ROUNDABOUT BLOG

The Humans

From the Artistic Director: The Humans

Posted on: September 22nd, 2015 by Todd Haimes

 

RBT-HUM-0004M-StandardArtFiles-640x640-72dpi-RGBThe New York premiere of Stephen Karam’s The Humans, a new play directed by Joe Mantello begins previews September 30 as the first production at the Laura Pels Theatre in this 50th Anniversary season.

It feels wonderfully appropriate to be doing new work from Stephen Karam as part of this celebratory year. He is, after all, probably the living playwright who’s had the greatest impact on this theatre. It was reading Stephen’s first play, Speech & Debate, that prompted me to launch the Roundabout Underground program to produce and support emerging playwrights. The success of that play meant that the Underground would continue, and here we are years later with 9 more young writers having their careers launched through that program.

Stephen’s next work, Sons of the Prophet, was commissioned and developed by Roundabout, and it’s a play that I feel so proud to have produced. Stephen was deservedly named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for that work, and I immediately commissioned him once again to write a new play for this theatre. The result of that commission: The Humans.

What you’ll see on stage in The Humans is a fairly average family, in a fairly average apartment, celebrating a fairly average Thanksgiving holiday. They have the kinds of everyday exchanges we all have with our loved ones, the kinds that pass on by without leaving a particular memory behind. But what Stephen does so beautifully in this play, and in all of his work, is to find subtle ways to make us acutely aware of what lurks beneath these seemingly normal events. He’s getting at something that, like it or not, drives us all in one way or another: fear.

Touching on class, health, love, religion, loneliness, aging, and so much more, Stephen has created a world in which we see deeply complicated people at both their best and their worst, sharing an immense capacity for humor and the immense tolerance for pain required to keep moving forward in any ordinary life. These characters feel like people I know incredibly well, and yet they are written with such loving nuance that they simultaneously feel completely unique.

Stephen has created a truly stunning piece of theatre with this new play, and to have the gifted Joe Mantello directing it makes for a perfect match. A Tony-winner of endless range in his work, Joe has given us his iconic production of Assassins, his wildly popular Wicked, and his heart-wrenching onstage turn in The Normal Heart, among countless others. He is one of the best theatre artists working today, and I couldn’t be happier to have him returning to Roundabout to bring The Humans to life.

New work from brilliant young voices like Stephen Karam has become an essential part of what we do at Roundabout, and I am so glad that this playwright is being featured in our 50th Anniversary season. I hope that you will share your thoughts on this play by emailing me at artisticoffice@roundabouttheatre.org. I truly value all of your feedback.

I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!

Sincerely,

Todd Haimes
Artistic Director


Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, From Todd Haimes, The Humans


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Interview with Playwright: Stephen Karam

Posted on: September 18th, 2015 by Ted Sod

 

Stephen Karam

Stephen Karam

Education dramaturg Ted Sod speaks to Stephen Karam about his process of writing The Humans.

TED SOD: The Humans is the third play of yours to be produced at Roundabout. Previously, we have presented Speech & Debate at Roundabout Underground and Sons of the Prophet on the Pels stage in the Steinberg Center. What do you find exciting about having your work produced here? Do you consider Roundabout your artistic home?

STEPHEN KARAM: Yes, it’s been special to have Roundabout’s support. The best part of returning to the Laura Pels is that I get work with many of the same people – and that feels like coming home.

 

TS: What was your inspiration for writing The Humans? What do you think the play is about?

SK: I was thinking a lot about fear and anxiety. The ways human beings cope with their fears. Fear in our culture and fear at home. I wanted to try and locate the black pit of dread and malaise Americans have been trying to climb out of post-9/11 and post-financial-crisis. I had no idea how to do this. I wanted to write about those things…without literally writing about them. I didn’t want to write a play about literal fear or 9/11 or the financial crisis. I was stuck. So I read to get inspired.

Lorca’s writing about lower Manhattan (where I live) was a help. In the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, Lorca wandered around the financial district in New York and managed to capture the thick, grotesque terror that hung the air; he found disturbing and unfamiliar ways of describing very familiar scenes:

“The terrible, cold, cruel part is Wall Street. Rivers of gold flow there from all over the earth, and death comes with it. There, as nowhere else, you feel a total absence of the spirit: herds of men who cannot count past three, herds more who cannot get past six, scorn for pure science and demoniacal respect for the present. And the terrible thing is that the crowd that fills this street believes the world will always be the same, and that it is their duty to keep that huge machine running, day and night, forever.”
I became interested in his ability to take a familiar thing – Wall Street, the landscape of the financial district -- and make it strange. Unfamiliar. (This seems connected to Shklovsky’s idea of defamiliarization – read “Art as Technique.”)

