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: Tromaville in L5P: Nick Arapoglou Radiates as the First Superhero from New Jersey in Horizon Theatre’s THE TOXIC AVENGER

Posted on: Feb 17th, 2016 By:
Kool Kat of the Week Nick Arapaglou as Toxie in Horizon Theatre's production of THE TOXIC AVENGER. Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

Kool Kat of the Week Nick Arapaglou as Toxie in Horizon Theatre’s production of THE TOXIC AVENGER. Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

By Geoff Slade
Contributing Writer

Horizon Theatre’s production of THE TOXIC AVENGER (Wed-Sun., through March 13) is a musical comedy based on the cult 1984 Troma film.  If that means anything at all to you, it is likely the best news you’ve heard all day. The plot will be familiar to fans, and I don’t want to spoil anything for the rest of you. All you need to know about the show itself, depending on how seriously you want to take it, is to expect social commentary on pollution, corrupt politicians and a deft satire of the superhero genre. And a seven-foot tall mutant with superhuman strength and a heart of gold. The original stage production opened in New Jersey in 2008, followed by a successful Off-Broadway run in 2009.

Local actor Nick Arapoglou plays the lead. Nick, originally from Huntington, NY, went to high school in Atlanta and moved back here after college. He has been acting professionally for about a decade, notably as Princeton (for which he learned puppetry!) in all three local productions (at three different venues) of AVENUE Q, and he won 2011’s Suzi Bass Award for Lead Actor in a Musical. Other roles during the past few years include Asher Lev in MY NAME IS ASHER LEV (Theatrical Outfit), Romeo in ROMEO AND JULIET (Shakespeare Tavern) and Bobby Strong in URINETOWN (Fabrefaction Theatre). “Of course, I also enjoyed THE GIFTS OF THE MAGI at Theatrical Outfit, because my wife played opposite me in that show for three years straight!” Nick said.

In addition to a diverse stage career, the actor has done lots of on-camera work . Look for him later this year in the films TABLE 19 (with Anna Kendrick, Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson), THE ACCOUNTANT (Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick), THE BOSS (Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell), and CONFIRMATION (Kerry Washington).

Needless to say, those are some fantastic credits, but yeah, we admit we made Nick Kool Kat of the Week now because we think he’s in the role of a lifetime. And we’re absolutely troma-tized that he took time from his trashy schedule to talk Toxie with ATLRetro.

Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

Not funny! Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

First of all, what’s it like to portray a pop culture icon? (and make no mistake…)

Ha! I think when you are playing a role where there are those kinds of expectations, you have to make sure there are moments when you give a tip of the hat to the fans. We certainly have those moments placed within the show. But putting on a big green suit and kicking ass with a mop is about as awesome as you think it is!

Were you a fan of the films?

I’m going to be honest—I still haven’t seen them. I know that might make some people gasp! But there’s a reason why I didn’t once I accepted the role. There are very few new shows and musicals that hit the stage in Atlanta. They’ve usually been done in New York first. So it’s always important to me to try to bring my own take on the role and do a recycled impression of an impression of someone else’s take. That’s a huge trap in musicals especially. People listen to the CD so much and that colors their performance. So, the point is, I didn’t want to see the film and then have my performance be shaped by someone else’s. I did watch the trailer though and laughed hysterically—so you can bet once we close this thing that’s the first thing in my queue.

Had you seen or were you aware of any of the previous productions before this one came along?

Yes, we were aware especially of the award-winning Off-Broadway performance in NYC. I listened to the score a few times to get a sense of the music, but then stopped before it got in my head too much!

How did you end up cast in the lead?

Well, this is the same creative team that was behind AVENUE Q. Our excellent director Heidi McKerley (who won the Suzi Award for Best Director for AVE Q) and I have now done 11 or 12 productions together. She was one of the first people to cast me years ago and we have developed quite the resume of kickass musicals at this point. Also the music director Renee Clark (Suzi Award for Best Music Direction for AVE Q) and I have also worked together for years and years. She is an unbelievable talent, and every show she works on is better because of her presence. So I’m sure the working relationships I have with both those two fierce ladies led to their trust in casting me as the lead in this show.

dont-drop-him_24148250873_o

Don’t drop him! Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

You’re two weeks into a scheduled six-week run. How have audiences responded so far? Gotten any feedback from Troma fans yet?

I know I’m supposed to say this, but audiences love the show. No matter if the theater is sold out completely or we have maybe a smaller crowd on a Wednesday, they jump to their feet by the end of the show. I mean jump to their feet. It’s happened every night. We are really proud of what we are doing. The cast is a firestorm of musical theatre rock talent. Don’t believe me? Come watch, you’ll see!

We have definitely gotten some Troma fan feedback. It’s been awesome. They are always satisfied and super happy to take pictures at the end of the night with Big Green Freak.

How would you describe the show to (warn?) fans of musical theater that don’t recognize the title?

Nothing to warn about really. Because it’s a musical, obviously the gore factor has to be toned way down for audiences. But that doesn’t take away from the story and the fun at all, believe me. I think this show is rated PG-13, but a hilarious PG-13. It’s a train. It’s campy, and ridiculous, and hilarious. Everyone leaves smiling. If you don’t leave that way, you were trying not to like it, and in that case, I feel bad for you.

toxie-comes-alive_24148251913_o

Toxie comes alive! Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

The movies feature absurd, disgusting, hilarious violence. Any chance you rip some punk’s arm off onstage?

Some punk’s arm? How about multiple punks’ arms.

The musical was written by New Jersey natives Joe DiPietro and David Bryan. Their last collaboration, MEMPHIS, won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical. Bryan wrote the music (and co-wrote the lyrics with DiPietro) during downtime from his day job, keyboardist for another ’80s Jersey juggernaut, Bon Jovi. So is it safe to say the score rocks?

The music is just fun. We have a kicking band. You’ll hear some sick guitar distortion solos and bass, hot keyboard play and insane drum solos.

And this cast can sing. Make no mistake—it rocks.

THE TOXIC AVENGER runs through March 13 at the Horizon Theatre. Showtimes are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3pm and 8:30pm, and Sunday at 5pm. Tickets start at $25. www.horizontheatre.com or 404-548-7450 for tickets and info.

The play contains adult language and content, and even though they’d love it, is not recommended for children.

All photos provided by Horizon Theatre and used with permission.

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