The Humans playwright Stephen Karam opens up about his Tony Award-winning Play
“What are the things that keep human beings up at night?”
The Humans playwright Stephen Karam in conversation with Seattle Rep Literary Director Kristin Leahey, Ph.D.
Kristin Leahey (KL): What was your impulse behind writing The Humans?
Stephen Karam (SK): I was thinking a lot about the things that were keeping me up at night and that got me thinking about existential human fears: fear of poverty, sickness, losing the love of someone…Was there a way to actually tell a story that might elicit some of those fears–or provide some thrills–while also talking about how human beings cope with them? And by the time I was done, I had written a family play or, as I think of it now, a family thriller.
KL: Could you share some of the highlights of working on the play in 2014 with Chicago’s American Theater Company (ATC), then in 2015 with New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, and eventually on Broadway in 2016
SK: The gift of new work when it goes well is you get to grow the piece with other artists and countless people behind the scenes. The Roundabout production was set, but the theatre allowed for the world premiere at ATC in Chicago, because I thought it would help me to develop the play in preparation for New York. Also, I thought it was a great play for Chicago, where audiences are accustomed to taking risks, especially with new work. I did a lot of intense rewriting while we were in rehearsals for the production.
And then we went to Roundabout, and it was almost like doing it over again, because there was a new director, Joe Mantello, as well as a new cast. I learned a lot from the first production, so the company I think had a stronger script as a result.
The Roundabout’s off-Broadway space is about 400 seats, so it’s actually quite big. Therefore, it wasn’t a huge shift in terms of rethinking the play when we moved to Broadway. The set nestled well into the Helen Hayes Theatre and then we transferred to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, which is larger. It was interesting to see how the actors adjusted their performances to each of the different spaces… but, you know, the same dilapidated two-story duplex set followed us everywhere.
KL: After having the experience of working on the premiere in Chicago and now, in many ways, coming full circle with the national tour, what are you looking forward to with this new journey for The Humans?
SK: You can probably tell from the play that I’m from Pennsylvania. Any time I do a new play, I’m actually thinking, “Will it ever find its way across the country?” “Will it ever find its way to Pennsylvania or Arizona or Washington State?” My first attendance at a professional theatre was seeing touring shows that made their way to the Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple. I ushered at the Masonic in high school to get free tickets. They were large musicals but never “straight plays.” There’s a special magic in taking a play, a piece like this, across the country. I just feel [that it] really connects to what it meant for me to see theatre growing up, so I’m excited to see something that I wrote have a chance to travel.
KL: I really admire that your work, such as Speech & Debate, Sons of the Prophet, and The Humans, grapples with immense sociopolitical ideas, but at its core are these tangible, intimate relationships between characters. How do you strike this balance?
SK: Instead of running away from the larger questions we’re struggling with, I realized that my plays can come from them. With The Humans, I originally thought the way to address the play’s big ideas was a lot noisier, with a lot more bells and whistles, but through the writing process of stripping things away, by the end, I was staring at six damaged and lovely souls, who audiences would watch be hurt and laugh and cry and love. Things become universal, and thus reverberate more precisely. It’s sort of the epic via the intimate.
KL: It’s interesting considering that sometimes the most intimate of subjects can also be the most political.
SK: I didn’t start The Humans by saying, “I’m going to write about the dying middle class.” I think that’s a losing game, only because you can’t make people watch a play like that– at least I don’t think so–unless there are complex, multidimensional people at the center of the conflict. That’s where audiences invest, when they actually care about the struggle of the people onstage. If I get too bogged down in ideas, I don’t tend to write so well.
I feel like my plays become more political by focusing on human behavior. As a playwright, you can’t write about what it means to be alive and not be political. And if you’re writing about what it means to be alive today, you’re going to end up writing a political play…I never would have predicted or imagined that Donald Trump would have become president. Nor would I have ever suspected that somebody with his particular background, trust fund, and golden toilets would be the person who ends up connecting to the Erik Blakes of the world.
KL: I really appreciated the March 2017 article you wrote for American Theatre–“Guides for Survival in the Trump Simulacrum.” You wrote, “Artists and philosophers are better at processing complex realities during unreal times.”
SK: Our job as writers is to tell the truth and be as honest as possible–avoid propaganda or a tidy resolution. And politicians are interested in the sincere question that The Humans was born out of, too–“What are the things that keep human beings up at night?” And sometimes, for the good of the people, they think about these things because they want to know what we care and are worried about. And then, of course, when politicians are campaigning, they can also play into these fears in really dark and scary ways. The play got caught for a while in a political discussion that I certainly welcomed, but I think part of the reason it did is that there’s an overlap of interest in watching politicians also try to take the temperature of what’s keeping people up at night.
KL: What was it like working with Joe Mantello on the project? We’re so thrilled that he’s helming the tour.
SK: It was incredible! A good collaborator like Joe just makes your work stronger. I think what I love about working with him is that he is uncompromising, has an incredible eye, and understood the play from the second he read it. I can’t really overstate what a gift that is. I feel somewhat giddy that we’re going to get to go to Seattle together and do it again.
KL: Well, we’re thrilled that you are sharing it with our audience!
SK: I should also note that the play is a comedy. I’m somebody who loves laughing when I’m seeing any play myself. But you can’t just tell people a play is funny; you have to let them decide that for themselves. But of course, watching any family interact for 90 minutes is going to be partially, if not largely, hilarious.
Original Transcription by Annika Bennett.
THE HUMANS plays at the SHN Orpheum Theatre from June 5 through the 17th. For tickets, please visit shnsf.com or click here.