When Lauren Gunderson was 16, she wrote Margaret Edson a fan letter on the occasion of Edson’s Pulitzer Prize win for Wit. Since they both lived in Atlanta, Edson invited Gunderson to tea, and they have been friends ever since. Edson and Gunderson spoke by phone in early May. The full text of Gunderson’s play I and You, about two teenagers who bond over a Walt Whitman homework assignment, appears in full in the July/August 2014 print issue of American Theatre (along with an edited version of this interview).
MARGARET EDSON: How did you find out you were a Susan Smith Blackburn finalist?
LAUREN GUNDERSON: Well, it was a little bit twisty, because for some reason they couldn’t find my e-mail address, so somebody I didn’t know was trying to contact me through Facebook, which always creeps me out a little bit—not that it happens that much. You know, I’m not that much of a draw.
It’s going to happen more after this interview, trust me.
So I got this crazy message, and I didn’t read it for weeks, and then finally I read it and it said, “Hey, you’re a finalist. Please give us your e-mail so we can talk to you about it.” So I’m glad I checked it. That’s a huge, huge, huge thing for me—probably one of the biggest things that’s happened, partly because I’ve known about that award since I was a baby playwright. That was one of the few awards that I thought, “Great people win that award.”
Are you an organ donor?
If you’re reading this interview and you’re not an organ donor, you should stop reading and go sign up right away. Is this your first play featuring Pop-Tarts?
Indeed it is, yes. Although I have been a fan of Pop-Tarts for many years now.
Any kind? Are you promiscuous in that way, or just do you just like the brown sugar and cinnamon?
Oh, no—sorry, we might have to disagree. I’m more into the fruit with the icing. Most desserts are about the icing. I actually haven’t had one in forever, but that’s the thing that reminds me of adolescence, more than almost anything else.
Well, maybe you should have one, and see how it goes.
It’s probably not going to live up to my grand memories of it.
Oh, they do. Don’t worry.
Do your sons like Pop-Tarts?
Yes, but they are being raised properly; they only like brown sugar and cinnamon.
Of course. Well, they’ve been trained well.
Right, yes. Now, the spooky feeling of poetry that Caroline identifies—does it feel spooky to you?
Yes. The spookiness came from one particular night. There’s a lot of this play that goes into memories of me as a high schooler. I had a really wonderful literature teacher. This was 11th grade—Miss Benes—and she gave us a weekly assignment to read any poem we wanted, and geared us towards the more classic folks. Every week we got to read a poem and write a one-page response. At first, I didn’t know how to just sit and think and read, but that’s part of what that assignment taught me. One of the poets was Walt Whitman, and after that the next was Walt Whitman, and then the third one was, too…. And in one of his poems he describes sitting on a roof—I think it’s part of Leaves of Grass—in one of the sections, he’s sitting on the roof, it’s raining and he’s just watching the countryside and the city in the distance. And I happened to be quite romantic in my evening plans that night, and I went out on my roof and it started to drizzle as I was reading this poem and it just kind of started coming true.
And I wrote about that in the most heightened language—of course, when you read a poem and you write about it, the set tone in that language infects your literary analysis. So my analysis was quite full of Whitman-esque little bits of language, so it felt meta on about three or four levels. I remember that chill and that excitement and that sense of what Caroline says, and Anthony says, too, that it’s about how this poet is talking to you.
So Whitman has never left you.
Nope. I mean, he’s gone on little vacations, but he’s a bit more like home than, you know, something very far away. So I always come back to him.
There’s a turn in the play that is very surprising, completely unexpected—somebody else would have seen it coming, but I did not at all.
No, most people have said they haven’t seen it.
Once people read and see your play, when they describe it, they’re going to include the turn. So other people will be denied the experience of the naïve reader that I had, which is not knowing what’s going to happen.
Well, thus far, we have found that people tend to know that it’s a surprise worth keeping, and they don’t reveal it. But they often say you should go see the play because it was surprising—or something like that. So I think talking about the fact that there is a twist is good. If we can avoid actually spelling it out, then that’s obviously good.
