The play, which gets a digital world premiere from Jan. 26 through Feb. 28, originated from playwright Lauren Gunderson’s realization that she was “waking up every day next to someone who specializes in pandemics when we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”

PictureNathan Wolfe on the cover of the July 2020 issue of Wired magazine. Photo by Christie Hmmm Klok.

In mid-2020, as Mill Valley and, well, everywhere was experiencing a summer surge in COVID-19 cases, Wired magazine told the fascinating tale of Nathan Wolfe, a virologist who’d established a “research center to identify and study viruses as they crossed over from wild animals into humans,” allowing the scientific community to understand what he called the “viral chatter” that would make it possible to not only “react more quickly to outbreaks but to forecast their arrival and stop them before they spread.

“It’s really a 100-year thing,” he told the magazine’s Evan Ratliff about a global pandemic, and how history would judge humanity’s efforts to prepare for it. His biggest fear, he said, was a virus unknown to human immune defenses starting a human-to-human transmission chain that would encircle the globe.”

In case you haven’t been keeping up on current events, that’s coronavirus.

Marin Theatre Company Playwright in Residence Lauren Gunderson “did not have to go far to find inspiration for her latest play,” reports the New York Times, as she has been married to Wolfe for nearly a decade. Amidst the pandemic, Gunderson recorded their conversations about Wolfe’s work. The transcripts of those conversations are the basis of The Catastrophist, her new solo play, directed by MTC Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis, that was filmed on the MTC stage and gets its digital world premiere from Jan. 26 through Feb. 28,co-produced by MTC and Round House Theatre in Maryland.

When Minadakis first asked Gunderson “if she was interested in writing a play about (Wolfe), she was adamant — no,” reports the Marin Independent Journal‘s Vicki Larson. But amidst the pandemic, “what kind of changed my mind was really seeing him in this context, waking up every day next to someone who specializes in pandemics when we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Gunderson told the IJ. “Every play is about people, and this is a person I know very, very well and love very much, so I can translate that kind of intimate knowledge into a play.”


“I can only imagine how frustrating it is to be the person saying, ‘watch out for the tidal wave, watch out for the tidal wave’ and then the tidal wave comes and then everyone says, ‘how were we not prepared?'” Gunderson told the IJ. “One of the decisions that led me to say, OK, I can actually write this is deciding that it is not set now, it’s set in 2016 so it’s not about COVID. I think it makes Nathan’s passion more powerful when it’s not saying, ‘As you can see today I was very right.’ The character does not know what’s coming. And yet, he does know.”

The team filmed the play on the MTC stage in December. William DeMeritt, a Shakespeare specialist whom Gunderson recruited to play Wolfe, flew in from New York and stayed in a mother-in-law unit owned by one of MTC’s patrons. The crew, according to the Times, included “a woman whose job was to make sure the director stayed socially distanced from the camera operators; to provide hand sanitizer, gloves and other protective equipment; and to administer coronavirus tests. The tests were so expensive that the crew was forced to cut the filming from two weeks to one.”

“We were all building the boat as we were sailing it,” Gunderson said.

DeMeritt, who in pre-pandemic days had roles in Shakespeare in Love, The Merry Wives of Windsor and a handful of television shows, told the Times he hopes the production inspires an industry that has been walloped by the virus. Anything, he said, to help theater survive the pandemic.

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