“Falling in love with a playwright whose work you’re experiencing for the first time feels like Christmas morning,” wrote a San Francisco reviewer after seeing Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear, opening this week at Circle Theatre. “If the Coen Brothers decided to set a feminist revenge tale in Atlanta and sprinkle it with Dixie Chicks pixie dust, it might look something like [this]…raucous comedy,” said a critic in Atlanta.
Busy, award-winning playwright Lauren Gunderson is writing a mile a minute, and lately, her quirky and imaginative plays appear to be surfacing in theaters all across the country—Seattle, Atlanta, Cincinnati, the Bay Area--riding some kind of zeitgeist tide we won’t understand until later, perhaps. Based now in San Francisco, Gunderson was raised in Atlanta, has degrees from both Emory and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, is a major fan of ex-prez James Earl Carter, and likes to write plays that pluck something out of Shakespeare or the classical theater world—and take it in a very different direction. Bear is just one of the plays in what she laughs and calls “my Shakespeare cycle.” Toil and Trouble is a modern-day riff on Macbeth; We are Denmark takes a look at Hamlet before his real troubles start. (The list may be even longer: her résumé lists two earlier plays with suspiciously Shakespearean handles: Defy You Stars and The Taming.)
Gunderson loves history and science, she says, and brings them together in some other well-reviewed plays. Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight tells the story of a brilliant woman scientist, mathematician (and friend of Voltaire) in 18th century France whose intellect and passion were at odds with the strictures of her day. And in The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog! “girl-detective-noir meets science-geek-chic”, said one reviewer, in an “astronomical musical theater event.”
Gunderson says on her website that Bear “is a play I’ve always wanted to write—a violent play that glitters,…part I Love Lucy, part Jacobean revenge tragedy….”
Set in the North Georgia mountains, the play is based on a famous stage direction from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale—“Exit, pursued by a bear.” Not by accident, the Shakespeare play centers on the story of King Leontes, an abuser of his wife and children. In Gunderson’s play, bad-tempered young husband Kyle is duct-taped to his La-Z-Boy. His kicked-around wife Nan has had enough, and she isn’t just planning her escape, but an end-of-life experience for Kyle. And yes, there are bears involved…and her friends are coming to help.
TheaterJones chatted to her about the play, her work and her love for language and inspiration from the classics.
TheaterJones: You have a dramatic problem with Bear, in that the play is literally stuck—duct-taped—in one place. Yet you’ve made it feel very kinetic, if you’d like to analyze how that was done.
Lauren Gunderson: The main thing is, the characters’ modus operandi is to re-enact scenes from their lives, so they are both in my play and in the plays within the room, the memories. So there are a few ways in which we exit the immediate reality of the space. I really love that; there are some logic loops that might pop up in that kind of structure, but it’s worth it to keep zooming around the corners of this theatrical world. That’s what I wanted the play to do, to just say “let’s go” to where we want to go without worrying about naturalism, whether that’s a PowerPoint or a dream sequence or Jimmy Carter, fine.
I like one-room plays, because there’s a pot-boiler feel. They can be done poorly, but my goal is always to wonder and work out “Why can’t these people walk away from each other?” And sometimes, yes, they’re tied to a chair, but sometimes it’s that they need something, that there’s some kind of magnetism holding them there, and that’s great to watch—and comic. I think of the Greeks as well; most of their plays were in one setting too, and a lot happened in that single space.
I like it that you make the stage directions a part of the action, too. The whole play is based on a stage direction, as you’ve said before.
We’ve seen some different and cool versions of that—sometimes projections, sometimes flip boards.
Do you find it hard to let go of your plays, or do you send them off and go on to the next thing?
When it’s the very first or second production, I’m a little more inclined to say, ‘I want to see what you guys do with it,’ and that’s the case here. We’ve had some diverse and wonderful productions of this play, and I’ve been really interested to hear everyone’s take on it. I was able to meet the actors and director [at Circle] via Skype, and they seemed pitch perfect. So, I’m excited and hope I’ll be able to see the production, even if it’s just an in-and-out visit; I have a couple of shows opening in the Bay Area too, so I’m trying to find a way to be in three places at once.
You’ve had productions across the country—but isn’t this North Texas’ first chance to see one of your plays? Kitchen Dog Theater did a reading of Baby M, but other than that…
Yes, it is the first time. And I’ve found there are some Bay Area connections [for me] in Fort Worth, too. I’ve been out here about four years [in San Francisco], and the parents of a musician friend I have here are very involved with Circle Theatre. When the season was announced, they said to her: ‘Wait, don’t you know this girl?’ So it was a kind of lovely, cross-country high-five for everybody.”
The characters in Exit, Pursued by a Bear seem to fit right in here in Texas. They’re from Georgia, but I could see them in a little house out in the cedar scrub country around here, too.
That sounds right!
In fact, I kept hitting Southern references as I read about Bear—that it was like the Dixie Chicks’ song “Goodbye Earl” or Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5. “Why does this kind of revenge comedy seem to have a Southern accent so often?
You know, I think I need to write a thesis on that! I do think it’s something with the Southern sense of humor. There’s a bite to it, a kind of muscularity. It’s not enough for us to just say ‘I know what’s right.’ We say it with some sass. Flannery O’Connor was pretty good at that!
You’re attempting an interesting mash-up here, having to blend really big, out-there comedy and the brutal subject of domestic abuse into something that works onstage.
For this play, the title came to me first, stolen from Shakespeare, of course. And in that title, there is already a sense of humor and a sense of fear battling. The fear is obvious: he’s having a bear chase some guy across the stage. But when we read it now we say: “A bear? Seriously?” So there’s a kind of fierce levity there inherently. I wanted to take that tone and put it into an area I care a lot about [domestic abuse]. I think fear and frustration are immobilizers; they make us stay put. But comedy and humor and wit are the things that catalyze us into motion; they’re very dynamic.
