Recently, I had the pleasure of talking about the new play I and You by Lauren Gunderson, having its New York premiere Off Broadway at 59E59, and the process of developing new work with theater director Sean Daniels. A few days later, I had the good fortune to speak via phone to Ms. Gunderson from her home in San Francisco. An award-winning playwright whose plays are regularly produced regionally, Ms. Gunderson exudes a joie de vivre for all things theatrical and possesses a delightful laugh! With clarity, passion and humor Ms. Gunderson answered some of the same questions I had asked Mr. Daniels, but from the playwright’s perspective. It’s easy to see why she and Mr. Daniels continue to create such terrific theater together.
How did I and You end up at Merrimack Rep?
Basically I’ve been talking about this play for a while and Sean is one of my top five…top three…top two directors that I love working with for a number of reasons. We’ve known each other forever and so when I have a play that feels really right for him certainly I share it, even an early, early draft. And when Sean became the Artistic Director of Merrimack Repertory Theater and was planning his season he reached out to me right away and said he wanted to put I and You on the season and of course I said yes, yes, yes!
What was the spark of inspiration for I and You, if you can tell me without spoilers?
It’s hard because I do start my plays at the endings. So to be totally honest with the question, I’d probably give a lot of stuff away, so I won’t. I’ll erase some of my answer. I had a wonderful conversation with my manager Corinne Hayoun, who is a wonderful theater fan and professional and just smart all around. And after a few of my history plays were done, she was curious about what I’d do with a really contemporary story. She wasn’t saying you need to write this, but I loved the challenge. So I let my mind wonder….what is a contemporary, really producible, really fresh story that still is as theatrical, effervescent and wild as some of my other elaborate or historical plays. I really wanted to find a way to do something magical but in a really small container. So that is how the idea of I and You started, the intimacy of it, the microcosm and putting only two people in it. It felt like a challenge and it really was. Two handers are harder than twenty handers! Keeping everything going. So I and You kind of came out of that personal challenge of how to do something big in a small way…or seemingly small and to write authentically and with humor and with a kind of profundity that you don’t really know is happening till it happens!
Well, thank you. That means a lot.
In bringing I and You to fullness, what did you feel you needed from your director Sean Daniels?
Humor and the humanity that humor brings to a character. I think Sean is one of my favorite directors and one of the best directors working in American theater right now, particularly because he knows how to be funny without pushing. And I think humor isn’t sparkles and one liners and entertainment, it really is how we show our vulnerability, it’s how we show our strengths, how we introduce ourselves, how we get to know each other, how we fall in love with each other, you know it’s so much more than just a punch line. It really is one of the distinctive things about human beings, the fact that we laugh and can make each other laugh. All of my plays are deeply infused with humor, even the ones that you would categorize as drama. And Sean can handle that. Especially for this play. It’s a play about a sick girl, like how funny can that be. (Laughs) Very, actually, if you let it. He really understands that in a way that I find not just charming but human and deeply affecting. And he always surprises me. Whether it’s a design surprise or a kind of musicality he put in somewhere or just the lovely turns and twists that he pulls out of the story.
Well, I’ll just say again, mission accomplished. When I saw the play everything you just said is there in droves and worked with the story beautifully!
Good! Sean and I also share a love for stories of awkward romance. We just find it so funny and over and over again in a lot of projects we’ve worked together on, we’ve managed to bring out the most awkward a character can be. I take great pride in that! And I’m sure he would take great pride in it as well!
Did you come up against any writing challenges using excerpts from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass?
That’s a great question. I don’t know if they were challenges, more inspiration really. You have to find the way to have the poetry be its best self. Luckily with Whitman, like with Shakespeare there is a verbosity to it, it demands to be read out loud because it is so lyrical and so speakable. I guess the challenge was setting up the characters to jump into the poetry and then come back out into teenagers speaking. It’s the contrast of American teenage speech with the flowing lyricism of Whitman. I think the way it works is when the characters can’t say what they want to say with their own language they can use Whitman. So there’s a lot of that throughout the play as they are getting closer and closer to each other; Whitman kind of substitutes for somebody just coming out and saying what they honestly feel. For me, it added a lovely layer to the characters’ journeys.
