The Humans

Interview with Actress: Cassie Beck

Posted on: October 10th, 2015 by Ted Sod


Ted Sod, Education Dramaturg, spoke to Cassie Beck about her role in The Humans.

Cassie Beck

Cassie Beck

TED SOD: Where were you born? Where were you educated? When did you decide you wanted to become an actor?

CASSIE BECK: I was born in Tacoma, WA, the daughter of a military officer and the youngest of six children. I was raised in a station wagon, bound for wherever my father was expected next. We spent several years in California, both southern and northern. I went to high school in a tiny town in Mississippi where I first found theatre, thanks Mrs. Byrnes! Got my BFA in performance from the University of Memphis and spent a year in The Warehouse Theatre Journeyman program in South Carolina. After that, I upped and moved to San Francisco for my first professional job in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Napa Valley Shakespeare Festival. I played Peaseblossom. In an honest to goodness vineyard. For a bunch of drunk people. Very Dionysian. It was glorious.

As for wanting to become an actor, well, as I mentioned, I’m the youngest of six kids.  I had to be quick on my feet to get attention and food.

TS: You’ve done all the developmental readings of The Humans, which began on July 23, 2013. Can you give us a sense of what happens during these developmental readings?

CB: July 2013!!! Is that true? Oh my gosh, two years of development -- and the first draft of the play was already so great -- it had rhythm, humor, pathos and smarts. But mostly, it was inherently theatrical. I love scripts you can only do live in a theatre -- you’ll see what I mean! Most significantly, the action happens in real time. The play starts and the audience spends 90 real minutes with the family on stage -- no jumps in time or physical space. Those watching are true voyeurs, peeking through the dollhouse. Real time action is ambitious, from both the writing and acting perspectives. Because of the structure, the developmental workshops and readings covered physical logic/timing (Would I really spend that much time in the bathroom? Or How much conversation can I overhear when I’m standing in the kitchen?); to ensemble work (Who are these people and what is the family dynamic?). Everyone pitches in with thoughts, personal anecdotes, and suggestions.

Dramaturgically, Stephen had his eye on each character’s progression -- what was working and what was possibly missing against the bigger plot points -- how the twists and turns hit each character and when. We toyed with physical space, dividing the rehearsal room into three parts with music stands further delineating the bathroom and kitchen. For the actors and Stephen, this was a chance to illuminate how staging can keep time with the rhythm of the play and the moments where physical action disrupted that flow. There were rewrites addressing these issues. By the time we read it before the general audience at the Powerhouse in Vassar, we were all very clear about the relationships, the time/space mechanics, and the major plot points while still discovering tone and individual character choices.

TS: What do you think the play is about? What did you learn as an actress from doing these developmental readings? How has your role as Aimee evolved? What questions did you ask the playwright, Stephen Karam, about your role?

CB: I think the play is about fear. Stephen quotes Napoleon Hill on the first page of the script, “There are six basic fears, with some combination of which every human suffers at one time or another…” To fear is the human condition. No one is immune. I think that is what I learned, or rather, re-learned from the development process. Fear is pervasive and takes numerous forms. The play is full of people wrestling fear to the ground, both consciously and subconsciously. The character of Aimee has incredibly high personal and interfamilial stakes. Most of her evolution has been about streamlining those stakes, especially relating to finances and career. I had several questions for Stephen about Aimee’s medical condition, ulcerative colitis, thus the bathroom queries I mentioned previously!

TS: What are the benefits of being attached to a project during the development process?

CB: The trust felt when I know I’m attached to the project communicates confidence, and that always helps bring out my best work. I’m not beholden to a “correct” interpretation of the role -- just my interpretation. That collaborative spirit helps everyone remain flexible. Plus, keeping up with and understanding why a piece shifts requires, in addition to acting, some directorial/dramaturgical skills. My approach to development is to be of service to the writer, but production is where I really get to put my stamp on the part. I like the full workout that comes with creating a new play.

TS: Which aspect of your role is most challenging? Which is the most fun? Will you tell us about Aimee’s relationship to the rest of her family, as you understand it?

