On October 17, 2015, Stephen Karam and Joe Mantello spoke about The Humans with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.
An edited transcript follows (please note there are plot spoilers):
Ted Sod: I’m going to do a very brief biography of both Stephen and Joe, even though there is a bio for both of them in your program. Stephen comes from Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was educated at Brown. His first foray into New York theatre was columbinus, cowritten with P.J. Paparelli. Stephen’s play Speech and Debate was responsible for the Underground program beginning here at Roundabout. It was started in 2007. If you’ve never been to the Underground, do yourself a favor and go. It’s $25. It’s the best bargain in town. Younger playwrights are given a marvelous debut production. Stephen’s play was the first. Roundabout immediately commissioned him to write a new piece, which was Sons of the Prophet. After the premiere of Sons of the Prophet, Stephen was commissioned to write the play you saw today. He’s written a screenplay of Speech and Debate, which was filmed this summer and a screen adaptation of The Seagull for Michael Mayer, which was also filmed this summer. He’s a busy person.
Next to him is Joe Mantello, who doesn’t need any introduction, I think. I just got finished telling Joe how amazing his performance was in the television movie of The Normal Heart. It is a gorgeous performance. I always forget what a good actor Joe is, because he primarily directs now. I’m not going to go through all of Joe’s credits, but he’s been nominated for a Tony twice as an actor and he’s won two Tony awards as a director.
Stephen, will you please tell the audience about the inspiration for this play? You were going to write a trilogy based on Sons of the Prophet, correct?
Stephen Karam: I still might, someday. I feel like you have to just go with the idea that chooses you. I tend to go with the one that takes the lead. In this case, I was working on another play and got the idea for this play and started slowly thinking about it and working my way through it. I’m a slow writer, so for me it came out pretty quickly. I had a messy, ugly, unwieldy draft in a few months. Then before I got to the draft that Joe read, there was probably another year of rewriting and refining, which tends to be how I work. I keep it close to home until I know what it is.
TS: In the playgoers guide interview, you wrote about books you read that were touchstones for the play. Would you talk a bit about them?
SK: I was thinking a lot about fear. I had a day job in a law firm. I was at a business law firm when Lehman Brothers collapsed. Like everyone else in the country, I’d been thinking about the financial crisis. I’d been thinking about 9/11. I moved here in 2002 – I was not among the people who were here when it happened, but I came right on the heels of it.
TS: And picked up on the fear?
SK: And picked up on the fear. It got me thinking about Freud’s essay "The Uncanny," which I had read in college – which basically talks a lot about why certain stories inspire certain kinds of dread more than others. I started the process of writing a play that would explore the big human fears in very quiet moments and, of course, at the end, not such a quiet moment. That’s how
the ball got rolling.
TS: Joe, how did you come to direct this project?
Joe Mantello: A little over a year ago I got an email from Stephen sending me the play, saying the director who had been working on it for whatever reasons wasn’t able to do it – and would I read it? I was really curious, because I had seen Sons of the Prophet, and I loved it. I thought, I’ll get to it in a week or so. Then I opened the email just to look at the cast of characters, and then I started reading the first paragraph of the play, this description of the set, and I sat down and I read it in one sitting right then and there. I emailed him afterwards and said, “I will go anywhere at any time to do this play.” It was instantaneous.
TS: What hit you about the play? Did you feel like this would be a challenge, given the bifurcation of the setting and the split-screen effect?
JM: Oftentimes people ask what is it about the play that makes you want to do it. It’s a mysterious process. It’s like falling in love with someone. It’s hard to describe, because it’s chemistry and a curiosity to know more and a sense that you’re going to be challenged by the person – all of those things that make you want to see them the next day or turn the page.
TS: Were you pulled in because of some of the characters in the play?
JM: I responded to the spikiness of all the characters. There’s this sense that they are so fully rendered – that there are things about each of them that are spiky – and I guess I’ll use the word “unlikeable” – and we adore them at the same time. You’re watching them cling to one another and to this raft. I said to the cast the other day, “This is what love looks like. It’s messy. It’s sometimes cruel. It’s tender. It’s deep.” I don’t know how someone as young as Stephen
could capture all of that, but he has.
