris Buxbaum.

Photo credit: Chris Buxbaum.

Blast-Off Burlesque is back and going UNDER THE COVERS Friday Sept. 9 and Saturday Sept. 10 at Sychronicity Theatre in Midtown. Atlanta’s sci-fi punk vaudeville burlesque goofballs are celebrating their 10th year with this burlesque “performance explosion” inspired by some famous, and some not so famous album covers with emcee extraordinaire Ms. Gayle Thrower Rej and featuring with special guests P-Lo aka Patricia Lopez, Baby Doll and JuWanna Pimpmee!

With such an auspicious anniversary for some of ATLRetro’s favorite performers–all Kool Kats in our world!– we caught up with founding member Tricia Chenard, aka Dickie Van Dyke, to get the inside scoop on the creative cacophony which we know will ensue this weekend, as well as the troupe’s secret scooter origins, her own first album purchases, and an update on her other pastimes, including banjo and harmonica antics with her jugband Uncle Daddy and the Kissin’ Cousins, as well as bringing back traditional barbering at Rutabaga in Decatur.

ATLRetro: What’s the “secret origin” story of Dickie Van Dyke and how did you join the Blast-Off Burlesque? Aren’t you one of the founding members?

Dickie Van Dyke: In the beginning, Blast-Off was just me, Barbalicious, Sadie Hawkins and Ferris Hilton. We met through riding vintage scooters and meeting up for weekly beers with fellow scooter enthusiasts. Barb and Sadie were members of the burlesque troupe The Dollsquad and decided to start something new when The Dollsquad was ending its run. They approached me and said they wanted me to be their drag king. I replied, “But, I’m not a drag king.” They replied, “But you look so good in a suit.” I guess a little flattery went along way. I knew I wanted to use the name Dickie to tip my hat to my beloved, big gay, hair-dressing uncle, Richard. Barb and I started tossing around cheesy variations like Dickie Diamond or Dickie Dean etc… Eventually, Dickie Van Dyke fell out of my mouth and it fit on so many levels. The Van Dyke part was obvious because of, well, my being queer as a pink fuzzy football. I also love Dick Van Dyke. He’s one of the greatest entertainers that ever lived. Truly a classy gentleman.

underthecoversGosh-groovy-wow, it’s hard to believe Blast-Off is celebrating its 10th year. What does that feel like?

It feels shocking and great! We’ve had highs and lows like any long-term relationship. We are people. We’ve evolved; we are evolving. Blast-Off is like a favorite pair of jeans. It’s frayed around the edges, there are weird stains in strange places, and it’s worn thin in the knees, but nothing in the world feels the same. Nothing hangs off the hips in just that perfect way. People can sell overpriced, cheap versions of those distressed jeans, but they aren’t molded to your ass with the sweat and tears of hard work and hard play the way your favorite jeans are. That’s what being together for so long feels like. It’s biscuits, fried chicken and collard greens. It’s falling in love with your sweetheart all over again, despite the urge to strangle them because they are a beautiful, messy pain in the ass and you’ve been through a lot together, but you love that about them so much.

Photo credit: Regean Powell.

Photo credit: Regean Powell.

A new Blast-Off Burlesque show is a much anticipated treat. You zany kids have tackled the Wild West, TV, sci-fi, to name a few themes. How did you guys come up with the idea of bringing album covers to life, and we assume the show title “Under the Covers” is a double entendre?

Oh yeah, it’s most definitely a double entendre. It was one of those moments where we were surprised by our own cleverness. Our brainstorming process is pretty simple. We order a couple pizzas, bust open a bottle of Jameson or other lubricant of choice, and we throw ideas out. We haggle, we plead, we let go, we rationalize, we deconstruct, we get side-tracked, we analyze, we cuddle and we keep sipping whiskey until things we say to each other start sounding like good ideas. That usually doesn’t take too long because we are all nuts.

Blast-Off recently ran a contest that you judged in which people were invited to post a pic of the first album they ever bought to win a pair of free tickets to the show. What’s the first album you ever bought? And the story behind that purchase?

My first actual music-buying experience involved three albums. My family frequented a rinky dink flea market on GA-2 outside of Varnell, Ga. It was the kind of flea market where you could get some army BDUs, a live chicken, some boiled peanuts, the best handmade quilt, a fist full of Weirdo magazines and a tattoo from a biker working out of a repurposed school bus. There was a guy that sold awful bootleg copies of records. Everything was on a tape with the name of the album scribbled on the side. The insert was a one-sided Xerox of the original cover. They were bad, but three for $5. I bought horribly bootlegged copies of Motley Crüe‘s SHOUT AT THE DEVIL, Cyndi Lauper‘s SHE’S SO UNUSUAL and a random Patsy Cline BEST OF. I guess I will forever be a bargain shopper and lover of a wide variety of music.

Without giving away any surprises, can you give us a little tease as to the album cover(s) you’ll be unwrapping in the show?

