Winner of the 2014 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award Winner and finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Playwrighting Prize, I AND YOU is a haunting play about the strange and transcendent connections between us all.

On Insisting That I AND YOU is Cast With Diversity

This is the character description at the very beginning of I and You:

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Cast of Characters

ANTHONY, a boy, 17. He is neat, poised, mature for his age. African-American. He’s an “a” student, a team player, a nice guy. He’s not really great around girls. he takes his homework very seriously. when he likes something (jazz music) he is all in. Throughout the whole play he looks at Caroline like he’s trying to figure her out. Like he really needs to know who she is.

CAROLINE, a girl, 17. She is in comfy clothing, she does not expect company, she is sick but mainly just looks a little weak and frumpy. She doesn’t go out. She is cynical, over it, does not let a stray “feeling” near the surface. White.

Casting Note

The race of each character can be altered. The only essentiality is that the characters not be the same race.

I’ve had a few casting directors and AD’s ask about that italicized note at the bottom. "The only essentiality is that the characters not be the same race.”

Why insist on diversity?

1) It’s Exactly What I Saw As I Was Writing

In my mind, Anthony was a young black man and Caroline was white. It mirrored the high school and middle school reality I grew up in in Atlanta, GA. Simple as that. The setting of the play reflects this when it says:

SETTING: Now. In your city (I imagine Atlanta, GA)

Regionalism and specificity of place were not that important to exhibit in this play for me. But it’s always helpful to know exactly what the writer envisioned (if anything) as she was writing.  

2) It’s More Interesting

I’m desperate for plays that are written with and for internal diversity. I think we all often see season planning that offers a lot of shows with all-white casts, and then one play all African-American or All-Asian-American, or Latino/a cast. I want to see plays where more of us inhabit the same play, the same story. My friends are varied and I’m sure yours are too. 

I’m not talking about blind casting, which is needed and beneficial and fabulous. I’m talking about writing plays with the specific intention for diversity onstage. It was important to me that this play do that. So I insisted.

3) There’s a Deeper Meaning

The entire point of this play and the Whitman poetry it’s characters reference is unity, democracy, one-ness. Just having two actors of different racial backgrounds onstage together is part of telling that story. It’s become a silent, visual sub story of a play that’s all about connection and communion. And after one sees the play, there might be a even deeper discussion of the final meaning.

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What’s Next?

Thus far every production has had the original racial breakdown that I indicated: white girl, black boy. It’s worked beautifully in four cities and counting. But I must admit that I’m looking forward to productions that switches it up based on their community’s cultural breakdown. A Japanese Caroline and a Latino Anthony? A Persian Caroline and an Israeli Anthony? How can this play present a bridge or challenge or possibility, just by who the audience sees telling them the story?

I hope the casting iterations add to the play’s reflection of whatever community this play finds itself in. I hope it provokes a conversation that might not have happened otherwise (I and You was a part of Geva Theatre post show series about race). And I hope the casting continues to help the play unpack it’s message of ultimate human solidarity.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the granddaddy of American poetry; the gray ghost; the big thumper; the barbarian’s text with its barbaric yawp; the nation’s first truly great mega biblion; the Kosmos; the Civil War witness; the seaside songbook; the irreverent hymnal; the book of the lover; the book of the loafer; the peacemaker; Leaves of Grass.”

More here

Hello my name is Lauren and I am a playwright and you are room full of critics and that is not awkward at all.
-

Perspectives in Criticism talk, the 33rd in a series that began in 1992.
By Lauren Gunderson, playwright

For the ATCA National Conference at the Humana Festival, April 3, 2014

Read the full text here

Great pix from Phoenix Theatre's production of I And You starring Katherine Shelton and Eli Curry (photos by Zach Rosing), directed by Martha Jacobs.

 

On Rolling Premieres & Only Reading Good Reviews

This has been a great week. 

I And You just opened at Olney Theatrea day after it became one of 6 finalists for the prestigious Steinberg/ ATCA New American Play Award. It was earlier this month announced that the play is also a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, which honors women playwrights writing in the english language. I am overwhelmed and in flight with pride at both of these accolades. What a  group of writers to join. Those that have won these awards and been finalists represent the best writers in the english language writing plays. It’s a dream to be in their company. Especially for this play, which is small and magical and means so much to me. 

This news does bring up two things of note that, I do hope, will not sound piqued or over-proud. But here is what I thought of upon hearing this great news: 

- Thank god for rolling world premieres

- Thank god that, when I do glance at reviews, I only read the good ones 

The second could sound self-important or denialist. But really, it’s a protective measure that buffers my artistic intension from the elements.

Simply put, if I And You had had only it’s first production in place when it was reviewed it might have died right then and there. We had marvelously supportive responses from half the critics in the Bay (“a thought-provoking surprise!” “A magnificent coup de theatre!”), and unimpressed “meh” responses from the others, (I didn’t read the “mehs” because of the aforementioned buffering strategy). Our biggest critic was in the latter “meh” camp, and because of the prestige of his paper and the weight of his verdict, I’m sure some out of town folks would have googled my play, read that review, and dismissed the play outright. We know that happens. 