TS: I sense you observe and listen, Stephen, and you have an acute ear for the way people speak.
SK: People ask me about the working-class aspects of the play or the Catholicism and it’s just what I know to be true. I feel like there’s such richness and complexity to these people – they are real and interesting to me. My dad is one of ten. In my immediate family, I have a brother and sister. My extended family has stayed very close, they’re also in Scranton. There are a lot of different generations. My dad’s oldest brother passed away a year and a half ago, but he was more like my grandfather. His oldest children came to see the play a few nights ago. There’s this never-ending cycle of generations.
TS: There’s a wisdom that is expressed by all of the characters in your play. Your father is Lebanese and your mother is Irish, correct?
TS: One of the things I recognized in this play is how this family shows affection, which is sometimes through teasing and insulting. I recognize that from my own Lebanese family.
SK: I think a lot of families do that.
TS: It’s a way to show affection without getting too maudlin.
SK: I guess. There’s a certain observational quality to the play in terms of its structure. I started with the most familiar thing in the world – the most boring premise anyone could think of – a family comes together on a holiday to share a meal. But I think the structure of the play creates an observational quality. It allows the audience to watch and piece things together -- not just a plot -- but where the characters’ minds and emotional states are. Like Joe said, how do people love? Where do people carry the struggles that they’re having in their lives? What are the ways in which those struggles crawl to the surface? Deirdre, the mother, has made peace with her daughter Brigid not being in the church anymore and not getting married officially, and yet the audience sees the way those things still creep up. And Brigid does similar versions of those things. I think Brigid has yet to realize she’s going to turn into her mother. This is why she is so mean to her! She hasn’t realized how similar she is to her mother, so her subconscious…she
continually lashes out at her during the play.
TS: You wrote the parts of the sisters, Brigid and Aimee, specifically for Sarah Steele and Cassie Beck.
SK: Yes. Of course, you don’t know if that casting is ever going to happen, but I intended to do that – to write specifically for their voices. I learned from past experiences that you can write a play for Angela Lansbury, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to do it. In this case, I saw Cassie in about five different plays and thought she was special. I had worked with Sarah in Speech and Debate and knew how special she is.
TS: Joe, this is an amazing ensemble you’ve directed. Is it possible to know that the cast is going to have good chemistry before you start?
JM: No, but you do start to feel it early on in rehearsals. Because of the demands of the staging of this play, we actually did something that is very unorthodox in terms of my experience. The Roundabout built this set for us and we rehearsed almost the entire time on the set, which never happens. You’re usually in a regular rehearsal room with tape on the floor, which represents walls, stoves and refrigerators. Stephen and I had said to Roundabout early on that it was going to be nearly impossible to mock up the two floors and to get the timing right. So we’ve been camped out here in this basement theatre for the last several weeks. Something happened. There was something about being down here together in this space every day. There was a
kind of alchemy that happened because of that, and because they’re all such wonderful actors.
TS: Give us a window into what was the hardest thing to stage.
JM: We did many versions of the set, which is designed by David Zinn. Although it looks relatively straightforward, the layout of the ground plan was very important. We would do a version of the ground plan and then start to track through how people would move through the space. Somebody has to be in the bathroom while somebody’s in the kitchen, etc., and so forth. The bathroom used to be in a different place.
Really the hardest thing was the math of the staging, which hopefully seems effortless and disappears, but it is actually really intricate and precise because the writing demands it. It was an exciting challenge for all of us to try to meet. Also, for most of you who are sitting down here, the sight lines are pretty tricky. We wanted everybody to be able to see the door at the end. Those kind of more practical concerns were always part of staging the play.
TS: I would imagine it must be very hard for the actors when there are simultaneous conversations and they are listening for their cues – especially if they are downstairs and the cue is coming from upstairs. It also feels like the actors have to know their lines backwards and forwards. Is that true?
JM: It is. I said to all of them, “You’re going to hate me for asking this, and then maybe you’ll like me.” I asked them to all show up with the script memorized. We had a truncated rehearsal period. We did it in almost three weeks. The actors would say we did it in two weeks. We had a very short rehearsal period. I like to hit the ground running and start to play from day one. Just having that memorization under their belts allowed us to dive in.