But I was even more innocent than that, because I wasn’t expecting a twist. If you had said, “Here’s my play, there’s a twist,” I would have been snooping around looking for a turn. My fear is that nobody is ever again going to be as innocent as I was.
I’m not sure how to deal with it. One of the things that we learned from the first production at Marin Theatre Company out here in the Bay Area was how to talk about the play. Just on a marketing level, how do you explore the play and encourage people to see it? We learned to not pretend that there’s nothing extra going on; it is a play about which you can say that there’s more than meets the eye. When you just present it as being about two teenagers in a room, most adults go, “I have two teenagers in a room, I don’t want a see that. Dear God, don’t make me sit through that all night long.”
But I’m wistful, because other people aren’t going to have that same experience that I was able to have.
That’s true. The first audience was my husband, Jason, and these two wonderful actors (one of whom was in the production) Jessica Lynn Caroll and Reggie White, who are my great friends here in the Bay Area. It was just us and some glasses of wine and my kitchen table. I told them not to read the end. You know actors want to highlight their lines, but in this case I said, “You know these kids. They’re just kids. She’s kind of cranky and upset all the time. He’s a sweet A+ student. You all just go for it, and then you’ll see.” And when we hit a certain part of the play, they both had the most delightful expressions that said, “What have you done to me?”
Well, let us all have a contract, all us readers of American Theatre, that we’re not going to blab.
All right. I am seeing a strong authorial presence in the stage directions. It’s almost as if your commentary is guiding the audience. It’s more than, “He sits. She stands.” Is that something new that you’re trying?
It’s been developing for the last five, six, seven years, because what I’ve found lacking in some stage directions was a kind of permission for the in-between of the line to be as important as the line itself. For me, especially in a play that is this realistic, until a certain point [it’s about] really making sure that the actors know there’s something going on in that pause. You’re not standing because it says “stand”; you’re standing because she’s freaking you out and you’re making a statement by standing. I know that’s a job of a great director, as well, but I wanted that to come across in the reading of the play—because, again, for most of it, it’s two teenagers in a room, and I wanted to convey that the situation has such richness and such complexity.
I’ve found also that for each play, the stage direction has its own voice that is akin to the play’s voice. In some of my crazier Southern comedies, there’s “Y’alls” and “Get your ass to the phone” in the stage direction because that’s the tone of the play. It’s not just kind of gray-colored stage directions; each play has its rainbow that the stage directions match, which hopefully makes it feel more organic—that it belongs and it’s not just a directive.
Is the voice of the stage directions Lauren?
Yes, but it’s kind of Lauren-in-that-play. So some of them are rather normal, but for this one, there is a little bit of youthfulness, almost like a young-adult novel.
Does the person who’s saying the stage directions know about the turn?
I think so—I mean, I’d have to go and read it again to figure out. There are a few moments, toward the end mainly, that the voice of the stage direction suggests that Anthony is changing in a way that Caroline doesn’t quite understand—so I think it’s directing him. I don’t know. You know what? I could make a total case in the other direction.
So, to the director who routinely says, “The first thing I do is cross out all stage directions,” what would you say to that?
Oh, I think that’s so silly. That presumes that the playwright is only responsible for the lines of dialogue and not the entire world of the story they are charged with exploring and presenting. Perhaps not every playwright does this, but I certainly take great care of pace and rhythm, and how a line feels, and how long it is, and those consonants and not just its meaning and the information it contains. I would say that’s true of Wit as well—there’s so much in that, in how she speaks to us and how she doesn’t. It seems like you’d be missing so much of the heart of that story by crossing them out.
Well, yes, but in your stage directions you say “yeahyeahyeah.” That sounds like teenage Lauren looking in the window—or teenage Lauren puppeteer organizing the direction that the play is going.
