Lauren Gunderson: “artists should not be punished or constrained by their own union”

She is only 32 and already an award winning playwright. Lauren Gunderson is living her playwright dream in San Francisco, the “theater city”. But is this city of theater always a city of dreams?  Gunderson reveals what is behind the scenes and explains how the unions can restrict the theater community.

Lauren Gunderson on
Lauren Gunderson on

She responded to our questions with enthusiasm, generosity and great modesty. Lauren Gunderson keeps her feet on the ground despite the roaring success she has encountered. “It would have been a real choice to not become a playwright”, she passionately acknowledges. Gunderson was born to be a playwright and she knew that from her early childhood. Today, she carries the old tradition of theater, believing that it is now more than ever before, necessary in our lives.

This award-winning playwright has it all: an incredible creativity that we can see in the variety of her plays, and a great sense of commitment to her work, which she takes very seriously.  She is always ready to help, notably her closest co-workers in the Bay: the actors. As a way to share her passion for theater, Lauren teaches playwriting in San Francisco and occasionally writes for the Huffington Post.

Lauren Gunderson is in favor of diversity and it shows in her plays. She writes history plays, wild comedies and contemporary drama, all of them are metaphorical and end with a surprise. “Being smart, riveting, and deeply moving are my always goals”, she says. Besides exploring different themes, Lauren casts various actors’ categories including women and ethnic minorities. This is the case of her latest play I and You, which has recently won the prestigious Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award.

Jessica Lynn Carroll and Devion McArthur in I AND YOU. Photo by Ed Smith.
Jessica Lynn Carroll and Devion McArthur in I AND YOU. Photo by Ed Smith.

San Francisco: a city where an innovative theater and diverse audiences meet.

Lauren Gunderson made two professional trips to San Francisco in 2006 and 2009. Her life knew a turning point during the second trip, when she got to know the theater community but also her husband, as she recognizes having fallen in love both with him and the city. She has become almost a San Franciscan! She speaks so energetically and proudly of this theater city: “We have hundreds of theater companies here. Hundreds! You couldn’t see every play if you wanted to”. In this city, she also has found a breeding ground for her professional activity as she argues: We have diversity of size, aesthetic, and audience here. That makes us a pretty healthy artistic ecosystem”. The city, in fact, encourages diversity and promotes creativity that playwrights like Gunderson need for their work, as she reveals “One theater did my darker sci-fi play, and a month later another did my rambunctious southern political farce, while another did my naturalistic, emotional coming of age play”. Thanks to this good environment, Lauren Gunderson has succeeded in making five different plays premiere at five different theater companies around the Bay last summer.

Besides being a city of dreams, San Francisco can also be a city of hurdles. In fact, Gunderson reveals that playwrights and actors encounter a lot of obstacles in their work. For her, as a playwright, “the biggest one is the lack of flexibility from Actors’ Equity”.

 “Many projects don’t fit in a category of equity’s definition, and even willing, excited equity actors are told no.”

As legislation, Equity aims at protecting actors and make sure they are paid and treated fairly for their work. However, at the same time, Equity considerably limits actors’ participation, which has subsequently serious repercussions on playwrights.  In fact, Equity actors have not really the freedom to choose where they want to work, but should submit to the regulations of the different theaters’ categories, and these are defined according to different factors such as regularity, reputation, size, and turn over. The biggest ones belong to LORT (League of Resident Theaters), others to BAT (Bay Area Theater), while smaller houses are not categorized at all.  In fact, many of these small theaters can’t offer the minimum wage demanded by AEA’s contracts (Actors Equity Association), therefore, they find themselves unable to cast Equity actors. In this way, Equity does no longer benefit the actors but is rather limiting them.