Oh man, we touch on a wide variety of albums and genres! Icons, essences, obscurities, explorations of everything from The Who to The Boss to The Cramps to Vanity 6. The process of creating this show was interesting in the sense that we all got to express some sort of musical admiration for our personal favorites. It is our ultimate tribute album in some sort of burlesqued, interpretive dance movement, party-time experience.

Photo credit: Marc Turnley

Photo credit: Marc Turnley

What else has Blast-Off been up to lately and any more shows/activities planned for the near future?

In November, we are looking forward to working with Splatter Cinema again. Those guys have always been super awesome. They are letting us desecrate their stage by bringing back a horror version of our Taboo-La-La film night. We are currently working out the details, but it should be fun!

We hear Uncle Daddy and the Kissin Cousins has a super great new line up and a bunch of new songs. What’s up, where can we find you playing and are the rumors true that the band will be hitting the recording studio soon?

The jugband is creating a lot of new songs and sounds. Expanding our minds for sure. We figure after nine years of playing together, we might actually cut a record so we have something to give the folks who keep asking for it. We are going to be playing at 529 in East Atlanta on Sept. 26 with Banjaline and Glen DeMeritt, Oct. 1 for Garage 71’s Hell on Wheels in Canton, Ga. There are a lot of great folks playing and cool stuff going on with that day—classic cars, vintage bikes, sideshow acts, etc. We are also playing Oct. 8 at Ciderfest hosted by Concrete Jungle. Ciderfest is one of our favorite gigs of the year. Super laidback, lots of great people from all different walks of life, and fresh pressed cider!

Your day job is as an old school barber in downtown Decatur at Rutabaga boutique and salon. Can you tell us a bit about that and what types of styles you specialize in for the Retro gentleman? Do you think barbering is becoming a lost art?

I specialize in short cuts, tight fades, razor work, hard parts, classic, as well as modern styles. Anything from an old school pompadour, to a neat and tidy businessman’s coif, to an edgy, razor faded high and tight. As far as the face goes, I offer a classic straight razor shaves with aromatic lather and soothing hot towels, beard and mustache trims, and 15-minute facial massage for when you need a little R&R on the go.

Disco disco dick: Barb HaysAs far as barbering becoming a lost art, I could argue yes and no. At some point, having a barber seemed to have become more trendy than having a stylist. Perhaps it is meterosexual blowback from the ’90s? Perhaps it is the rise of the lumbersexual image? I don’t know. It seems the word “barber” has been simultaneously saved and diluted. There are a lot of folks calling themselves barbers these days. Pick up a pair of clippers and some Pinaud powder, and BOOM, you’re a barber. But to me, there is a difference between a barber who has studied and performs traditional tonsorial arts and a stylist who can perform men’s cuts. I know plenty of excellent stylists that can knock out awesome men’s cuts, and that’s great, but they don’t shave faces or use straight razors; they didn’t study anatomy of the face with all the muscles and arteries, as well as various skin conditions and ways to care for them. I think having that specific training and knowledge is the point of being a true barber. Having a barber pole tattoo doesn’t make you a barber. Knowing how to execute a proper shave and the importance of the 7th cranial nerve does. I’m glad that there has been a revival of barber culture and classic grooming because it is totally ok for dudes to take care of their skin and beards. It’s totally ok for women to opt for shaves as opposed to waxing. Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor did. Now more than ever, anyone can have access to a classic barbershop experience. I’m proud to call myself a traditional barber because of my training and the respect I have for the craft.

Finally, we gotta ask but thinking back over the past 10 years, what’s the craziest caper that you’ve been involved with as a member of Blast-Off and why? And yes, you can define by what we mean by “craziest” and “caper”!

Ya see, there is this little thing we call floor cake. For some reason, we had a grocery store sheet cake after a show. We were imbibing a few celebratory beverages, and before anyone could even get a piece of cake to eat, the entire cake ended up on the floor. Shortly after, everyone ended up in the cake on the floor. My favorite crazy caper happened when we decided to recreate floor cake for a photo shoot with the Burlesque Camera Club. We didn’t tell anyone we were going to drop a cake and writhe around in it for our final shots. At first, nobody knew what to do. These kids bring a cake into a photo shoot and “accidentally” dump it in the floor and start going nuts. Then suddenly everyone just started taking photos like crazy, whipped cream was sprayed all over the studio, sprinkles were sprinkled and jimmies were jammed. It was pure confectionary chaos and everyone loved it. We all had such a great time!

MORE INFO: Limited seating. Blast-Off shows sell out so they highly encourage you to buy tickets in advance to guarantee a seat! VIP front row experience includes four front row seats, drink tickets and very special goodies.Comfy seats for your butt, beer and wine in the lobby, and mixed drinks available at Tavern Pointe, which is right across the lobby. $5 parking will be validated with ticket purchase. Purchase tickets here.

Dick at the earl: Caroline Smith

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