NEW YORK — Lauren Gunderson is such a rare theatrical talent, you might be tempted to approach her very quietly, so as not to frighten her away.
“Indeed. Be careful. I might disappear,” she says, conspiratorially.
Gunderson is a young female playwright, which is special enough. She’s also prolific and has produced across the country. Plus, she loves writing complex characters for women. Can she really exist?
“I think I do. But this might be ‘The Matrix,’ so you never know.”
The San Francisco-based playwright, who recently won a Dramatist Guild of America award, is lately enjoying a wave of interest, with her plays being produced in New York, Cincinnati and Denver this month alone.
“I love stories that move, where there’s energy and wit and a little romance,” she says in the lobby of 5959 Theaters, where her two-character “I & You” is playing. “I write plays I want to see.”
Born in Atlanta, this one-time actress turned to writing after being frustrated by the lack of good female roles. At 15, she penned her first play, “Parts They Call Deep,” about three women in a Winnebago.
Later, always drawn to discoverers and explorers, she wrote plays about trailblazing but forgotten women in history like Victorian computer visionary Ada Lovelace, Age of Enlightenment physicist Emilie du Chatelet and early 20th-century astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt.
Gunderson, 33, said she looks for the inherent drama in key moments in history, what she calls “moments of decision.” It could be when two people meet or a sudden realization.
“In a lot of my plays, what makes science so great for theater is it’s about these moments of great change, great discovery. And that’s true in ‘Oedipus Rex’ and ‘Hamlet’ — these moments when you know something you can’t unknow.”
Gunderson’s output is so well received that she landed in the top 10 of American Theatre magazine’s most produced playwrights this season with 13 shows, three more than Eugene O’Neill.
She writes at a time when very few new produced plays are written by women.
Statistics released last year by the Dramatists Guild of America and the Lilly Awards found that only 22 percent of some 2,500 contemporary theater productions from 2011-14 were written by women.
“I think it’s just a bit of fear and a lot of traditionalism that leads to people making safe choices. I mean, that’s what it is, right? It’s safe,” she said. Changing it is as simple as women producers: “It’s actually not that hard. Just do it.”
Suzy Evans, senior editor of American Theatre magazine, said she admires Gunderson’s ability to create works that have an educational component and also spotlight lost contributions by women.
“In the same way people are so excited about ‘Hamilton’ on Broadway and how Lin-Manuel Miranda is reclaiming the founding of America for immigrants and for people of color, Lauren is reclaiming history and scientific narratives, that have been mainly the story of men, for young women and for women across the country.”
This month, Gunderson’s many interests are on show. In New York is “I & You,” her play with a twist about two young people wrestling with Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
At the Cincinnati Playhouse is the world premiere of “The Revolutionists,” a play about four women during the French Revolution.
And her next one is “The Book of Will,” focusing on Shakespeare’s friends who collected his plays and preserved his legacy, which is being fine-tuned at the Colorado New Play Summit.
Gunderson is doing all that while also being a new mom to an 18-month-old son, which is already making her explore ideas about childhood, legacy and mortality, all likely grist for her next plays.
“It’s a really interesting time for me, just all the living that one does in between writing,” she said, laughing. “You definitely have to live to write but writing also reminds you to live.”