Gunderson is one among those playwrights of the Bay Area who support the “traditional” theater that imposes variety at the level of performances as well as audiences, and that should exist beside the big commercial theater. She wants theater to be diverse and accessible for everybody, where theater’s professionals have the possibility to work in shows they wants to be involved in. Thus, Gunderson sees Equity as a brake to maintain a creative and an innovative theater as she regrets that: “many projects don’t fit in a category of Equity’s definition, and even willing, excited equity actors are told no.” Obviously disappointed, she regrets the fact that actors “can’t be in projects even if they want to.”

Lauren Gunderson: Playwright of “Science Girl Around The World” Hadful Players’ 2011/2012 season.
Lauren Gunderson: Playwright of “Science Girl Around The World” Hadful Players’ 2011/2012 season.

However, Equity actors are bound to their contracts. Indeed, they can find themselves penalized and unable to work even if they are available and willing to do so. Hence, the paradox is clearly stated, in the city of a hundred theaters, many actors cannot work whenever they want. This situation prevents actors to make a living from their work, especially in San Francisco, “a very expensive city in which to live” as Gunderson explains. Actors are then obliged to find a way: “work in other flexible jobs” and “live in subsidized artist housing”, and in addition to act, “they do TV and film” in order to survive in this city.

Women, notices Gunderson, are the ones who suffer most from Equity’s constraints. Being strongly concerned with women’s issues, Gunderson find this “very frustrating to watch”, she adds disappointed “especially when I see many brilliant female actors not working when they could be (and want to be!) working with smaller houses”. Another “dramatic” problem comes to face women’s actors: men get the more Equity roles. In fact, the American theater is significantly gendered as “there are generally more roles for men than for women”. Besides, theaters “assume they can cast women as non-equity”. In these circumstances, “women actors choose not to go to Equity”, and by escaping the union’s restriction they also renounce to its protection, as this is the only way they found to be able to work.

A supportive community to cope with a restrictive union

Lauren has already worked in other cities and could indeed figure out the difference with the Bay as far as Equity laws are concerned. She thinks that other cities “have looser Equity laws and exemptions…allowing projects or small productions to flourish”. She regrets the fact that this is not the case in the Bay. Pointing out the restrictions equity may impose on actors, Gunderson argues:  “We should allow any artists the freedom to do their art in the way they want to do it and not be punished or constrained by their own union. This would serve a lot of theater artists in the Bay – playwrights and directors too – who want to make interesting new work but aren’t working for large theaters.”

In spite of all these difficulties, Gunderson refuses to give a gloomy picture of the Bay Area theater. She notably emphasizes the cooperative spirit that characterizes the community of the Bay, that she defines as “very very supportive”, where “everyone works with everyone”, and where there is “a lot of respect and overlapping partnerships”.  Partnership is then an important pillar of this theater community that helps to overcome the obstacles encountered by its members.

Lauren Gunderson is photographed at the SF Playhouse inside the Kensington Hotel on Polk Street in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014.
Lauren Gunderson is photographed at the SF Playhouse inside the Kensington Hotel on Polk Street in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014.

« Finding a director or a playwright to work with is a key part for the actors to build a lasting career.”

In any case, with her actors, Lauren Gunderson is very helpful, as she explains: “as a playwright, I am loyal to the actors I’ve come to work with. I trust them as I develop my work with them. I try to cast them all the time if I can. I write specifically for them.” Even after ending a show, she keeps in touch with the actors she has worked with and recommends them “very much”. She also keeps them in mind for upcoming projects. As a playwright, Gunderson is aware of the responsibility and the role she has to play in maintaining a suitable theater activity in the Bay Area. Therefore, in her opinion “finding a director or a playwright to work with is a key part for the actors to build a lasting career”.

Today, Lauren Gunderson is a very busy playwright. She has developed and premiered a new play in Berkeley Theater (SF) last October, entitled Ada and the memory of the engine. This work joins Gunderson’s series of plays on women and science, notably Silent Sky and EmilieLa Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight. This new play tells the story of Ada Lovelace, a countess regarded as the first computer programmer. Noting that in 2015, Gunderson’s plays will be touring the country in different theaters.

Ada and the Memory Engine in
Ada and the Memory Engine in




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