So if fear is a stabilizer and comedy is a de-stabilizer, then I wanted to use this comedic sense to laugh at the idiots, the cruel idiots who create this terrible reality all over the world—and to use references to Shakespeare and theater-in-performance as a way to let these characters throw around great big words like catharsis. Let’s give those words to people we don’t assume we’d have that conversation with—like a 6th grader reading Shakespeare for the first time. But once we read those words, some of us can get so obsessed, so empowered by them.
And that’s Nan—she encounters these words for the first time and says “wait a minute, I can do this! I can change my own story!” And I do think part of my drive to write this was to force a happy ending. I get exhausted by depressing endings that seem to let it all go with saying “well, at least we’re talking about the issue.”
That’s not enough. In theater, we get to choose who wins, and how they survive. And I would humbly say that the activism of the play, if there is any, is that Nan gets out. And writing a story in which this abused woman breaks free and demands not only her freedom, but also the catharsis of her abuser—that’s giving us an example of an ending we can cheer. That’s something I really believe in, and wanted to put onstage—and to have a lot of fun doing it!
Nan does keep finding her own strength and bravery as she goes along. She says herself she’s not either a Thelma or a Louise, but she surprises herself with what she can do.
She’s a lot braver than I would be, certainly. This play takes on something that I am very particularly afraid of, and frustrated by on a global scale—and there are variations on this play that are not at all comedies, that are terribly sad stories. But I thought there was room for a play like this in that discussion. Nan is my personal hero as well.
So how did you come to drag Jimmy Carter into it all? One character quotes him so much she’s called a “Jimmy Carter search engine.”
Oh, Jimmy! I love Jimmy Carter—my dad worked for him at the Carter Center in Atlanta, so I’ve met him a few times. I think he’s a real patriot and at the same time the butt of a lot of jokes. So I thought it would be great to quote somebody who is frequently maligned. For those of us who are confirmed Jimmy Carterians he’s the real deal: he stands up for nature, and human rights, and he’s from Georgia!
Nan talks about wanting to re-populate the world with real “gentlemen” who don’t hit women—and Jimmy Carter seems to be that kind of guy.
I think he is! And you know, we all have those people we overquote on Pinterest and such—she just takes it to an extreme.
It’s hard to drum up much sympathy for Kyle, even when he’s trying to be sweet. Like King Leontes’ in The Winter’s Tale, he is, as you say, one of those “cruel idiots” who don’t value the love they’re given.
It was an interesting part of the process, choosing to make Kyle change, or at least begin to change—we don’t see him carry it all the way. And the most interesting thing happened. Right after one of the first productions, I got an e-mail from a man who had seen the show and found himself walking away and thinking, “I don’t feel like that’s the end of Kyle’s story.” So he actually wrote and sent me a 10-page play about Kyle. He had him do penance, apologize, go to AA with a sponsor, and marry again. So I was delighted to find that Kyle had a future—I’ll take that!
The modern language of the play is sprinkled with Shakespearean and theatrical expressions: “Narrate me unto the breach!” says one character, and Kyle says if he gets loose he’ll “smite” them all. It seems like a great way to keep linking the action back to the idea of theater and Shakespeare and the classical tradition, which makes the story feel bigger, somehow.
I frankly just love language, and love when people resort to high language. Shakespeare does it too; some people get the iambic and some people get the prose, and I kind of like the idea that people you wouldn’t expect will suddenly use it. Bear is rooted in that sort of Southern colloquial speech, but a lot of that is Biblical, of course. I’m sure Kyle would know “smite” from the Bible rather than any other source. He probably got that word bashed into his head when he was a kid.
I have a vision of you wandering the world looking for Shakespeare-connected stories. Does the Shakespeare link or allusion come first, or the story? I know playwrights hate that question.
No, it’s a great question, because it’s so befuddling. It depends on the play in what I’m calling this Shakespeare Cycle. For Bear, the stage direction in The Winter’s Tale came first—but then as I read the play I was looking at the aggression of the king, and his abuse [of wife and children]. And it’s such an odd play: the first half a real tragedy, the second a romantic comedy. So I kind of wanted to throw those genres together and end with a song and a marriage, which in Bear involves friends and karaoke. I picked small elements and just saw where they went.
You don’t have to know The Winter’s Tale to understand what’s happening here, though.
No, you don’t. That’s less true of some of my other plays. Toil and Trouble is pretty much spot-on a skewering of the Macbeth plot—“Really, witches? That’s why you did all this?” It’s a little more on the nose. But I’ve always looked to Shakespeare, especially for a blend of highbrow and lowbrow.
And sometimes we forget how very Jacobean [think Tarantino] he was toward the end of his writing career—lots of violence, some of it very imaginative and disturbing.
Oh, yes—Lear and Winter’s Tale—there are a lot of scary ones in there. I’m trying to figure out if I could do Titus Andronicus in some way. Not for a few plays yet, but we’ll see….
You’ve set some plays—for instance, Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight–in the far past. Does your writing language change a great deal?
There aren’t a lot of “thee’s” and “thou’s” in a play like Emilie [set in 18th century France], though that’s what they would have sounded like. I think anachronisms can be very helpful. The point of the play is to look at what lasts from a person’s life, the spirit of it—so why shouldn’t Emilie speak to us in a way we can understand? That play is actually having an opening in Atlanta in a few days—nice to bring it back home.
You seem to have a lot of balls in the air at one time!
I do. I’m in a bit of a fervent time for writing my plays now, and I think when you feel that, you keep going. You don’t know when it’s going to end.