CB: I think the most challenging part is also the most fun, which is Aimee’s dry wit. She’s the peacemaker in the family, constantly aware of what people are feeling. She uses her quick tongue and humor to keep everyone in check, but in a loving way. Her approach to conflict is practical clear sightedness, but her heart is her greatest strength.

TS: What do you look for from a director?

CB: Swag. I mean, like t-shirts. I want a director to get me a theatre tote or a sweatshirt or something. They’re the only ones that can get it for free. Also, I’m drawn to directors who communicate clearly and let me do my thing. I’m less interested in carrying out someone’s concept and more interested in working with a director to fulfill our shared vision of the piece. I’m extremely demanding of myself so I appreciate an open, positive rehearsal room. When a director can keep giving me insights into the role, I love that. I’ll try anything -- once!

TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist? Do you see the work of your peers? Travel? Read? Go to museums?

CB: All of the above. I love to travel, and to cook. I sketch and paint. I started as a dancer, so I adore any and all black and white movie musicals, especially Fred and Ginger films. I’m a British TV junkie and will read anything about the Tudors. I meditate and spend a lot of time in Central Park, which is the most inspiring of all -- New York! Just taking in the city gets my creative juices flowing.

TS: Do you have any advice for a young person who wants to enter the profession of acting?

CB: YES -- Put yourself in a position to do your best work. There is no formula for becoming a professional actor, so pick the path that allows you to gain the most experience and improve. That could be anything from grad school, to ensemble work, to self-devised work, or regional work in a smaller city. I think there is this notion that in order to be successful one must go to a top-rated grad school and hit New York in your late teens or early 20s with guns blazing. That really works well for some, but personally, I never could have done that. It would have ruined theatre for me. I was able to acquire formal training and then join an ensemble theatre in San Francisco to hone some skills and gain professional experience. By the time I came to New York in my 30s, I had a much stronger sense of who I was and what I wanted in a career. Know yourself and follow your passion.


The Humans begins previews September 30 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, The Humans

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Interview with Actor: Reed Birney

Posted on: October 4th, 2015 by Ted Sod


Ted Sod talks to Reed Birney and his role as Erik Blake in The Humans.


TED SOD: Why did you choose to play the role of Erik Blake in The Humans?

REED BIRNEY: First of all, it’s a beautiful play. I have never played anything like this role. I’ve never played a blue-collar character. I think because I look the way I do, I’ve made a career of playing privileged, entitled intellectuals – a lot of upper-middle-class people -- and Erik is a janitor from Scranton, Pennsylvania. What I find so moving about Erik, and what I relate to, is his being a certain age and dealing with regrets in his life. You see him make certain decisions, and there’s a point where he realizes, oh, this is it. There’re no “do overs.” He has really come to grips with what it means to be entering the last chapter of his life.


TS: One of the things that intrigued me about Erik is the idea of his recurring dreams. Is that important to you as the actor playing the character?

RB: I have had some recurring dreams myself, and I’ve never seen that idea manifested in a play quite this way, where recurring dreams or nightmares are discussed in such honest, truthful terms.


TS: Will you talk about how you perceive the relationship between Erik and his wife, Deirdre?

RB: I think it’s a wonderful love story. They really adore each other. Erik loves Deirdre and really does love his family. It’s the stuff he does, without thinking it through, that makes him realize he may have really screwed up his relationship to his wife and daughters. That’s something almost all of us can relate to.


TS: Erik seems to have misgivings that his daughter Brigid lives in NYC.

RB: Erik didn’t grow up in New York City. His mother did and worked desperately to get out. Erik was raised by a mother saying, “I hated New York. I had to get out of there.” And so that’s in his DNA. His daughter, Brigid, has decided New York is where she wants to be. He probably does have enormous fear about her being in the city, especially since he happened to be in New York and at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Why wouldn’t he think, oh, it’s an obvious target? They hit her once; why wouldn’t they hit again? He has the fears that many non-New Yorkers have. Maybe the lack of fear most of us who live here have is really just intense denial -- that you can live in the city and just blithely go around. I think it’s a miracle that no one has ever blown up the 104 bus. They blow up buses everywhere else all the time. Why wouldn’t they blow up the 104 bus? What’s to stop them?