If you are willing to follow me down this wormhole…all of the above reminded me of an essay I read in college: Freud’s The Uncanny. In it, Freud ponders the question: why do certain stories inspire a deeper, more unsettling kind of creeping horror and uncanny feeling than others? I’m particularly obsessed with his use of etymology to unpack this question:

“The subject of the “uncanny”...belongs to all that is terrible -- to all that arouses dread and creeping horror... The German word [for “uncanny”], unheimlich, is obviously the opposite of heimlich, meaning “familiar,” “native,” “belonging to the home”; and we are tempted to conclude that what is “uncanny” is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar... [But] among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheimlich... on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight…”

He goes on to mention the possible notion that “…everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.”

I thought about the way the big human fears surface in various people – how no matter how hard we repress them, they eventually creep into the light, sometimes in fantastic disguises. I thought it would be a challenge to try and write a play about these topics in a manner that might slowly generate the thing it was exploring…a kind of dread. Not in a genre-way, not per a pure thriller like Deathtrap, for example (and I do love a thriller) -- but by watching human behavior, which is always what I’m most interested in. It may seem comical that all of this thought resulted in something so simple: a story about a family having dinner. But I do think all of my musings and obsessions are buried deep beneath the play’s purposefully banal premise. I wanted to warp something familiar. But also pay tribute to the tradition of the family play.

 

TS: Can you tell us about the development process for this play? I believe there were several readings of the play and it was produced in Chicago last year.

SK: Yes, a few readings. American Theater Company produced a wonderful world premiere production in Chicago. Low budget, high quality. Chicago is a special place to launch new work. The ensemble of actors was wonderful. I was lucky to have them, and to have PJ Paparelli head that process. PJ was able to produce the play at ATC with Roundabout’s blessing, which meant a lot. PJ passed away this year; he was only 40. I’m still processing that loss, I can’t believe he’s gone.

 

TS: How did the play evolve over time? What was the catalyst for any rewriting you did?

SK: I’m starting to appreciate that everyone – if asked -- would tailor a new play a little differently based on their proclivities/interests/background. And that’s okay. So as playwrights, as poets, we have to look to ourselves, listen to our guts for the final answers about what changes to make. Everyone will always have ideas about how to make your work better. Everyone has advice about how to end your play differently. Start it differently. And it’s not about right or wrong. At the end of the day, it’s your baby and you know what’s best.

With The Humans, I’ve found that because it’s related to very familiar forms – the family play and the thriller, almost a genre-collison play -- some people want it to be one or the other. Either less dark and more of a family comedy. Or a full fledged thriller with blood and ghosts jumping out of closets. Everyone’s taste is different. But I think the best way to defend against regrets after opening night is to try your best to tell the story you want to tell. In terms of smaller changes over time, I think good plays are like poems. Every syllable counts. So I wrestle with word choice, rhythm in final drafts. I think you have to be ruthless. I’m still learning so much with every play I write.

 

TS: This play is very intricately written. The audience watches the action in an upstairs/downstairs or split screen fashion. How did that concept come about? Was it difficult to keep track of what was happening when, since you are juggling multiple storylines and simultaneous conversations?

SK: I built a crude version of the apartment in my mind before writing the play, so the architecture existed in broad strokes. I enjoyed creating the mise en scène that grows out of a two-level, four room image. I like writing from that visual place. Hopefully the telling of the story in real-time, in several rooms and without blackouts, giving the audience a “dollhouse” view of the entire proceedings, allowing their eyes to wander to any room at any moment…hopefully this subconsciously adds to the experience of something deeply traditional…but a bit more queer…

 

TS: The Humans takes place during a Thanksgiving meal. Do you think holidays bring out the worst in family behavior?