TS: Stephen, did that mean you were very secure in what the script was and you didn’t expect there to be a lot of rewriting? Did you do a lot of rewriting during rehearsal?
SK: I guess I always expect that there will be rewriting. Joe made me feel secure in that his experience of reading it was that there wouldn’t be an overhaul. That felt good. What it’s allowed me to do with Joe was focus on the more detail-oriented things – losing a line, clarifying something, a word choice – the kind of stuff that’s actually fun for me. Figuring out how long it’s going to take for someone to go up the spiral staircase. That can sometimes influence small
stuff in the writing.
TS: Did you start to write for other actors as well once you got to know their rhythms?
SK: I feel good actors are the most helpful writing tool there is. You listen to them saying their lines and if they’re struggling, that’s when you have to start looking at what you’ve done. If it’s something problematic, then it’s probably your fault. And if there’s something you can do to help them out, you do it. This cast is just fantastic. They’re an honest bunch, too.
TS: Talk to me about working with each other. Stephen, you said in an interview that you found Joe’s work to be meticulous and that you really respected his work ethic, which is something you also have a reputation for. You both keep working and working until you open. Can you talk about what you learned from each other?
SK: We’re still in the process right now.
TS: It doesn’t open for a week or so, right?
SK: I feel like it will be a couple months after opening night until I will be able to articulate all the things that I’ve learned from watching Joe work. I haven’t written that many plays. I still feel like I’m learning so much with every director that I work with. With Joe, it’s just been a kind of master class. I’ve been astonished by the way he’s able to communicate with actors. The company trusts him. When my own nerves or anxiety kick in, my instinct is to try to remedy something really quickly. Joe just has masterful instincts about maybe stepping back and watching a problem slowly over a few nights resolve itself.
TS: He speaks the language.
SK: He speaks the language of actors, but he also has so much experience as a director. It’s a rare combination of those two magic skills. He also has a great eye visually. He’s also not afraid of shadows, which I love. I feel we’re both not afraid of darkness. That was a thrill.
JM: Stephen and I are well matched in the sense that we are both relentless in the pursuit of the right choice or the deeper choice – and that’s probably what makes us, if we’re good at our job, good at our job. It’s also frustrating because we will not stop until we get what it is that we’re trying to find. We’re both perfectionists, I think, and tireless in the pursuit of that perfectionism.
TS: I would take it that you ask each other a lot of questions?
SK: I feel like the best directors ask really good questions of the writer. I would say before rehearsal started, Joe would ask sometimes simple questions just to clarify. That actually never happened to me before. I loved that he was not afraid to say, “I think I know what this moment is about, but just tell me, what exactly is happening here?”
JM: I give myself permission to ask really dumb questions. I’m on this mission to get inside of Stephen’s head, because ultimately I do want to deliver his vision of the play filtered through my own experience and my own aesthetic. I do believe it’s a collaboration. I love having the writer in the room, especially one who’s as meticulous as Stephen. It was a good collaboration.
TS: Stephen, I may be wrong about this, because I don’t know every play of yours, but is this your first play written in real time?
SK: Oh yeah, for sure. It may be my last.
TS: I am sure most of you in the audience know that a play that happens in real time happens in real time. There are no blackouts. Did you set yourself up for that challenge?
SK: Yes, I guess I set myself up for that. Writing in real time felt very foreign and exciting. I like attention to detail, so I liked being held accountable for the emotional journeys of six people over the course of 100 minutes and having to track when someone’s bladder might need relief in the bathroom. Do people call attention to that fact, or do they just go to the bathroom? It is details like that with six people on stage that you have to keep track of.
TS: Would you talk about anything that surprised you once the audience came in? You had the benefit of a production in Chicago – completely different director, cast and design. When you got in front of the New York audience, did things change?
SK: Yes. Different cities, different kinds of audiences, different energy. I will say that Chicago is a working-class city. I think the surprise is twofold – in New York, suddenly I didn’t feel the majority of people in the audience were like the Blakes watching the Blakes. In Chicago people were saying, “That’s my family.” Here people are recognizing their own families, but maybe not in a literal way.
