BWW Blog: Cassandra Hsiao - THE HUMANS, The Tonys, and The Future of Theatre In Youth

By: Jun. 28, 2016

With four Tony Awards under its belt, "The Humans" benefitted the most from the awards night as ticket sales spiked-so much so that the highly lauded play will be moving from the smallest theatre on Broadway to a theatre with 500 more seats starting August.

The family tragicomedy has lured audiences with its sharp wit and relationship tension even before the play moved to Broadway. However, the story of "The Humans"-penned by playwright Stephen Karam-started long before.

As a kid, Karam wrote short plays to escape the loneliness of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where there was no active art scene. Without any familial connections to the arts let alone the industry, Karam could not see how he could possibly pursue his passion-until he discovered The Blank Theatre's Young Playwrights Festival.

This year marks The Blank's 24th annual nationwide festival for playwrights ages 9-19. A total of 12 plays every year are mentored by producers and writers, performed by working actors, and directed by veterans in the industry. Including this year, The Blank has produced 284 plays total.

Karam won his first YPF at the age of 17. It was then YPF founder Daniel Henning knew he had found an extraordinary talent. Karam continue to win three times in a row.

"Even from his very first play, I knew that this young man was looking at the world in a particular way-a really smart way," explained Henning. "When he was 18, his second play 'Agnes' was the beginning of 'The Humans.' His first play was funny and smart and the second one was deeply poignant... This guy was looking at the world in a different way. That was very clear."

The festival forever changed Karam's life, convincing him he could make it as a storyteller even though nobody in his family was involved in the arts.

"Three festivals later, I went from knowing no professional theatre artists to believing that I could, in fact, have a career in the arts if I was dedicated enough," Karam wrote in a letter. "These experiences helped embolden me to pursue my dreams."

And helping youth like Karam find the courage to chase the seemingly impossible was the core reason why Henning founded the festival 24 years ago.

"It was necessary. I saw an opportunity to help a group of disenfranchised people find their voice," said Henning. "When I was in college, Whoopi Goldberg opened her one-woman show on Broadway. I met her at my acting school, and she invited me to watch her show from backstage... At the end of it, I thanked her profusely for the opportunity. She said to me, 'you don't have to thank me, all I ask is that you do this for someone someday because someone did it for me.' The Young Playwrights Festival is my way of answering Whoopi Goldberg's request."

Every year, he is surprised by "the increasing complexity of the subject matter, and the winners' ability to express that." The moments he will always carry with him are the hugs with all 284 winners.

Henning gives a speech at the end of every night. He talks about funding and the importance of the audience for Live Theatre. "Without you," he says to the audience, "It's not theatre, it's just rehearsal." People need to support Live Theatre, he says.

"I think that what needs to happen is that young people need to be asked to participate. They need to be given access to theatre. Especially as it gets more and more expensive, we have to come up with ways to make sure they're included, and that theatre itself adapts to their world," said Henning.

He mentions the success of musical-theatre-hip-hop hit "Hamilton," and though it's "everything" he's ever wanted to see in theatre, "at $850 a ticket, it's not going to be that for long. It's going to become opera."

While theatre companies across the country attempt to figure out how to make something akin to Hamilton affordable and accessible to young people, the best we can do is encourage youth to seek opportunities to see theatre and become a part of theatre.

"They need to make it as much of a priority as other entertainment opportunities, like movies or YouTube," said Henning. "Having the young people engage with the art form-they need to choose to do that as part of their day."

And the Young Playwrights Festival is doing just that: allowing teens to interact with the world they've created with working professionals in the industry, treating every line as if it were written by Tennessee Williams. As YPF 2016 comes to a close, Henning feels one overwhelming emotion: pride.

"I'm proud that we as a community were able to introduce twelve new plays to the world by writers much younger than the age you get introduced to the world," said Henning. "I'm thrilled that those playwrights had life changing experiences. I feel like I've accomplished something."

Even after Karam's experience with YPF, the Blank continued to be key to launching the three-time winner's career, producing full-length plays-one of which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

"We still work with Stephen. We are still his West Coast home. We did 'Speak and Debate,' we did 'Sons of Prophet,' and he was part of the rehearsal process for both of them," said Henning. "He feels at home with The Blank."

Henning's advice for aspiring young playwrights is simple:

"Write from your heart. Tell the story that you want to tell. And make it unique."

"The Humans" is certainly all of the above and more-proving that if you write with your voice and are brave enough to share it with the world, you can one day win a Tony Award.

Playwright Stephen Karam accepts the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play on behalf of The Humans. Photo Credit: CBS

Daniel Henning directed Stephen Karam's very first play when he was 17. He went on to win The Blank Theatre's Young Playwrights Festival two more times at ages 18 and 19. Photo Credit: The Blank)

Daniel Henning with Week 2 playwrights and the cast of 2016 The Blank Theatre's Young Playwrights Festival. Photo Credit: Cassandra Hsiao



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