Yeah, the way I use those almost—they’re not emoticons—but you know, this emotional language that’s kind of onomatopoetic , is really to get the tone of the pause, so it’s not a pause that could be confused with a somber pause or an inquisitive pause. It’s obviously a pause of celebration, and these two may be feeling completely different things. Anthony is feeling “Yeahyeahyeah” and Caroline is feeling, “Oh my God, is this really happening,” which will make that moment a very specific moment.
In the play, you use what I’m going to call word clumps, which are words in a sentence with no spaces between the words, and each word begins with a capital letter, like “IKindaLikeThisGuy.” Tell us about the word clumps.
That’s again about pacing and emphasis. There’s something about youthful language where speed and a specific precision highlights meaning. And it’s completely different if the speed or the connectivity or the precision is gone. Some of it is just my sense of humor, but there’s a way to say a sentence that is not funny and a way to say it that is funny. So that’s a little bit of me directing through punctuation. There’s a million ways an actor could do it, but to suggest speeding up this phrase will help you convey what Caroline actually means, which is not a languid, “I really like this guy”—it’s “Okay, I really like this guy!” And those have different feelings, different meanings. Caroline is a fast talker, she’s a smart girl, and there’s something about how she puts language together that is forceful; there’s a bit of a conductor in her. I think that’s one of the things that comes across in the word clumps.
Your other plays are more literary and “olden days” and scientific. Do you find yourself at the outer boundaries of the conventions of print in those plays, as well?
Less so. The boundaries I find in those worlds are more about how to describe the theatricality that I envision, and that often means a bit of a longer stage direction or a more poetic turn of phrase to describe how the stars come out, or how they interact with the character, or perhaps how a character dies onstage. But in this case, it actually feels stranger for me to write for modern teenagers than it does for me to write for a 1780s female scientist.
Why is that?
I think it’s because the modern world moves really quickly now, and there’s something about looking at a past time—it’s frozen, and it’s something that you can kind of pick up and twist and look at all the different angles. But in this world with these kids, there’s a lot moving and shaking, which is why we wanted to have them have access to things like phones, but have them put those down and focus on a piece of paper, a book, each other—which are certainly more timeless things than whatever tweeting they’re doing. So yeah, there’s something about the speed of their world and the—I don’t know—the ephemerality of youth? But at the same time, it’s interesting that people of all different ages are saying, “This reminded me of me as a kid.”
There’s a passage from Whitman that you use in the play that works so perfectly with your turn. And it is: “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean/But I shall be good health to you nevertheless/And filter and fibre your blood.” Which came first, this set of three lines, or the turn?
It’s the spooky path. That was poetry being spooky again.
Was that spooky? The whole thing is just creepy.
Yeah, it’s super-spooky. I had known about the turn before I started writing the play—that’s kind of how I knew I wanted to write it. So it really started at the end. And the whole journey of writing it was kind of figuring out, How do I justify this? How do I set this up so it really lets the characters be completely themselves? Can we kind of strangely understand and be surprised at the same time? It was just going through Whitman and realizing, “Well, there might be something there.” I’d read Song of Myself, and as I was writing the play, I was on vacation with my husband and I was reading Whitman and staring at nature, and it was all quite perfect. Figuring out what’s going to happen as the play ends, I looked at Whitman’s ending—and I just could not believe it.
When you see it performed, does the turn catch you, or are you braced for it?
Yeah, it still does—in a different way, obviously. But the way that different productions pull off the ending has been different—really, really different.
And your stage directions didn’t get in the way of that?
No, not so much. There’s a lot there, but I found some natural allies in sound and lighting designers on this show.
There’s an amount of suspense as Caroline is very coyly forced to admit what her own personal theme song is. Did you try different pieces of music, or was it always this one?
It was always Jerry Lee Lewis. My parents lived in Memphis for a few years, and that meant that we went to do the things you do in Memphis, which includes Sun Studios. When they take you on the little tour of Sun Studios, you go into the room where Elvis sang those songs, cut those records, and that’s the song that they play—Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire.” And everybody in the room starts tapping their feet and grinning and kind of shaking their hips. So I thought it would be really funny if Caroline has a moment with the music that you kind of can’t help but enjoy, although she’s so sour against the world.
