Ted Sod, Roundabout’s Education Dramaturg, interviewed playwright Stephen Karam to discuss The Sons of the Prophet.
Ted Sod: Will you give us some background information on yourself? Where are you from? Where were you educated? When did you decide to become a playwright and why?
Stephen Karam: I grew up in Scranton, PA. I attended a public high school, then majored in English at Brown University. I never really decided to become a playwright, there was no turning point, per se. I never went to grad school to study playwriting, so part of me wonders…maybe I haven’t decided yet? I discovered theater around middle school and have been drawn to it ever since.
What do you feel the play is about? What inspired you to write this play?
In a nutshell, Sons of the Prophet is a comedy about a guy coping with chronic pain. More generally (and amusingly), you could call it a comedy about human suffering. It explores the particularly messy portions of our lives—the times in which you find yourself coping with multiple life issues, and before any of them can be resolved – two more show up on your plate.
The play features many characters struggling with lingering pain, whether it’s physical or emotional. Joseph’s symptoms are unrelenting; Gloria worries her traumatic past will always loom over her life; Joseph and Charles will never get to speak to their parents again; Bill knows his health will never fully return – they’re all at a stage where it’s less about popping a pill and nipping their troubles in the bud, and more about starting the slow, complicated journey to coping. Figuring out the best way to move forward in the face of no easy answers.
Even the towns featured in the play (all in Eastern Pennsylvania) are all hurting. Parts of Pennsylvania built their entire identity around industries (steel, coal, etc.) that are no longer there. It’s a lot like Joseph’s crisis—he built his entire identity around his athletic talent. Suddenly that’s taken away. How will he define himself going forward?
Does the play have personal resonance for you and if so, how?
All of my plays are deeply personal. But none of them are autobiographical. Still, the play has a list of yes-that’s-kinda-true-facts.
- I grew up in Scranton, PA.
- I’m half-Lebanese. My grandfather and oldest aunt/uncle were born in Lebanon. My grandparents came over when they were in their 20s – my grandfather died speaking only broken English. He was a tailor. I was raised Maronite faith (Roman Catholicism with more incense and Arabic) and attended a Maronite church in West Scranton.
- I grew up down the block from the “real” Douaihy family (“Douaihy”, like “Karam” is an extremely common last name in Lebanon). The Douaihys of Scranton had two daughters a few years older than me, we attended the same public high school. They were not only fellow Lebanese-Maronites…and Scrantonians…but also both gay. Yes, two sisters, both fabulous lesbians. Both inspired me a great deal.
- I ran cross country.
- I worked as an editorial assistant at Free Press, Simon & Schuster. Then as a legal assistant for 7 years.
- I’ve had my own medical struggles (like many) and even a spinal tap. But there will be no more details forthcoming as a) Sons of the Prophet is not a disease-of-the-week play and b) I do not want to publish my medical history online.
- Sudden family deaths have influenced the play quite a bit. Growing up, I lost three people (suddenly) with whom I was very close. Anyone who’s lost people out of the blue knows how indescribable it is.
- I had a torrid affair with Anderson Cooper.
I did not have a torrid affair with Anderson. Nothing about it was torrid. No! Kidding. Though hopefully this will generate some web traffic (Gawker, call me, we’ll get you free tix).
How did you research the world of the play? What kind of research did you have to do in order to write it?
Well life experience. I traveled all over Lebanon recently. It went north into the mountains and was able to pass through Zghorta (where my family was from), Ehden, Bcharre (Gibran’s hometown). I’d been planning a trip in 2006 but the Beirut airport was bombed, so that scared me away for many years. Lebanon has its own share of chronic pain—for centuries it’s taken hits from all sides. It’s also a country that has resisted collapse, continually rebuilding and looking forward. The Lebanese people are incredibly inspiring. Along with their difficult history comes a strong resilience.
What was the most challenging part of writing your play? What part was the most fun?
