In one extraordinary scene, actor Jennifer Le Blanc stopped the show—in the best possible way. The play was Lauren Gunderson’s By and By, a science fiction–tinged drama premiering at Shotgun Players in Berkeley, Calif. Le Blanc was playing the teenage daughter of a genetic scientist who may have stumbled upon the secret to successful cloning. Then, toward the end of the play, Le Blanc segued into a second character, simultaneously playing the daughter and the deceased woman from who she was cloned.
“I had written a monologue for that scene, but it didn’t really begin to take shape until Jenn started improvising with it in rehearsal,” Gunderson says on the phone from her San Francisco home. “She made it work. Frankly, having an actor smart and brave enough to embrace the theatricality of it without losing the humanity is what gave the scene its heart. It takes great craft to be that physically precise and not make it look that precise—to be the thing and be above the thing.
“Jenn is just so lovely and so nice,” Gunderson adds, “but she comes to rehearsal, and she’s ready and aware and vigilant.”
Le Blanc, who had known Gunderson socially in the Bay Area theatre scene before working with her on By and Bylast June, came to the project already thinking similarly effusive things about the playwright. “She’s awesome—she writes about things I love,” Le Blanc says from her home in Oakland. “I’m a big Shakespeare nerd, and I’m interested in new plays. Lauren writes new plays inspired by Shakespeare! Then add in her scientific curiosity, her amazing characters based on women from history and her strong women’s parts. Game over. And she’s so funny—working on that final scene with her and [director] Mina Morita, we would laugh about writing parodies of ‘Send in the Clones’ or something. If you’re about to do a really hard scene, it’s great to be with someone who can be funny. We’re both intellectually curious, and we’re both big laughers.”
From the first moments of her By and By audition, Le Blanc says she could sense that she and Gunderson would be a good fit. “At the audition Lauren was this beaming, friendly presence with everyone, just so actively engaged,” Le Blanc says. “It was impossible to be nervous with Lauren sitting across the table, willing you to do well. I wanted to ask her if she’d come with me to all my auditions.” Gunderson recalls that audition as well. “We had so much good talent come into that room, but with Jenn, there was this beautifully open heart. She doesn’t lead with diva. She leads with undeniable talent. You could tell she was thinking faster than anyone in the room. She didn’t tell me until two weeks into rehearsals that she was, for a while, a biochemistry major. How incredibly perfect is that for a play about human cloning?”
Now that Gunderson and Le Blanc have formed a solid writer-actor bond, Gunderson has said, only half-joking, that she wants Le Blanc “in everything of mine, if I can help it.” With four (count ’em, four!) productions by Gunderson coming up this season in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was inevitable that the writer and the actor would have an opportunity to work together again. It won’t be in The Taming, Gunderson’s riff on The Taming of the Shrew for San Francisco’s Crowded Fire Theater in October; nor will it be in her I and You, a Whitman-inspired drama for Marin Theatre Company, also in October; and it won’t happen next March for San Francisco Playhouse’s Bauer, about painter Rudolf Bauer.
The reunion will occur on the occasion of Silent Sky, slated for Palo Alto–based TheatreWorks in January. Le Blanc will play the older sister of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt in Gunderson’s dramatic blend of science, history and romance. “While By and By was very contemporary, Silent Sky has a classicism to it, a historical poise, so you have to have something traditional about you to play the role of a traditional older sister 100 years ago,” Gunderson says. “Jenn can bring a sense of humor to this play, which is neither too modern nor too classic.”
What could be a mousy, motherly role of an older sister trying to take care of a rogue younger sister becomes, in Gunderson’s hands, something more, according to Le Blanc.
“This role, Margaret, could be a real Debbie Downer part, but Lauren lets her be a little bit sassy,” Le Blanc reports. “While Henrietta is gazing up at the stars, Margaret is more grounded. The play has all the things I love onstage: heightened language, period costumes, strong women, great humor, great love and passion. Even amid all the scientific curiosity, you never lose the heart. Your brain is activated, but your heart is always involved.”
Though she wrote Silent Sky before she had worked with Le Blanc, the rewriting process has allowed Gunderson to shape the role with the actor in mind. She has taken Margaret to the edge of open emotionality, the writer says, and she trusts that Le Blanc will know just when to pull back.
“I know she won’t lurch into melodrama,” Gunderson says, “but you find so much emotional truth right before you get there. There’s a delicate strength that Jenn has that walks the line. We see what she feels without her having to beat her chest and wail. That’s important for Silent Sky, which is a play that’s funny but isn’t a comedy. She can do that so well—be the kind of funny you are around your friends.”
Gunderson writes strong female characters. “I don’t want to watch plays about weak women being weak or strong women being weak,” the playwright explains. “You have to have strength that can be vulnerable. That’s what we saw in Jenn in By and By.”
Over the summer, Le Blanc played Kate in the Livermore Shakespeare Festival’s Taming of the Shrew amid the vineyards of San Francisco’s East Bay, and before she heads into rehearsals for Silent Sky, she’ll be working with the San Francisco–based Arabian Shakespeare Festival on A Message by Kuwaiti playwright Hussain Al Musalam.
Now that she’s fully immersed in Gunderson’s world, Le Blanc allows herself a moment to think about the kind of dream role she’d like Gunderson to create for her.
“I love her historical women,” Le Blanc proffers. “She captures women from a different era and makes them completely relatable to the modern mind. My dream role would be like that, a woman from history brought to life by Lauren, shown in all her passionate glory.”
Gunderson reiterates that she wouldn’t mind having Le Blanc act in everything she writes. “A relationship like this just builds and builds, because it’s based on trust,” the playwright says. “It’s what I feel with Jenn, and it’s what I feel in the Bay Area theatre community. I wake up and go, ‘I’m a lucky playwright right now.’ It’s a big thing to feel the trust that I feel here.”
Chad Jones is a San Francisco–based freelance writer who blogs at www.theaterdogs.net.