An Interview with Lauren Gunderson, Playwright of I and You
By Brooke Owens
BO: As an Atlanta native, how does it feel coming back home to see your work?
LG: It’s an incredible honor and particular joy to come back to the Atlanta area. It really was responsible for me discovering theatre as an actor before I was a writer. It helped me discover how to love theatre and how theatre changes me and an audience. Atlanta theatre is in my blood. Even though I live and work in California and New York, I feel like I’m not ever far from the South as a writer. It’s an incredible lineage to be a part of. Southern writers, in particular, Southern female writers, are so feisty and so full of story and cleverness. A lot of what I write about is set in the South or has a southern flavor so I feel more like an ex-pat than anything else. I And You is technically set in Atlanta so this play in particular is special to have brought back home.
BO: How did growing up here influence you as a playwright?
LG: I’m such a proud Southerner. What it teaches you right away is human complexity, especially growing up in Atlanta. Everything it has endured in the last few hundred years, especially with the Civil Rights movement, has never been far from my mind. Even as a kindergartener, I remember thinking about the consequence and responsibility of being a part of this society. I still feel deeply all of the Southern complexities, stereotypes and charm when I write. One of the biggest things is the inherent humor of the South which I love, and when I’m trying to craft a play two things I look for are pacing and wit. The way our accent turns and dives in the South makes one very aware of language. Essentially, the South has its politics, its humanity, and its dark side, and all of those are very present in I And You.
BO: What inspired you to write this story now?
LG: I believe that great art connects. I think Walt Whitman is one of the very best at this, not just the way he says it but in how he presents his democracy, accessibility and the grand wildness and defiance of rules. I think it definitely started with Whitman and he became this incredible frame to hang the story of these two kids that don’t realize how connected they are. That’s never a bad lesson to learn—that we’re a lot more connected to each other than we ever thought. The heroism of the play is that connectivity. Anthony’s character’s really insists on it and it feels like Caroline finally understands that at the end. She sees unity and hope in places she never saw before, including herself.
BO: Why is diverse casting critical to producing I And You?
LG: I think that’s a sort of subtlety in the production and I think it makes their connection more profound. I wrote this, the earlier draft, before the case of Trayvon Martin and all of these horrific killings of young black men so it became even more important to me to write Anthony as the most lovable, honest and complex character on stage. I would call it minor activism on my part. Politically, we’re more alike than we are different and it reminds people we’re all better together rather than assuming things about each other. But also, theatrically, we see a lot of plays with all white casts or we assume a character is white and I don’t think that’s an assumption that’s relevant or appropriate anymore for American theatre. There have been a few exceptions, where some schools have asked for both characters to be the same race or I’ve been delighted when they’ve asked to switch it up and Caroline is African American and Anthony is Japanese American which I think makes theatre more relevant and more democratic. It does a subtle work on our consciousness as we watch these two smart vulnerable kids create hope and a future. I think when we have more colorful casts it’s better for our souls.
BO: How do you see audiences here connecting to the story of these two teenagers?
LG: Hopefully it’s a journey for everybody. You may have judgements or opinions as you start but, as the play works on you, hopefully you’ll come to a different point of view. One thing I do love about this story is it does some interesting work in bringing different age groups together and letting theatre not just tell stories of people over 30. It shows the relationship between a person and their faith, literature and even their own mortality which are things we’re all thinking of so we can all be part of the conversation. I also hope it’ll bring some young people into the theatre that haven’t been there before. Some of the best compliments for this play have been young people coming to see the show on a school matinee and then they come back with their parents. Every play is a great opportunity to have a conversation with someone that’s in that situation and hopefully this play gives everyone a lot to talk about regardless of their job, age or cultural background.