“A life well lived and a story well told:” An interview with playwright Lauren Gunderson on Shakespeare, legacy and “The Book of Will”
It’s no secret that William Shakespeare is one of the most celebrated writers in the English language. Even 400 years after his death, he reigns as America’s most produced playwright. His work is woven inextricably into our cultural imagination, from invented words and iconic phrases to countless adaptations across literary forms. And, for many contemporary playwrights, Shakespeare remains a deeply vital force inspiring their own work.
One of those playwrights is Lauren Gunderson, America’s most produced living playwright. She’s a prolific writer, an outspoken activist, and the author of the third work to open in this year’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival: “The Book of Will.”
Winner of the 2017 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, “The Book of Will” is one of over two dozen works by Gunderson. She penned “The Book of Will” as a heartfelt exploration not only of Shakespeare’s enduring legacy, but of the art of theatre and the joy of sharing it with others–a kind of storytelling magic that can transcend the centuries.
It’s a theme she’s explored in many of her plays. Gunderson is particularly interested in recognizing ourselves in our history, and she has a passionate belief in the ability of the stories of the past to change our present. Her works are composed of many such tales, from an ode to “mother of the computer” Ada Lovelace to a feminist, political farce based on “The Taming of the Shrew” to the true story of female physicist Émilie du Châtelet in 18th century France.
Crucially, Gunderson uses each of these historical stories to address contemporary issues. Throughout her career, she has used her work to explore topics and to advocate for change around issues such as sexism, political extremism, domestic violence and gun violence.
“I believe that stories well told can accomplish a pretty magical feat: transporting us into the hearts and minds of others,” she told “American Theatre” in 2016. “The communal embrace of theatre was always an ancient way of processing politics, society, and great change. I believe it still is.”
“The Book of Will” takes up this celebration of the power of storytelling and theatre to speak across the ages. Inspired by the true story of the artists and friends who worked to preserve Shakespeare’s works, the play pays tribute to the magic of communities united by belief in the power of art–in many ways, the emotional and thematic core of the Festival this summer.
In honor of CSF’s July 3rd opening of “The Book of Will,” we interviewed Lauren Gunderson about these themes, the legacy of Shakespeare, and the enduring power of theatre to bring us together.
Colorado Shakespeare Festival:
What does the return to live theatre, after the past two years, mean to you?
Theater is a place of connection, immediacy, and intimacy. I treasure it all the more now after what we’ve survived. Coming back to live theater means the rebuilding of congregations and communities that all want to do the radical thing of sharing stories together.
As a playwright, what does it mean to have a legacy?
I like to think of theatre, especially plays about historical subjects, as having the ability of time travel. We get to visit the past and bring it to the future, we get to revisit and re-engage and ask ourselves how we got to where we are. But legacy is more than looking backwards, legacy is taking all of those lessons and wisdoms and revelations and bringing them into the future. That’s what theatre really does: it holds hands with the past and the future at the same time. That’s what I think legacy wants to be.
Why do you think Shakespeare remains as popular as he is today?
Shakespeare is a soul explorer as well as a merriment maker. It’s the highs and lows that keep me coming back to Shakespeare’s work. The incredible high art of his rich philosophy and grippingly human characters, as well as the silliness and spectacle and revelry that satisfies me on a giddy level. As a playwright I admire his dramatic structure and technical storytelling ability so much. The way the plays are built and sustain high stakes and big heart is what has made me a devotee.
If you’d like audiences to take one thing from “The Book of Will,” what would it be?
It would be that we are all made of our words, deeds, and the people we love. That’s what matters, that accomplishes big things. Family is a wide and inclusive word. We are the family we are born with, the ones we choose to love, the people we build things with and we create with. The audience is a play’s family too. All of that makes a life well lived and a story well told.
Join us at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre for “The Book of Will,” running July 2nd through August 6th. Tickets available at now at cupresents.org.
Photograph of Lauren by Bryan Derballa.