So proud and happy to announce that I & YOU has been extended to run through Sunday in the intimate second floor Studio Theatre at the Henegar Center. I truly hope you get a chance to see it (read the review by clicking here). There are some very good stage artistry in the production, and that includes both on stage and behind the scenes.

A play revolving around two teenagers working on an English Lit homework project about Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” may sound simple. Indeed, even its title is about as easy as can be — “I & You.”

But like Whitman’s work itself, the award winning drama written by California playwright Lauren Gunderson, is rich with complex issues about life and death, determination and acceptance and the scope of love. And it takes quite a team of actors and designers to make it work.

Keenan Carver and Kai Nashalie in I & YOU at the Henegar Center. Photo by Dana Niemeier Photography.

High school is a thing of the past for the actors taking on these role. Both of them admit that playing a younger role is challenging if you want to create a realistic character and not a caricature.

A Kissimmee resident, Kai Nashalie, 20, brings a world-weariness to her role of Caroline, a high school senior whose illness forces her to spend her days at home.

Kai Nashalie in I & YOU at the Henegar Center. Photo by Dana Niemeier Photography.

“Playing a character that is slightly younger than me was harder than I anticipated,” she said. “I had to play around with higher pitches in my voice to be able to feel the character out and truly step into Caroline’s shoes. I did a lot of writing in journals to put myself in a teenage mindset and would play music that Caroline would listen to while writing.”

At 26, Keenan Carver, who lives in Palm Bay, had even further to go to create his role of Anthony, a high school basketball player who arrives with the homework assignment.

Keenan Carver in I & YOU at the Henegar Center. Photo by Dana Niemeier Photography.

“Playing Anthony has been interesting,” Carver said. “Being that I’m almost a decade older, tapping into the youthful energy of my character has been my biggest challenge. Anthony is so full of life. He’s a basketball player, poet, jazz enthusiast, lady’s man, a son. So being an African American young man with so many interests, I identify with him in that respect.”

Both actors also had to learn how to perform on a traverse stage, which has audience on both sides of the stage, like it did in “Seminar” and “Venus in Fur.” Similar to theater in the round, a traverse stage requires more movement in order to “cheat” to both sides so all the audience can “feel the love.” That can be especially difficult for actors when they are caught up in an emotional moment of the show.

“The trick in working in a traverse setting is to make sure each audience gets an equally pleasurable experience,” Carver said. “With the help of the director we have to use thoughtful speech delivery and blocking to ensure that we are both visible and audible to each seat in the audience. This is my first time performing on a traverse stage and it’s great preparation for theatre in the round.”

Keenan Carver and Kai Nashalie in I & YOU at the Henegar Center. Photo by Dana Niemeier Photography.

And then there are those emotional moments, and for two teenagers, those are plentiful.

Fear quickly turns to rage. Laughter flips into anger. Hope disappears into despair. Tears flow, laughs ring out. To have those emotions accessible, an actor needs to believe in their character and in what they experience. That means table reads and rehearsals where the actor explores motives and goals in every single line. They look for the turning points in their characters and connect. Then comes the blocking and stage business which adds interest, creates aesthetic pictures, advances theme and enhances the reality of the situation.

Like actors who give blood and sinew to a playwright’s words, designers give breath to the vision of the director (in this case, yours truly). Stepping up to that challenge from the Henegar are production manager/scenic designer Brighid Reppert, lighting designer Josh Huss, sound designer Taylor Torres and costume designer Vanessa Glenn. Just as important to the process is the stage manager, Nathan Dobson, who keeps it all together.

The director analyzes the play and comes up with an overriding concept and a visual metaphor to express that concept. With “I & You,” the concept became “we are one” and a simple circle as the visual metaphor. The visual metaphor, also known as a master symbol, unifies all elements of the production, from all things visual to all things aural.

Coincidentally, at the show’s first production meeting, Reppert also came up with a circle as a motif in her design. Part of that was born from the script, she said, the other was born from the space housing the show.

“We aren’t able to do traditional scene changes because of the layout,” Reppert said. “So as a designer you have to come up with different creative ways to get around that.

“When I first read Lauren Gunderson’s script I honestly had a creative block because I wasn’t really sure how to handle the emotional complexity within the visual design. It wasn’t until my mother told my sisters and I of an illness that she was going through that I saw the design in my head, and how I could convey the emotion that I felt while reading the script. So hopefully without giving too much away I choose the circular design to emulate the circle of life and then kept the acting space small to show the closeness and ultimately the shortness of life. I hope that people can walk away from the show feeling something. Could be anything hope, sadness, strength. I would love to think that people could leave the show with a renewed look at the human existence and how much we need to fight for what we love and care about and dream and wish for.”

Keenan Carver and Kai Nashalie in I & YOU at the Henegar Center. Photo by Dana Niemeier Photography.

Charged with the basic practicality of lighting the set, Huss also works with the play’s theme and mood.

“I’m reading through this play and it really grows into a beautiful story,” he said. “But without giving anything away, I do want to give the audience some surprises.”

Huss, who has a reputation for his sumptuous lighting of Henegar mainstage musicals, has grown to love designing lights for the venue’s small second floor Studio Theatre. This is the place, he said, where grittier, more intimate works are produced and where he can stretch his artistic reach.

“We come up with these really, really stunning design concepts,” he said. “The circle motif has presented a bit of a challenge, but in the end I think the final product is really something unique. We tend to do some interesting stuff like this upstairs, and this certainly is a new one. I think this is really going to blow some people away.”

Just as lighting enhances mood of a piece, so does sound. To that end, Torres looks for the show’s “emotional strings.”

“It is definitely a show to catch you off guard and one that will tug on your heart,” she said. “It’s my job to help relay that emotion and message to the viewers.
“Hands down the most difficult part would be finding and creating an effect that is the right one. You can have over 20 different sound effects of the same thing, but none of them could be the best one.”

Keenan Carver and Kai Nashalie in I & YOU at the Henegar Center. Photo by Dana Niemeier Photography.

Glenn has the same headache. She might be able to find a dozen basketball warm up suits and still not have the exact one needed. Much of her work is done in thrift stores, online and, when all avenues are explored, sitting in front of a sewing machine.

Holding it all together is Dobson. As stage manager, he is there from the beginning, doing the director’s bidding and helping actors memorize their lines. He is “on book” for the rehearsals, so, towards the end of the five week rehearsal period, when an actor can’t remember what they’re supposed to say, the actor calls out “line” and Dobson feeds it to them.

He also calls the shows, quietly informing the people running sound and lights when their cues are to “go.”

“Being able to watch Kai and Keenan at the first table read, where they were trying to figure out and develop these characters, then now (watching them) at the beginning of tech week has been a great experience,” Dobson said. “Both of them have grown tremendously throughout this process. I can’t wait to add the rest of the show elements and witness the final product.”

“I & You” runs through Feb. 25 in the Henegar’s second floor Studio Theatre. The show performs 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $26 general, $23 seniors and military and $16 students. The Henegar is at 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Call 321-723-8698, visit

All photos by Dana Niemeier Photography. This is an edited version of a story which ran earlier in the Melbourne Beachsider.