TS: This play takes place during a Thanksgiving dinner. I’m curious if you think families coming together for holidays are loaded events?

RB: There’s certainly enough anecdotal evidence to support the idea that people lose their minds on the holidays. It probably has a lot to do with if your family is at all dysfunctional, if there’s any kind of trouble lying beneath the surface. Usually, you’ve got children who have left home and are coming back into the house they were raised in, and then they’re expected to behave in the way they did when they lived there. On top of that, in this play, Erik, his wife and mother are visiting a city that creates a bit of fear in them and puts them on edge. And usually on holidays, there’s self-medicating; people who don’t want to confront the actual issues start drinking. There’s all this pressure for the day to be “wonderful!” People think, it’s just a weekend; it’s just a day, let it go. But under the surface it makes most people crazy, so they decide to have a few more glasses of wine or whiskey or whatever.


TS: I sense that Erik is testing Brigid’s new boyfriend, Richard, who is co-hosting the holiday dinner. Do you see it that way?

RB: It makes complete sense that he would. In his mind, the relationship between Brigid and Richard is the only chance for him to have grandchildren. I don’t think he necessarily thinks that there may be grandkids from Aimee and her ex. Of course, there could be, but the world is changing too fast for him, and he’s trying to make sense of it all. The fact that Richard comes from a moneyed family probably also makes him suspicious. I think Erik’s got all kinds of questions, as any father would, about whether Richard is going to be the guy who makes his daughter happy.


TS: The other thing that permeates the play is Catholicism. What do you make of that aspect of the story?

RB: Erik’s an Irish Catholic guy who hasn’t ever really thought that much about it, in terms of questioning. He grew up in the church and still goes to church, and I think for a lot of folks, their faith is unshakable because they were raised with it. Erik’s faith helps him in some ways and doesn’t help him in others. He’s feeling pain right now based on what he’s done – who knows what it would be like without his faith? He certainly is a confused guy at the moment, and it seems he doesn’t have the right tools to figure it out. I think one of the reasons Erik’s gotten into trouble is because he hasn’t led a particularly examined life. I think the idea of an examined life is, in many ways, a real luxury. Men like Erik have to support their families, and they work hard – they’re at work from 6:30am until 9:00pm, and they’re putting out fires all day long. There’s no time for contemplating how life could be better in Erik’s world.


TS: What do you look for from a director when you’re creating a role like this?

RB: Mostly what I look for is feeling safe in the room and that’s a pretty big thing. And then I look for somebody who’s a great collaborator. I love to have some laughs in the room. That’s an important thing to me. We’re putting on a play. Let’s not get confused about what we’re working on. I think one of the things that is so thrilling about Joe Mantello is his unbelievable meticulousness and attention to detail and his relentless striving for the truth. We worked together on Casa Valentina, and we used every second we could working on that play. I think we all loved it and we wanted it to hit right. Whereas other directors would have walked away once previews started, he spent every possible rehearsal hour he could, refining it. I remember one day we were in previews, and Joe said to me, “Reed, it’s got to be more personal.” And I said, “Joe, I feel like I’m doing that already. I don’t know what else I could possibly do to make it more personal.” He said, “Nope. You’re not.” So I went out onstage that night and really gave myself the task of making it more personal, not really even knowing what that would look like, and he was absolutely right.


TS: Will you talk about what it’s like to have the playwright in the room with you working on a new play?

RB: I love it when a playwright is there, because it’s his story -- it’s the story he wants to tell -- and to be able to pick his brain – making sure that we’re on the right track – I just love that so much.


TS: Having been part of this play’s development process, do you feel like that has informed how you’re playing the role? Has your take on the role evolved?

RB: I think it has to. It evolves for everybody. It evolves for the playwright, too. Most great playwrights will, at one point, say, “The character is yours now. You know him better now than I do.” There are great collaborator playwrights and there are playwrights who aren’t, who really feel like the play is done. They’re really not interested in hearing from an actor so much. I love collaborating on a new play with that first kind of playwright because you feel like your contribution has been valuable.


TS: Where did you get your training, and did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?

