“The longest journey you will ever make is the one that bridges the distance between two people.”
- Richard Linklater ‘Before Sunrise’
The final performances closing out Pit & Balcony Community Theatre’s 89th Season will consist of the Regional Premiere of playwright Lauren Gunderson’s ‘I And You’, offering audiences an intimate look into the lives of two high school students vastly different upon the surface, who develop bonds of connection that reveal their interior architecture as being more similar than it is different.
With performances slated for June 24-25-26th, the narrative of I And You centers upon the characters of Anthony (performed by Isaiah Crawford) and Caroline (performed by Grace Lutenske) who are both given an assignment from their English teacher to present a class report on poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
One afternoon Anthony arrives unexpectedly at Caroline’s door bearing a beat-up copy of Whitman’s classic poetic anthology, given that she is homebound due to illness. Caroline hasn't been to school in months, but she is as quick and sardonic as Anthony is equally athletic, sensitive, and popular.
As these two let down their guards and share their secrets, this seemingly mundane poetry project unlocks a much deeper mystery that has brought them together. Indeed, by the close of the play we realize that the journey we have intimately shared with these two teenagers has guided us toward a sublime transfiguration that encompasses ‘Leaves of Grass’, John Coltrane, Jerry Lee Lewis, space and time, bodies and spirits, and the nature of death and rebirth.
Or as The New Yorker magazine puts it: “… a validation of the human experience, and of the triumph of life over death. Gunderson's gift is the best thing a play can offer: we might be better people after seeing it."
For first-time director Spencer Beyerlein, the seemingly simplistic but deeply nuanced nature of this production presents specific challenges. “One of my favorite things about this play is that the characters are very real and it’s not written for anything more than a feeling,” he explains.
“When you read or watch this production, you get into these character’s minds and Lauren Gunderson does a good job of establishing these characters and a relationship between them that truly distinguishes this play and makes it different. It’s not for laughs or spectacle. It’s a play about relationships, characters, and the emotions teenagers feel. And while these two characters are very different, they are very similar as well.”
“Without giving too much away, as I don’t want to spoil the experience for the audience, Anthony is a jock and she knows who he is, only he doesn’t know who Caroline is because she’s been sick and hasn’t been in school much. The only reason he arrives at her house is because they’re partners on this school project and one of the things that drew me to these characters is their mutual sense of vulnerability.”
“When I first read this play I was a couple years out of school and 19 years of age, two years older than these characters,” continues Beyerlein. “I related to both of the characters in very different ways because superficially they appear radically different, yet internally they share a similar architecture.”
“She is very withdrawn and doesn’t want to feel weak so she makes a point of not being afraid of death because being sick, if she show’s that she’s afraid she will be giving death control of the situation. Anthony on the other hand is very sure of himself and the type of person he is. Both have this sense of not being willing to show their vulnerability: she in the sense of making jokes and being harsh about her weaknesses; whereas he on the other hand doesn’t show his vulnerability and doesn’t open up.
“Anthony is more of a follower than a leader and seemingly too nice in many ways, but knows how to use these tactics to get what he wants,” continues Spencer. “I will say a lot of the time it may seem like manipulation on his part to get what he wants, but ultimately his actions are based upon what he feels is the best for both of them. At the end of the play you realize while he acts in the best interests of both of them, mostly it’s for the betterment of her.”
Given the intimate and visceral nature of this production as these two characters explore a wide range of emotions percolating within themselves, what does Beyerlein feel is his biggest challenge as a director with this production?
“I would say it’s the fact that because this is an ‘After Dark’ production, with the audience seated on the stage, the challenge is how do you let the audience see these characters at all times and make it as real as possible. When someone is having a conversation they’re not always walking around the room or turning to be seen, so we’ve had to a lot with creative blocking and are playing with levels a lot. The audience will be raised and looking down and my intent was to make it feel as real as possible. It will be rewarding when this happens, but it’s one of the biggest challenges - trying to make the audience feel like they’re in this bedroom with each of these characters. My hope is that the audience leaves with a sense of awe in its simplest terms.”
“Much of the humor in this play comes from the relationships they have and a lot of it comes from the way they dig at one another,” he continues. “They find themselves falling in love with one another and make jokes about it; but again, it’s done differently as she likes to dig and he likes to make fun of her digging.”
“One of the things I really love about this production is that Lauren Gunderson explicitly states in her production notes that the two actors involved must be different ethnicities and races; however, I cannot say why because it gives too much away about the show. What I can reveal, however, is that this show proves deep down we are all the same and this is one of the things that draws me to it.
Regarding the actors chosen for these two pivotal roles, Spencer is immensely pleased with the selections, as both of them enjoy the privilege of being good friends in real life, so already have a chemistry together.
“Both Isaiah and Grace went to S.A.S.A. together and both know the show and enjoy it, so that makes my job a lot easier. Grace is going to the University of Michigan and Isaiah is set to go there in the fall. The discussions in rehearsal went far beyond what I expected us to have in the third day and both of them brings things up to me I didn’t even thing about, which shows they both have a good understanding of their characters.”
Given this is Spencer’s first time in the Director’s chair, are there certain things or elements of this production that he is striving to emphasize?
“My original intent was to make this as immersive an experience as possible because I want to bring out that Gobsmack moment at the ending that puts a lot of things into perspective, answering questions you’ve had but also leaving you with a lot of questions, so my job as a Director is to make sure the audience understands what the playwright’s vision is.”
“Because this is being staged in ‘Blackbox’ style, which is my favorite type of theatre, ever since I was in the P&B production of Hand of God I’ve developed a love for that type of play. In a normal proscenium style of production it’s always about the audience seeing everything the characters are doing, so it requires big movements and gestures; but with this type of theatre you don’t have to over-amplify your movements or make faces that are really big, because the audience is only 2-feet away and can see the actor’s face up close. This type of theatre is not done very often, especially around here in the Great Lakes Bay Region.”
“So many times actors spend all this time becoming these characters but with plays like this we get to be real people, so the actors are no longer playing characters but playing the ‘real’ people these characters are,” he concludes. “The fact Pit & Balcony is my home and allowing me to stage the theatre I love and lead others into it is an honor.”
“The dedication I’m already seeing from the actors and the production team is amazing and when I envisioned this show one thing I wanted was to build a production team with people my age because we know these feelings of vulnerability that the characters share better than anybody else. Everybody involved with this production team are all in high school or just out of college, so when it comes to staging we’re able put a lot of our own life experiences into the shows, which allows us to be more comfortable in how we get these feelings across to the audience.”
Pit & Balcony’s regional premiere of ‘I and You’ will run from Thursday through Saturday, June 24-26th. Tickets are only $15.00 and available by phoning 989.754.6587 or visiting PitandBalconyTheatre.com. The shows start at 8:30 PM.