Local playwright Lauren Gunderson has written a new one-man play about "virus hunter" Nathan Wolfe and his prognostications about the economic impact of a pandemic before this one began. And now it's set to premiere virtually via the Marin Theatre Company this month.
Gunderson, whose one-woman show Natural Shocks has been available to hear a radio play via Marin Theatre Company after its in-person premiere was canceled due to the pandemic last March, is actually married to Wolfe, and she says it hadn't occurred to her to write a play about him or his work until recently, for obvious reasons.
And while her new play The Catastrophist is not about COVID-19, it is about pandemics and how our contemporary, connected society can prepare for them — and how Wolfe has been warning people for years about what would happen if a global pandemic reared its ugly head.
"When the reality sunk in that we would not be in theatres in 2020, Lauren and I began discussing projects that could live between the worlds of theatre and film in a virtual space, and The Catastrophist went straight into development as a new commission," says Marin Theatre Company Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis. Calling it "a work of great intimacy and immediacy," Minadakis says The Catastrophist "is like nothing Lauren has attempted before, a startling portrait of one of our most important scientific thinkers."
Dr. Wolfe is an award-winning virologist who has done important work during previous epidemics like the swine flu and Ebola. He's been published well over 100 times in prestigious scientific publications, and in 2011, he was named as one of the hundred most influential people in the world by Time magazine. Popular Science also recognized him as one of their "Brilliant 10" in 2006. Back in April, he wrote a piece for Time discussing the steps that world leaders must take to prevent or limit future pandemics.
"Two profoundly different possible futures are available to us: one in which we stick our heads in the sand as we have consistently done, and one where humanity takes the hard, necessary steps to protect itself," Wolfe wrote, noting that had this pandemic occurred just 20 years earlier, the picture on the ground with limited internet, limited delivery infrastructure, and less diagnostic and vaccine development capability would have been far different.
That Gunderson is so closely related to her subject presented special challenges, but also a terrific boon for her research.
"You think you know your partner of a decade. And then you attempt to write a play about them," Gunderson says. "When Jasson Minadakis posed the idea of writing a new play about my husband, I initially rejected it. But the idea started to make more and more sense. Of course, I told Nathan what I was writing and asked his permission, but I didn’t let him read it or see it until the very first rehearsal with our brilliant actor, Bill DeMerritt (HBO's The Normal Heart, The Flight Attendant)."
The Catastrophist, a co-production with Round House Theatre, is being filmed on stage at Marin Theatre Company's Boyer Theatre, and it will be available for streaming from January 26 to February 28, 2021 via the company's website.
Gunderson said that her husband was deeply moved seeing himself portrayed on stage, and he also offered some "notes on the science" after getting to be its first audience.
"He laughed. He cried," Gunderson says. "This play was both the hardest play I've ever written and the most meaningful. What a joy to share it so widely so soon."
Marin Theatre Company is one of several Bay Area groups that have turned to streaming and radio plays to try to keep their audiences engaged and their companies employed. Tickets for The Catastrophist are $30, with discounts available for subscribers. And viewing begins on January 26.
Photo courtesy of Marin Theatre Company