I guess the positive surprise was that in many ways it’s a big play, but it’s also a quiet play. I don’t know if audiences will always pay attention and listen. I feel New York audiences have been paying attention. It’s always a surprise, maybe just because of the fear that nobody will be listening. I feel audiences in New York are listening to these characters. It requires a concentration, and I feel people in the New York audience have been willing to concentrate and go with it. That’s been a good surprise.
TS: Joe, were there any surprises for you once the audience came? Anything that you learned that you hadn’t expected?
JM: So much of our work over the past few weeks in rehearsals and once we started previews, was about trying to find balance. It is a very intimate play. It unfolds in real time, as life does, and we learned how to make that inherently dramatic without dialing up the heat too much, so that it never felt like a play. It was trial and error. There were times I think earlier this week or at the end of last week where the arguments got really hot, the way they do with plays. People were yelling. That’s not what really happens with a family. It’s more like sniper fire. It’s very precise. You don’t actually have to yell, because old buttons are being pushed. It was a process to find that balance.
TS: It’s lovely to watch. It’s exquisitely done. Now, it’s your turn. Who would like to ask a question?
Audience Member #1: Could you expand on the timing of the light and dark with regard to the dialogue itself? What was going on when the lights go out?
TS: What do you think was going on? Tell us what you think.
AM #1: It’s symbolic obviously, but I wasn’t able to remember the sequence of it. I was wondering if you could run through it.
SK: You’re talking about the light bulb burning out upstairs. I wanted there to be a moment in the play where the light bulbs are going out, as they often did in my apartment. I lived near trash compactors. Anybody who’s lived in a starter apartment in New York City – or their current apartment, in my case – knows what strange noises you hear. The play does start with
one of those noises. I don’t want to hand anyone a message – but I will say what I tried to do with the play was create a world where – the same way that Freud talks about it in "The Uncanny" – certain objects have power, like that Virgin Mary statue, right? The statue is put on a windowsill and perhaps our minds go to slightly mystical places; or maybe not. I wanted the play to live in that land of coincidences. The father was in New York on 9/11 with his daughter when it happened. And his daughter says, “I’m not scared of coincidences. We were in New York on a terrible morning.” Two light bulbs burn out. That doesn’t mean that a woman without a face is causing it? Or are light bulbs just expiring, as light bulbs always do eventually…
TS: You’ve landed on something thematically. I must confess, maybe it’s just what’s going on in the world around us, but I’ve started to feel fear on the subway, and I never felt that before. Never. I think something’s happening to the culture where we’re taken off guard. Maybe it’s just getting old. I don’t know exactly. The point is that fear has this pernicious way of taking over an event, a holiday, anything. The placement of some of the sounds is startling. The sounds throughout the play are marvelous, plus they add some mystery.
Audience Member #2: I’m intrigued by the title, The Humans. It’s somewhat scientific. It’s detached. It’s clinical. It lacks warmth. How did you arrive at the title? Why not The Blakes, for example?
SK: Your word choices are really interesting. I’ve been talking about the observational quality of the play, and you said there’s something about the title that’s clinical, that’s at a distance, detached. I think I wanted to write a deeply specific play about specific people, the Blakes. In some ways the play could be called The Blakes, but I also approached it with interest
in the big existential horrors of life that everyone deals with. I felt that by maybe imbuing each one of these six people with one of these deep fears that we all have – that there may be something bigger that is operating, fear of poverty, fear of ill health, fear of losing the love of someone. That’s what the older daughter is grappling with. Richard says it in the play when
he’s talking about his comic book – on the planet in his comic book, the horror stories for those alien creatures are about us – the humans -- the way we live, love each other, hurt each other, and go about our lives.
TS: I connected to all the humanity in the piece. The Humans is an interesting title, because it makes you think, who am I like in this play? What have I experienced? I love that, because it gives us permission to make it about whatever we want. One of the most striking moments for me is the phone call Aimee makes to her ex, which is so heartbreaking to watch. I got the whole picture almost of how that breakup happened and how awful it was for Aimee – and that she just can’t get past it – and yet the family is there to deal with it. The father listens to the whole thing, which I found really stunning too. I love when he says, “You’ll find somebody else.” Then she says something even more profound, “Not with history.” There are so many beautiful, human moments in the play.