RB: I went to Boston University, undergraduate, the School of Fine Arts, and left after two years. I was feeling restless and ambitious, and so I moved to New York and went to Circle in the Square. I got my Equity card after three months in New York doing terrible children’s theatre out on the road. But when I came back from that, I got into a class that was sponsored by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and, miraculously, it was free. I still, to this day, don’t understand how that was or why it was. It was run by a man named Tad Danielewski, who was a Polish refugee and rebel in World War II. He was this very strange, mysterious man, but brilliant with his observations about acting, and after a couple of years, he left to teach at Brigham Young University, and we found another remarkable teacher named Gene Lasko, who was Arthur Penn’s right hand. I studied in this class for about seven years; and I really credit Gene— and Tad—with teaching me everything I know and believe about acting. I think Gene’s philosophy was summed up in just one sentence: Tell the truth. Always tell the truth but in the most interesting way possible.


TS: Do you have any advice for a young person who wants to pursue an acting career?

RB: I would say two things: have a rich life outside of theatre, so that acting isn’t everything. That way when you don’t get the job or you get a bad review, it’s not the end of the world. And, you have to decide if you’re a lifer; and if you’re a lifer, then you have to be willing to spend the time and persevere because the business is designed to discourage you. They smell that despair when you walk into an audition. It’s your full-time job not to be discouraged.

The Humans begins previews September 30 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, The Humans

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Interview with Actress: Sarah Steele

Posted on: September 25th, 2015 by Ted Sod


Ted Sod spoke to Sarah Steele on her role as Brigid Blake in Stephen Karam's The Humans.

Sarah Steele

Sarah Steele

TED SOD: Where were you born? Where were you educated? When did you decide you wanted to become an actor?

SARAH STEELE: I was born in North Carolina but moved to a suburb just outside of Philadelphia when I was 5, so mostly grew up there. I decided I wanted to become an actor when I was 8 years old. I literally heard a friend on the playground bragging about how he was taking acting classes and thought, “Oh! That’s what I’m supposed to be doing!” I went to college at Columbia but studied English, not theatre.


TS: Stephen Karam wrote the role of Brigid for you after you were in his first play at Roundabout, Speech & Debate. What are the benefits of having a role written specifically for you?

SS: Well, there are the obvious benefits like the character sort of sounds like me. But more than that, it’s wonderful to be written for because then the writer fights for you to get the part! Stephen is probably my favorite playwright of all time, so getting to bring his work to life is a huge honor.


TS: You’ve done almost all the developmental readings of The Humans, which began July 23, 2013. What did you learn as an actress from doing these developmental readings? How has your role as Brigid evolved?

SS: Developmental readings are actually the best part of being an actor for me. I once spent a month doing so many developmental readings at the Roundabout that we all joked that I was an “artist in residence” there. But to me it’s such a special time to be involved with a new play. Because you get to ask questions and help identify problems and hopefully help make the play better. With Brigid, there was a concern at the beginning that maybe she was too harsh. But Stephen has definitely moved beyond that by now.


TS: Which aspect of your role is most challenging? Which is the most fun?

SS: I don’t really know what is most challenging or most fun because we haven’t yet started rehearsal! But I will say that getting to tangle with Reed Birney, Cassie Beck, and Jayne Houdyshell in the workshops was crazily fun and challenging. They are absolute dynamite, and I feel out of my league in the best way.


TS: Brigid and her significant other, Richard, are hosting a family dinner on Thanksgiving. Do you think family gatherings in holidays are inherently dramatic?

SS: Family holidays are extremely dramatic! Especially when you start throwing significant others and alcohol into the mix.


TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist? Do you see the work of your peers? Travel? Read? Go to museums?

SS: I see a ton of theatre whenever I’m not working to stay inspired. I love feeling like I’m a part of the theatre community and following the work of actors and writers I admire. I’m a big reader, too.


TS: Do you have any advice for a young person who wants to enter the profession of acting?

SS: My advice to young people who want to act is just to do it as much as you can! Find friends who also want to do it and have readings of great plays in your apartment. You don’t have to wait for someone else to tell you that you can do it. You can be getting better on your own all the time.

The Humans begins previews at the Laura Pels Theatre on September 30. For more information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, The Humans

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