For millions of years, in millions of homes
A man loved a woman, a child it was born
It learned how to hurt and it learned how to cry
Like humans do
—David Byrne, “Like Humans Do”
In titling his new play The Humans, the talented and unpredictable playwright Stephen Karam suggests he’s up to something other than exclusively human. The play—a commission from New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, where The Humans will be produced in the fall of 2015 under the direction of Joe Mantello—is described in a press release this way:
“After a sleepless night, Mr. Blake has brought his family from Pennsylvania to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter’s new apartment. As darkness falls outside the crumbling pre-war duplex, mysterious things start to go bump in the night and family tensions reach a boiling point.”
A native of Scranton, Pa., Karam is the co-author of columbinus, Speech and Debate, and Sons of the Prophet, which American Theatre published in its February 2012 issue. Since I’ve spoken to Stephen twice before, it seemed as good a time as any to catch up.
Rob Weinert-Kendt: First, congrats on another Roundabout commission, this time going directly into the Laura Pels Theater Off-Broadway. Since Speech and Debate began at the Roundabout Underground, and Sons of the Prophet tried out at the Huntington in Boston before coming to the Pels, does The Humans announcement mean you’re officially out of the tryout phase of your career?
Stephen Karam: I’m actually premiering The Humans out of town before opening in New York. I like the two-step journey. Of course the trouble now is that you can do a show out of town to improve it…and critics can dislike it so much that it may never get a second production. Other than that risk, I enjoy developing a play out of town. The Humans will premiere at American Theater Company in Chicago this November, about 9 months before coming to New York. ATC has produced all of my earlier plays. I love the mid-sized theatres in Chicago. I love the invigorating and risk-taking energy that’s present in the Chicago community of actors and directors, and I love the theatregoing audience in Chicago. I think they’re adventurous and very game to see new work, which is, of course, exactly the kind of audience a playwright wants for a new play.
I think I asked this about Sons of the Prophet, too, but from the premise—a holiday gathering, a worried patriarch—it may be even more apropros to ask: Is this your “big family play”?
I don’t know that I’ll ever classify something I write as my “big family play.” All my plays are deeply, deeply personal. But not literal autobiography. I love my family too much to recreate them onstage in a literal fashion. And luckily, my family is pretty big; I’d need supernumeraries to recreate a true Karam Thanksgiving.
Speaking of big, is it a large cast—i.e., how big is the Blake family?
Six-member cast, ranging from ages 25 to 80.
The title suggests something a little sci-fi, while the press release refers to “mysterious things” going “bump in the night.” First, confirm or deny genre influence…and/or what does the title refer to?
To explain the title might be giving too much away. But suffice to say this is a genre-collision play; it’s a ghost story/thriller…and a family play. I suppose it’s…a family thriller? If Sons of the Prophet looked at the way humans cope with suffering, The Humans looks at the way we cope with our biggest fears, the way we process the big existential horrors of life. I wanted to write a play about human fear that was actually scary. It’s an interesting time to think about what “terror” means to us—we keep hearing the word “recovery” in the news, but I think most Americans are still trying to climb out of this weird black pit of dread and malaise set off by 9/11 and the financial crisis.
And how have you been otherwise? Have you thus far resisted the siren song of TV writing, or is there something going on that front?
I’ve been well. For the past 3 years—after 8 years of day jobs—I’ve been able to live (modestly) off of my Off-Broadway plays and teaching playwriting. I’d like to resist the siren song of TV as long as I can afford to. It’s a minor miracle if you are able to live for a year or two off a new Off-Broadway play. So when that happens, my first instinct isn’t to turn that good fortune into TV success—I try to use that gift of time to create another play. I don’t have an unlimited amount of full-length plays inside me, so I want to get them out now. I’m sure I’ll soon run out of ideas or health insurance, or decide to raise a family, etc.—and then I will be banging down TV’s door!