Audience member #3: Can you talk about the song they sing? Because I know it. Where did you get the idea to include it?
SK: I wanted something that was truly Irish and traditional. I wanted something that was ancient. That song is a drinking song. If you know it, you know I took liberties with it. Verses are tweaked to refer to different emotional landscapes of the characters singing it. Aimee’s verse is about a lost sweetheart, Erik sings about a woman with pale white skin...
Audience member #4: First of all, thank you. It was a spectacular production. I sat in the mezzanine. I kept worrying that somebody was going to fall off the stage. It’s very different sitting down here and seeing a totally different perspective. It’s really scary to watch from up there. The actors come very close to the edge of the stage. As a director, do you worry about that?
JM: As I said, we rehearsed. They’re extremely comfortable up there. What I don’t think you can see is, embedded into the front of the floor, is a bright blue light which the actors are able to see...they feel quite comfortable up there.
Audience member #5: You touched on the phone call and what a beautiful moment that was. During the rehearsal process, did you get to play around with what’s being said on the other end of the line?
JM: Cassie is a brilliant actor, and so much of what you experience in that phone call is what she brought to it, truly. We talked a little bit about – just in the last few days – when you have those kinds of phone calls, quite often the rhythm of the phone call is very fractured, and perhaps there are even moments when Carol on the other end of the line wasn’t saying
anything. How did that disrupt the rhythm of the phone call?
Also, we talked the other day about what it was – so the character of Aimee wasn’t just reactive – what was it that she was trying to get in the phone call? What did she want Carol to say? It’s about trying to find some glimmer of hope that this nightmare was going to end. And Carol is not having it. The way that she navigates that phone call, particularly in the last week or so – when we gave her permission to make it as small as she wanted to make it – the play does something different in that moment. It really focuses in on one character in this very intimate way. It happens to be the character who spends the rest of her time on stage taking care of everybody else and making sure that everybody else is okay and that there are no bumps along the way. She’s a caregiver and then you get this beautiful, instant glimpse into what’s going on in her heart. It was just about giving her permission to own that, be comfortable with that and trust it.
Audience Member #6: What I noticed was the amount of simultaneous conversation going on in the play, and I don’t feel I see that a lot on stage. Was that in the script? Was that the direction? Did that evolve organically? What kind of challenges did that bring to the performance?
JM: It’s a real testament to Stephen’s writing that it all seems improvisatory. It is meticulously laid out in the script. It’s a testament also to the actors’ skill to make it seem like it’s happening, but there are very specific places where the overlapping dialogue happens. Someone will come in on a certain word. It’s really very musical in that sense. It’s like a score. There are certain points where the chaos will be overlapping and you’re left to get what you get, but there are more moments where you’re really supposed to hear everything.
AM #6: Especially with the grandmother.
JM: I think what Lauren does is amazing. That’s all scripted. She talks about it being difficult to remember, because basically it’s gibberish. Some of it is gibberish. Some of it is repeated phrases. She really does an extraordinary job. I’m not sure how she memorized it, to tell you the truth.
Audience member #7: As a director, how do you direct somebody to exist on the stage when they have nothing to say? As an actor, I feel like the hardest time being on stage is when you have nothing to say, because you don’t know what you’re doing. What do you do as a director to push the actors through those moments and let them actually live there at the same time?
JM: I think it’s really just about endowing them with a certain kind of confidence that they actually don’t have to do anything. The play starts in silence. You stare at Erik for 40 seconds before anything happens. Reed doesn’t actually have to do anything – he’s just waiting for his wife and mother to come out of the bathroom. You don’t have to be interesting. If you’re an actor, you want to be interesting on stage. You want to do something. Sometimes it’s okay to let the audience come to you – to trust them.
TS: There are wonderful individual moments when the characters just go inside themselves.
Audience member #8: It’s not a question; it’s simply a capstone comment. I have to say that I believe that you, Stephen, have written a piece that’s going to stand the test of time. I applaud you for creating a piece that can do that. Thank you.
The Humans has been extended to play until January 3. For tickets and more information, please visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, A Conversation with, Education @ Roundabout, The Humans