Was it always Walt Whitman?
Yes, partly because he’s my favorite and because when I was a teenager that’s what I read and what really shook me, reading it. I mean you could have had Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost but Whitman….there’s such spark, and sexuality and rage and rebellion to his language that it felt really right to go there.
What three things are needed for the healthy development of a new work?
Trust is the best and most important thing. So trust is first and then -- I don’t know if this number 2 or number 1.5 -- but next it really is these long standing relationships and not just with the directors but with the actors too. Because certainly, for me, I find there are actors that know my rhythms, know my sense of humor, know how I write and the punctuation that I use and it just makes very quick work in getting to the point to where I can really hear what’s on the page and see if it’s any good. So skipping over all the introductions leads to quick, efficient and really I think effective work. But trust goes beyond whatever relationship you have and it really allows for art to experiment. If you don’t have trust, it’s hard to take risks, it’s hard to be brave and it’s hard to be funny. I don’t know the third thing…..maybe lots and lots paper…..I need a lot of post-it notes!
What three things squash the healthy development of a new work?
Pridefulness in the room, that kind that makes what is a very collective activity one person’s platform, does not work at all. It’s quite stifling and quite not the point of theater. I think another thing is going too fast. Trying to do a lot in 6 months or a year. You need to let a play steep and walk away from it and come back to it with fresh eyes and that just takes time. And unpleasantness. I was asked once, “How do you succeed in American theater?”, or something like that. And I think you have to do good work but you also can be nice. There’s just no reason not to be nice! We’re all making plays, we’re making things up, we’re in the arts, what’s there to complain about, this is great news. Being kind and respectful certainly doesn’t hurt.
Do you have any thoughts about gender parity solutions in the American Theater?
Yeah! I think just do more plays by woman! It’s really kind of that simple. Admitting that women are funny and smart and flawed and full of every bit of joy and beauty and evil as men are. Every version of a male story can be a female story as well. Commission those plays, produce them, go to see them, demand them. I think we’re at a tipping point but we don’t need to back up now!
When you are not working on writing a new play, what do you do to foster your own creativity that then helps you be a better playwright? Besides being a mom, which is its own creativity!
The thing that always works to inspire me is going to see a different kind of art. Paintings, jazz music, dance, that always triggers something thoughtful and excited in me. I always go back to the page invigorated. As a new mom, it’s a little bit hard to get to the museum! (Laughs) I read a lot of nonfiction, I don’t read much fiction. So I read biographies and history books and science books. It’s dangerous! Because every time I pick one up I start writing a play about whatever the subject is! (Laughs) So I have to be careful which book I pick up!
If you could go back in time and have dinner with a deceased playwright from any time period and any place in the world, who might that be, what might you talk about and what would you have for dinner?
It’s hard not to say anyone but William Shakespeare! But besides the obvious, I would go with Aphra Behn who is of the same era. I would love to have them both over. I’m zooming back to sixteen-something… I would just have a dinner party with both Aphra and Will! I think I would talk…..oh man, so many questions for both of them. I mean I would talk about the same things that we talk to playwrights now about. What’s your favorite thing to write, what’s the hardest thing, what’s your process, how do you work with actors and what’s your favorite joke? Yeah, that’s the icebreaker question….tell me a joke William Shakespeare, tell me a joke! What would we have for dinner? Well I’m a vegetarian, so I probably wouldn’t have anything to eat in Elizabethan England….probably potatoes. (Laughs) And lots of mead and wine!
Mead and potatoes, with Will and Aphra! A great combination! Lauren, is there anything else you’d like to add?
I want to say that Sean’s production of I and You even surprised me and I certainly knew what was coming. And the actors! He really brought out the best in them, which made me laugh in new places and that’s always the best compliment!
Performances of I and You continue at 59E59 Theaters through February 28.