And the Coltrane?
Coltrane was mainly me—I just love that. It’s so magnetic, and it has this spookiness, too, a kind of otherworldly pulse to it. I thought that that would be nice for Anthony, because he’s such a thinker that it wouldn’t be just something that sounds good—it would be something that has story that he can get his mind actively into. And I like that it was called “A Love Supreme.”
And so the last word goes to music.
Yes, indeed. There’s such a musicality to Whitman, too. And actually, it was the artistic director Jasson Minadakis at Marin…
…who used to be in Atlanta…
He did—that’s how we started. Team Atlanta for the win! He is a big Coltrane fan, and he noted the similarities between Coltrane and Whitman, that they were both breaking a lot of molds at the time, and they were both from Long Island. Coltrane had some tragedy in his world that Whitman didn’t, but there’s something about those two New York artists that made sense. I tried to put that in the play, but that felt way too much like, “Look at this cool fact I found.”
I see with great clarity this play being wonderful in high schools, with two actors and its shorter length and just the way teens speak and the way the traumas and dramas of the high school are portrayed. Do you think having a little bad word here and there is going to mitigate against that?
I hope not. I love the idea of high schoolers doing this, and I think that they can absolutely feel free to ask me to take out a word or two. The curse words will not break this play or make it, so they can adjust that at their will.
Has that happened to you before—that producers have asked for changes of one kind or another?
Not a lot, actually. But when we were working on the play, there was a high school drama teacher who saw the first reading of the first draft. She immediately came up to me and said that obviously this would be great in high schools, so I kept in touch with her and allowed her students to work on an early draft of it and send me some feedback. I got wonderful e-mails from high school kids who were working on it. It was quite confirming—and then of course they had some opinions, as well, like they would never say this, or “This sounds silly to me.” It was really quite helpful—it was important to have that context as I was going along. I’m definitely not as close to high school as I used to be. I remember texting my cousin who is a junior in high school, asking if they still had tri-fold poster boards, if they still used them. I was like, “Is everything digital now? Am I totally lost?” And she was like, “No, we use those, too.” So I thought, All right, great.
When you imagine yourself in the future going to see it at different theatres, what will you be looking for in the audience?
That’s a great question. I’m most interested in their reactions to Caroline, and if they let her grow as a character, because some folks (usually self-identified parents of high schoolers) were really frustrated with her behavior and her briskness and her attitude. I could tell in some talkbacks afterwards that they were not very empathetic to her. So I’m very interested in what audiences come away feeling for her, and how they see all the changes that Anthony inspires in her. Anthony everybody likes, he’s such a great guy.
I’m always interested in making sure the ending really plays. I love the very last moment, and for me the culmination comes when they hug each other—that is the great metaphor, the great moment, the great connection of the whole play, when they hug after his poem. At Marin there was a bigger stage than at Olney, so our Caroline got to really just take a running leap at Anthony to hug him, which was quite exhilarating and moving.
Were there things about it that you couldn’t figure out until it was up on its feet
Yeah. A lot of changes come on a premiere for me, and this was no exception. We wrote whole new moments, whole new scene connections. There was great conversation around these moments, and it’s terrifying and frustrating, all those things.
When you see it, and the audience is clapping at the end, what are they clapping for?
I think a lot of them will be crying, or trying not to. I hope they’re clapping for a real surprise, which doesn’t often happen— TV is okay at it, at making us go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they did that,” but not a lot of theatre does that, really; there’s not a lot of “What? No!”
I hope that that’s what they’ll be clapping for—some kind of universal goodness. Not that life is easy or that it’s fair, but that there is some balance to it. That’s kind of why I wrote the play.
Margaret Edson is a playwright living in Atlanta. Her play, Wit, won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.