It was challenging to ensure that Joseph didn’t become a wallower, a victim. Most people are quite courageous in facing their day-to-day struggles. Everyone suffers. Joseph doesn’t feel unique, he doesn’t feel special; he just wants to feel better.
It was great fun (and very challenging) to try and create a naturalistic play that feels like it’s careening out of control (by Act II). I want the audience to never be quite sure of what will happen next—or where we’ll be next. I jump time and trust the audience to fill in the blanks. Of course, to take those liberties you have to spend crazy amounts of time building a strong, solid structural frame onto which you can throw all of the madness. I like Brechtian frames (this is my 3rd play using one). I also had fun finding the poetry in the mundane details of life in Northeastern PA. There’s music to be mined from the everyday: Joseph’s silent anger and Gloria’s passive-aggression; the way two brothers speak to each other; board meetings; bus station announcements; physical therapy exercises…
Can you describe what you look for in a director? In casting actors?
In a director— someone who connects to the story and is able to tell it truthfully. I’m interested in no frills, no gags, no unnecessary frosting. Someone who’s talented and smart enough to make the play work on its own terms. I didn’t want this play to be about sexy rotating sets or creating fancy effects—I felt like the material wanted a spare production. Peter DuBois got that from the start and has done an incredible job.
In actors—truthfulness. I’m drawn to actors who are honest. Who let you lose yourself in the world of the play. Who never show you they’re “acting” at all.
This play was commissioned by Roundabout —are there any specific challenges in writing a commissioned play?
Just meeting deadlines.
Has the script changed since the premiere in Boston? What was the catalyst for those changes?
It’s changed quite a bit. I completely abandoned a subplot.
One benefit of starting in Boston is that I had time to consider all of the out-of-town criticism (from audiences and from critics); a benefit of starting in Boston. One thing that I didn’t expect to have to address—since I grew up gay in a Maronite Lebanese-American family (with the occasional racist family member)…the details about the family’s origin/religion were just that, the factual details about a family I knew very well. For some critics, those details meant I’d written a play that was ipso facto about homosexuality and about religion and about racism and about the Middle East, etc, etc…and suddenly, my play had 47 themes (none of which I intended—I don’t even write from theme!). So I considered the reactions, both the good and the bad, and tried to make the play better in every way. I focused the story more tightly on the family and ensured that when various topics come up as a result of who these people are…they never overwhelm the narrative.
One area I didn’t budge: telling a story about two gay brothers. Some advised I consider making at least one of them straight. I realize not everyone has the experience of growing up across the street from the Douaihy-lesbians…but even so, I think people who don’t relate to the brothers would still not relate to them even if they were straight. Chekhov’s The Three Sisters moves me every time —and I’ve never once thought “if only Masha or Olga were a little lez, I might have an in to this narrative…”.
The human experience is so vast and so universal all at once. For me, telling a deeply specific, truthful story—even if it’s out-of-the-box—is a better bet than trying to consciously craft a universal one.
Who are your favorite playwrights? Do you find reading or seeing other plays helpful? How do you feed yourself as a writer?
I never have a real answer to this question, just an endless list of plays that excite me. But here’s some people on my mind: Williams, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Churchill, Wilder, Orton, Lucas, Vogel, Kushner, Robert Wilson, Bunin, MJ Gibson, YJ Lee (Lear!), LeFranc, D’Amor. Seeing and reading other people’s plays/music/opera/dance/art is the most inspiring.
What else are you working on now?
I’m finalizing the libretto for a chamber opera, Dark Sisters, with music by Nico Muhly. It opens runs in NYC in November 9 – 19th. It will then have a run in Philadelphia in June of 2012.
Sons of the Prophet is playing at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre through January 1, 2012. For more information about the show or how to purchase tickets, click here.
2011-2012 Season, A Conversation with, Education @ Roundabout, Sons of the Prophet, Stephen Karam's Blog, Upstage