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Interview with Playwright: Stephen Karam

Education dramaturg Ted Sod speaks to Stephen Karam about his process of writing The Humans.

TED SOD: The Humans is the third play of yours to be produced at Roundabout. Previously, we have presented Speech & Debate at Roundabout Underground and Sons of the Prophet on the Pels stage in the Steinberg Center. What do you find exciting about having your work produced here? Do you consider Roundabout your artistic home?

STEPHEN KARAM: Yes, it's been special to have Roundabout's support. The best part of returning to the Laura Pels is that I get work with many of the same people - and that feels like coming home.

TS: What was your inspiration for writing The Humans? What do you think the play is about?

SK: I was thinking a lot about fear and anxiety. The ways human beings cope with their fears. Fear in our culture and fear at home. I wanted to try and locate the black pit of dread and malaise Americans have been trying to climb out of post-9/11 and post-financial-crisis. I had no idea how to do this. I wanted to write about those things...without literally writing about them. I didn't want to write a play about literal fear or 9/11 or the financial crisis. I was stuck. So I read to get inspired.

Lorca's writing about lower Manhattan (where I live) was a help. In the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, Lorca wandered around the financial district in New York and managed to capture the thick, grotesque terror that hung the air; he found disturbing and unfamiliar ways of describing very familiar scenes:

"The terrible, cold, cruel part is Wall Street. Rivers of gold flow there from all over the earth, and death comes with it. There, as nowhere else, you feel a total absence of the spirit: herds of men who cannot count past three, herds more who cannot get past six, scorn for pure science and demoniacal respect for the present. And the terrible thing is that the crowd that fills this street believes the world will always be the same, and that it is their duty to keep that huge machine running, day and night, forever."
I became interested in his ability to take a familiar thing - Wall Street, the landscape of the financial district -- and make it strange. Unfamiliar. (This seems connected to Shklovsky's idea of defamiliarization - read "Art as Technique.")

If you are willing to follow me down this wormhole...all of the above reminded me of an essay I read in college: Freud's The Uncanny. In it, Freud ponders the question: why do certain stories inspire a deeper, more unsettling kind of creeping horror and uncanny feeling than others? I'm particularly obsessed with his use of etymology to unpack this question:

"The subject of the "uncanny"...belongs to all that is terrible -- to all that arouses dread and creeping horror... The German word [for "uncanny"], unheimlich, is obviously the opposite of heimlich, meaning "familiar," "native," "belonging to the home"; and we are tempted to conclude that what is "uncanny" is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar... [But] among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheimlich... on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight..."

He goes on to mention the possible notion that "...everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light."

I thought about the way the big human fears surface in various people - how no matter how hard we repress them, they eventually creep into the light, sometimes in fantastic disguises. I thought it would be a challenge to try and write a play about these topics in a manner that might slowly generate the thing it was exploring...a kind of dread. Not in a genre-way, not per a pure thriller likeDeathtrap, for example (and I do love a thriller) -- but by watching human behavior, which is always what I'm most interested in. It may seem comical that all of this thought resulted in something so simple: a story about a family having dinner. But I do think all of my musings and obsessions are buried deep beneath the play's purposefully banal premise. I wanted to warp something familiar. But also pay tribute to the tradition of the family play.

TS: Can you tell us about the development process for this play? I believe there were several readings of the play and it was produced in Chicago last year.

SK: Yes, a few readings. American Theater Company produced a wonderful world premiere production in Chicago. Low budget, high quality. Chicago is a special place to launch new work. The ensemble of actors was wonderful. I was lucky to have them, and to have PJ Paparelli head that process. PJ was able to produce the play at ATC with Roundabout's blessing, which meant a lot. PJ passed away this year; he was only 40. I'm still processing that loss, I can't believe he's gone.

TS: How did the play evolve over time? What was the catalyst for any rewriting you did?

SK: I'm starting to appreciate that everyone - if asked -- would tailor a new play a little differently based on their proclivities/interests/background. And that's okay. So as playwrights, as poets, we have to look to ourselves, listen to our guts for the final answers about what changes to make. Everyone will always have ideas about how to make your work better. Everyone has advice about how to end your play differently. Start it differently. And it's not about right or wrong. At the end of the day, it's your baby and you know what's best.

With The Humans, I've found that because it's related to very familiar forms - the family play and the thriller, almost a genre-collison play -- some people want it to be one or the other. Either less dark and more of a family comedy. Or a full fledged thriller with blood and ghosts jumping out of closets. Everyone's taste is different. But I think the best way to defend against regrets after opening night is to try your best to tell the story you want to tell. In terms of smaller changes over time, I think good plays are like poems. Every syllable counts. So I wrestle with word choice, rhythm in final drafts. I think you have to be ruthless. I'm still learning so much with every play I write.

TS: This play is very intricately written. The audience watches the action in an upstairs/downstairs or split screen fashion. How did that concept come about? Was it difficult to keep track of what was happening when, since you are juggling multiple storylines and simultaneous conversations?

SK: I built a crude version of the apartment in my mind before writing the play, so the architecture existed in broad strokes. I enjoyed creating the mise en scène that grows out of a two-level, four room image. I like writing from that visual place. Hopefully the telling of the story in real-time, in several rooms and without blackouts, giving the audience a "dollhouse" view of the entire proceedings, allowing their eyes to wander to any room at any moment...hopefully this subconsciously adds to the experience of something deeply traditional...but a bit more queer...

TS: The Humans takes place during a Thanksgiving meal. Do you think holidays bring out the worst in family behavior?

SK: I have no idea. I can, however, talk about the behavior of the family? As an epigraph, I have -- somewhat tongue-in-cheek -- adopted a list from a self-help book. It had the ludicrous title, Think and Grow Rich (the joke is on me, I learned it was a bestseller). I thought it had a nice interplay with the family's deep-seated, repressed fear of poverty. And in the book, the following passage appears:

"There are six basic fears, with some combination of which every human suffers at one time or another ...
The fear of POVERTY
The fear of CRITICISM
The fear of ILL HEALTH
The fear of LOSS OF LOVE OF SOMEONE
The fear of OLD AGE
The fear of DEATH"
--Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich

I used each of these fears to anchor each of the characters. Murder mystery style. It's not difficult to guess who is most deeply connected to each fear...In building the family, being reductive was helpful in brainstorming; before layering, before adding complexity.

TS: What is it like working with director Joe Mantello?

SK: I love working with Joe. He's been a real gift to this process. Someone with his career could rest on his laurels, but Joe is about the most detail-oriented, hard-working, passionate artist I've been lucky enough to work with. He understands and respects writers. I think the best directors aren't afraid to ask questions. And Joe asks great questions. He strives to get the best work out of everyone. I love that fight. I love his work ethic.

TS: What other projects are you currently working on?

SK: A new play.


The Humans begins previews September 30 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.




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