SK: I have no idea. I can, however, talk about the behavior of the family? As an epigraph, I have -- somewhat tongue-in-cheek -- adopted a list from a self-help book. It had the ludicrous title, Think and Grow Rich (the joke is on me, I learned it was a bestseller). I thought it had a nice interplay with the family’s deep-seated, repressed fear of poverty. And in the book, the following passage appears:

“There are six basic fears, with some combination of which every human suffers at one time or another ...
The fear of POVERTY
The fear of CRITICISM
The fear of ILL HEALTH
The fear of LOSS OF LOVE OF SOMEONE
The fear of OLD AGE
The fear of DEATH”
--Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich

I used each of these fears to anchor each of the characters. Murder mystery style. It’s not difficult to guess who is most deeply connected to each fear…In building the family, being reductive was helpful in brainstorming; before layering, before adding complexity.

 

TS: What is it like working with director Joe Mantello?

SK: I love working with Joe. He’s been a real gift to this process. Someone with his career could rest on his laurels, but Joe is about the most detail-oriented, hard-working, passionate artist I’ve been lucky enough to work with. He understands and respects writers. I think the best directors aren’t afraid to ask questions. And Joe asks great questions. He strives to get the best work out of everyone. I love that fight. I love his work ethic.

 

TS: What other projects are you currently working on?

SK: A new play.


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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The cast of THE HUMANS is complete

Posted on: July 9th, 2015 by Todd Haimes

 

I am thrilled to announce the full cast for Stephen Karam’s The Humans, directed by Joe Mantello. The cast will feature Cassie Beck (Aimee), Reed Birney (Erik), Jayne Houdyshell (Deirdre), Greg Keller (Richard), Sarah Steele (Brigid), and Joyce Van Patten (Fiona “Momo” Blake).

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Stephen Karam and Joe Mantello are beloved members of the Roundabout family of artists. And with gratitude and pride, I am happy to say that the same is true for every cast member joining us for The Humans. I couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome these exceptional alums back to the Roundabout stage.

Cassie Beck appeared in our 2012 production of Picnic and has been an invaluable collaborator on numerous Roundabout readings, including every developmental reading of The Humans. Off-Broadway, Cassie is known for her work on The Insurgents (Labyrinth Theatre), The Whale (Playwrights Horizons), By the Water (MTC), and many others, and her regional theatre credits include appearances at Williamstown Theatre Festival, South Coast Rep, and The Huntington Theatre.

Reed Birney also appeared in Picnic, as well as in Tigers Be Still and The Dream of the Burning Boy (Drama League and Outer Critics Circle nominations) in the Roundabout Underground. Recent credits in Reed’s prolific Broadway and Off-Broadway career include Casa Valentina (Drama Desk award, Tony nomination), I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard (Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk nominations), You Got Older (Drama Desk nomination), and All the Way. Reed is also known for his work on film and television, including Changeling, Morning Glory, and “House of Cards.”

Jayne Houdyshell has appeared at Roundabout in Bye Bye Birdie, The Language Archive, and The Importance of Being Earnest. She is a two-time Tony nominee for her performances in Follies and Well (for which she also won an Obie award Off-Broadway). Other Broadway and Off-Broadway credits include Fish in the Dark, Wicked, and Harrison, TX. Jayne’s extensive film and TV credits include Morning Glory, Garden State, “Elementary,” and “Blue Bloods.”

Greg Keller appeared (and understudied) in Roundabout’s productions of You Never Can Tell and Uncle Vanya in 1998 and 2000, respectively. Since then, Greg has had a terrific career on and Off-Broadway; his credits include Wit (MTC), Of Good Stock (MTC), and The Who and The What (LCT3). Onscreen, he has appeared in “Orange is the New Black” and “The Good Wife.” Greg is also an accomplished writer; his plays have been produced at Cherry Lane and Williamstown Theatre Festival, among others.

Sarah Steele made her Roundabout debut in Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate and has long been attached to The Humans. Sarah’s New York stage career includes The Country House on Broadway, as well as Slowgirl, Russian Transport, and All-American Off-Broadway. Her film and television work includes appearances on “The Good Wife,” “Girls,” and “Nurse Jackie.”

Joyce Van Patten appeared in Roundabout’s production of The People in the Picture. On Broadway, she has originated roles in I Ought to be in Pictures, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Rumors, and More to Love, among others. Her Off-Broadway credits include Love, Loss and What I Wore, Fair Country, The Seagull, and The Great God Pan, and her film and television work includes God’s Pocket, Grown Ups, and Mame.

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Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, From Todd Haimes, The Humans


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