This is where rolling world premieres come in and save the day.

My play was lucky.  It started it’s journey as a National New Play Network rolling world premiere heading to four cities from the outset (Marin Theatre, Olney Theatre, Geva Theatre, and Phoenix Theatre). That means that no matter what critical response our play got the first time (or second or third), we have built-in support for the play’s life. It is protected from immediate judgement and allowed to grow and learn from the hard work and deep lessons learned from any production. I’ve done a lot of rewriting based on the moving production of  I And You at Marin Theatre (the exciting discoveries we’ve made through the process as well as the ideas for improvement in between productions). Even when the play sings and everyone loves it you’re still learning, tweaking, bettering. (We made cuts the day before they opened at Olney). That’s what new plays need. 

So what do we learn?

1) Trust the theatre company and don’t base your non-attendance on bad reviews.

If you like a theatre company, the actors, the playwright, then trust them and check out the play. You may agree with the reviewer, but you may not. Howlround posted an informal study suggesting that theatre audiences only agree with reviewers half the time. So don’t miss out. Don’t punish theatre companies for taking aesthetic or narrative or programming risks. Make up your own mind. That’s what keeps theatre urgent and exciting. 

2) Rolling world premieres saves lives. 

This is the most exciting trend in American theatre as far as I’m concerned. It aligns theatre companies of all sizes and budgets across the country, it shares resources, it add momentum to new work, it allows for growth and real art-making, it builds community, it sounds awesome to funders, it supports playwrights…

It’s the real deal of new play development. 

3) Perhaps every review should start with “In my opinion…”.

There’s a character of a judge in lawyer TV show The Good Wife who insists that lawyers in her courtroom never make claims without saying “in my opinion.” The lawyers are annoyed by this because she will correct them every single time: “In your opinion, the defendant intended to harm the victim…”. I like this judge.  

For theatre reviews some might say that “in my opinion” is assumed by the context of it being a review. It is not a fact that the play was good or bad, boring or electric, moving or aggravating. It’s an opinion. An aesthetic, emotional, personal opinion. And opinions are complex things that come from conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, taste, and history. 

And if we treat reviews like gladiatorial thumbs-up and thumbs-downs, audiences might miss meaningful stories that could matter to them, and plays might be beheaded before their time.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a personal statement from each reviewer accompany their reviews? A personal declaration of what they think theatre is at its best? That would certainly add context. In my opinion. 

4) Read the Play, Not the Reviews. 

I’m going to stop reading reviews of anyone’s play that I haven’t seen. It’s unfair to judge a play on it’s bad reviews. We all know it’s unfair. We all know that it sometimes feels like a roll of the die if you get a rave or a pan, or that the taste of the reviewer and the taste of the artists diverge which doesn’t mean one or the other is right or wrong. So I will read the plays and experience them in my own way. 

5) Find Your People and Listen to Them

Find the people who get what you’re trying to do. Theirs are opinions that matter. My mom is one of them, so is my husband. Both of them, while nowhere near “theatre people,” always articulate the one thing that could clarify the story. 

Steve Yockey is one of them, my best friend and one of the best playwrights I know. He’s a nerd for dramatic structure like I am and I trust everything he says. 

Dramaturges and directors (Margot Melcon, Meredith McDonough, Marissa Wolf, Madeline Oldham, Mina Morita, Rachel May) who I trust are on my list, so are actors and designers. So are a few key theatre fans who see everything. Chad Jones, a critic in the Bay, is one of them as he and I really connect to the same ideas about theatre. Those are the reviews I embrace because I want to grow the play through discussion and conversation. 

The critics from ATCA who have given me the honor of a nomination for the Steinberg are on that list now too. I very much look forward to conversing with them in the future.  

6) Life’s too short (and art’s too hard) to feel like crap

I don’t subscribe to the philosophy of “if you believe the good reviews you have to believe the bad ones.” Nope. Untrue. You trust your instincts as an artists. If you don’t you’re rudderless. So only good news or no news, please. Playwriting can be a long, slow, fickle, barely sustainable slog. And that’s before you get a production. I say, whatever keeps you going and keeps you positive is what you should be doing. Confidence is bliss. 

If you get a rave? Blast it to out the universe. Yay, theatre! Yay plays! Nice things being said about new plays! Let’s make more plays! Yeah!

If you get a pan? Don’t read it. Buy yourself a Manhattan and/or a manicure, toast your resilience, and don’t read it. 

Because maybe you’ll be lucky and have someone read the play on it’s own. And maybe it will move them on it’s own steam. And maybe it will make them think and feel. And maybe they’ll tell their friends. And maybe your play will see the beginning of a long and diverse life it might just deserve. 

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This is an extraordinary production of I And You now running at Olney Theatre.  

Pictured are Rachel Tice and Thaddeus Fitzpatrick, who are athletes of the stage for their emotionally symphonic performance every damn night. 

I am so proud and so grateful for theirs and all the artists work on this production. 

TEAM YAWP. 

Photos by Stan Barouh